Life in America a struggle for many post-9/11

Louise A. Cainkar ’76 was just a five-year-old child when she began noticing the disparity between poverty stricken pockets of downtown Chicago and her family’s affluent neighborhood in Evergreen Park. The stark contrast troubled her so much, she remained attuned to such inequities as she grew older.

Her awareness of social injustices increased as she studied in the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences at Illinois State. She went on to complete graduate work in sociology, all the while becoming increasingly steeped in the struggle for global human rights. Now a faculty member in the Department of Social and Cultural Sciences at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Cainkar is a national expert in Arab and Muslim American studies.

“I have always studied people who have been silenced. The thread of everything I do is trying to give the voiceless a voice,” said Cainkar, who began researching Arab and Muslim Americans nearly three decades ago. Her work took on new meaning after the terrorist attacks in September of 2001. “Suddenly my area of specialty was considered important.”

Cainkar set aside seven years to research, analyze data, and publish her findings on the question of “what it means to be an Arab or a Muslim in a country set on edge by the worst terrorist attack in its history.” Her examination of the topic and activism have led to coverage by major media, including the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times; an invitation to speak at Harvard University; guest spots on radio and talk shows; and opportunities to offer an analysis on breaking news, such as the tragic shooting at Fort Hood last fall. The military suspect is a U.S. citizen of Jordanian descent, whose religious beliefs quickly became a talking point in media reports. Such a response points to underlying suspicions and hostilities that Cainkar asserts were festering long before 9/11.

“A lot of people think the prejudice started on September 11. In fact the idea that these people were somehow different from everyone else existed before September 11. Those ideas were simply brought to the foreground. People were already predisposed to this prejudice,” Cainkar said.

A lot of people think the prejudice started on September 11. In fact the idea that these people were somehow different from everyone else existed before September 11. Those ideas were simply brought to the foreground.”

Her conclusion is rooted in research. Cainkar learned while gathering oral histories and conducting more than 100 interviews that a sense of public mistrust is felt not only by Arab and Muslim immigrants, but also by their American-born children. She traced negative sentiments back to the Israeli-Arab War in the 1960s. Perceptions have been molded since then by American foreign policy decisions, media representations, the Gulf War, and immigration policies.

Cainkar’s desire to trumpet the importance of social justice became her motivation to complete such in-depth investigative work. She has long felt a commitment to serve as an impetus for change, which is what led her to Illinois State in the 1970s. Appalled by the state of prisons, Cainkar enrolled with a determination to help create a more humane environment for prisoners.

The University was one of few at the time to offer a degree in corrections. As an undergraduate she spent a semester studying the criminal justice model in Sweden. Another pivotal experience during her years at Illinois State was the opportunity to complete an internship at Dwight Women’s Correctional Facility.

“I found the environment depressing,” Cainkar said. The semester she spent immersed in that workplace crystallized a career path for Cainkar. “I realized the issues I was working with were sociological.” She subsequently completed a master’s degree in sociology and again traveled as a student in 1982. This time Morocco was her destination.

“I became interested in the cultural world around me. I felt that I knew nothing about the non-Western world. I just found it fascinating that people lived their lives in very different ways than we do,” Cainkar said.

It was then she began to research Arabs and Muslims, only to discover a dearth of accurate information. What she did find was filled with stereotypes and caricatures, which only fueled Cainkar’s desire to expose preexisting stigmas about specific populations.

To do so meant completing a doctorate in sociology from Northwestern University and more travel. In 1986 she established the Human Rights Research Foundation, and served as its executive director until 1992. From 1990-1991 she worked in Iraq and Kuwait, documenting the effects of war on civilians. In 1993 she was named a Fulbright Senior Scholar, which allowed her to conduct research in Jordan for two years.

Back in the United States in 1995 Cainkar envisioned teaching, but soon learned academic sociology departments “were not interested in Arabs and Muslims. Also

I was frowned upon by academia for being out in the world for as long as I was,” she said, noting her return to the Chicago area came after travels and research throughout Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.

Cainkar shifted her focus to community-based research, ultimately becoming project director for a coalition of immigrant organizations in partnership with the State of Illinois. The group conducted research and acted to remove barriers to public services for immigrants. She also served as a senior research fellow at the Great Cities Institute of the University of Illinois, Chicago, prior to joining the Marquette faculty. She now serves on the boards of the Center for Peacemaking at Marquette University, the Arab American Action Network in Chicago, and the Middle East Report in Washington, D.C.

The decades of work took on new meaning after 9/11, which is when Cainkar decided it was time to do something more with the foundational knowledge she had from her earlier research on Arab and Muslim Americans and her years overseas. She received a significant research grant from the Russell Sage Foundation and began conducting interviews and completing oral histories of Arab and Muslim Americans in metropolitan Chicago.

Cainkar incorporated into that work knowledge gained from research she conducted on human displacement in Jordan after the Gulf War, domestic violence in Muslim communities, immigrant access to public services, barriers to census participation, the impact of economic sanctions on women and children in Iraq, and the relationships between homeland security officials and Arab and Muslim Americans.

The result was an award-nominated book titled Homeland Insecurity: The Arab American and Muslim Experience after 9/11, which explores the roots of ignorance and racism toward Arab and Muslim Americans, as well as the ways these attitudes played out in their daily lives in the first few years after the 9/11 attacks.

“I want readers to hear the stories of those who were not heard,” Cainkar said, explaining that her purpose for the publication is to let silenced voices speak. “I would like readers to understand that what happened to Arab and Muslim Americans after September 11 was complex and nuanced. We need to see that we are all human beings deserving of dignity.”

To reach that goal, Cainkar details how history has been repeated. She writes how the Arab and Muslim American experience after September 11 is similar to the Japanese American narrative following Pearl Harbor, which led to U.S. involvement in World War II. In both instances there are the tragedies of the people who lost their lives and loved ones, and the subsequent treatment of groups of Americans who only looked like those accused of orchestrating the attacks.

Beyond providing an historical perspective and documenting ongoing problems—such as harassment Muslim women wearing traditional head scarves still encounter—Cainkar’s unique research points to evidence of positive change in recent years. For example, her work confirms “an increase in Muslim American activism, in the number of people interested in Islam, and in people wanting to acknowledge their religious heritage,” she said.

“Arab Americans experienced a lot of backlash, but all sorts of Americans came to their defense. It showed the real power and strength of civil society. It showed the importance of having nonprofit advocacy and civil rights organizations that keep society healthy,” Cainkar said. “These organizations helped the Arab and Muslim Americans rise up and defend themselves.”

Cainkar has been praised for doing the same. Among her many accolades are an Outstanding Service Award received in 1989 from the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C. She was given the key to Kansas City in 1991 in recognition of her human rights investigations in Iraq and Kuwait after the 1990-91 Gulf War, was named the Carnegie Corporation Scholar Award recipient in 2004 for her research on Islamic revival among Muslim Americans, and in 2008 accepted the Young Scholar Award from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Detroit.

The honors only fuel her passion to keep focused on changing attitudes. She remains vigilant in helping others realize that confronting the impact of prejudice in society is of vital importance in any pursuit of social justice. And she remains hopeful about the future, believing that everyone can make a significant contribution in the struggle that is overcome in part through awareness.

“These ideas of our shared humanity should inform whatever kind of work you do. They should affect the way teachers teach, the way voters vote, how you think, speak, and interact with others and your children,” she said.

“You can’t let the actions of a few determine how you see the rest, and you can’t hold an entire group of people responsible for the actions of a few. We have to be concerned about other people,” Cainkar insisted, not only because it is our responsibility as human beings, but because “it could happen to any of us.”