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
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