Arab Americans

Arab Americans are defined, in this entry, as individuals and families with ancestry from one or more of the 22 Arab League states. The Arab League includes Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

The Arab League countries span Asia and Africa. The United States and other Western countries often refer to this particular region of the world as the Middle East; however, many countries within the Middle East are non-Arab, such as Turkey, Afghanistan, and Israel; and still others, such as Iran, represent different regions (e.g., Persia) altogether. Some Arab League states are Arab speaking; others are not. Many Arab League states are predominantly Muslim, although the Arab Middle East represents only a small percentage of the world’s Muslims.

Demographics

This diversity in origin, religion, language, and the like, serves to account for the respective variety of demographics within the Arab American population in the United States.

The 2000 U.S. Census was the first opportunity for selected respondents to indicate their affiliation with ethnic groups. Among all self-identified Arab Americans surveyed, 39% indicated Lebanese ancestry, 18% Arab, 12% Egyptian and Syrian ancestries, and smaller groups of Palestinians, Moroccans, Iraqis, and those signifying “other Arab.”

Most metropolitan cities have sizeable Arab populations, with some identifiable community center, such as a church or mosque, community center, or even restaurant. Larger established Arab American communities, rich in Arab heritage and traditions, can be found in New York, Dearborn (Michigan), Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Detroit, San Diego, Jersey City, Boston, and Jacksonville (Florida). States with the largest populations of Arab Americans are California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

Although the U.S. Census numbers the Arab American community in the United States at just over 1 million, most Arab American advocacy groups consistently estimate the population to be over 3 million. These groups attribute the Census Bureau’s undercount of Arab Americans, like for that of other ethnic groups, to problems in the methodological procedures of the census, particularly pertaining to the study of ethnic minority populations. Census data identify a 40% increase in Arab Americans over the decade of 1990 to 2000. The Arab American Institute (AAI), one of the leading national advocacy groups within the Arab American community, works closely with the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as conducting its own independent census and cultural research. Many of the statistics cited in this entry are taken from either U.S. Census Bureau data or AAI’s Internet and written resources.

Contrary to the stereotype of Arab Americans as being Muslim, the majority are actually non-Muslim. Approximately 42% of Arab Americans are Catholic, representing Roman, Maronite, and Melkite (Greek) traditions; 23% are Orthodox, including Antiochian, Syrian, Greek, and Coptic faiths. Twenty-three percent of the Arab Americans who are Muslim represent Sunni, Shi’a, and Druze traditions.

Compared with other ethnic groups, the Arab American population comprises more younger and foreign-born individuals, as well as being somewhat more educated. According to AAI, 85% have high school diplomas, over 40% have at least a bachelor’s degree (compared with the national average of 24%), and 17% have postgraduate degrees (compared with 9% of U.S. citizens).

Arab Americans represent a wide array of careers. About 64% are in the labor market, similar to the national average. The majority of working Arab Americans, at 88%, are employed within the private sector, and 73% hold managerial, professional, technical, sales, or administrative positions. AAI reports that Arab Americans are less likely to be found in governmental and service positions than their non-Arab American counterparts nationally. The mean income for Arab American households is slightly higher (i.e., 8%) than the national average.

History and Culture

According to well-known Arab American historians (e.g., Gregory Orfalea, 1988) immigration from the Arab world to the United States has taken place in waves. These waves seem to parallel various strategies of acculturation among Arab Americans.

The earliest wave, at the turn of the 20th century, paralleled that of many other ethnic groups who came to the United States in search of better educational and economic opportunity and, for some Arabs, to escape the Ottoman regime. This immigrant group was made up primarily of Christians, many of whom were uneducated merchants, from Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Jordan. It also included a group of scholars and writers in search of academic freedom, such as Khalil Gibran, who was among those founding the New York Pen League, or “immigrant poets,” which has historically showcased some of the most important of Arab American literature of the 20th century.

The next two waves, in contrast, were primarily composed of educated Muslims. During the post-World War II, or “brain drain,” wave, Palestinians, Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, and Iraqis, along with smaller groups of Lebanese and Yemeni left their countries, dissatisfied with political leadership in the region. Shortly thereafter, the next wave began immigrating during the 1960s, partly in response to the lessening of U.S. immigration restrictions. This group came for similar reasons and included large numbers of Palestinians who came to escape the Israeli occupation.

More recently, a fourth wave has emerged. This most recent wave has occurred as a result of the Gulf War of 1990-1991. Thousands of Iraqis have entered the United States to join their earlier counterparts. Many of these are political refugees, and many others came to flee the economic conditions caused by external sanctions imposed by other countries.

In terms of acculturation, the first wave quickly established close-knit community ties with one another in the places they settled. They also quickly became immersed, or assimilated, into the overall U.S. culture, similar to their other ethnic group counterparts at the turn of the century. The second and third waves became quickly reestablished professionally and economically, yet they maintained their own cultural traditions and values. The final wave, similar to other refugee populations, have struggled to resettle in the United States, and many suffered significant pre-immigration, immigration, and post-immigration traumas that have been difficult to overcome.

Religion and Values

Although the majority of Arab Americans are non-Muslim, Islam, the religion of the Muslim world, has had a significant influence upon Arab culture historically. Thus, there is overlap of some of the spiritual values, such as the focus on collectivism, held by both Christian and Muslim Arab Americans. Similarly, many Arab Americans, Christians and Muslims alike, value their religious faith and traditions as a symbol of their cultural heritage.

Islam is a religion that was brought to the Arabian Peninsula (known as the Saudi Arabian Peninsula of modern times) between A.D. 7 and A.D. 10 by the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims believe that he was a messenger of God, delivering God’s word that was given to him by the Archangel Gabriel. These words became written as the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. Islam is viewed as a religion that embodies the same messages God revealed in the previously founded world religions of Judaism and Christianity, and Muslims believe that Jesus was one of God’s many prophets. The Qur’an is considered a continuation of the Bible’s Old and New Testaments.

The Five Pillars, or traditions, are commonly practiced by many Muslims. Shahadah speaks to the belief in Allah as one God and to his Servant, the Prophet Muhammad. Salat requires formal worship five times daily. This ritual includes reciting a formal liturgy followed by a moment of personal meditation. Sawm represents the fasting period during the month of Ramadan, to demonstrate self-restraint, patience, endurance, obedience to God, and solidarity with those less fortunate. Zakah requires that Muslims donate 2.5% of their income toward causes of economic justice. Finally, Hajj prescribes journeying to the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This journey is ideally undertaken during the early part of the 12th month of the Islamic (lunar) calendar.

For Muslim Arabs, the biggest holidays include Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Eid al-Fitr is the celebration at the end of the month of Ramadan; Eid al-Adha is celebrated at the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca, usually on the 10th day of the 12th Islamic lunar month. The holy day is Friday, although in the United States, many religious institutions hold their services and other programs on weekends.

There are other important beliefs within Muslim and Arab culture, including accountability to God, self-responsibility for one’s deeds, global unity, racial equality, peace, and social harmony. Beyond these spiritually oriented values, collectivism and extended family are perhaps the most significant values for Arab Americans. Despite the vast diversity in subcultures of origin across the League of Arab States, Arab American communities, or enclaves, typically have families representing multiple Arab ethnicities. Even those families choosing not to reside within such an enclave tend to value social relationships with their extended family members and other Arab Americans.

Educational and economic achievements also are highly valued. This holds true for boys and girls, men and women alike. These accomplishments are often seen as a source of family pride. Likewise, civic activities, such as leadership positions, are seen as community accomplishments and honor. Although Arab Americans are less likely to establish governmental sector careers, the sense of collectivism and altruism for the Arab American community, either locally or nationally, leads many to become involved in the political arena. Arab Americans have provided leadership to the Senate, the House of Representatives, state legislatures, and city governments, as well as having served in critical military positions in every U.S. war. High-ranking officials such as Chief of Staff John Sununu under President George Bush and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala under President Bill Clinton, along with counterparts in the U.S. military, sports, business, law, entertainment, education, fashion, arts and literature, and science and medicine, are detailed in a publication titled Arab Americans: Making a Difference.

Gender and Family

Male and female gender roles have been defined within Arab cultures since well before the inception of Islam. Some early Arab societies were tribal and nomadic, and the survival of the tribe or clan relied upon each individual taking on his or her prescribed role. Males have the responsibility of economic support and therefore are more likely to engage in social relationships outside of their families and communities. Females are largely responsible for keeping kinship ties; thus, they interact more within the familial structure.

According to Islam, men and women have an equal footing before God. Compared with Western societies, Muslim women have held rights to own and inherit property, obtain educations, and seek divorce for 1,400 years. In some Arab countries, governmental restrictions may preclude these rights from being realized. In the United States, many women also have the same relative freedoms as their mainstream counterparts. On the other hand, those individuals from newer immigrant groups, as well as those who reside in close-knit Arab American enclaves, may practice more controlled gender roles, such as prohibiting dating and other coeducational activities. Some Muslim parents and families report, in fact, that they impose more restrictions on their children, specifically their daughters, than they did or would do in their countries of origin, because of perceived environmental threats to traditional values.

For example, Arab/Muslim American families and individuals interpret the Muslim practice of veiling, or wearing a hijab (an Arab headdress), in a wide variety of ways. Some Arab American women believe that the practice was designed by male-dominated governments to oppress women, whereas others use it as a symbol of their personal interpretation of religious or cultural values, as a political expression against Western influences in the Middle East, or because they feel safer and more valued in coeducational settings.

Although divorce is not uncommon within Arab American communities, promoting the maintenance of the nuclear family is of primary importance; thus, Arab Americans tend to have a lower divorce rate than their non-Arab American counterparts. Within traditional marriages, individuals do not place as much reliance on their partners to meet all of their needs; rather, they may rely on other family and community members. In fact, multiple generations and family members may reside within a single household, and elders are integral to the family unit. Parenting styles may tend more toward the authoritarian approach than the Western authoritative one.

Sociopolitical History and Contemporary Issues

The Arab world has historically had a troubled relationship with the United States, and this relationship extends into contemporary issues for Arab Americans.

Some scholars have attributed negative images of Arabs and Muslims within society to historical events such as the Crusades and the Ottoman Empire. In more recent times, the ongoing Palestine-Israel conflict and Iraq wars (e.g., Gulf War, Second Gulf War) have perpetuated the perception that Arabs and Arabism are a threat to U.S. interests.

Within this historical context, many Arab American advocacy groups perceive an image linking Arabs with terrorism both as faulty and inaccurate and as damaging to Arab Americans as individuals, families, and communities. Human rights organizations such as the Human Rights Watch and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs document incidents ranging from harassment to hate crimes such as arson, vandalism, and physical assaults toward Arab Americans and others perceived to be of Muslim or Arab origins. These organizations also document the effect this backlash can have on Arab American communities locally, regionally, and nationally. Periods immediately following events and tragedies linked, either accurately or inaccurately, with individuals or groups of Arab descent appear to serve as triggers for such backlash.

Juxtaposed with some of these historical and political events over the past century are corresponding immigration and other legal issues facing the Arab American community. Over the years, according to H. H. Samhan, Arab Americans have been classified by the U.S. government as being from “Turkey in Asia,” “Syrian,” “Asiatic,” and “Colored.” These fluid yet compulsory labels have regulated immigration from the Middle East. For example, during the early 1900s, because “Syrians” were neither White nor of African descent or birth, they were deemed as ineligible for citizenship according to the immigration statutes of that time. “Asiatic” was ascribed to Arab Americans during a time period in which Asian immigration was sharply restricted. “Colored” was based on skin tone rather than country of origin.

Issues surrounding immigration and classification, in general, continue to be salient ones among Arab Americans today. Similarly to the relationship between sociopolitical and immigration histories addressed earlier in this entry, contemporary issues such as the War on Terrorism, the U.S. military engagement in Iraq, and Palestine, are intertwined with current concerns such as civil liberties and Arab American census data.

Current Issues

Advocacy groups such as the AAI and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee often link contemporary issues among Arab Americans with global events involving Arab regions. Leading issues in contemporary U.S. society include those related to civil liberties, Iraq, and Palestine.

Since the World Trade Center bombings in New York City on September 11, 2001, civil rights legislation in the United States has held challenges for Americans. Though some has been associated with the profiling and targeting of Arab Americans, Muslims, and other specific groups in order to ensure homeland security, the debate about its legality affects all citizens.

Arab Americans, parallel to non-Arab American mainstream counterparts, have not been unified in their opinions about the series of Gulf Wars in Iraq. Some may have supported initial or more recent military tactics. However, many stand with other Americans in concerns about foreign policy and moral issues involved in contemporary military tactics in Iraq.

Surveys of Arabs in the Middle East as well as of Arab Americans consistently yield the perspective of impartial handling of the Palestine-Israel conflict, with the United States being perceived as operating in favor of Israel’s interests, as well as its own. One Zogby International Poll indicated that, although majorities of younger-generation Arabs throughout the Middle East have favorable attitudes toward American science and technology, democracy and freedom, American entertainment (i.e., movies and television), and American-made products, the lowest attitude ratings were given for U.S. policy toward the Arab nations and Palestine. In the same poll, the “Palestinian issue” was viewed as the most critical contemporary issue of our time, with respondents overwhelmingly reporting that they would react more favorably to the United States if it were to “apply pressure to ensure the creation of an independent Palestinian state.”

Counseling Issues

Taken together, the culture of origin, coupled with the sociopolitical history of Arab Americans, yields potential risks and resiliencies among this ethnic group that warrant consideration among psychologists, counselors, and other mental health service providers. Within the context of psychosocial issues for Arab American clients, effects of discrimination trauma and ethnic identity development are of primary importance.

Sylvia Nassar-McMillan has found that Arab Americans tend to somaticize their mental health concerns. For example, their anxiety may manifest in headaches or digestive problems. Thus, it is important for counselors to work in collaboration with medical and other health service providers to develop appropriate referral systems, as well as educational interventions, for their mutual clients. Arab Americans are most likely to seek medical treatment for disorders for which there are specific observable, physical symptoms; thus, they may focus more on their physical versus psychological health. They also may favor a medical model, in which the service provider is in an expert role and gives concrete advice and guidance.

Although psychological services have been provided within Arab societies for centuries, often by religious or spiritual healers, according to Alean Al-Krenawi and John Graham, there remains a stigma attached to admitting and seeking help for a psychological complaint, particularly for women. Moreover, going beyond the Arab American community to speak to an “outsider” may pose additional stigma and shame to the identity of an individual or family.

Within a counseling context, it is imperative that practitioners take into account a variety of psychosocial factors when assessing and preparing to work with an Arab American client. The first of these involves the demographic background of the client. Gender, age, religion, and sexual orientation, as well as educational level and socioeconomic status, all represent issues that may provide important historical information in understanding Arab American clients’ socialization processes.

Another layer of relevant information, according to Nassar-McMillan, is the status arena—that is, the individual or family client’s status in the United States. If they are permanent residents or U.S. citizens, then learning about how long the family of origin has lived in the United States is important, as is whether they reside within or outside an Arab American ethnic community. These details may shed light onto clients’ level of attachment and commit-ment to their cultural background or heritage. Language spoken in the home also may provide a similar perspective. Country of origin also is important, because the level of Westernization of a country of origin can impact the level of acculturation of individuals or families.

Discrimination Trauma and Ethnic identity

In light of the increasing phenomenon of hate crimes toward Arab Americans, and the fact that most Arab Americans have experienced acts of prejudice or discrimination or have witnessed fellow Arab Americans experiencing them, backlash may include mild to severe discrimination traumas. Negative stereotyping toward Arabs and Arab Americans can manifest in educational texts, in school and college settings, within employment arenas, and from news and other popular media sources; such stereotyping can further impact the trauma experience. For some individuals, this type of trauma may cause a conscious or unconscious disengagement with country of origin, especially for those who are more likely to physically “pass” as White, or European American. For others, the trauma can serve as a catalyst for becoming involved in advocacy movements to combat the perceived oppression.

In determining that individual or family clients came to the United States as refugees, counselors must be aware of the unique traumas faced by refugees in general. Levels of anxiety and depression may be higher in this group of clients. For those who served in or observed combat or other horrors of war, posttraumatic stress disorder may be pervasive. Immigrants from the Arab world, most recently from Iraq, are likely to have suffered a series of traumas spanning their pre-immigration, immigration, and post-immigration experiences. These clients may be most likely to present for counseling and other human services to meet their basic life needs, such as coping with financial, language, employment, and other barriers. In addition, they may seek medical services in response to some of their somaticized psychological issues.

Regardless of the demographic backgrounds and life experiences of Arab American clients, it is not unlikely that negotiating ethnic identity issues may become relevant within a counseling context. Individuals’ level of ethnic identity as Arab Americans may vary widely depending on all of the variables described earlier. The levels to which they have internalized the oppression, both overt and subtle, over their lifetime, may also affect their ethnic pride and commitment to their Arab American ethnic identity and sense of community.

In summary, assessment strategies must be culturally relevant and appropriate. They need to focus significantly upon clients’ level of acculturation and ethnic identity development. In addition, although a variety of counseling approaches may be effective when working with Arab American individual and family clients, some may be more culturally appropriate. For example, although some clients may gain valuable insight through counseling and psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral and problem-solving strategies (e.g., solution-focused counseling) may be more effective. In addition, Arab American clients may be most familiar with a medical, authoritative model on the part of the therapist, along with relatively directive approaches. Finally, constructivist approaches may help clients explore and construct their own perceptions, as well as those involving their communities of origin.

References:

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