No, Let’s Talk About Being Muslim in America

A recent article by Laila Alawa claims that we need to stop talking about being Muslim in America. By trying to break down the American versus Muslim dichotomy, Alawa built a dichotomy of her own and oversimplified the Muslim American narrative by ignoring the multifaceted nature of our identities. We need critical dialogues on being Muslim in America now more than ever to ensure that we are not becoming exclusivists based on one person’s interpretation of what it means to be a Muslim American.

Building a Dichotomy

Alawa’s article constructs an incessant differentiation between being a “Muslim in America” and being a “Muslim American.” Alawa’s preferred terminology, “Muslim American,” seeks to reconcile the dichotomy created between being Muslim and being American. This solution sounds innocent enough until it creates it’s own hierarchical dichotomy by splitting the Muslim American identity into two facets: the Muslim immigrant and the Muslim born or raised in the United States. In order to explain this difference, Alawa asserts that the “identity of [her] generation, the Muslim

Muslimerican.  A sign at the "Today I AM Muslim, too" rally in New York, March 2011
Muslimerican. A sign at the “Today I AM Muslim, too” rally in New York, March 2011

American identity, was formed amidst games of mosque hide and seek and dinners” and was therefore completely natural. She makes a disclaimer that the issues of being a Muslim in America may apply to those people who were raised in a different country and immigrated to America. She continues to discriminate between the Muslim American and the Muslim immigrant by asserting that Muslim immigrants from ten or fifteen years ago ultimately sought to return “back home,” whereas contemporary Muslim Americans want to build up communal infrastructures in the United States.

Alawa’s approach assumes that her Muslim American identity is the Muslim American identity. Her rhetoric also dictates that Muslim immigrants, due to their different mentalities, do not have a rightful claim to the “Muslim American” identity unlike her and her “generation” (whatever that may mean). As someone who was born in rural Pakistan and raised in Brooklyn by immigrant parents, I could not disagree more. I have seen my parent’s identities go through various fluctuations over the years, but even at a time when they thought that they would ultimately return back “home,” they did not stop being civically engaged within the broader American community. My father has been voting in primary, local, and key national elections since he became a naturalized citizen nearly two decades ago. He looks forward to voting and knows more about the current political landscape than the average American. Although not an American citizen due to her lack of English, my mom has stayed up and cheered during the last two presidential elections; in those moments, Barack Obama was elected as her president as much as he was elected as my president. To differentiate their identities to a lower rung of hierarchy as they navigate the nuances of being Muslims in America as opposed to simply being Muslim Americans is a gross oversimplification of a very complex identity paradigm. It is also worth pointing out that the immigration of Muslims to the United States has not stopped and the mentalities from “ten or fifteen years ago” are realities for many Muslim Americans today.

Nashville mosque vandalized in February 2013

The so-called “back home,” and therefore immigrant, mentality is also blamed for creating an unnaturalness between being a Muslim and being an American. Alawa states that this type of discourse does not come from outside of the Muslim community, but rather from within it––and originates specifically from immigrant Muslims. This sweeping declaration fails to acknowledge the acts of vandalism on mosques, violence against Muslims, and the predominately right-wing discourse, all of which seek to delegitimize the Muslim American identity from being naturally and holistically American. The effort to reconcile the seemingly unnatural identity of Muslims in America via khutbahs and conversations within mosques should be applauded as a worthwhile effort to counteract the public discourse. If there is something that is inherently problematic about those discussions, then we need to provide community leaders with constructive criticism in order to take the subject of identity in a different direction. Alawa’s article seeks to shut discourse down altogether.

The oversimplification of what it means to be a Muslim in America, which is relegated as an issue only for immigrants, is further demonstrated when Alawa completely ignores the multifaceted nature of identity. The Muslim American is not just the Arab or South Asian or Malaysian who grew up in a Muslim community with Muslim parents in the United States. Our identity includes converts who may not have the same familial or societal infrastructure, African-Americans (inclusive of immigrants and those African Americans whose ancestors were a part of the larger American community for hundreds of years), Muslims born and/or raised in the United States who are not a part of a Muslim community, and so on. An overlap between these identities is also a very real possibility. Consequently, all of these nuances necessitate a discourse in order prevent an exclusionary image of Muslims in America.

Being <insert minority group here> in America

To assume that Muslim Americans have “more to tackle” than identity issues, where even “race” is supposedly not an identity issue, is to ignore history. The African-American community successfully used their struggle with identity to create two of the most American movements in the 20th century: the Harlem Renaissance and the second phase of the Civil Rights Movement. The Harlem Renaissance was a playing field for experimenting with identity; what does it mean to be African American and how does this impact how we proceed? Different people came up with different, and sometimes contradicting, definitions.


W.E.B. Du Bois believed that African-Americans needed to be intellectuals in order to legitimize their rightful equality with whites––ultimately legitimizing their claim to the very Americanness that was dominated by white men. Booker T. Washington, on the other hand, focused primarily on the financial stability. He did not not want strict equality with whites but was willing to use their help to gain financial independence for African Americans, a pathway he thought would be secure in keeping black identity as distinct. Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes were Watching God and one of the first African-American students to attend Barnard College, was more of a segregationist; she believed that desegregation would cause African Americans to lose their cultural identity. As an anthropologist, Hurston used her literary novels and academic work to illuminate and memorialize the rural Southern black dialect, which was one form of speech Du Bois sought to distance from the black community by building up his vision of black intellectualism. Despite their disagreements, Du Bois, Washington, and Hurston were all seeking to clarify what it means to be an African American and how the community should proceed in order to protect their versions of black identity. The Harlem Renaissance lasted until the mid 1930’s, but the impact of the discourse echoed well into the Civil Rights Movement––the epitome of identity struggle during the mid-twentieth century––and still resonates in identity discourses today. History teaches us that minorities benefit from spending time on their identities in order to lay out the groundwork for establishing a genuine space for themselves within the greater American culture. So it is shocking for anyone to claim that “identity should be the least of our worries.”

The notion of being Muslim in America is also inherently different from being a Muslim American, not because they identify two different groups of Muslims but because they are simply two different linguistic formations of a similar idea. Sidelining “Muslim in America” as being problematic only decreases the lexicon for developing our Muslim pullquoteiramAmerican narrative. I am a Muslim American, but I can also face issues of being a Muslim in America, which is distinct from a Muslim anywhere else in the world. Acknowledging that Muslims in America have different circumstances from Muslims in other regions will also pave the necessary groundwork for us in other important matters that Alawa mentions, such as mental health or arts development. Muslims in America do not need one cultural identity or a single-mindedness about where to settle down in this globalized world in order for us to be a collective community. Our identity issues, accumulating in this melting pot of different cultures and ideas, are an integral dimension of our Americanness.

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  • About the autor
    Iram Ali

    Iram F. Ali is a storyteller and writer who focuses on individual narratives. She works at an anti-militarism nonprofit focused on decreasing U.S. militarism. @iramfali

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    • Asif

      Wrong. There are two mentalities: Muslim Immigrant and BAM. Most immigrants do have the idea that if sh!t hits the fan they will go back. It is rather shocking to hear Y YOU ignored this fact. very few immigrants engage civically since this is not their culture, problems not theirs. Most come for financial gains. Being PART of the American fabric is not a concern for majority.

      Outlook, approach, attitudes etc of BAM are widely different… They still carry baggage from their parents. Its by the 3rd gen when the divide begins to disappear.

      Muslims in America is different than Muslim American. This means we have to work harder for integration.

      • mhz0282

        This is a vast oversimplification that seems to be based on your own personal experience. My family is part of a large South Asian immigrant community in which almost nobody had any desire to go back. Most of them engage civically to varying degrees. You are also totally ignoring all the other groups of Muslims Ali identifies above (converts, African Americans, etc.). This flawed insistence on dichotomization is precisely why this conversation needs to continue.

        • Asif

          If we bring in the immigrant component into the discussion then this reality can not be ignored. In my 40 years of living in about 6 states, I have found ALL immigrants to hold same views. You are right that discussion must continue. We are Americans and we are Muslims and must strive to integrate in the society. This is what I have sorely observed lacking in all discussions from private discussions to those in the masjids. I have found it difficult to understand immigrants’ lack of desire to become more civically engaged but saying this ignores the fact that immigrants are programmed from their countries of origin to not engage in civil issues.

          Those of us who grew up here or are born here, the thought process is different. That, again, is the product of the environment we have come up in. We are different than our immigrant parents.

      • Iram Ali

        Thank you for your comment, Asif.

        I did not ignore that there are immigrants who would like to return to their “homelands” – I actually clarified that this is a mentality that may exist among some recent immigrants and it was a mentality that my own parents held. However, the Muslim American immigrant discourse is often simplistic and filled with generalizations (especially when it comes from non-immigrants or 2nd and 3rd generation Muslim Americans). What I have found is that the longer a Muslim American immigrant stays in the US, the harder it becomes for them to return “home” since they no longer fit into the fabric of the society they left behind. So simplifying their identities to a “back home” mentality, which itself is in a constant flux, is what I find problematic. I have also come across Muslim American immigrants who are civilly more engaged than “BAM” because they appreciate their rights here whereas most “BAM” take them for granted. Plus, there are 2nd and 3rd generation Muslims today only because Muslim American immigrants of the past decided not to return “home” – I’m not sure how this obvious notion gets ignored in immigrant discourses.

        Immigrants coming to the US for financial gain is nothing new and not exclusive to the Muslim American community. A huge part of the “American Dream” is built on economic stability – the stereotypical dream everyone laughs about: a job, a house, a spouse, ‘2.5’ kids, and a dog.

        But regardless of that, my main point is that the discourse on what it means to be a “Muslim American” should remain open so we can look beyond these generalizations and have critical conversations. Our identity issues will impact other areas of community development. Let’s take arts development as an example. As a Muslim American immigrant from rural Pakistan who was raised in Brooklyn, my artistic expressions (as a Muslim American fictional writer) may differ from a BAM, a convert, African-American Muslims, etc. So these nuances in identity, which don’t readily fit into a dichotomy of immigrant American Muslim vs “BAM,” are integral to understanding our other issues.

    • Laila Alawa

      Iram, I appreciate your article and enjoyed reading your rebuttal, but I just want to point out something that I did not mention in the article because I wanted to maintain focus on the larger issue: I was born in Denmark, I’m Syrian and Danish, spent the first six years of my life living in Japan and moved to the United States when I was six years old. However, I chose not to bring up the point because it is not what I was trying to hammer in – this goes further than my own personal identity, and more about the discourse for our community’s future.

      • Iram Ali

        Laila, thank you for replying. I only used my personal narrative to problematize the generalizations made about the so-called immigrant mentality, which gets brought up over and over again in many different conversations as a mere scapegoat. The rest has to do with the need to continue our discourses on identity in order to find solutions for our collective issues, as many communities in the past have done. It’s just not a step I can see skipping over because we may feel uncomfortable with it or assume it is nonessential. I’m hoping we can continue this conversation in person one day.

    • Selma Salih Al Maria

      Actually, I could not disagree with you more. Your article tries to reinforce a divide, that is perpetuated by Muslims immigrants mostly and by societal stereotypes, discrimination, etc. A convert will rarely ever face an identity crisis simply because majority of American converts will simply state that they are Americans, religion is not identity carrier here in the States as no one calls themselves Christian Americans. You are trying to prove something by using African-American experience but only sinking deeper into a hole that is simple that being American has nothing to do with religious identity – nationality and religious affiliations are not one and the same. Only for immigrants they are and will always be.

      • Iram Ali

        Thanks for your comment, Selma. If you can elaborate on exactly what divide I’m trying to reinforce, that will be quite helpful. As far as I can tell, most people are always trying to reinforce the division between immigrants and all other types of Muslim Americans, which makes an easy scapegoat for our problems but doesn’t actually resolve any issues.

        As to your point about religion not being an identity carrier, I suggest you look into the history of American Catholic and American Jewish communities. Religious discrimination has often raised the need to discuss identities within the bounds of religious and national affiliations. Religion as an identity is also used to form voting blocs and can be an incentive for Muslim Americans to use their identities for political leverage, as other religious communities already do. An example of this is the newly formed Muslim Democratic Club of NY. The African-American narrative was simply to show how identity discourse has been used in the past; our community is not an exception and therefore identity discourse should not be shut down.

        • Selma Salih Al Maria

          Iram – While I agree with you in essence, again the problem with this Muslim identity is a serious one. While you are trying to point to roots of religious identities, one major problem here is that Muslims are not a homogenous group and their cultural affiliations most likely always take precedence. More importantly, you have failed to really signify and explain Black that is African-American Muslim experience, that has been part of America much longer and while doing so, you have perpetuated that same old divide. Being politically active and using it as a leverage does not explain attitudes, feelings and sense of belonging that you can easily observe in any of the mosques.

          • Iram Ali

            Selma, I hope you can reread my piece and see that what you are saying was my exact point: that the Muslim American identity is much more complex than simply the difference between immigrants and those born or raised in the US. My whole point is to have a discourse on identity to prevent an exclusive and simplistic image of Muslim Americans.

            From above: “The Muslim American is not just the Arab or South Asian or Malaysian who grew up in a Muslim community with Muslim parents in the United States. Our identity includes converts who may not have the same familial or societal infrastructure, African-Americans (inclusive of immigrants and those African Americans whose ancestors were a part of the larger American community for hundreds of years), Muslims born and/or raised in the United States who are not a part of a Muslim community, and so on. An overlap between these identities is also a very real possibility. Consequently, all of these nuances necessitate a discourse in order prevent an exclusionary image of Muslims in America.”

      • Dawah Addict

        “A convert will rarely ever face an identity crisis simply because majority of American converts will simply state that they are Americans, religion is not identity carrier here in the States as no one calls themselves Christian Americans.”

        Respectfully, your statement could not be further from reality. Converts face some of the greatest crises of identity in the American Muslim community. I speak as a convert myself of 11 years and as someone who works closely with converts on a very regular basis, many or most of whom struggle with their identity. In many cases, converts feel that they do not fully accepted either by the Muslim community, among whom they may experience cultural and age differences and lack connections to the community, or by the broader American society, which views them with suspicion. Try to imagine being a teenage convert whose faith and identity as a Muslim bring concern and criticism from family, and yet do not allow him to develop a connection to the masjid community comprised predominantly of middle-aged South Asian immigrant men and virtually no youth other than 8-year old in Quran class. Try to imagine waking up during Ramadan every morning for suhoor and eating cereal by yourself, quietly as to wake up your parents. Imagine being a sister who wants to wear hijab in public but her family refuse to be seen with her wearing it. Imagine having to pray in the bathroom because your parents would kick you out if they found out you were a Muslim. Imagine working at an Islamic score where, because you are white, students joke that you are a spy for the FBI, denying any legitimacy for someone who is white and Muslim. Imagine being told that your name, given to you by your parents from birth, is no longer suitable, and that you have to adopt an Arabic name to be a real Muslim. Imagine being told that expressing your own culture as an American is an imitation of the kuffar and that you would be better off wearing a thobe or salwar kameez. I could go on and on.

        More broadly, to say that religion is not an identity carrier in the United States is an absurd statement. Iram rightly pointed out in her response the experience of Catholic and Jewish communities, for whom religion most certainly played a tremendous role in both self-identification and the perspective of the broader WASP population (consider the P in WASP as well). We can also look at the political discourse today, which is heavily charged with religious rhetoric, chiefly from the right.

      • crescent5

        Actually, as an African American convert who wears hijab, I still face an identity crisis because of being Muslim. Whenever I get stopped by law enforcement I have to justify that I’m still American and that I’m still Muslim. Within the Muslim community, I have to explain that I’m American only and Muslim and not Nation of Islam, while still dealing with people who believe that only immigrants have this problem. My white convert friends are not immune from this either.