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ANALYSIS: Islamophobia, political divisions threaten Arab American identity

Some Arabs are developing religious identity that is overtaking their cultural and ethnic affiliation
Dancing at Arab Tent at Dearborn's Homecoming festival this week (courtesy of ACCESS)

Arab culture is visible in communities of immigrants from the Middle East across the United States - the cuisine, music and language are hard to miss in places with high concentrations of Arab Americans including Dearborn, Michigan and Anaheim, California.

The Arab American identity, however, is fading from the political landscape of the country amid the rise of Islamophobia and political turmoil in the Middle East.  

Mainstream US media outlets and politicians have focused on Muslim Americans, especially as anti-Muslim rhetoric intensified in right-wing circles.

The nationalism of the post WWII era which saw the rise of national independence movements has given way to religious and even narrow sectarianism

- Nabeel Abraham, co-author of Arab Detroit 9/11: Life in the Terror Decade

Shifting the spotlight to Muslim Americans has impacted the Arab agenda in the US, including advocacy for Palestinian rights, experts say.

Most Arab Americans are Christian, while most Muslims are not Arab. More than a quarter of US Muslims are African American, according to Pew Research Center.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based think tank, said the right wing’s attacks on Muslims and the effects of the Arab Spring, including a new wave of immigration, have unsettled Arab American identity.

More than 600,000 immigrants from the Arab world have arrived to the US in the past 15 years, according to Zogby. These newcomers have yet to fully embrace the Arab identity, he said. Instead, post-Arab Spring religious and political affiliations are becoming more notable.

He explained that recent events have pushed groups of Arab Americans to emphasise Islam as a political identity, while some Arab Christians, like Iraqi Chaldeans and Egyptian Copts, started moving away from calling themselves Arab.

Dr Nabeel Abraham, a co-author of Arab Detroit 9/11: Life in the Terror Decade, echoed Zogby’s comments, saying Arab Muslims are developing a religious identity that is overtaking their cultural and ethnic affiliation.

“The nationalism of the post WWII era which saw the rise of national independence movements has given way to religious and even narrow sectarianism,” he told MEE via email. “This transformation can often be seen in single individuals who cast aside their pan-Arabism, leftist ideologies for a religious identity.”

He added that Arab Christians have taken a similar approach in adopting a religious identity.

“Exceptions do exist as some Palestinian Christians, for example, continue to push a secular line on Palestine in the face of mounting defections of Palestinian Muslims to pan Islamic causes and groups,” Abraham wrote.


Sally Howell, an Arab American studies professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, said that after 9/11, Christian Arabs were “worn out”.

“They were tired of defending themselves as Arabs and defending Arabs,” Howell said.

The Iraq war and conflicts stemming from the Arab Spring are dividing people who have been historically aligned with each other, according to Howell.

Communities don’t just occur; you have to build them

- James Zogby, AAI

“When you have that, the historical pull of Arab identity gets weakened, and that’s what we’re seeing,” she said.

Howell added that militant attacks and the rise of Islamophobia have “put Muslims on the front page, not necessarily Arabs”.

“The civil rights part of the Arab American community is very rightly defending Muslims,” she said.

Challenges to Arab American identity are as old as the concept itself, when immigrants started arriving to America from the Middle East early in the 20th century.

“When my father’s generation came over, there were village identities that were dominant, in some cases it was family, in some cases it was sect,” Zogby said. “Forty, 50 years later, there was the emergence of a broader, generalised Arab American identity. It didn’t gain prominence until the mid-80s.”

Zogby said Arab American organisations were boosted by Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1984, but the Lebanese civil war and first Gulf war threatened that identity.

“We overcame it, but now we face new pressures,” he said.

Jackson, an African American civil rights leader, was among the first politicians to actively court the Arab vote.

Still, Zogby is optimistic about the future of Arab Americanism.

“Communities don’t just occur; you have to build them, and we’ve been working to build it and overcome these divisions, knowing that the next generation - if we do our work well - they will feel a strong attachment to each other,” he said.

Zogby added that even today, Arabs of all nationalities in the US stand with each other across sectarian lines, citing support that Arab candidates get from the entire community.

“We’re doing something that could not be done in the Arab world right now,” he said. “Jesse Jackson told me years ago: ‘Don’t import the divisions of the Middle East. Export the experience of working together that you’ve learned here in America.’ That’s what we’ve tried to do.”


Zogby said some Democrats find it desirable to back Muslim politicians and public figures as long as they don’t talk about Palestine.

This was apparent at the Democratic National Convention, where several Muslims took the stage. Speakers, including the parents of fallen US soldier Humayun Khan, focused on domestic issues, emphasising the need to battle Islamophobia.

If you look at the non-Arab, non-Muslim left, I think people have come to understand… the colonial implications of Zionism

- Sally Howell, professor

“Palestine remains an issue that is central to our community but not always central to the way that liberals have looked at Muslims. They look at them as people who need to be defended against Islamophobia, which they do,” he said.  

He added that Arab Americans have issues that go beyond fighting bigotry. “We fight against Islamophobia, and we fight against persecution of minority groups in the Middle East. We fight for a political identity that transcends religion.”

Howell, the professor, said the Palestinian cause has suffered “incredibly” in the United States since 9/11.

She said it has been difficult for Arabs to keep advocating Palestinian rights amid all the other wars and crises that are taking place.

Despite the “relegation” of Palestine from being the core issue for Arabs and Muslims in the US, Howell said, there has been growing awareness in the wider American society about the plight of Palestinians.

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“If you look at the non-Arab, non-Muslim left, I think people have come to understand… the colonial implications of Zionism,” she said.

“The left is generally supportive of Palestine in a way that it was not 20 years ago. It’s been remarkable. A lot of this due to the work, the footwork, that Palestinian Americans and pro-Palestinian Arab activists have been doing to get the word out about what Zionism means.”

Bassem Kawaar, a member of the US Palestinian Community Network, said while the group organises from a nationalist Palestinian, Arab perspective, Muslim American activism for Palestine is welcomed.

“Palestine is a multi-religious society, historically as today,” he said. “To organise on basis of a specific religion, it doesn’t hurt the cause. It actually helps the cause.”

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