Arab-American conference cancelled as Islamophobia rises in US

Israel-Gaza war has ignited Islamophobic and anti-Arab sentiment not seen since 9/11, Arab Americans say

Protesters rally in front of the White House against the Israeli military's operations. AFP
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The plan was to bring together Arab Americans from across the country over the course of two days to network and celebrate their culture.

But the hotel hosting the Connect Arab America: Empowerment Summit – which was scheduled to take place November 3 and 4 in Orlando, Florida – cancelled the event at the last minute.

The hotel said it had become concerned after it received phone calls inquiring why the venue was hosting the event.

“It hurt me a lot,” Warren David, president of the Arab America group that organised the event, told The National.

“It's really disappointing how we were othered. It's undoing all our hard work.”

An email and phone call from The National to the venue requesting more details about the cancellation were not immediately answered.

Mr David said it took eight months to plan the event, which was meant to host more than 240 Arab Americans from across the US. There were 30 speakers and 26 sponsors.

Rush Darwish, a Palestinian American from Chicago, was scheduled to be a moderator for a panel at the Connect Arab America event.

Before the war broke out, the panel was going to be about business. It was then changed to address how Arab Americans are perceived in the media and how language is used to disparage them.

“I was shocked because I already had all my travel reservations and I was ready to go,” Mr Darwish, who is an organiser with Arab Americans Forward, an empowerment and advocacy group, told The National.

“And when I found out the reason, it took me back to 9/11,” he said, referring to the discrimination many Muslim Americans experienced after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

“It's this idea that we're here in the United States as Americans, but all of a sudden we have a target on our back because of our identity. It's scary.”

There have been rising concerns over Islamophobia, anti-Arab sentiment and anti-Semitism in the US, as the Israel-Gaza war, now in its fourth week, spills over in different ways around the world.

On October 14, Wadea Al Fayoume, a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy, was stabbed to death in his home in Chicago, Illinois, and his mother was critically injured.

They were allegedly attacked by their landlord because they were Muslim and Palestinian.

At the weekend, students at Cornell University said threats had been posted online calling for the killing of Jews. The FBI is investigating the incident.

The administration of President Joe Biden said it is reaching out to community leaders and directing police and prosecutors to do more to combat hate crimes.

“We can’t stand by and stand silent in the face of hate,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told journalists on Monday.

“We must, without equivocation, denounce anti-Semitism. We must also, without equivocation, denounce Islamophobia.”

Discontent is rising among Arab Americans who say they are angered by Mr Biden's response to the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, which has killed more than 8,500 Palestinians.

The Israeli government has said it wants to eradicate Hamas after gunmen attacked southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,400 people and taking more than 230 hostage.

Mr Biden has stood staunchly behind Israel, pledging more military aid and blocking efforts in the UN Security Council for a ceasefire.

Meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis is worsening in the besieged enclave, home to 2.3 million people, with Israel blocking the entry of water, food, medicine and fuel.

On Sunday, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer cancelled plans to speak at a fundraiser in Dearborn after Arab-American groups announced that they would protest outside the event against her support for Israel.

Arab Americans have said the Biden administration's position has dehumanised Palestinians and triggered a rise in Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment in the US.

After the September 11 attacks, Arab and Muslim Americans witnessed a sharp rise in Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment.

Islamophobia rose again during the administration of former president Donald Trump, who made several disparaging comments about Muslims and banned citizens of Muslims-majority countries from entering the US.

Marwa Ghumrawi, who also planned to attend the Arab America summit and volunteered to help organise the event, said she was “devastated” it had been cancelled.

“This summit was coming at a time when we needed to heal,” Ms Ghumrawi told The National.

“After all the years of progress, it came at a disappointing and unfortunate time.”

Updated: November 01, 2023, 4:40 PM