(Originally published by The Islamic Monthly on March 13, 2014)
A recent article by Laila Alawa claims that we need to stop talking about being Muslim in America. By trying to break down the American versus Muslim dichotomy, Alawa built a dichotomy of her own and oversimplified the Muslim American narrative by ignoring the multifaceted nature of our identities. We need critical dialogues on being Muslim in America now more than ever to ensure that we are not becoming exclusivists based on one person’s interpretation of what it means to be a Muslim American.
Building a Dichotomy
Alawa’s article constructs an incessant differentiation between being a “Muslim in America” and being a “Muslim American.” Alawa’s preferred terminology, “Muslim American,” seeks to reconcile the dichotomy created between being Muslim and being American. This solution sounds innocent enough until it creates it’s own hierarchical dichotomy by splitting the Muslim American identity into two facets: the Muslim immigrant and the Muslim born or raised in the United States. In order to explain this difference, Alawa asserts that the “identity of [her] generation, the Muslim
American identity, was formed amidst games of mosque hide and seek and dinners” and was therefore completely natural. She makes a disclaimer that the issues of being a Muslim in America may apply to those people who were raised in a different country and immigrated to America. She continues to discriminate between the Muslim American and the Muslim immigrant by asserting that Muslim immigrants from ten or fifteen years ago ultimately sought to return “back home,” whereas contemporary Muslim Americans want to build up communal infrastructures in the United States.
Alawa’s approach assumes that her Muslim American identity is the Muslim American identity. Her rhetoric also dictates that Muslim immigrants, due to their different mentalities, do not have a rightful claim to the “Muslim American” identity unlike her and her “generation” (whatever that may mean). As someone who was born in rural Pakistan and raised in Brooklyn by immigrant parents, I could not disagree more. I have seen my parent’s identities go through various fluctuations over the years, but even at a time when they thought that they would ultimately return back “home,” they did not stop being civically engaged within the broader American community. My father has been voting in primary, local, and key national elections since he became a naturalized citizen nearly two decades ago. He looks forward to voting and knows more about the current political landscape than the average American. Although not an American citizen due to her lack of English, my mom has stayed up and cheered during the last two presidential elections; in those moments, Barack Obama was elected as her president as much as he was elected as my president. To differentiate their identities to a lower rung of hierarchy as they navigate the nuances of being Muslims in America as opposed to simply being Muslim Americans is a gross oversimplification of a very complex identity paradigm. It is also worth pointing out that the immigration of Muslims to the United States has not stopped and the mentalities from “ten or fifteen years ago” are realities for many Muslim Americans today.
The so-called “back home,” and therefore immigrant, mentality is also blamed for creating an unnaturalness between being a Muslim and being an American. Alawa states that this type of discourse does not come from outside of the Muslim community, but rather from within it––and originates specifically from immigrant Muslims. This sweeping declaration fails to acknowledge the acts of vandalism on mosques, violence against Muslims, and the predominately right-wing discourse, all of which seek to delegitimize the Muslim American identity from being naturally and holistically American. The effort to reconcile the seemingly unnatural identity of Muslims in America via khutbahs and conversations within mosques should be applauded as a worthwhile effort to counteract the public discourse. If there is something that is inherently problematic about those discussions, then we need to provide community leaders with constructive criticism in order to take the subject of identity in a different direction. Alawa’s article seeks to shut discourse down altogether.
The oversimplification of what it means to be a Muslim in America, which is relegated as an issue only for immigrants, is further demonstrated when Alawa completely ignores the multifaceted nature of identity. The Muslim American is not just the Arab or South Asian or Malaysian who grew up in a Muslim community with Muslim parents in the United States. Our identity includes converts who may not have the same familial or societal infrastructure, black Muslims (inclusive of immigrants and those African Americans whose ancestors were a part of the larger American community for hundreds of years), Muslims born and/or raised in the United States who are not a part of a Muslim community, and so on. An overlap between these identities is also a very real possibility. Consequently, all of these nuances necessitate a discourse in order prevent an exclusionary image of Muslims in America.
Being <insert minority group here> in America
To assume that Muslim Americans have “more to tackle” than identity issues, where even “race” is supposedly not an identity issue, is to ignore history. The black community (both Muslim and not) successfully used their struggle with identity to create two of the most American movements in the 20th century: the Harlem Renaissance and the second phase of the Civil Rights Movement. The Harlem Renaissance was a playing field for experimenting with identity; what does it mean to be African American and how does this impact how we proceed? Different people came up with different, and sometimes contradicting, definitions.
W.E.B. Du Bois believed that African-Americans needed to be intellectuals in order to legitimize their rightful equality with whites––ultimately legitimizing their claim to the very Americanness that was dominated by white men. Booker T. Washington, on the other hand, focused primarily on the financial stability. He did not not want strict equality with whites but was willing to use their help to gain financial independence for African Americans, a pathway he thought would be secure in keeping black identity as distinct. Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes were Watching God and one of the first African-American students to attend Barnard College, was more of a segregationist; she believed that desegregation would cause African Americans to lose their cultural identity. As an anthropologist, Hurston used her literary novels and academic work to illuminate and memorialize the rural Southern black dialect, which was one form of speech Du Bois sought to distance from the black community by building up his vision of black intellectualism. Despite their disagreements, Du Bois, Washington, and Hurston were all seeking to clarify what it means to be an African American and how the community should proceed in order to protect their versions of black identity. The Harlem Renaissance lasted until the mid 1930’s, but the impact of the discourse echoed well into the Civil Rights Movement––the epitome of identity struggle during the mid-twentieth century––and still resonates in identity discourses today. History teaches us that minorities benefit from spending time on their identities in order to lay out the groundwork for establishing a genuine space for themselves within the greater American culture. So it is shocking for anyone to claim that “identity should be the least of our worries.”
The notion of being Muslim in America is also inherently different from being a Muslim American, not because they identify two different groups of Muslims but because they are simply two different linguistic formations of a similar idea. Sidelining “Muslim in America” as being problematic only decreases the lexicon for developing our narrative. I am a Muslim American, but I can also face issues of being a Muslim in America. Acknowledging that Muslims in America have different circumstances from other groups in U.S. will also pave the necessary groundwork for us in other important matters that Alawa mentions, such as mental health or arts development. Muslims in America do not need one cultural identity or a single-mindedness about where to settle down in this globalized world in order for us to be a collective community. Our identity issues, accumulating in this melting pot of different cultures and ideas, are an integral dimension of our Muslimness.