and Muslims are not the same. They are very different. They each are a
part of the post-September 11th story or the ongoing Middle
East conflict, but in significantly different ways.
In only a few occasions, do the two communities
This has probably been the single most important error
the news media has made in covering the Arabs and Muslims.
There are about seven million Muslims in America, but
only about 22 percent are Arab. Referring to the Arab community as
Muslim or covering the Arab community in that religious context is
Half of the Arabs in America are Christian. And, in
addition to the Arab Christians, there re another one million Christians
who originate from the Middle East who are not Arab, such as Assyrians
or Chaldeans. Assyrians speak Arabic but are militant in defining
themselves as "non-Arab" and will tell you so.
Further complicating all this is the term "Arab" which
is a broad cultural classification for a group of people who speak
Arabic, share many cultural traits, but have more than 40 different
ethnic idiosyncrasies. Palestinians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Egyptians,
Iraqis, Syrians and Gulf region Arabs are all different not only in
ethnicity but also in their politics and social patterns and habits.
You will get an entirely different story by visiting
each of their distinct community centers, which they all have. And
significant differences also exist in each, especially among
Palestinians, Lebanese and Iraqis. The differences are political,
clannish but it is at this level where religion actually plays its
strongest hand and the Arabs are divided among those who are secularly
political (Christian or Muslim) or religious active (almost entirely
Muslim, or Islamicist).
Chicago is a good example of where these intricacies
create coverage issues.
In Chicago, the majority of Arabs are Palestinian,
about 75 percent, although since no one conducts an accurate census, we
have no accurate tabulation of the true Demographics.
Most immigrated to this country in the 1970s, not just
because of the 1967 war but because in 1965, the United States lifted
many of its restrictive prohibitions that applied to the Middle East and
But the very first Arab immigrants to Chicago came in
the mid-19th Century and include two ethnic varieties with
different motivations. The largest originated from a little village in
Lebanon called Zahlah, which had become the center of a Druise-Christian
conflict over farmlands. These early immigrants settled on Chicago’s
near West Side in a community that later became known as "Little Zahlah"
by the 1950s.
Other immigrants came for economic reasons or to
escape the forced draft into the Ottoman Army – at this time through the
end of the World War I, most of the Arab countries we recognize today
did no exist politically or nationally and were a part of the Ottoman
Turkish empire. These early Arab immigrants were generally Palestinian,
Jordanian or Syrian and they settled near Hull House and are included in
Hull House demographic records.
The first large wave of Arab immigration to Chicago
was led by the Lebanese who came from Zahlah to avoid religious strife.
This was followed by a large wave of Muslim Palestinians following the
1893 Columbian Exposition held here.
Most Christian Palestinians are Orthodox, although
some are Catholic and a few are Lutheran. Further, the Chicago
Palestinians have strong distinctions driven by clans. The majority of
Muslim Palestinians come from one town called Beitunia while the
majority of Christian Palestinians come from one town called Ramallah.
Ramallah and Beitunia are sister cities located just north of Jerusalem.
In Chicago, most Ramallah Palestinians live along the
so-called "northwest" corridor stretching from Logan Square deep into
the suburbs, while most Beitunia Palestinians live along the so-called
"southwest" corridor stretching from 63rd and Kedzie, today,
through Orland and Tinley Park and into Will County communities like
Frankfort and Mokena.
The Lebanese are the next largest community of Arabs
in Chicago and they are mostly Maronite Christian, usually third and
fourth generation. For them, Arabic is a cultural link not a language.
The vast majority of Arabs elected to public office
are of Lebanese origin, such as Peoria Congressman Ray LaHood or former
Senator George Mitchell.
Half of the Arabs in Chicago are Christian and they
attend several Christian churches that are centers of their activism,
and each distinct by Arab ethnicity. But while the Muslim Palestinians
have seen a growth in religious political activism, Islamicism, the
Christian Palestinians do not have a political identity and they
participate in the broader secular Arab political organizations and
There is a very large Assyrian community in Chicago,
possibly more than 100,000 people who identify as coming from Arab
countries but who speak a wholly distinct dialect and whose views
complete contrast the views of their Arab counterparts from the same
Middle East regions.
First of all, they are entirely Christian and there
are no Muslim Assyrians that I have ever heard of or that the community
acknowledges. It is possible there might be a few. Most Assyrians live
on Chicago’s North and Northwest sides. (Although the Assyrians were
given the spotlight during recent Iraqi elections, the Assyrians do not
have a voting bloc in Iraq at all.)
In their context, the issue of Iraq is significant.
Assyrians are generally pro-invasion and were victims of Saddam
Hussein’s brutality, while Iraqi Arabs were also targets of Saddam
Hussein’s brutality, but they oppose the American-led invasion, and not
because of religious reasons. There are almost as many Christian Iraqis
as there are Muslim Iraqis in Chicago.
Additionally, there is an Egyptian community that
identifies as one nationally, but practice different social customs
driven by religious belief. Most Christian Egyptians are Coptic
Orthodox. Some are Muslim.
Most media coverage in Chicago focuses on the Islamic,
or religious aspects because it is the easiest distinction to follow and
because of the improper national coverage of "Muslims" versus "Arabs" by
the national media. It’s a poor standard to follow in covering the Arab
community and it can result in misleading conclusions or missing
significant story lines.
The Arabs of Chicago not only can be mapped
geographically, but also politically and religiously.
Politically, there are several Arab American
organizations. These secular organizations include the American Arab
Anti-Discrimination Committee, the National Arab American Journalists
Association, the Arab American Women’s Association, the Ramallah
American Federation, the Beitunia Club, the Phoenician Club (Lebanese),
and many, many others.
The Arab community has two popular Arab radio talk shows
broadcast on Saturday and Sunday on WPNA and WCEV AM. These shows have
been broadcast for more than a quarter century.
The Arab community had seven newspapers prior to Sept.
11, but that number dropped to one when six of the publications folded
because of increased anti-Arab bigotry and harassment. The only
surviving newspaper is al-Offok al-Arabi, published by a Muslim
Palestinian woman, Kawthar Othman, from Betunia and based in Oak Lawn.
In recent months, two new newspapers have been
launched, al-Waseet (based in Burbank) and The Future Newspaper (based
in Tinley Park).
The religious organizations which are non-Arab but
that include Arab often address what are traditionally secular Arab
political issues in a religious context. They include the Council on
American and Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Council on Islamic
Organizations, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) which holds
the largest conferences in Chicago every year in Rosemont, and the
Muslim Civil Rights Center (MCRC) based in Bridgeview and the Muslim
Public Affairs Council (MPAC). CAIR, ISNA and MPAC are national
Additionally, there are organizations that mix
religious and political agendas such as the Islamic Association for
Palestine (IAP) headed by a member of the Bridgeview Mosque Foundation
board, and which published for many years az-Zaitouna, a Muslim focused
newspaper on Palestinian activism based in Richardson, Texas. That
publication closed a few weeks ago.
There is a Muslim radio show called "Radio Islam"
which focuses on mostly religious topics and some secular issues hosted
by SoundVision, 9058 S. Harlem Ave.
But there are serious differences that exist not only
between these organizations and even the media outlets. They cover the
Muslim community and rarely engage Christian Arabs, although ironically,
they pursue dialogue with Christian non-Arab groups such as the Chicago
Christian Arabs, for the most part, are ignored by the
mainstream media and by growing Muslim activism. For the most part,
secular non-religious Arab Muslims are also ignored.
Religiously, there are a dozen Christian Arab
Churches. For example, St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church located in
Cicero has more than 2,500 parishioners from throughout the Chicago area
who are Palestinian, Lebanese and Jordanian.
The Lebanese, however, also have their own Maronite
church, Our Lady of Lebanon Church in Hillside. The Coptic Egyptians
have St. Mark’s Church in Chicago’s west suburbs.
There are several mosques in the Chicagoland area,
also. Many began as and remain as storefront structures. But today, many
have taken the form of true Mosque structures. The most prominent ones
based on building structure and congregation size include the Islamic
Cultural Center in Northbrook which is one of the first to have a Mosque
structure in the 1970s. The ICC has a dome and one of the few minarets
in the region.
The Bridgeview Mosque just west of Harlem Avenue on 90th
Street has a large congregation and beautifully designed dome.
And there is a mosque in Villa Park.
What are the differences? The ICC is a non-Arab mosque
but consists of Arabs and non-Arabs, mainly Bosnian Muslims.
The Bridgeview Mosque is an Arab Mosque and consists
mainly of Palestinian Muslims, mostly from Beitunia, Palestine.
The Villa Park Mosque is a mixed congregation of Arabs
Going to any of these churches and mosques will result
in a completely unique, and sometimes contradicting story line. But
knowing these distinctions ahead of time can strengthen a story line.
You cannot simplify the Arab community as a Muslim
community. For example, although the Bridgeview Mosque is often the
focus of many stories, it is not symbolic of the Arab community or the
Palestinian community and their activities.
Similarly, Radio Islam does not represent the Arab
community or all Muslims.
(Ray Hanania is a Chicago-based Palestinian American
syndicated columnist and author of "Arabs of Chicagoland" to be
published in June by Arcadia Press and is managing editor of
TheArabStreet.com. His columns appear twice each month in the Arlington
Heights Daily Herald and he also writes a Chicago political and humor
column for the Southwest News-Herald. He can be reached at