Free Speech and Self Censorship: Arab Americans in the Street and in the Classroom

On 10/28/08,the London- based Asharq al Alwsat newspaper published a report on the US elections. The reporter, Raghida Bahnam, interviewed a number of Michigan Arab Americans for the story: "Arab Americans Strongly Support Obama…Hope he will understand their Concerns." The story emphasized how Arab Americans are excited about Obama's candidacy. One interviewee told her that he wants to vote for Obama because Obama is Black and as a Black American he would understand the fears and concerns of other minorities such as Arab Americans.
It was a good report but what concerned me in the story was the response of a man named Hassan. Hassan told the reporter that he is not interested in politics, that though he lives in the US, he does not get involved in politics. He said after 9/11 and the passage of the Patriot Act, there is no longer freedom of speech and we can't speak freely or we get dragged for questioning and get thrown in jail for no reason. ..I don't discuss politics and I don't vote.
Hassan is an alarmist. His fears are overblown. He is paranoid.
I am not sure how many people think like Hassan. Driving to my office on Warren Avenue, I know that Hassan is in the minority. Anyone driving down Warren Avenue between Greenfield and Wyoming would see all these Arab Americans for Obama signs. Arab American excitement about Obama is obvious.
But the fear of adverse consequences for free speech seems to be present on college campuses as well. Last week, I was speaking with a friend of mine who teaches political science at a state university in Michigan. The professor told me that he thinks that his Arab and Muslim students are self censoring themselves in their assignments and in classroom discussions. While there is normal variation in the responses of non- Arab and non- Muslim students, he noted, his Arab and Muslim students almost uniformly have positions that are strongly pro- national security over civil liberties and civil rights. It seems, he said, that these students think this is the pro-American position and they need to prove their patriotism by taking 100% pro national security positions.
This is troubling. College is where future leaders learn important skills. Freedom of speech is a core value of higher education in universities and is vital for democracy. The Arab college students of today are the future leaders of the Arab American community. The fact that some are self censoring themselves instead of expressing themselves intelligently and freely is an issue of concern. Government and community organizations should take note of this reality.


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