Middle Eastern students denounce ‘terrorist’ stereotypes

“People look at me, and they think I’m a terrorist.”

Amal Alderees, a UNA student from Saudi Arabia, said she struggles with stereotypes frequently. She is not alone.

Thirteen years ago America lost over 3,000 people and gained a physical description of the word “terrorist.” Despite 63 percent of Middle Eastern Americans being native rather than immigrant, first judgment tends to incite fear and remembrance.

Anti-Muslim hate crimes increased 1600 percent in 2001 according to the FBI. In response to the backlash immediately following 9/11, the Civil Rights Division formed a template to combat the discrimination.

The Department of Justice’s template to respond to discrimination against Muslims and Arabs included reminding “Americans that Muslims and Arabs…were also victims of the September 11th attacks, and they

were also first responders.”

Despite the decline in physical violence against Arab-Americans since Sept. 11, the levels of bigotry, discrimination and overall intolerance have continually increased, the Department of Justice stated in its Post-9/11 Civil Rights Summit.

We were in mourning collectively as a country,” said Arab American Institute founder and president James Zogby. “Then someone decided to say to (us), ‘you can’t be part of this.’”

Essentially, Arab-Americans are forced to not only grieve for the lives lost by Americans 13 years ago, but also to grieve for the hate crimes committed against their mass as innocents, the Department of Justice stated.

“It’s okay to be sad and remember,” Alderees said. “Even in my country we are all sad on 9/11.”

Ali Murad, a UNA tennis player and student from Pakistan, said the memories are vivid of his life post-terrorist attacks.

“My parents were downstairs, and I saw it happen on my TV,” Murad said. “I ran downstairs and told my dad and he yelled ‘what? What happened?’ He was shocked. All of us were — not just Pakistan. Everybody in the world felt awful.”

Al-Qaeda’s actions should not represent all Muslims, said Ahmad Samad, a student from Lebanon. Despite being in America for only three weeks, Samad said he has already heard the negative reputation Muslims have in America.

“I’ve heard that people assume all Muslims or Arabs are dangerous or terrorists,” he said. “It’s not even part of Islam to do so. Those people are rebels in our eyes. Other than 9/11, there are small occasional happenings where an Arab does a terrorist attack, and every time it happens, the negative reputation (of Muslims) increases in general.”

Alderees said her idea of terrorism stems from Al-Qaeda also.

“People don’t realize that Al-Qaeda bombs my country, too,” she said. “They are a terrorist organization, and they are the group of people who are doing these events, not all Muslims.”

The Department of Justice states Al-Qaeda has a major presence in 25 countries, including Spain, Morocco and Indonesia, yet Arabs are the most commonly associated with terrorism.

“I’ve been to I don’t know how many countries,” Murad said. “People have stereotypes everywhere. It doesn’t necessarily mean those stereotypes are right or wrong. It’s in your control to let it affect you.”

Through all of the hardships and misunderstandings, Murad said the only difference Muslim-Americans and immigrant Arabs can make is educating others.

“If people don’t have knowledge, if people are not educated, then they’re going to develop those stereotypes,” he said. “If they really don’t have knowledge about what’s going on out in the world, then they’re going to think all Muslims are crooked.”

A huge part of understanding the culture in the Middle East is recognizing how they handle these terrorist attacks, Samad said.

“In the Middle East, we know the true story that the people who are doing these acts of terrorism have wrong beliefs,” he said. “We don’t consider all Muslims bad, but if someone has that (terrorist) mentality, he would be instantly reported and the higher-ups would be informed.”

Understanding the fundamentals of Islam without necessarily believing it is critical to Alderees, who wears an Islamic headscarf called a hijab.

“It’s harder for girls to blend in,” she said. “We wear hijabs or abayas as part of the religion. We look different. But I’m a normal person.”

While educating others is the way to move past the bitterness, remembering those who lost their lives is of utmost importance, Murad said.

“Honor the people that lost their lives that day,” he said. “Cut down stereotypes that are there in the world right now.”

Despite the stereotypes and hate crimes surrounding Arabs and Muslims, Murad said he loves living in America.

“You don’t find the kind of hospitality you find here in other parts of the world,” he said. “Even if you’re walking out the door, people are going to hold the door for you. They greet you with either ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon.’ Those are small things that matter a lot when people in the rest of the world don’t really think about doing them.”

Connecting with people and networking regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender is important in understanding people from all over the world, Murad said.

“I’m a part of the tennis team, and we have a very nice group of people,” he said. “They crack jokes sometimes, but it doesn’t matter because I know how they feel about me. We’re like family.”

Murad said the key to moving past prejudice is to understand that while beliefs may be different, people are the same everywhere.

“In my country, there are 80-year-old women and 90-year-old men,” he said. “They work on farms. They have small children. What if there’s a newborn baby — why does he have to carry a label of being a terrorist? People need to take that into consideration and the world would be a better place.”