Life behind the label

A researcher explores how prejudice, discrimination and state policies affect the daily realities of Arab and Muslim Americans

By Guy Fiorita

Louise Cainkar was completing her doctorate in criminology when a trip to Morocco changed her career.

“I was fascinated by everything I saw,” she said.

At the time, she had a bachelor’s degree, two master’s and was finishing with a Ph.D. — but she was struck that she had never learned anything about this part of the world. Morocco has a population of 33 million, and the predominant religion is Islam.

Since then Cainkar has dedicated herself to Arab American and Muslim American studies, focusing on the daily realities of being Arab and Muslim in America.

In recent decades — and especially since the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,
 by the jihadi group al-Qaida — that daily reality has been a complex and difficult one for many people in these groups.

“Much of my research focuses on prejudice and discrimination against Arab and Muslim Americans, the faulty logics and media portrayals that have produced these, and their impacts on the quality of life for Arab and Muslim Americans,” observes Cainkar, an associate professor of social and cultural sciences and director of Peace Studies.

Her 2009 book, Homeland Insecurity: The Arab American and Muslim American Experience After 9/11, plumbed these waters. Based on extensive surveys and interviews with Chicago-area subjects, it is recognized as one of the most thorough ethnographies of a religious and ethnic minority that is growing in numbers and in the attention it garners across our society. A review on the Law and Politics Book Review website of the American Political Science Association called the book “groundbreaking due to its inclusiveness.” And it was an honorable-mention in the Arab American National Museum’s 2010 Book Awards.

“Much of my research focuses on prejudice and discrimination against Arab and Muslim Americans, the faulty logics and media portrayals that have produced these, and their impacts on the quality of life for Arab and Muslim Americans.”

Today, Cainkar continues moving research in this field forward, while teaching courses and serving in a number of leadership positions such as president of the Arab American Studies Association and board member and treasurer of the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies.

A recent work, a chapter she contributed to the 2015 Handbook of Arab American Psychology, provides clinical therapists and psychology researchers key demographic information about Arab Americans and shines revealing light on how stereotypes that members of this group endure complicate their ability to develop positive social identities.

Cainkar with her 2010 book, a comprehensive ethnography and honorable-mention recipient in the Arab American National Museum Book Awards.

Currently Cainkar is researching a new book covering the experiences of transnational Arab American teenagers and children who are sent to Palestine, Jordan and Yemen for high school. “These children live with stereotypes from a very young age, so a surprisingly large number of parents do this to give their children knowledge of their own culture and, with it, a sense of dignity. Many of the kids expect to find a land full of terrorists, tents and backward people. Discovering the truth about these places and their family heritage helps them build self-esteem.”

Supported by a three-year Strategic Innovation Fund award, Cainkar will take Marquette students to Detroit on an Islam immersion and service trip. “Research shows that the best way to counter stereotypes is to increase knowledge and build relationships, so those are the goals of this project, which align well with our Jesuit mission,” she adds.

In a different vein, Cainkar is also working to create a Middle East and North African studies major, with Dr. Philip Naylor, Grad ’72, ’80, in history, Dr. Irfan Omar in theology, Dr. Richard Taylor in philosophy and Dr. Enaya Othman, Grad ’09, in foreign languages (see below). “It’s part of a larger conversation about our need to offer a race, ethnicity and indigenous studies program at Marquette,” she says. “In studying Arabs, Muslims, Latinos, and African and Native Americans ... we can all increase our capacity to understand human experiences comparatively and do great work on campus.”


Agents of their outcomes

Professor’s scholarship upends stereotypes of Arab and Muslim women.

In October Dr. Enaya Othman, assistant professor of Arabic, published her first book, an analytical examination of American Quaker schools in Palestine and how being educated in these schools helped young women change their positions within their society’s power structure.

“As an Arab Palestinian Muslim woman, I want to contribute to scholarship relating to the history and situations of Arab and Muslim women,” says Othman of her book, Negotiating Palestinian Womanhood: Encounters between Palestinian Women and American Missionaries, 1880s–1940s. “Their contributions are often underrepresented and they are nearly always portrayed as victims when in reality I have found these women always use their agency to advance their situations.”

Othman is working on her second book, a study of the marriage patterns of Muslim women in the United States over the past six-plus decades. Despite the time and distance separating her subjects, Othman sees similarities: Arab and Muslim women in various settings throughout history have developed strategies to better their situations.“They did this in Palestine and they are doing it today in Milwaukee — making changes to their gender roles and claiming places of importance in their family, community and society as a whole. I want to show how women are using various strategies to reshape the institution of marriage, thus gaining access to decision-making.” — GF

This story was adapted from the 2017 issue of Discover, Marquette’s annual research and innovation magazine. Read the entire issue online and the cover story here.