Since Sept. 11, 2001, Arab-American and Muslim-American identities have taken on a new meaning. Before the terrorist attacks, Arabs and Muslims in America generally had no difficulty immersing themselves in American waters. Those who had been in the country long enough thought of themselves as “American.” “Muslim” and “Arab” were then merely auxiliary parts of the identity they had acquired as naturalized Americans. Today, however, Arabs and Muslims in America often find themselves dismissed as “others.” They view themselves as a group under attack by a potentially tyrannical majority as many increasingly associate Arabs with violence and oppression, and imagine a fundamental conflict of interest between American Arabs and Muslims on the one hand, and the rest of the country on the other. Arab-Americans are caught somewhere among the increasingly antagonistic cycles of misunderstanding that characterize relations between the Arab world and the United States.
An ironic consequence of this real or imagined exclusion is that the “Arab” element of the Arab-American identity has been reinforced over the past 3 years, and those who previously considered themselves “American” are now trying to learn more about their Arab heritage. Two weeks ago, I went down to Washington, D.C., for an Arab-American student conference, where I found that second- and third-generation Arab-Americans were more aggressive than first-generation Arab-Americans in asserting their Arab identities. This trend should not come as a surprise since many first-generation Arabs are wary about their place in America and are therefore less willing to assert an identity now deemed controversial. On the other hand, second and third-generation Arab-Americans do not view America as an inaccessible fortress; they understand America and its ideas, complexities and subtleties. To be sure, by freely asserting their beliefs and heritage, Arab-Americans demonstrate a deep understanding of one of the greatest American values.
Yet one should not construe this phenomenon as a crisis between two competing identities. Arab-Americans still consider themselves “American” and want to assimilate. The problem is that an increasing number of Arab-Americans find that the dominant American identity has become less tolerant of outsiders, especially those of Muslim, South Asian and Arab backgrounds. Putting it crudely, “America” today seems another place — and idea — than most of them came for; those who left their hometowns and villages in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt 20 years ago never thought that the America they admired would be flooded with the murky waters of increasing hatred and antagonism.
Today there are many challenges that all Americans must overcome. Here, I would like to highlight some of the challenges before Arab-Americans.
The first task before Arab-Americans is to become increasingly involved in the American political decision-making process. Arabs and Muslims constitute large voting blocks in some key swing-states and can use this power to their advantage in the upcoming elections. Given that they are the primary victims of intrusive government security measures (namely the Patriot Act), they have much incentive to work as a unit and adopt principled positions against unconstitutional and intrusive government policies. The good news is that encouraging work has been done in this area, but much more could still be done.
There is, however, a more fundamental challenge before the Arab community in the United States: Arab-Americans must actively educate Americans about the Arab world and help make the various Arab identities accessible to them, just as they must also help make America — its diversity and complexity — accessible to Arabs in the Middle East.
Today, many Americans view the Arab and Islamic world as a monolithic whole. Entire political theories rest on the assumption that the Muslim and Arab world operates and thinks as a single unit that will inevitably clash with an imagined “Western civilization,” despite historical evidence of an Arab World plagued by internal division. However, given the dearth of information and the absence of honest commentary available to the American public, it should be no surprise that the Arab world is perceived as an intimidating and dangerous land where terrorists plot against the West. It is the duty of Arab-Americans to dispel the myths and misconceptions that surround Arab and Muslim identities.
But, just as Arab-Americans must help make the Arab world accessible to ordinary Americans, they must also make America accessible to Arabs and Muslims abroad. Many in the Arab world (and most of the foreign world) think of the United States as an international bully bent on global control and domination. While the overwhelming majority of Arab-Americans would agree that the Bush administration pursues a largely predatory and irresponsible agenda, they — unlike most Arabs in the Middle East — are also aware of the diversity of opinions in the United States. Thus the essence of America and current U.S. foreign policy are viewed through a single lens, reinforcing primal fears that emerged at the dawn of the Cold War era.
Two days ago, Arab students across several campuses celebrated Yomna (which in Arabic means “our day”). This was a humble attempt to inform students about the Arab world and its many identities. Much more needs to be done to change the way most of Americans think of the Arab world, and still more needs to be done to close the expanding gap between two worlds divided by deep misunderstanding, myopic nationalism and narrow political interests.
Raja Shamas is a junior in Trumbull College. He is a member of the Arab Students’ Association.