The My Fellow American Project: Embracing Muslim America

The last few years have been paradoxical ones for Muslim Americans and Americans of Middle Eastern or North African descent. The period of tension and suspicion that followed the September 11th attacks seemed to fade as the years went by and the attention of the world shifted to other catastrophic events, such as the financial crisis and Kim Kardashian’s wedding. The election of Barack Obama perfectly captured the double aspect of Muslim life in the United States; his campaign spurred the growth of a dark netherworld of rumor and innuendo about a “Manchurian candidate” who was not really American and pursued a nefarious “crypto Muslim” agenda. Some even claimed that our half-African/half-white President is secretly Arab. Such allegations have only grown louder since Obama took office, as demonstrated by the ludicrous spectacle of Donald Trump’s birth certificate crusade last Spring.

Yet Obama’s election clearly attested to the broad possibilities of American identity. His rise to power may have led some Americans to luxuriate in the fever swamp of Bircherite fantasy, but it also overturned long-held beliefs about race and power in the United States. Most commentators have focused on Obama’s achievement as the first African American to reach the White House – and rightly so – but fewer have recognized the remarkable fact that a man who is the son of a Muslim African immigrant (foreign student might be a more apt description) became president. We have not had many presidents whose parents were immigrants, and fewer still whose parents were Muslim, who themselves possess Muslim names. (Barack Hussein Obama and Warren Gamal Harding are the only two I can think of.)
That in itself is an exceptional thing in a country where some still question whether Muslims can really be Americans. Some on the Left raise doubts about the exclusionary character of American citizenship, claiming it is still defined by whiteness and Christianity — or, perhaps, a “Judeo-Christian tradition” that carefully excludes Muslims from the heritage of the Abrahamic faiths. Others on the Right make no secret of their suspicion of Islam as a violent cultural entity that is deeply hostile to American institutions. Hence the oft-repeated questions about whether Obama really loves America and the chimerical “debate,” if you can call it that, about sharia law being imposed in the United States.

The “Ground Zero mosque” fiasco of 2010 brought out all these issues in the ugliest way, as opponents claimed the Park 51 center in downtown Manhattan was somehow an affront to those who died on September 11th. Activists across the country, from Temecula, CA to Murfreesboro, TN, lathered themselves into a frenzy about mosques as “terrorist training camps,” discussing these places of worship as if they were a toxic waste dump or halfway house that local families did not want their children to be exposed to. The controversy showed a small sliver of Americans at their least open-minded, and politicians at their least principled as Republicans used anti-Muslim hysteria to drum up votes in the midterm elections.

To a historian, the rhetoric of 2010 sounded almost identical to past worries about foreign, ethnic “others” – most notably, the looming civilizational threat of a monolithic Islam echoed the anxieties of the nineteenth century, when Anglo Saxon Protestants feared that an equally sinister and monolithic Catholic Church was going to send marching orders to its Irish and Italian footsoldiers and impose Popish tyranny over American liberty. One can certainly see parallels with the fantasies that Americans projected on the “inscrutable” Chinese or Jewish “cabals” throughout our history as well. Time and again, Americans have feared people who were new and different, thinking their values or their communities were simply incompatible with the American way of life — only to see these newcomers “become” American as generations go by. (See White Castle, Harold and Kumar Go to.)

Which brings us to the other aspect of Muslim and Arab life in America – the brighter side. Despite the distressing sideshow of the Ground Zero Mosque last year, polls have shown that Muslim Americans report greater optimism about the future than almost any other group in the US. Muslims and Arabs are already part of the fabric of American life and have been so for years. Cynical politicians may exploit anxious voters by spinning tales of Islamic domination, but in the long run they ignore this fact at their own peril.
For this reason, the My Fellow American project is an promising sign of a growing spirit of acceptance in the United States, true to the values of openness and religious liberty that our nation is meant to hold dear. Russell Simmons has partnered with the Unity Productions Foundation to promote this collaborative social media project, through which participants discuss their own experiences as Muslim Americans or what their Muslim friends and neighbors mean to them. As the video above shows, the basic aim is to underline how Muslims are just like any other Americans — represented by a familiar panoply of occupations, from doctor to firefighter to cab driver to checkout clerk. In the clip below, Simmons discusses how he worked with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Rabbi Marc Schneier to develop I Am a Muslim Day:

We hope that our readers will take a look at the project and lend support to the idea that citizenship – not just legal citizenship, but genuine inclusion in the American community – can belong to anyone and everyone, regardless of religion.

Tropics of Meta covers a wide range of historical and contemporary issues, and race and ethnicity have been some of our most frequent subjects. Next week we will take a look at Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics (2007), a thought-provoking historical work about the rise of identity politics and the movement for gay rights. Past stories dealing with identity include:

We have also discussed the history and politics of Islam and the Middle East in the following essays: