If the events of 9/11 did nothing else they concentrated the American imagination on a group of American citizens that had earlier been largely ignored: Muslims, and in particular Muslim Americans of Arab descent. The two great streams of American bigotry, always flowing in the subterranean reaches of our culture, now emerged and merged into a flow of race and religion-based prejudice. America was already rapidly shedding its idealist promise of being a light to the nations in order to slam the golden door on immigrants and shudder the great lamp of freedom. Now it realized that among those already within the great walls of the national security state were people who resembled in some ways those who had recently attacked it: they were Arabs, and they were Muslims. Since bigotry is always myopic those Americans who were overtaken by this hate were happy to include in anger and sometimes violence most Middle Easterners, and even South Asians obliging enough to identify themselves with beards or headscarves. Thus Turks, Moors, Persians and Pakistanis, not to mention Sikhs, were also sometimes attacked.
It turned out that America was already the Babel it had was unwittingly struggling to become. 9/11 just gave us an excuse to build the walls higher and place at the center of government the largest federal agency every created: The Department of Homeland Security – or to borrow a phrase from J. Frank Dobie, “the last erection of an impotent administration.” Babel is complete; with its growing walls and its giant idolatrous tower to the god called security. And within? No common language except that of fear. . . . . . .Okay, maybe it isn’t as bad as all that. But I’d like to be in step in an age of rhetorical overreach.
Still, the language of Biblical metaphor is supposed to get our attention. And America is a babel of cultures and languages, indeed it always has been. And this raises for each American two great questions: How do I and my immigrant people (whether they came from Ireland, or England, or Italy, or Poland, or Vietnam, or China, or Iraq) become American? And second, how do we Americans welcome all these new and exotic peoples into a culture whose idealistic founders believed that the greatness of a nation was measured by its acceptance of religious and cultural diversity? Or do we go to building walls and towers?
The Patheos Book Club Round table is featuring Yvonne Haddad’s new book, Becoming American: The Forging of American and Muslim Identity in Pluralist America. (http://www.patheos.com/Find/Religion-and-Faith-Book-Club) It is a book that begins to give us some answers to both of these questions. And those answers point to an often forgotten complexity. First, not all Arab Americans are the same, even in the cultural sense. The range of dialects spoken across the Arab world can make even simple conversation among them difficult. And they are distinguished by education, class, and of course generational experience in America. Religiously they are, like their fellow Muslims in the Arab world, distinguished (if not divided) both by long standing sectarian differences and more contemporary difference based on understandings of Islam relates to the challenges of modernity. And like all immigrants they respond in varying ways to the challenges faced by their nearer or more distant relatives back “home.”
This in particular has shaped American Arab Muslim identity. The unresolved conflicts between Jewish Israel and its Arab Muslim neighbors are played out in a drumbeat of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim rhetoric by some American Jewish groups and their political allies in Washington. And they are played out in the sometimes violent anti-Jewish and anti-Israel rhetoric that is so commonplace in parts of the Arab world that its viciousness isn’t even recognized by those who perpetrate it. Things have only gotten harder, as Haddad points out, as one group of American politicians and American religious leaders have sought to create a compliant pro-Israel “moderate” version of Islam while another group rails that Islam and Muslims can never be anything other than terrorists.
In the meantime, of course, it isn’t that simple. Indeed it is never simple. It is the nature of Babel that its citizens insist that everyone must speak the same language even as they fight over just what that language should be. Shared values and aspirations have trouble overcoming differences in dress code and skin color. It might be simpler if everyone simply became multi-lingual. In the meantime Arab Muslim Americans appear to be developing into a community that is at least bi-lingual. In the world of which America is a part this makes them (like many other such communities) a valuable resource, and perhaps also makes them aware (as we all should be) of the comforts that one has, and must give up, to live in a contemporary pluralistic society. These days if you feel like a stranger in a strange land, then you have, in fact, come home.