A Shock for Arab-Americans

To counter a racist remark, McCain suggests that the opposite of “Arab” is “decent family man,” which only compounds the insult

10.13.08 6:16 AM ET

“Billionaires, bombers and belly dancers,” is how television stereotypes Arabs, according to Jack Shaheen, author of several books about the negative stereotyping of Arabs and Arab-Americans. The professor emeritus of mass communication at Southern Illinois University surveyed more than 900 film appearances of Arab characters. Of those, only a dozen were positive and 50 could be considered balanced. Shaheen writes: “seen through Hollywood’s distorted lenses, Arabs look different and threatening.”

While John McCain was answering questions from voters at an event in Minnesota on Friday, Gayle Quinnell took the microphone and called Barack Obama an Arab, saying she could not trust him. McCain looked stricken and shook his head. He took the microphone from her and said, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, [a] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”

God forbid that Obama should be an Arab, McCain seemed to be saying. Sure, he’s a shady person with a funny name, palling around with terrorists like Bill Ayers, and his father’s name is Hussein. He may well be a covert Muslim. But to accuse him of being a covert Arab? No, ma’am, he’s a decent family man!

As a Jordanian living and working in the US for the past six years, I have never felt discriminated against. Watching TV on Saturday, I felt personally insulted, for the first time.

For about four million Arab-Americans, and 300 million Arabs—and I happen to be one—McCain’s response to a voter “accusing” Obama of being an Arab must have come as a complete shock. Instead of rejecting the notion that being an Arab is a pejorative term, the Arizona senator, by denying that Obama is an Arab, succeeded in insulting millions of Arabs and Arab-Americans.

As a Jordanian living and working in the US for the past six years, I have never felt discriminated against because of my ethnicity, or origin, though I did hear occasionally of “ethnic profiling” of Arab-Americans around the country.

Watching TV on Saturday, I felt personally insulted, for the first time. I would have probably brushed it off had it been a Rush Limbaugh type or some bigot on the fringes who delivered the insult. But it came from someone who could very well become president of the United States.

An interview with Quinnell conducted directly after the event and published on the website Donklephant shows that she still believes Obama is an Arab, and she has been actively communicating this to potential voters through fliers and phone calls while volunteering at a McCain campaign office.

Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for the Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya, and an Arab-American, said he was angry with some people “behaving as if being an Arab is an insult, and using negative stereotypes of Arabs in an attempt to undermine Obama’s campaign.” He told The Daily Beast that by talking about whether Obama may be a secret Muslim or an Arab, some people are raising doubts about him even as they deny the rumors. “It is like when Hillary said, ‘as far as I know, he’s not a Muslim,’ or when she said she was 'not going to question his patriotism,’ she is in effect, raising doubts by implication.”

Melhem argues that McCain is responsible for raising such doubts: “When McCain asks ‘who is the real Obama,’ he’s implying that what we see is a lie”—that there is a different Obama behind the veneer of the nice, sophisticated, decent person he comes across as to many Americans. McCain is “contributing to a dangerously negative atmosphere of divisions with not so subtle racist overtones.” And when Sarah Palin says Obama is “not like us, who believe America is good,” she’s accusing Obama of being a risk, of harboring a hidden anti-American agenda.

On Friday, Georgia Democrat Rep. John Lewis issued a statement condemning the "negative tone" of the McCain-Palin ticket for promoting the same “atmosphere of hate” as Alabama governor and arch-segregationist George Wallace did when he ran for president in 1972. “Senator McCain and Governor Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful that fire will consume us all."

An outraged McCain said the remarks, made by one of his campaign advisers, were "shocking, and beyond the pale."

Edmond Ghareeb, an academic who has written a book called Split Vision on the lopsided negative coverage of Arabs in the media, said McCain appeared to be trying to dissociate himself from some of the incendiary statements about Obama. However, “some of his attack ads appear to be making a subliminal link between Obama’s race and terrorism”—an equally dangerous implication.

On the Obama “is an Arab” remark, Ghareeb said he hoped McCain would have explained that “there is nothing wrong with being an Arab. It should not be an issue. Arab-Americans are entitled to run for president just like every other American,” and then mentioned presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who’s an Arab-American, as well as many members of Congress and other prominent figures.

Clovis Maksoud, former Arab League ambassador to the UN, described the “Arab” comment at the election event as “despicable and dangerously provocative,” accusing McCain of becoming “a prisoner of his party’s most extreme elements.” Writing Monday in the leading Lebanese Arab daily Annahar, Maksoud pointed out that shouts of “kill him” and “treason” whenever Obama’s name is mentioned at recent McCain rallies are “expressions of entrenched racism and bigotry among a minority of conservatives.”

A nationwide poll by Zogby International released September 18 shows that among likely Arab-American voters in November’s election, Obama holds a 21-point lead (54-33) over McCain. The survey found that dissatisfaction with the domestic and foreign policy performance of the Bush administration is eroding the Republican Party base among a majority of Arab-American voters.

The title of Shaheen’s latest book, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11 (2008), says it all. And a bumper sticker I spotted in Virginia the other day says it more crudely: “President Barack Hussein Obama? Are you f***in’ kidding me?!”