Media basics on coverage of Chicago's distinct and separate Arab and Muslim Communities


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Covering Chicago’s Arab and Muslim communities: Distinctions in ethnicity, culture, origins and religion (an overview)

A road map to help the media cover the two distinct Arab and Muslim communities

March 9, 2005

By Ray Hanania

If you think the title of this column should be "covering Chicago’s Arab and Muslim Community," it might explain the challenges Chicago’s media continues to face.

The "Arab and Muslim Community" is not a "community" at all, but two very separate and very distinct communities; each has multiple levels of confusing political and social sub-terrains.

Arabs 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 overlap.

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 wrong.

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 other areas.

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 events.

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 organizations.

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 Archdiocese.

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 and non-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 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