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.