Thursday, August 04, 2005

Article: Race, Religion, and Nationality

This article is an exquisite discussion of identity, as seen through the eyes of a Muslim American woman.

Besides being a great read, the article made me think.

Race, religion, nationality, partisanship, and even (to a lesser extent) class, and gender, are all social facts. They exist in our minds, and to a lesser degree in our genetic makeup, pocketbooks, houses, etc. We can alter them to a certain degree, by rethinking our beliefs or by changing our personal circumstances. But because they exist in everyone's minds, they constrain and influence each individual's actions. In the words of the eminent sociologist Émile Durkheim:
  "A social fact is every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on
the individual an influence, or an external constraint; or again, every way of
acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time
existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations."
I could tell you that I'm part black, that I sit with my black family members at Thanksgiving, hand out a family tree that shows my great grandmother immigrated to New York from Barbados, show you the neighborhood where I spent my formative years in ultra-diverse Queens, and talk about my work at the UMD Diversity Initiative and inner city shelters.

But when people look at me, they see a white man in a shirt and tie, and they treat me like a white man in a shirt and tie. So most of the time I don't bother trying to explain my complex background. I just say I'm Italian and that I work in government.

I'm lucky in that I benefit from my outward appearance. If people looked at me and saw a working class mixed race son of immigrants (some of them probably illegal), they would treat me much differently.

When Americans look at Muslims, their skin, their language, their cloths - some see a potential terrorist. Many individuals have much more complex views. But without a doubt, terrorism is the mirror held up to all American Muslims every day. It has become a social fact - influencing and constraining their lives.

We can, and must, stop the individuals who would seek to harm us. But until we stop holding up the distorted mirror image of a terrorist to every young Muslim, there will always be some who look at the reflection and say, "That's me."

Here's the full article for the interested...

Truly Muslim, Fully American
By Fatina Abdrabboh

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. - "I condemn terrorism." Lately, because I'm a Muslim, these are the only three words people seem to want to hear come out of my mouth. Beyond the words themselves, the way I proclaim them is measured for sincerity. Perhaps even more than the days immediately after 9/11, I as a Muslim feel now that many of my fellow Americans believe that Islam and its adherents are evil, pure and simple.

I can't help wondering if the fact that I'm identifiably Muslim through my hijab, or scarf, is so potent that the only response I evoke is anger.

Thinking through recent incidents, I try to assess the validity of my feelings - am I overreacting, or paranoid?

Last month, while driving home from the airport, I managed to get lost in construction detours. I rolled down my window and asked a woman in the car next to me for directions: "Will this road take me into Cambridge?" I couldn't believe my eyes when she ignored my question and rolled up her window.

It was broad daylight. I had not - before then - considered my appearance frightening or abnormal. Apparently she did.

Another incident: I recently participated in a phone-a-thon for a religious studies program at Harvard. A friend tapped my shoulder and said her caller wanted to speak with a Muslim. I took the phone. It turned out the man was a preacher from Texas and wanted to know when Muslims "were going to join the rest of the enlightened world and rid themselves of fanaticism." I tried to explain that the matter was far more complicated than simply blaming the beliefs of a billion people and that it was misguided to blame Islam for the actions of its fringe extremists. The preacher interrupted me and said I sounded like "every other wishy-washy" Muslim ambiguous about condemning terrorism. Needless to say, he didn't donate to the program.

Why is my stance on terrorism my only defining feature? Casual conversations at the grocery store, the gym, the dry cleaner all seem laser-guided, by the way I look, to Islam and terrorism - and never to those everyday conversations that might revolve around other aspects of my life like how I like my Harvard classes, my training for the Boston Marathon, or my recent obsession with my stock portfolio.

I desperately try to shrug these incidents off as I focus on school and training for the marathon. But these incidents don't seem to be isolated - and, indeed, have intensified just since the July 7 suicide bombings in London and last week's attempted bombings there. Columnists in many of our nation's most influential newspapers focused on the Arab and Muslim response to the attacks. They castigated Arab and Muslim Americans for not publicly condemning terrorism - as if, in addition to the condemnations Muslim groups have indeed issued in days since 7/7, we're expected to march in the streets of New York, Washington, and Boston and chant, "We hate Bin Laden, too."

But I wonder if - given the fearful environment - that would be enough of an "unequivocal" condemnation.

What would people think if I told them that I did not ride the subway for one month after our faux pas at Abu Ghraib out of fear that retaliation against the US would be directed at our subway systems?

I, too, am vulnerable as an American. The terrorists in London didn't care about Shahara Islam, a young Muslim woman killed in the attacks. Do Americans not recognize the dark irony of Shahara's last name? They didn't care about her. And I'm no different: Terrorists intent on blowing up the train I'm riding will not care that I'm a Muslim. They won't be deterred by the sight of me on a subway seat with my Arabic-printed bags from a halal meat market, as I try to keep close to Islamic dietary prescriptions.

And that is the point: Terrorism is not about Islam; it is about a perverse agenda being paraded through the Muslim world under the banner of my faith. Why then should Muslims in America have to condemn it all the time?

Just because we don't wear T-shirts that say "Muslims condemn terrorism" doesn't mean we don't abhor such acts. Yes, there's an increased obligation for Arabs and Muslims to fulfill their responsibility as American citizens to integrate with the broader community, and most undoubtedly have.

But I believe the role we play should be characterized by positive rather than negative resonance. I've chosen to live by this philosophy: It's not my job to tell you what I am not, but rather what I am. I offer others not what I hate, but what I love, such as what America stands for, in principle. And most important, I choose not to tell but to show others what I represent as a Muslim. It is essential that our discussions as Americans break out of the skewed dialectic on Islam.

Of course not everybody reacts to Muslims this way. But I'm convinced it's the reality - not my paranoid view - that many do. I'm optimistic that as a nation we can move beyond stereotypes and embrace the millions of Muslims in America - that we can break down the crazy expectation that someone like me who wears hijab cannot possibly be "fully" American.

The thought of a veiled woman listening to rock and roll on an iPod mini, jogging near the Charles River at night, or playing the guitar need not be far-fetched. I do all of the above.

I categorically condemn terrorism. Now, will my fellow citizens in America hear more of what I have to say? Will America embrace me for who I am - a practicing Muslim, an ardent debater, and an aspiring public servant?

Most important, will they recognize that I'm fully American?

Fatina Abdrabboh, born and raised in Dearborn Mich., is a student at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
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