Now Muslims can be hyphenated Americans, too!

Sometimes a word, phrase or sentence suddenly stands out. Perhaps I’ve seen this phrase before but it stood out. Here’s the top of an Associated Press story on a man charged with terrorism:

BOSTON (AP) — A Massachusetts man charged with plotting to fly remote-controlled model planes packed with explosives into the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol will plead guilty to two charges, his lawyers and prosecutors said in a plea agreement filed in federal court Tuesday.

Rezwan Ferdaus, a Muslim-American from Ashland with a physics degree from Boston’s Northeastern University, was arrested in September after federal employees posing as al-Qaida members delivered materials he had allegedly requested, including grenades, machine guns and what he believed was 24 pounds of C-4, a plastic explosive.

The phrase that stands out, for me, is “Muslim-American.” Now, there are all sorts of debates about when to hyphenate and when not to hyphenate. The Chicago Manual of Style Online says, for instance:

Q. In a previous Q&A, a curious reader asked you to weigh in on the subject of hyphenated Americans. You responded that “ CMOS prefers not to hyphenate Americans of any sort, even when they appear in an adjective phrase.” Were it actually an adjectival phrase, like “apathetic Americans,” I would be inclined to agree; however, I maintain that the examples “African-American,” “Asian-American,” and even “Native-American” (or as I prefer, American-Indian) are all compound proper nouns and must be hyphenated. They are not merely Americans who happen to be African, but rather African-Americans—a distinct ethnic and cultural group. Irrefutable logic?

A. I don’t see any logic in requiring the hyphenation of compound proper nouns when they are used as adjectives. In fact, because they are capitalized, there is no need for additional bells and whistles to signal that they belong together: Rocky Mountain trails, New Hampshire maple syrup, SpongeBob SquarePants lunchbox.

On the other hand, the Associated Press is known for its hyphens.

But for some reason, they hyphenated phrase really stuck out. Does it stick out for you? Have I just completely missed all of the uses of Lutheran-American or Mormon-American or Catholic-American?

Have you seen those phrases? Even Christian-American, maybe?

The stories on Ferdaus’ guilty plea, including this Associated Press piece, were fairly straightforward. We learn he’ll admit to attempting to provide material support to terrorists and attempting to damage or destroy federal buildings with explosives. As part of his plea deal, his sentence is 17 years and four other charges have been dismissed.

The story helpfully explains the nature of the actual threat to the public in this sting (none, since feds had control of the explosives) and the difficulties involved with launching a terror attack using model airplanes (many). But as for any other explanation of that “Muslim-American” adjective, we get nothing, apart from a mention of Al Qaeda.

We are told Ferdaus had a strong desire to attack the United States. And we’re told that his lawyers argued that the FBI ignored signs Ferdaus was mentally ill:

During a bail hearing in November, an FBI agent acknowledged that the FBI had received reports about bizarre behavior by Ferdaus, including a report to Hopkinton police about one incident in which Ferdaus allegedly stood in the road not moving and appeared to have wet his pants.

The lack of information about his religion, and the additional information about political views and mental health only make that initial phrase stand out all the more.

If Ferdaus’ religion is significant, go ahead and explain why. Don’t assume people will know. Left to our own devices, who knows what we’ll come up with. Either way, I do find it somewhat interesting which attributes arise to hyphenated-American status and which do not.

Also, Wikipedia has an entry on hyphenated Americans that begins:

In the United States, the term hyphenated American is an epithet commonly used from 1890 to 1920 to disparage Americans who were of foreign birth or origin, and who displayed an allegiance to a foreign country. It was most commonly used to disparage German Americans or Irish Americans (Catholics) who called for U.S. neutrality in World War I. Former President Theodore Roosevelt was an outspoken anti-hyphenate and Woodrow Wilson followed suit.

Later there’s a note about how some of the hyphenated groups resent being so described as they think it implies a sort of dual nationalism and inability to be accepted as truly American.

That would be my worry about extending the hyphenated descriptors to religious identities. Seeing Muslim-American (or the hypothetic Catholic-American or Lutheran-American) can suggest a setting apart from what is a “normal” American. Or does Muslim-American quickly let you know that unlike so many terrorists who are citizens of foreign countries, this one is a citizen?

What do you think?

Hyphen image via Shutterstock.

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  • David Rupert

    I think they were trying to make the distinction that he wasn’t some foreign-born terrorist. He was home grown. but the addition of his “faith” to his Country is interesting. It almost is like Serbia, isn’t it? Where people groups were defined in war by their faith, which was linked to their ethnicity.

    I hope we don’t go there.


  • Bill

    Former President Theodore Roosevelt was an outspoken anti-hyphenate

    Theodore Roosevelt was not against people who were from other countries, but he saw the hyphen as divisive. If you were American, you were American. Period. In 1915, he opined:

    “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americans… The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of it continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.”

    OTOH, if we are going to hyphenate, let us do so promiscuously, lest we leave some division undivided. Mollie, you are a Feminine-Maternal-German-Lutheran-Journal-American.

    But what of women who hyphenate their maiden and married names? Oh, my! I fear I shall wear out that key on my Underwood!

  • Jerry

    I agree that groups should not be hyphenated Americans but have one exception. If a group wants to be referred to that way, then I think we should honor that as we try to honor how other groups wish to be called. Still, “African American” works as well if not better than “African-American” at least for me.

  • joaquin

    As a Catholic-Cuban-American, I found your post spot on!

  • sari

    Absolutely correct on Teddy R., Bill. At one time, early in the last century, Jews were referred to as Jewish-Americans, as if being a Jewish automatically made one’s loyalty suspect. Check out this piece, originally published in 1915.

    I don’t agree with all of Kallen’s conclusions, but it is clear that the use of hyphens has a longer history than is immediately apparent. On 9/11, the question of Muslim allegiance came to the fore and led many to question Muslims’ loyalty to the U.S., as opposed to that of their coreligionists and countries of origin. Again, this has parallels in the Jewish experience, a problem which persists to this day. I have encountered more than a handful of Christians who believe us to be guests in this country, not entitled to the same rights as real citizens, and subject to expulsion should we question the status quo (e.g., Christian prayers in school, blue laws, closed communities, etc.).

    While I disagree with the basic premise, there is precedent.

    Mollie, one may be less likely to see Catholic/Lutheran/Baptist/Christian/Protestant/etc. hyphenated because America is predominantly Christian. Unless otherwise specified, one is white, Christian, and male. These are the cultural defaults. Anything else must be explained. There was a time, again, about one hundred years ago, when Catholics were hyphenated in some quarters, though this was more a shorthand to denote Irish or, in some cases, Poles.

  • Sarah Webber

    An easy, short hand way of saying “I’m not with him.” Like I tell people, I’m not from NJ (I’m from CA), I just live there; blame the natives for the weirdness, not me. Of course, I’ve lived here almost 14 years now. At what point do I go native?

  • AuthenticBioethics

    As interesting as this discussion is (and it is!), I think I liked the one on scare quotes better. Can’t wait for the installment on em-dashes!

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The problem with African-American (or African American) is that not all blacks originate from Africa. There have been times when blacks from the Caribbean have been described as African-American (or African American). That hasn’t gone over very well.

  • Mark Baddeley





    I’d tend to concur, the use of the hyphen seems to qualify ‘American’ in a way that wouldn’t normally be acceptable in journalism.

  • Thinkling

    Just a thought, but many so called MSM folks seem to view their work through tribalistic filters, the better to fit the victim/villain/hero template that sells advert space. What better to frame protagonists (and antagonists) than tribalistic nametags, pinned on the lapel with a hyphen?

    All facetiousness aside, I think there is some truth to this, and could argue it is surprising we haven’t seen more of this sooner. This could be yet another crack in the dam of the increasingly nostalgic idea that those folks are actually in the news business.

  • Bruce in Kansas

    The nature of our republic makes everyone in it a potential hyphenated American, which precisely why no one should be one.

  • Kinana

    I think the AP story is simply reflecting what a growing number of non-Muslim Americans believe. Islam teaches Muslims to adhere to and build up the Umma and establish the Sharia, as a priority, above all nation-state considerations and loyalties. So maybe the media got it right this time.