For the millionth time, “Muslim” and “American” are NOT mutually exclusive

I’ve been doing some research lately on spaces where “Muslim” and “Canadian” are talked about as if the two identities are completely separate, so of course I rolled my eyes when I saw the headline about “American and Muslim Women Working Together” from an article on Media For Freedom.  (As it turns out, the article was originally published in 2005 by Common Ground News Service.)  The author, Hiam Nawas, is described as “a Jordanian-American expert on political Islam.”

The article makes the important point that attempts by mainstream women’s organisations in the U.S. to try to support women in Muslim countries are often misguided and therefore not welcomed by Muslim women.  Nawas argues that “American women need to understand that what is best for them is not necessarily what is best for Muslim women.”  The second half of her article looks at some changes that need to happen in the way that issues facing women in Muslim countries are understood.

Some of the article’s points were okay, and I liked the emphasis that not all women are the same or have the same needs (she even made a point of illustrating the diversity among Muslim countries, which often doesn’t happen).  But it drives me crazy when I see “American women” and “Muslim women” talked about as if they’re mutually exclusive categories.  Perhaps it seems obvious that we should be understanding this as “[non-Muslim] American women” and “[non-American] Muslim women,” but I do think that this language is important, and that it’s a serious problem if the many women who identity both as American and as Muslim end up excluded from these discussions.  For non-Muslim Americans (or for non-American Muslims) reading it, it could reinforce the idea of “American” identity as inherently non-Muslim, and of “Muslim” identity as inherently foreign to the United States.  There are likely other assumptions being made about the category of “American” that exclude many other Americans for various other reasons.

Although Nawas finally acknowledges the presence of American Muslim women at the end of her article, the language used throughout the rest of the piece makes a more lasting statement.  This quick mention of American Muslims therefore seems almost token-istic, and she refers to them as a group that “American women’s organisations” should work to include, rather than as Americans who may themselves already be organised and active in a whole variety of ways.

The article further positions “Muslim” women as always the ones who might need help from “American” women, and assumes that there is a need for “American” women to help if they do it in certain ways, which is also debatable.  While she acknowledges that, for example “many women served in high-level government positions when Saddam Hussein was in power” in Iraq, and that Indonesians even elected a woman as president, there is still an assumption throughout the piece that “Muslim” women are in need of help and that there is a place for “American” women’s organisation to provide that help.  In reality, I would argue that all of the countries that she mentions–the United States included–contain a wide diversity of class backgrounds, and ethnic and racialised groups, all of which shape the experiences of the people who live there, and their realities are far more complex than the “American” or “Muslim” narratives that Nawas describes.

  • Rochelle

    I agree with you completely. It is so vexing to see the binary of Western/Muslim. The “West” and “Islam” are not mutually exclusive, incompatible polar opposites. If you’re into that sort of thing, go curl up with a Samuel Huntington book and take your ‘clash of civilizations’ talk elsewhere.

    And I hate how certain concepts are either ‘Western’ or ‘Muslim’ but not both. Feminism is western, and its also indigenous to Muslim countries. Most Islamist political groups are based off either a marxist/socialist of modernist approach — both “western.” Muslim countries have no problem conforming to “Western” standards in their economy, industry, educational models — but when it comes to women all the sudden we need to get ‘traditional’, ‘cultural’, ‘authentic.’… B.S.

  • Jamerican Muslimah

    THANK YOU! This one of my pet peeves. Phrases like “American and Muslim Women working togther” portray Muslims in general and American Muslims in particular as the “foreign other.” Not to mention the same ole tired stereotype of Muslim women needing the assistance of the “free”, “modern”, and “altruistic” American savior. *Yawn*

  • Shawna

    great piece. wonder if this is more true post 9/11 or if it’s the same. any musings you’d like to share with i think this is a great topic.

  • Salaam

    Anecdotally, I have found the Muslim/American false dichotomy more (I am in the US) among immigrant Muslims raised in Muslim countries, than among non-Muslims.
    From my experience, I closely associate it with anti-American (or anti-Western) bigotry. The word “bigotry” can be used descriptively, or pejoratively and in an ad hominen way. I think I’m using it descriptively here. My observation comes out of not just interactions but interpersonal relationships and so I lack the objectivity to engage in a discussion on it, but I thought it might be a worthwhile insight here.
    An alternative theory would be that such an outlook may be a stage in somebody’s identity development, ie, setting a clear boundary (this is Muslim, that is American) such that a person doesn’t feel overwhelmed by new culture and can take it by degrees.

  • Krista

    @ Rochelle: Yeah, EXACTLY. The way “Western” values were talked about in the article totally got to me as well. There was a line about how “some Muslim women reject Western values” – ugh – and in the context of the article, “Western values” basically meant any values that would be supportive of women. Because, you know, women in the “West” are completely equal to men, and all Muslim societies are inherently devoid of any respect for women ever.

    @ Jamerican: Thanks for your comment. It’s definitely one of my pet peeves as well (on the other hand, I think this issue just might turn into a major part of the research for my thesis – if this is going to bug me so much, I might as well get a Masters degree out of it! ;) )

    @ Shawna: That’s an interesting point, and I would say that it is probably more pronounced after 9/11 (although I don’t think it was entirely absent before then.) It is really evident also in discourses about needing to increase surveillance/imprisonment/etc. of those who seem “suspicious,” in the name of protecting the “American [or Canadian] people,” even when these people being targeted may themselves be American or Canadian (at least on paper…) The idea of “American people” definitely gets used to refer only to certain American people, and *not* to others.

    (Btw, I would totally be interested in sharing something with, I’m just looking at your submissions page now. Is it okay if it comes from a Canadian perspective (instead of an American one)? I might send an edited version of a paper I wrote recently on the same issues.)

  • The Q

    What a refreshing blog this is. As an American Muslim I feel like I struggle all the time (jihad, maybe?) to help people see my religion as more than a culture or nationality. So few people know ANYTHING about Islam as a faith path. They know only stereotypical (read: 70 virgins) rhetoric and cultural representations of the religion.

    I actually think Islam is more at home in a diverse democratic society than in most of the other places where Muslims are a majority.

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