Book Club Channel
Becoming American? A Book Excerpt
The Gulf Wars brought to the fore a new generation of Arab and Muslim activists seeking to change American policies by operating within the system. The majority did not approve of American war on Iraq, not because they were fond of Saddam Hussein or his policies, but because they were not convinced by the government's justification for launching the attacks. They were concerned that the U.S. government did not give diplomacy a chance, since from their perspective it was bent on destroying Iraq's army in order to maintain Israeli domination of the Arab world.
Unlike the activists of the 1970s, the newest generation of Arab-Americans is not spending time on establishing umbrella organizations, writing constitutions for these organizations, or running elections for officials or spokespersons. Rather, it has adopted modern means of communication, including the Internet, to create networks committed to justice and peace. This generation collaborates with existing organizations for human rights, minority rights, and religious rights. These activists are mostly in their twenties and thirties, and they take American values very seriously. They believe that they are working to create a better America, one that is not blinded by special interests but is truly guided by the values it preaches. In the process, they believe that they are truly Arab—and also truly American.
There is a marked difference between those who emigrated in the 1960s and the children and grandchildren of the immigrants of the 1870s. The latter have moved into the middle class and identify as Americans. They and their relatives have been drafted into the American armed forces and have served their country with distinction. One boasted that he had "three times as many relatives [three nephews] serving in the American military, defending American freedom in Iraq as the whole Congress of the United States put together."
The new immigrants who came as adults in the 1960s with preformed identities and a distinctive worldview are in the process of negotiating their identity in a hostile American environment. Increasingly, their children are reshaping them into Americans. For the children, America is the only homeland they know. They often repeat, "I want my parents' religion but not their culture." The parents, on the other hand, have been teaching their Arab culture as Islam, and they want to keep their children within the tradition. It is too early to guess where this process will lead, especially in light of American hostility to nonprivatized Islam. Increasingly, Americans are asking them to define themselves vis-à-vis America. What does it mean to them to be an American? Do they want to be American or hyphenated-American? Do they think of themselves as Muslims living in America? Do they think of themselves as American Muslims? Or do they think of themselves as Americans who happen to be Muslim? While the answers to such questions may vary, there is no doubt that the American public, the American security apparatus, and the American government are increasingly demanding clear and unequivocal answers. In the process, many young people who grew up identifying themselves as American and Muslim are increasingly experiencing relentless prejudice and discrimination. Tempered by prevalent hatred and "othering," many are reidentifying themselves as Arab-American or Muslim-American. As one woman put it, "I feel American, I bleed American, my country denies me that identity because I am a Muslim."