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US Arabs & Muslims: The Search for Common Identity

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    US Arabs and Muslims: The Search for Common Identity By Ramzy Baroud ramzybaroud.net As the security check line began moving slowly at Washington Dulles
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 1, 2008
      US Arabs and Muslims: The Search for Common Identity
      By Ramzy Baroud

      As the security check line began moving slowly at Washington Dulles
      airport, one passenger standing a few steps ahead of me appeared
      particularly uneasy. His dark skin, long beard, trimmed moustache,
      prayer spot centered on his forehead, and overall demeanor quickly
      gave away his identity, though he had obviously labored little to hide
      it. He was a Muslim and a religious one at that. Predictably, a few
      minutes later he was singled out and his clothes spread across a
      separate station reserved for those "randomly" selected for extra
      security check.

      In the current climate, those who are not singled out for the
      humiliation of extra checking are still often daunted by their names —
      any Arabic or Muslim sounding name —, birthplace — any Arab or Muslim
      country —, suspicious travel destinations — all Arab and Muslim
      countries, although some are more "suspicious" than others —, or past
      records — which can include anything from conventional crimes to a
      single antiwar comment made to a local newspaper. Airport authorities
      across the US would vehemently deny any racial discrimination, but
      indeed such selective screening and harassment is real. Many civil
      rights organizations and human rights groups have worked tirelessly to
      verify this, but all it really takes is one candid conversation with
      any Muslim or Arab American. Each person seems to have a personal
      record of injurious stories, if not at a port of entry, then at some
      other public place. Whenever I run into an Arab or a Muslim during my
      frequent travels, the subject often serves as an icebreaker.

      Obviously such ill treatment is neither deserved nor justified,
      although I find it interesting that Americans continue to be treated
      with grandeur status wherever they travel in an Arab or Muslim
      country. In some Gulf countries, US soldiers also freely roam the
      streets during their short breaks from Iraq, without a word of
      objection from the hapless locals.

      At the same time, decent American Muslim intellectuals, students, and
      all sorts of law-abiding citizens are losing their posts, fleeing
      their country, and, at best, being made to endure the suspicious eyes
      of fellow travelers and security personnel wherever they go. If one
      compares the collective harm inflicted by individual Muslims on the US
      and the latter government's actions against Muslim nations, the
      contrast seems all the more astonishing.

      Although the flow of Arab and Muslim immigrants to the US spans
      decades, it has never been accompanied by a corresponding "sense of
      community," one that developed evenly along racial, religious, or
      geopolitical lines. The nature of immigration to the US was often
      political — for example, allowing tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites
      access to and residence in the US after the 1990-1991 Gulf war, while
      almost completely blocking the immigration of displaced Iraqis after
      the 2003 invasion of Iraq —, economic — the oil boom of the 1970's saw
      a huge influx of Arab students from the Gulf, now able to afford
      studying and living in the US —, or a combination of the two.

      In their 1986 study, scholars McMillan and Chavis identify four
      elements of "sense of community": membership, integration and
      fulfillment of needs, influence, and shared emotional connection. In
      the case of Muslim and Arab communities in the US, it is nearly
      impossible to apply these four points in any meaningful sense. Even
      religion cannot in this case serve as a unifying force.

      The main differences are not just between Shiite and Sunni Islam, but
      also along national lines; in the US, a Sunni of Moroccan background
      can hardly relate to a fellow Sunni from Cambodia. Mosques are divided
      by ethnicities — for example, a Libyan mosque — rather than by
      denomination only, as is the case with most Christian churches in US
      cities. Identity issues are also affected by the fact that not all
      Arabs are Muslims. Christian Arabs were in fact some of the earliest
      Arab immigrants to the US, and their mark on American culture is
      unquestionable. However, many Christians still often find themselves
      lumped as Muslims.

      While some might prefer to opt for assimilation in these hard times,
      others cluster in their own clubs and small societies to preserve
      whatever they can of their cultural heritage.

      But "assimilation" is now becoming a tool for survival for Arabs and
      Muslims. Many women date the removal of their headscarves to September
      11, 2001, the same day that many men quietly shaved or significantly
      trimmed their beards. Even Arabic-sounding names have begun to find an
      American equivalent, such as Ghassan turning into Gus, or Sami into Sam.

      What is truly dangerous in these phenomena is the development of a
      collective sense of escapism and detachment, as opposed to community.
      Many are starting to redefine the way in which they exhibit their
      background, for example, Muslims meeting on religious occasions only,
      or Arab gatherings based around the redundant themes of humus, belly
      dancing and Salma Hayek.

      No other minority groups in the US are in as urgent a need for
      collective action as Arabs and Muslims, yet many remain incessantly
      inactive. While this can be explained or even justified by the very
      real fear of retaliation, the truth is that the post-9/11 backlash
      against US Muslims and Arabs can hardly compare with the collective
      punishment endured by the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan. Millions of
      Arab and American Muslims can take advantage of their privileged
      status to reach out to and educate the public, to get involved in
      city, state, and national politics, to stop trying to prove their
      patriotism by distancing themselves from the "extremists" back home.
      Instead, Arab and American Muslims must develop a greater sense of
      pride in their identities, backgrounds and contributions to society —
      if not as Arabs or Muslims, at least as decent Americans, members
      of a democratic society, and worthy of respect.

      -Ramzy Baroud is a Palestinian-American author and editor of
      PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in numerous
      newspapers and journals worldwide. His latest book is The Second
      Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle (Pluto Press,
      London). Read more about Baroud at his website ramzybaroud.net



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