Arab-Americanorganizations are reporting a large number of incidents of harassment, threats (including death threats) verbal abuse and physical attacks on members of their community. These are not incidents restricted to one region but appear to be widespread. Also, the FBI is conducting large-scale investigations that are allegedly meant to ensure protection for Arab Americans, but are nevertheless seen by the Arab community as an added element of harassment and intimidation, as if to signal that the community as a whole is suspect and could foster terrorist attacks.
The FBI investigation is only the latest in a series of harassment tactics used by various agencies in the United States in an attempt to silence the community and exclude it from participating in the American body politic. Such campaigns are intensified whenever wars or threats of wars in the Middle East become active and during American political campaigns.
What makes the present wave of Arab bashing curious and incongruous is the fact that most Arab countries are on the side of the United States in the Gulf conflict. Furthermore, it is ironic that Americans should express strong anti-Arab sentiment at the very time when American troops are sent to the Middle East with the expressed purpose of defending at least one Arab country (Saudi Arabia) and liberating another (Kuwait).
This anomaly is the result of the fact that Americans hold negative views of Arabs that have been fostered over a long time, but especially during this century. Almost all the media of communication, print and electronic, have reflected and/or reinforced negative images of Arabs. Indeed, numerous studies have detailed the negative stereotypes and caricatures presented to the American public as the ''true'' image or character of Arabs. So widespread and deeply ingrained have these images been that Western scholarship on the Middle East has been riddled with them.
Since Aug. 2, newspapers, radio and television have been deluged with analyses purporting to tell us how Arabs think and what they are really like. Unfortunately, relatively few of the scholars of the Middle East have been approached for their views, compared with the large number of ''experts'' from ideologically oriented think tanks and anti-Arab commentators, including former ''Arab nationalists,'' who often malign Arabs and pontificate on how harmful Arab nationalism is.
In a recent article in a national newspaper, for instance, the author ignored the tremendous tensions, frustrations and potential damage to American interests resulting from the Gulf war, and offered his explanation of the alleged absence of ''Arab rioting'' against the war. This ''explanation'' was based mainly on the author's view of Arabs and their character, which includes an ''acute respect for power.'' We are told that ''the Arabs'' (all 200-plus million of them?) are unlike any other people in the world in that they have tremendous respect for power. And what is the evidence for this momentous statement? It is a single Arab proverb which states: ''Kiss the hand you cannot bite.''
This resort to proverbs to ''explain'' Arabs and their character has become a favorite of Arab bashers in newspapers and on television shows. Of course, it ignores the fact that every people has a storehouse of thousands of proverbs, many of them contradictory, exactly because they are used by simple people, especially in traditional or pre-modern cultures, primarily to convey an orientation or a mood, and because these proverbs are meant to characterize particular situations -- not necessarily to enunciate eternal truths. For instance, in conjunction with the above proverb, we might appropriately cite a related and complementary aphorism, namely, ''The son of the ruler is an orphan.'' That one is a clear reminder that rulers, especially despotic ones, do not last long.
It is most unfortunate, therefore, that some American commentators cite specific Arab proverbs as if they were kernels of wisdom that explain a whole people as well as a whole varied and wonderfully rich culture. The fact that these commentators are frequent contributors of this kind of ''scholarship'' both in the newspapers and on television shows us the depth of the American public's misunderstanding and negative stereotyping of the Arab world.
American relationships with and attitudes toward Arabs are complicated by factors other than the negative stereotype. One such factor is the general American view, especially among government officials, that there are "good" Arabs (i.e. those who agree with us and support our policies -- today's Egyptians, for example) and "bad" Arabs (i.e. those who disagree with us or oppose our policies -- such as Egyptians of the 1950s and 1960s). This is compounded further by the fact that many of the "good" Arabs are regimes ruled by families that often treat their countries like personal fiefdoms but are most accommodating to American and Western interests. On the other hand, many of the "bad" Arabs have called for greater popular representation, economic justice and greater Arab integration -- and have also been critical of American and Western policies in the Middle East.
In general, moreover, Americans tend to hold negative stereotypes of all Arabs, i.e., both those seen as "good" and "bad", although this negativism is much more forcefully and consciously associated with "bad" Arabs. Thus, in terms of policy, the "good" Arabs become our friends and allies, and we temporarily place less emphasis on the negative image. On the other hand, the actual implementation of negative views and sentiments is directed against the "bad" Arabs, whose leaders are often dehumanized during political and military confrontations.
How, then, do these negative views affect Arab Americans? Needless to say, in a democracy such as the United States, it is improper to speak of "good" citizens and "bad" citizens merely because the former support the administration's policy and the latter oppose it. But with a war in progress that threatens to be nasty, and where emotions are inflamed, some individuals strike against any and all Arab Americans indiscriminately. Similarly, the FBI is targeting the Arab community as a collectivity, on the premise that there are a few individuals who might engage in some terrorist acts. These are indeed forms of collective punishment that should not be tolerated.
Arab Americans are good citizens who have great pride in America and the democratic system, which they cherish. Like any other ethnic group, they hold a diversity of views about American foreign policy, including the present conflict in the Middle East. Because of their background and pride in their Arab heritage, however, they want the best for the Arab world. They also seek to change the incorrect American image of Arabs and work to improve Arab-American relations. These are worthy goals and deserve general support.
The writer teaches political science at Kansas State University and is the author of "The Arabs in the Mind of America."