As the security check line began moving slowly at Washington
Dulles airport, one passenger standing a few steps ahead of me appeared particularly
uneasy. His dark skin, long beard, trimmed moustache, prayer spot centered on
his forehead, and overall demeanor quickly gave away his identity, though he
had obviously labored little to hide it. He was a Muslim and a religious one at
that. Predictably, a few minutes later he was singled out and his clothes
spread across a separate station reserved for those "randomly"
selected for extra security check.
In the current climate, those who are not singled out for
the humiliation of extra checking are still often daunted by their names: any
Arabic or Muslim sounding name; birthplace: any Arab or Muslim country,
suspicious travel destinations: all Arab and Muslim countries, although some
are more "suspicious" than others; or past records � which can include
anything from conventional crimes to a single antiwar comment made to a local
newspaper. Airport authorities across the US would vehemently deny any racial
discrimination, but indeed such selective screening and harassment is real.
Many civil rights organizations and human rights groups have worked tirelessly
to verify this, but all it really takes is one candid conversation with any
Muslim or Arab American. Each person seems to have a personal record of
injurious stories, if not at a port of entry, then at some other public place.
Whenever I run into an Arab or a Muslim during my frequent travels, the subject
often serves as an icebreaker.
Obviously such ill treatment is neither deserved nor
justified, although I find it interesting that Americans continue to be treated
with grandeur status wherever they travel in an Arab or Muslim country. In some
Gulf countries, US soldiers also freely roam the streets during their short
breaks from Iraq, without a word of objection from the hapless locals.
At the same time, decent American Muslim intellectuals,
students, and all sorts of law-abiding citizens are losing their posts, fleeing
their country, and, at best, being made to endure the suspicious eyes of fellow
travelers and security personnel wherever they go. If one compares the
collective harm inflicted by individual Muslims on the US and the government's
actions against Muslim nations, the contrast seems all the more astonishing.
Although the flow of Arab and Muslim immigrants to the US
spans decades, it has never been accompanied by a corresponding "sense of
community," one that developed evenly along racial, religious, or
geopolitical lines. The nature of immigration to the US was often political --
for example, allowing tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites access to and
residence in the US after the 1990-1991 Gulf war, while almost completely
blocking the immigration of displaced Iraqis after the 2003 invasion of Iraq;
economic � the oil boom of the 1970's saw a huge influx of Arab students from
the Gulf, now able to afford studying and living in the US; or a combination of
In their 1986 study, scholars McMillan and Chavis identify
four elements of "sense of community": membership, integration and
fulfillment of needs, influence, and shared emotional connection. In the case
of Muslim and Arab communities in the US, it is nearly impossible to apply
these four points in any meaningful sense. Even religion cannot in this case
serve as a unifying force.
The main differences are not just between Shiite and Sunni
Islam, but also along national lines; in the US, a Sunni of Moroccan background
can hardly relate to a fellow Sunni from Cambodia. Mosques are divided by
ethnicities � for example, a Libyan mosque � rather than by denomination only,
as is the case with most Christian churches in US cities. Identity issues are
also affected by the fact that not all Arabs are Muslims. Christian Arabs were
in fact some of the earliest Arab immigrants to the US, and their mark on
American culture is unquestionable. However, many Christians still often find
themselves lumped as Muslims.
While some might prefer to opt for assimilation in these
hard times, others cluster in their own clubs and small societies to preserve
whatever they can of their cultural heritage.
But "assimilation" is now becoming a tool for
survival for Arabs and Muslims. Many women date the removal of their
headscarves to September 11, 2001, the same day that many men quietly shaved or
significantly trimmed their beards. Even Arabic-sounding names have begun to
find an American equivalent, such as Ghassan turning into Gus, or Sami into
What is truly dangerous in these phenomena is the
development of a collective sense of escapism and detachment, as opposed to
community. Many are starting to redefine the way in which they exhibit their
background, for example, Muslims meeting on religious occasions only, or Arab
gatherings based around the redundant themes of humus, belly dancing and Salma
No other minority groups in the US are in as urgent a need
for collective action as Arabs and Muslims, yet many remain incessantly
inactive. While this can be explained or even justified by the very real fear
of retaliation, the truth is that the post-9/11 backlash against US Muslims and
Arabs can hardly compare with the collective punishment endured by the peoples
of Iraq and Afghanistan. Millions of Arab and American Muslims can take
advantage of their privileged status to reach out to and educate the public, to
get involved in city, state, and national politics, to stop trying to prove
their patriotism by distancing themselves from the "extremists" back
home. Instead, Arab and American Muslims must develop a greater sense of pride
in their identities, backgrounds and contributions to society -- if not as
Arabs or Muslims, at least as decent Americans, members of a democratic
society, and worthy of respect.Ramzy
Baroud is a Palestinian-American author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has
been published in numerous newspapers and journals worldwide, including the
Washington Post, Japan Times, Al Ahram Weekly and Lemonde Diplomatique. His
latest book is The
Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People�s
Struggle (Pluto Press, London). Read more about him on his website: ramzybaroud.net.