Becoming American? Asks Good Questions

Well-researched and carefully documented, Becoming American? The Forging of Arab and Muslim Identity in Pluralist America adds nuance and clarity to the narratives that exist for the Muslim-American experience. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad’s efforts to research and compile the book are to be appreciated and should not be understated.

I am disappointed, however, that the question which provides a title for the book seems to be reiterated with equal ambivalence in the book’s closing paragraph:

Increasingly, Americans are asking them [Muslim-Americans] 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?

A greater attempt at answering these questions would have added significant gravitas and importance to the work. Case studies and additional personal narratives to illustrate possible (and even competing) answers would have added substantially to the book.

Haddad’s most notable contribution is in providing a longer time horizon for the history of Muslim immigration and life in the United States and relating the extent to which public discourse and major historical events have impacted Muslim life in America. While portions of Haddad’s historical narratives appear uncertain or removed from the day to day life of the Muslims to which they relate, they provide a stronger basis for future discourse and study of the experiences of Muslim immigrants to the United States.

Becoming American? The Forging of Arab and Muslim Identity in Pluralist America is an important contribution and is suggestive of a growing subfield of study dedicated to the experience of American Muslims. The questions it poses are compelling. But in comparison to the much-touted research about the American Muslim community released in the past several years by the Pew Forum and Abu Dhabi Gallup Center, it comes across as a clarification of an existing narrative rather than the creation of one anew. Perhaps that can come in a sequel.

Joshua Stanton is a Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue and a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow at Hebrew Union College.

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