The bomb attacks in Beirut on November 12th, and in Paris on November 13th, have underscored the brutality of the Islamic State. ISIS has also claimed responsibility for horrific attacks in other countries including Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.
Judging by the vitriolic reactions against Muslims—and especially Syrians—in U.S. society after the Paris bombings, it is clear that few understand that the vast majority of the casualties of ISIS’s bloody strikes are actually Muslims. The group has wreaked havoc in majority Muslim states for a number of years. But so many people in Europe and the United States seem not to understand that the Islamic State does not represent Muslims, and that Muslims are in fact terrified by and abhor the savage tactics of the group. They are trying desperately to escape the lands under ISIS control.
In the same way as during the aftermath of 9/11, we are now witnessing a hysteria against Muslims in the United States. The latest ISIS attack has made many question allowing Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the country; indeed, the House of Representative just approved tougher refugee screening—a brazen move against President Obama, who has threatened to veto such legislation. Earlier this week, thirty governors called for stopping the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States altogether.
In fact, negative perceptions and treatment of Arabs and Muslims started way before 9/11, with media analyst Jack Shaheen characterizing stereotypes of Arabs as “bombers, belly dancers, and billionaires.” After 9/11, Shaheen notes, Muslims and Arabs took on the more heinous stereotype of the villain in Hollywood and in American popular culture.
Stereotyping is the first phase in a vicious cycle that leads to prejudice, and then, to discrimination. This “psychology of prejudice” suggests a strong linkage between stereotyping (for example, “Syrians are violent”), prejudice (“I don’t want Syrians to be settled in my state because they are violent”), and discrimination (“Let’s pass laws against allowing Syrians in our country”). In the United States we have experienced this same process—stereotyping leading to prejudice, leading to discrimination—historically with many ethnic, racial, and other minority groups, but most visibly and profoundly with the African-American community, to disastrous results that continue to reverberate deeply in our society today.
In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu took advantage of the current global antagonism against Muslims and Islam and declared the Islamic Movement in Israel an unlawful association. The timing for this declaration is clearly to plant the idea in the international community that this Islamic group, which represents many Palestinian citizens in Israel, espouses similar violent strategies as ISIS. The Palestinian civil and human rights group, Adalah, countered that the Islamic Movement “is part of the national representative bodies and elected local bodies of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and all its political activities are in accordance with the law. The order issued by the Defense Minister, without a hearing or trial, is a violation and crackdown on the Islamic Movement’s rights to freedom of association and political expression, and harms the Palestinian-Arab minority in Israel as a whole.”
The situation of the Palestinian citizens of Israel is a true example of institutionalized discrimination. Indeed, there are over 50 laws in Israel, enacted since the establishment of the state in 1948, which discriminate directly or indirectly against the Palestinian citizens of the country in such arenas as “political participation, access to land, education, state budget resources, and criminal procedures.”
It’s a slippery slope from stereotyping to prejudice to discrimination, and the United States should look at its own history—and that of its allies—as a cautionary tale. It would serve us well to check our words and public pronouncements about Arabs, Muslims, and refugees before making hasty decisions that are harmful to us and to those we are trying to help.
Zeina Azzam is executive director of The Jerusalem Fund and its educational program, the Palestine Center. The views expressed are her own.