On the eve of the Republican National Convention held at the edge of Lake Erie in a place once nicknamed “the Comeback City,” a group of Cleveland residents met to discuss the sad state of affairs when it comes to journalists reporting on Arabs and Muslims.
For one, journalists do not understand the meaning of the word, Arab, nor where it comes from, said local cardiologist Dr. Ahmad Banna, who has lived in Cleveland since the 1970s. Banna said the diversity among Arabs is often overlooked by U.S. news organizations.
“You have to understand that an ‘Arab’ was a person who spoke the Arabic language,” Banna explained. He said the word was originally applied to residents of the Arab peninsula. With migration, the language spread throughout the Western Asia’s Fertile Crescent and into Africa.
“When we look at the Arab countries now, some of them they speak their own native language, so they are mixed with the Arab, but they’re still called Arab, ” Banna said, pointing to Morocco and Somalia as examples. “There are two Arabs: true Arab and acquired Arab. Technically all these countries are now called ‘Arab countries.’”
But no mainstream media representatives received this history lesson. That’s because none of the journalists in town covering the Republican National Convention attended the panel on the Arab community, co-sponsored by the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Banna and three other representatives of Cleveland’s Arab community explored nuances of Middle Eastern culture that get omitted from much U.S. news coverage. Diversity among Middle Easterners themselves, for one.
“I think it’s very difficult for non-Arab communities to grapple with an identity that isn’t strictly racial,” said Lea Kayali, a sophomore at Pomona College in Claremont, California. Last spring, her essay on combating bigotry toward Palestinians won $40,000 in the Maltz Museum’s annual “Stop The Hate” competition.
Organizers said they didn’t plan the panel discussion around the Republican convention. But recent events, including the shooting rampage at a gay nightclub in Orlando as well as the GOP’s platform policy on immigration, are bringing attention to the topic. They want to help dispel myths and correct negative and inaccurate narratives.
The Republican’s proposed platform on immigration shows how deeply stereotypes and bigotry have infiltrated public policy, panelists said.
References to “illegal immigrants” were replaced with the phrase “illegal aliens” throughout the document. The platform advocates for the Bible to be taught in school, and for ‘biblically’ based legislation that “must be consistent with God-given, natural rights.”
Those extremist attitudes add kindling to the fiery rhetoric embroiling discussions of Arabs in general and Muslims in particular. It’s fueled prejudice that’s become a fact of life for anyone from the Middle East.
“The Arabic world became negative after 9/11. We have to face that,” said Pierre Bejjani, a Lebanese immigrant who is the executive editor of Profile News Ohio, which claims to be Ohio’s largest Arabic/English newspaper. “We need the media to understand who we are and pass on the message.”
Banna, who is Syrian, took a harder line.
“Media professionals should be fair and balanced,” he said. “The problem is, even before they get the facts, they rush to get the news instead of having confirmed information.”
Blame that on a profession enthralled with clicks, retweets and so-called engagement. So we run to Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat first, adding updates that are actually corrections. Then we raise our eyebrows, puzzled when public respect for journalists plummets.
Meanwhile, media coverage influences people in subtle but profound ways. Just two weeks ago, suburban cops tackled and handcuffed a patient coming to Cleveland Clinic from Abu Dhabi. A hotel clerk sent alarming texts about his traditional clothing and Arabic speech, saying he “freaked her out,” especially with all the news about ISIS, the clerk said according to media reports. Despite an apology from Ohio officials, the incident prompted the United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation to warn citizens against wearing national dress when traveling to the United States.
On a more personal note, panelist Leen Midani said she now worries about reaction to her headscarf and dress.
“The media spread hatred and fear,” said Midani, who became a refugee when the civil war in Syria left her stranded in the U.S.
It’s a blunt accusation journalists needed to hear. Except there were none in the room.
This piece originally appeared in All Digitocracy.