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November 26, 2007

To be an "American Muslim"?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Ali Eteraz is fun to read, and his articles are often quite provoking (in a good way). I like how he takes the shibboleths of a community, and attempts to tear them apart, with sometimes rather amusing results. In his latest for the Guardian, he questions the utility of a constructed “Muslim” identity, where Muslims are bunched together as part of a “collective,” and argues instead for a more ethnically-based conception of identity, based on whether someone is, say, Egyptian-American or Pakistani-American (rather than "Muslim-American"). The corollary of this is that you have Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans, but the category of Christian-American doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense (unless of course you’re a Christianist). Why then do we insist on using - and overusing - the term “Muslim-American," with all of its (implied) "theocentrism"? This construction, Eteraz argues, privileges religion in a way that is unhealthy for the body politic.

While it is an interesting line of argument, Eteraz doesn’t really make clear why identifying with your religious background, over an ethnic one, is necessarily problematic. It, of course, could be problematic if your understanding of Islam is restrictive and exclusionary. But if your Islamic identity fuels a progressive understanding of the world around you (as it does with, say, the Christian left), then it could very well be a positive thing. The very notion that "theocentric" self-definitions are "bad" is itself somewhat socially-constructed.

It’s a matter of what's more important to you. For better or worse, for many and even perhaps most Muslims today, religion takes precedence over any ethnic or national affiliation. I’m not sure how helpful it is to try to fight a trend toward religious affirmation and self-identification which has animated the Middle East – as well as Muslim diaspora communities – for the past several decades. If your being Muslim means more to you than being “Pakistani,” than who is anyone else to say that this is an unacceptable choice, or, worse, a choice that somehow is threatening to the body politic? In the end, it appears Ali Eteraz is arguing for a defiant secularism, one which discourages Western Muslims from “aggressive” displays of public religiosity.

It really is time to have an open discussion about the social utility of having a "Muslim" identity in the west. In fact, it needs to begin with the left, which has to be asked how on one hand it opposes theocentrism among Jews and Christians but simultaneously affirms it with people who profess Islam. When it comes to the west, I do not want the left kowtowing to any religion; not even mine.

I would be curious to know what “kowtowing” to religion means exactly. If anything, America’s comfort with religious expression, and its mixing of religion and politics, has probably been a major factor in helping American Muslims integrate into the American cultural mainstream. Where public expression of religious preference is frowned upon, in France, the Nordic countries, and elsewhere in Europe, the question of Muslim integration has become frought with much more peril. In these cases, there does appear to be a clash of cultures – between a religious culture and a post-religious culture. We, in America, have largely avoided this clash, because of our more forgiving anglo-saxon model of secularism (in contrast to the aggressive laicite of France of Turkey).   

Lastly, when I think of Ali Eteraz, I don't tend to think of him as a Pakistani American. To be quite honest, I’m not even 100% sure if he is originally Pakistani. Would it really matter if he wasn't? I’ve never cared to ask him, because his Pakistani-ness doesn’t seem to figure prominently into the work and writing that he does. However, I do think of him as an American Muslim, partly because he writes about issues that concern not one ethnic group or another, but rather one religious group over another - the Muslim community. And this religious community, which I happen to be part of, has found itself burdened but also blessed with a series of difficult challenges that do, in some way, define what it is - and what it means - to be an American Muslim today.


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I don't have a comment on the theological implications, but other things being equal there has usually been an advantage in being one minority among many in the United States, as opposed to being one minority against the majority. At various times in our history Catholics, Mormons and Southerners, as well as Americans of German, Japanese and of course African descent have found this out the hard way.

Who decides when a minority is against the majority? The majority does. Its judgement may be right or wrong -- and when it is wrong it can be radically wrong over long periods of time -- but from the minorities' point of view it is something that must be considered. This is why, historically, minorities in America have adopted assimilation as their first line of defense against persecution. Inevitably this has meant and continues to mean surrender of some aspects of what might in other circumstances have been their culture. Which aspects those are can vary widely from case to case, but it seems clear enough that the intense connection between the Islamic faith and politics so prevalent in many foreign countries is liable to be looked on with great disfavor, at this point in time, by the great majority of Americans. If one is descended from Pakistanis, Palestinians or Egyptians, on the other hand -- well, nearly all Americans have ancestors who came here from somewhere else.

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