US Arabs & Muslims: The Search for Common Identity
- 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
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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