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The First Three to Five Seconds: Understanding Arab and Muslim Americans

Officer survival is the first priority. However, in order to be safe and effective, officers must be able to differentiate between a threat and a cultural norm.  Under emergency circumstances events always dictate an officer's response.  This video will address only non-crisis situations and will provide basic tools to recognize cultural norms of some Arab and Muslim Americans.

To understand the community from our perspective is a great thing for officer safety and community safety, because misunderstandings get people killed and can create situations as extreme as a riot.

Stereotypes of Arabs which have existed throughout American history may influence on perceptions of individuals.  We have Aladdin, sand, AK47, hates America, terrorists.

That we don't speak English.  The women, that we are oppressed, that we are uneducated. Nobody says Algebra.

Nobody says astronomy.  Nobody says Christa McAuliffe, the teacher in the Challenger explosion who was also Arab American.  So, we're almost programmed to think Arab negative maybe neutral but rarely people say something positive. 

The most painful stereotype that exists of Arabs and Muslims has been terrorist.  Suicide is considered a sin in Islam.  To kill an innocent person is considered to be a sin in Islam.

Then who exactly are Arab Americans?  Arab Americans immigrated from the Arabic speaking nations of North Africa, the Arabian Gulf countries, the fertile crescent, and the Middle East.  Arab Americans have been coming to this country since the late 1800's.  There are estimates of at least 3 million Arab Americans in this country.  If you really look at Arab Americans, they're very much a part of the thread of American society.  From our small business owners and entrepreneurs, to teachers, to doctors, to lawyers.

Unlike the stereotypes Arab and Muslim American women are often educated professionals respected by their families and active in their communities.  Contrary to popular belief many Arab Americans are Christian. Can you tell which of these people are Arab?  None of them are.  The vast majority of the people who wear turbans in this country are Sikhs, who are neither Arab nor Muslim.  Their roots are in northern India.

Now, which of these people are Arab?  They all are. Arabs range widely in skin tone, hair texture, eye color, and other physical features.  Arab Americans are as diverse as America's other ethnic and cultural communities.

On the other side some recent immigrants have negative perceptions of police.  For example, some may assume police in this country behave the same as those in their native lands.

I've known people who were dragged into prison and people didn't even know if they were alive or dead, you know, for several years.  Police there are very free there to slap somebody in the face just to ask them a simple question, as simple as "What's your name?".  I still have that fear because a lot times when the police officer stops me, because I don't know what they're going to do.

The events of September 11th also affected Arab and Muslim perceptions of law enforcement here in the U.S. They feel under extra suspicion, scrutiny and have greater fear, as a result of police actions maybe misinterpreted. Many in the community see local law enforcement as all the same with no distinction in their jobs from the FBI, INS, U.S. Marshals and the U.S. Customs.

That makes the gap of mistrust larger and it's a snowball effect and its very ugly.  Arab Americans and Muslim Americans are definitely more scared to call the police for minor problems.  You know they'd probably rather swallow it if I should say, you know. Rather than probably open a can of worms that they don't need to open.  And its all simply because they don't know how they're going to be perceived, they don't know what's going to come next.

Buildings strong lines of communication with these communities can reduce some of these tensions.  It can also facilitate acceptance of explanations for any misunderstandings that occurred during emergency situations.

Probably the most important thing that we all need to do is take the time to engage one another, speak with one another, and learn each others feelings and customs see that there are so many things we have in common.  So our police department's posture is that it's important to do outreach to all the communities.

Tell the community what they should expect when dealing with a law enforcement officer.  Teach them about their roles and responsibilities.  Learn and address their needs and concerns.  Provide direct points of contact to the state and local police, the local FBI, the U.S. Attorney's office, and to the Department of Justice's Community Relations Service.

Patrol officers also can help create understanding. When an officer sees a violation, walks up, and explains the reason for the traffic stop.  Usually that's half the battle as far as that perception that misunderstanding.

Knowing a few cultural considerations will help you be more effective.

In Arab culture you give great respect to members who represent authority.  It would be impolite, disrespectful to give one direct consistent eye contact.  So they may look, then look away, they look, then they look away.

Another possible source of confusion is Arab names.  Arab and Muslim names are spelled in a variety of ways in English because some Arabic sounds do not exist in the English alphabet.  Arab names typically have four parts however most forms in America only allow space for two or three names.  Due to these and other cultural factors the same name maybe spelled differently or different names may appear in different documents for the same individual.

-- End of Part One -

Although only a minority of Arab Americans are Muslim, it is important to understand who Muslims are. Islam is a religion that worships the God of Abraham.  People who practice the religion of Islam are called Muslims. The majority of Muslims in America are not Arab.  They're African-American and Asian-American. The place of worship is called a mosque or masjid.  In order to keep a strong connection with God Islam prescribes believers pray five times a day. Friday between 12 and 2 in the afternoon is the time of Congregational worship so increased traffic and activity at the mosque at his time is common

When in doubt about cultural considerations ask questions.

You basically have to approach It from the standpoint of blunt honesty. What do you expect of me? What can I do to maintain a level of respect to your institution?

If you visit a mosque be aware that there are separate entrances to the prayer sections for males and females as an extension of modesty. To keep their minds among worship of God men and women pray in separate sections. Shoes are removed before entering the area dedicated to prayer. Avoid stepping on the prayer rug with your shoes. Islam prescribes men and women behave and dress modestly. Shorts or revealing clothing are not worn at the mosque. One cultural consideration is that women cover their heads with scarves or hats when praying or where the prayer section is. It is inappropriate to interrupt someone in prayer. Typically one will walk behind or far ahead of the person in prayer or wait till he or she is finished before they pass or approach. Respect and modesty for some Muslims may mean not touching someone of the opposite sex even in the case of a handshake. It is better to let the person of  the opposite sex extend his or her hand as a signal that it is okay to shake hands.

Such modesty also applies to home visits.

"Could I come in and talk to you."

"Sorry my husband isn't home right now."

This may seem suspicious, but it may be inappropriate to enter a home if only someone of the opposite sex is present.  If circumstances permit, return when a resident of the same gender as the officer is available.

"Good afternoon, we're police officers with Montgomery County.  Would you have some time to talk to us for a second?  Sure come on in."

Having a female officer present can also be helpful.

Some Muslims pray at home and take their shoes off when entering the house to keep the carpet clean.

"Would you be kind enough to take your shoes off? 

If you can not remove your shoes ask where you can hold a conversation with your shoes on.

"Is there another location where we can interview you?"

Arab culture values respect and saving face. Individual may wish to be interviewed apart from their families.  Individuals may wish to be interviewed apart from their families to save face. Publicity and public scenes my also cause unnecessary embarrassment and humiliation.

The proper protocol if police officers are offered a drink or a snack would be to accept it. If one says "No thank you" even if they say it very politely that can be offensive.

Accept the offering even if you to choose not to eat or drink it.  This is considered more acceptable than rejecting their hospitality.

A prayer rug is about the size of a large towel.  Muslims do not step on it with their shoes to keep the rug clean and pure for prayer.

In cases involving searches extra scrutiny should be the result of behavioral characteristics rather than physical appearance or attire.  Indiscriminate touching of a head covering or body may be perceived as offensive. We know your job is to be observant but beware that a male staring at or touching a woman is considered offensive.  If a search of a woman's scarf is warranted, explain why she needs to remove it. Public searches of the head scarf are viewed as humiliating and violates one's religious tenets. Have a female officer bring her into a private room if you have those resources and ask her to remove the scarf herself.

Paying attention to details like these will go a long way in building rapport and cooperation with the Arab and Muslim American communities.

The members of the community love to interrelate with their politicians, their community leaders, and their police departments.  So, to get close and be able to share concerns and positive things and all kinds of aspects of day-to-day living environments and stuff of that nature it works out wonderfully.  I would love to have both sides educate each other as to the perceptions and correcting difficulties and mending fences where there may be a breach. If we do that we'll be okay.

Updated June 23, 2014

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