US Arabs and Muslims: The Search for Common Identity

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 (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 1970s 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 journalist and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons (Clarity Press). Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs, Istanbul Zaim University (IZU). Read other articles by Ramzy, or visit Ramzy's website.