Counseling Arab Americans Jay C Coleman Amridge University Abstract The belief, common among non-Arab Americans, that Arabic families are oppressive and dominated by violent fathers who mistreat their wives and children, has been documented in numerous sources (e. g. Suleiman, 1988, Al-Mughni, 1993). This is probably not unexpected given the struggle to fit traditional Islam with expanding women’s rights throughout the Muslim world (Al-Mughni, 1993).
Despite theological interpretations of the Qu’ran that argue for equality between the sexes (e. g. Engineer, 2004) the issue of sexual equality remains contentious. Accounts of honor killings and other acts of violent oppression against women (Goodwin, 2002) in Muslim countries fuel the image of Muslim and Arabic men as hostile and violent toward women (although other women assist in many of these incidents). Indeed, in Arabic families, men typically are considered the titular head of the household.
However, women normally wield a great deal of influence over decision important to the family. Contrary to direct styles of confrontation and assertiveness favored by mainstream American culture, Arabic women often use more indirect means of communication and influence, which may make them appear more passive to Western observers (Abudabbeh & Nydell, 1993; Jackson, 1997). As is true in other cultures, the exact nature of a women’s power in the family may vary widely between families, as well as according to the cultural traditions of specific regions and nations.
As an example of how cultural traditions may be misinterpreted as a sign of oppression, traditional cultural head and/or face coverings are often considered to be indicative of male oppression, although many women consider these adornments a sign of religious or cultural pride and devotion and have no wish to remove them (Erickson & Al-Timimi, 2004). Family is centrally important to the life of many Arab Americans, and the wellbeing of the family unit is considered to be of primary importance (Abudabbeh & Nydell, 1993). Family honor is often a large motivator or each individual within the family system, and each family member is expected to exhibit behaviors which reflect well on the family. The family thus retains powerful influence over individuals, beyond what generally is common for many American families. Family commitments are expected to take precedence over personal or career commitments (Abudabbeh & Nydell), and both parents may retain a great degree of decision making control over even adult children. When Arab Americans are required to travel for extended periods away from their family, this often produces intense feelings of loneliness and disconnectedness for these individuals.
Some Arab Americans who were born within the United States do reject the cultural values and expectations of their parents, sometimes leading to intergenerational strife (Abudabbeh, 1996), particularly among parents who had expected to assert authoritarian control over their children’s lives. In traditional Arab American families, marriages may still be arranged affairs (Abraham, 1995), although Muslim women have the right to refuse a prospective marriage partner.
These arranged marriages are often practical, matching family background, education, and social status, with comparatively little consideration for love or previous relationship between the parties to be married (Abudabbeh, 1996). Given that commingling of the sexes is often restricted (Erickson & Al-Timimi, 2004), arranged marriages may be the easiest way to find a life partner, although as young Arab Americans mingle with the traditional American culture, their reliance on arranged marriages may dwindle, and their resistance to them may grow. Religion
Islam is the single most prevalent religion among Arab Americans, with Christianity comprising a distant second. As most Christian Arab Americans belong to an earlier migratory group that has fairly well assimilated into mainstream American culture (Abuddabeh, 1996), this section will focus exclusively on Arab Americans who are of Muslim faith. There is a tendency within the United States to equate the use of “Arab” and “Muslim” as synonymous (Suleiman, 1988), although the majority of Muslims worldwide are not Arabs, and a sizeable minority of Arabic peoples are not Muslims.
Furthermore, although Islamic belief systems differ widely with respect to their conservatism and/or fanaticism, many Americans equate Arab Muslims with extremists (Erickson & Al-Timimi, 2004). Despite the influence of Wahhabi extremism in Saudi Arabia (Delong-Bas, 2004) and Shi’a extremism from Iran (a Persian, not Arabic majority country), the majority of Arab Americans do not subscribe to extreme versions of Islam and feel misrepresented by the U. S. edia for implications that all of Islam is as extreme as Wahhabi (which advocates violence toward Muslims and non-Muslims alike in support of the establishment of fanatical Islamic regimes). Among devout Arab American Muslims, religion may be an integral and central part of their identity (Abudabbeh, 1996). Ethical and compassionate behavior toward others and behavior that benefits the well-being of others are part of the central teachings of Islam (Abudabbeh, 1996).
It is this meaning for jihad, the word that has been subverted by groups of Islamic radicals and terrorist groups, that directs all Muslims toward physical, emotional and spiritual behaviors that are meant to be for the benefit of all (Abudabbeh, 1996). There are five basic obligations or “Pillars of Islam” that all Muslims are required to observe. These are: 1) Oral expression of belief in one God (Allah), with Muhammad (or Mohammed) as his prophet. 2) Ritual prayers practiced five times each day. ) Giving of alms to those in need. 4) Keeping the fast of no liquid or food from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan 5) A holy pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during the lifetime. Like many other religious tracts, the Qu’ran provides guidelines for behavior that are open to subjective interpretation. Potentially, it is this subjectivity that allows for extremist interpretations of the Qu’ran that fuel fanatical Islamic sects such as Wahhabi and American misunderstanding of the greater Islamic religion.
Political Life: Despite the actions of Arabic Al-Qaeda terrorists prior to and during the September 11th attacks in the United States, whereby Saudi Arabian and other Arab nationals masqueraded as legitimate visitors or immigrants to the United States (National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, 2004), the vast majority of Arabic people who migrate to the United States are sincere in their desire to find a better life here than the one hey left behind. Nonetheless, the 9/11 attacks have presented unique political challenges to this population of immigrating peoples that have not been experienced since the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Although many Arab Americans view themselves as politically conservative (Erickson & Al-Timimi, 2004), they find themselves increasingly at odds with a nation that politically, they see as hostile to the cause of their people in the Middle East.
Through a combination of partisanship toward Israel in the Palestinian crisis (although many Arabic peoples themselves may be quite partisan on this issue), and support for autocratic regimes in the Middle East, the United States may appear to Arab Americans to be perplexingly hostile toward their people for a nation that purports to represent democratic ideals.
The desire of Americans to export democracy to other regions, coupled with the reliance of the United States and its allies on Middle Eastern oil, places the United States in a thorny political position. Fearing the development of Islamic regimes such as that in Iran, the United States appears to be forced into the position of shoring up faltering autocracies. Ironically this places the United States in a situation of working against democracy (by supporting autocratic dictators) rather than for it.
To the extent that the United States wishes to develop emerging democracies, it specifically wishes these democracies to be pro-Western. The United States then is stuck in a feedback loop of supporting autocracies that oppress Arabic people, which causes anger among many people of middle eastern origins, which further forces the United States to provide more support to the autocracies rather than allow the region to slip under the control of governments that would not look favorably on the United States.
However, it is possible that the fundamentalist Islamic governments that may very well replace pro-Western autocracies in Arab nations, may themselves face calls for democratic reform from within their own populace after a generation of self-rule, much as is occurring in modern Persian Iran (Keddie, 2003). The effect of the 9/11 attacks on relations between Arab and non-Arab Americans remains largely un-quantified. The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) maintains warnings on their web-site for Arab Americans to be wary of potential mistreatment, and to know their legal rights should they experience mistreatment.
Similarly the ADC has documented hundreds of cases of aggression and discrimination directed at Arab Americans following the 9/11 attacks (Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 2002). Unfortunately, as no pre 9/11 data is available, it is unclear if these numbers represent an increase or a continuance of a previous level of discrimination and ethnic tension. Despite enacting legislation, such as the PATRIOT Act that may potentially infringe on the rights of Arab Americans, as well as other ethnic groups (including Whites), the government has made repeated condemnations of ethnic discrimination of Arab Americans.
Arguably, the United States has taken a more even approach to integrating Muslim Americans during a time of conflict than it did with Japanese Americans during World War II. Nonetheless, the assimilation of Arab Americans, particularly those of Muslim faith, appears to remain linked to the greater tension between Americans and Arabic and Muslim peoples worldwide. Arab Americans are caught in the middle of this conflict, with loyalties both to a new country that generally has welcomed them, and to families and loved ones in the Middle East who remain oppressed, often with the tacit support of the United States.
Arab Americans will gradually assimilate to American culture as most ethnic groups do, while government of Arabic countries in the Middle East will go about transforming along their natural course, although American financial and military support of current regimes may both prolong and embitter this process. Erickson and Al-Timimi (2004) have indicated that Arab Americans generally are reluctant to seek therapy because they are skeptic about mental health services.
A part of this skepticism is based on their lack of understanding of the potential value of therapy, and part of the skepticism is related to some of their culture’s discrepant views with those of mainstream, America. Some of Arab Americans’ views about mainstream, American culture include: (a) raising children to be independent and self-sufficient is “cold” and uncaring; (b) pervasive intermixing of the genders leads to immorality; (c) children’s lack of respect for parents and grandparents weakens the family; and (d) materialism ought not to be valued more than spirituality and caring for others (Abudabbeh, 1996; Hedayat-Diba, 2000).
Also, many Arab Americans are aware that modern psychotherapy is a western endeavor (Dwairy & Van Sickle, 1996). Psychotherapy’s goals of self-awareness, individuation, and self-actualization seem to conflict with Arab American values, which typically stress the importance of interdependency among family members. Moreover, according to some (e. g. , Dwairy & Van Sickle, 1996; Gorkin, Masalha, & Yatziv, 1985; Jackson, 1997), many Arab Americans are not “psychologically minded” relative to non-Arab Americans. The Arab language contains few words related to psychological concepts.
Consequently, Arab Americans seeking counseling may have misguided notions about what to expect from therapy. They may have high expectations for a quick and possibly simple solution to their problems, and passively wait for directives from the therapist, whom they perceive as the “expert. ” Many may be reticent and even conceal their true feelings out of custom to be socially agreeable with others. To make a challenging situation more difficult, Abudabbeh and Nydell (1993) suggest that the importance Westerners place on objectivity and rationality is not shared by many Arabs and Arab Americans.
Rational approaches to solving problems may not appeal to Arab American clients as much as “intuitive” approaches to problem-solving. All considered, Arab Americans who are most likely to seek psychotherapy are individuals who are better educated and more acculturated toward Western norms, or individuals who are highly distressed and likely experiencing a trauma or crisis. Therapists will have to evaluate Arab American clients’ level of acculturation and modify their style and intervention accordingly.
The following recommendations are taken from Erickson and Al-Timimi (2004) and may potentially help therapists who provide services to Arab American clients. As with all recommendations, therapists must use sound judgment in determining the applicability of any of the recommendations with each client individually. 1) In light of Arab Americans’ possible misunderstanding of the nature of therapy, including potential concerns they may have over having their values or worldviews disrespected by therapists, therapist ought to carefully explain what can be expected from therapy.
Equally important is providing them with an orientation to nature of the therapist—client relationship. Arab American clients may need to be informed that clients generally are expected to accept some responsibility for: (a) gaining an understanding of the nature of their concerns or problems; (b) generating possible solutions to their problems; and (c) selecting and implementing a choice of action for confronting challenges and ameliorating their distress. Regarding demonstrating respect for Arab American clients’ cultural values, each herapist—in his or her own way— will need to sincerely convey their interest in learning about Arab American culture and values and that they respect and are comfortable with diverse values and worldviews. 2) Because of the reasons discussed earlier, many Arab Americans likely would respond best to a therapist with a directive style, offering—at least early in the course of therapy—fairly concrete advice for specific concerns. A client- centered approach may facilitate gaining clients’ trust and facilitate rapport Among the conventional approaches to psychotherapy, the cognitive- behavioral approach may be the most effective. ) Therapists may find it helpful to involve the family with any form of treatment, even if indirectly. Many Arab Americans feel a strong sense of allegiance toward their family and any aspect of therapy that is perceived as a threat to their family’s integrity or honor would jeopardize treatment. Encouraging Arab American clients to confront family members who may have transgressed against them—while possibly having cathartic benefits for mainstream American clients—likely would have deleterious effects with Arab American clients.
Further, Arab American clients who present for therapy likely have sought counseling with their family’s consent, albeit reluctantly. Therapists should demonstrate their respect for the family’s cultural values and religious beliefs and communicate to clients that the purpose of therapy is not to undermine their family’s authority (Abudabbeh, 1996) 4) Therapists should operate within the cultural context of Arab American clients to the greatest extent possible. A therapist treating an Arab American client would be amiss not to openly discuss cultural differences between the counselor and the client regarding attitudes and customs.
Gender differences should be addressed as well, particularly because many Arab Americans may have some discomfort with a therapist of the opposite sex (Erickson & AlTimimi, 2004). Behavioral phenomena deemed pathological in mainstream America (e. g. , “enmeshed” relationships, double standards of behavior for men and women, discouragement of autonomy among children, etc. ) may not be problematic among Arab Americans. Goals central to conventional therapy such as increasing assertiveness, self-affirmation, and independence may be antithetical to traditional Arab American values and thus would be counterproductive.
After therapists have successfully helped clients clarify and identify their problems, therapists should support the clients’ own efforts to actively identify possible solutions while exploring the pros and cons of each prospective solution. Also, given the importance of religion to many Arab Americans, therapists would have more credibility with religious Arab American clients if they acknowledge spirituality and reassure them that therapy will not undermine their religious beliefs. 5) If therapists live or work near communities with sizeable Arab American residents, it may be helpful to make use of outreach opportunities.
Reaching out to Arab American communities may serve multiple purposes. It provides one avenue by which therapists may inform the community about the nature and potential merits of counseling. If pursued, therapists ought to emphasize how therapy may help families who are struggling with challenges or problems that adversely affect their family’s well-being. Also, outreach activities can demonstrate to Arab Americans therapists’ respect and interest in Arab American culture and welfare. Further, participating in outreach activities provide therapists an opportunity to learn more about Arab American culture, values, and customs. ) It is critical for therapists to monitor their effectiveness with Arab American clients. Therapists should solicit feedback from clients on the status of the sessions, including asking them for suggestions on how to be more helpful to them. Erickson and Al-Timimi (2004) recommend that therapists probe clients carefully about their progress in therapy because Arab American clients may be reluctant to offer criticism. Therapists may need to seek consultation with others more familiar with Arab American culture for the duration of therapy.
Last, if either the therapist or the client concludes that unsatisfactory progress is being made in therapy, plans for a referral should be discussed openly with the client’s input.