What does “Muslim-American” mean?

What does “Muslim-American” mean? July 28, 2016


Would you say, of the friendly Patheos Catholic blogging team, “they’re Catholic-Americans”?

Would you refer to Bernie Sanders as a “Jewish-American”?

Is Donald Trump a “Presbyterian-American”?

“That’s dumb,” you say?

Then why are we using the term “Muslim-American” to refer to our Muslim neighbors?

An example, today, from the Daily Beast:

[Nida] Allam, a recent college graduate and Muslim-American progressive activist, had come to Philadelphia this week to support Bernie Sanders’s final stand in the shadow of Hillary Clinton’s party.

And you know you’ve seen this all over the place as well.

A while back I griped about the American practice of hyphenization, of characterizing someone by their ancestry and labelling them as “X-American,” rather than being “of X ancestery,” and I pointed to the case of Bobby Jindal and his detractors who seemed to be demanding that he had no right to enjoy Louisianan traditions and must retain the Indian traditions of his immigrant parents, because he was, after all, “Indian-American.”

Think about the people who are labeled as “X-American.”  In some cases, it’s a descriptor of ethnicity, or recent immigrant status, or both or neither.  Who is a “Mexican-American” as opposed to an American who, by the way, is of Mexican ancestry or heritage, or a Mexican national who happens to be living in the United States?  And in other cases, it’s made it into the journalism stylebook as a racial label:  Asian-American for people considered racially “Asian” and African-American for people with origins in (“black”) Africa, no matter how long ago (which, on the other hand, seems to have fallen out of favor)?  (The census definition is circular on the latter case; you’re black if you’re from a “black racial group.”)

But the adoption of the descriptor “Muslim-American” makes even less sense.  Why do we need to combine a religion and a citizenship into a single hyphenated label?  Beyond the nonsensicalness of the term, whether an individual is American or not is clear from the context, isn’t it?  In the case of Allam, it should be a given that she’s American if the article is about the Democratic convention, and there shouldn’t be any further need to make that clear than any other convention attendee?

Is the purpose to emphasize her American-ness, and differentiate her from Muslims outside the U.S.?  Or is it to create Muslim-ness into an ethnic or racial group of its own, rather than a religion?

Image: a visibly Muslim woman, and a photobombing anonymous girl, on the Detroit riverfront, own photograph.

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