Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

American Muslim, or Muslim American?

Participants in last year's annual Muslim Day parade in New York, September 26, 2010
Participants in last year's annual Muslim Day parade in New York, September 26, 2010
Photo by NewMediaNormaRae/Flickr (Creative Commons)

In the United States, a generation of young Muslims has grown up in the shadow of the September 11, 2001 attacks, among them KPCC intern Yasmin Nouh. Part of the discussion she has been privy to during these years is how Muslims, whose patriotism has been under scrutiny since, should identify themselves: as American Muslims, or as Muslim Americans?

Nouh examines arguments for both ways of self-identifying in this guest post, her second for Multi-American.

Just shy of a decade ago, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks orchestrated by Osama bin Laden opened a chapter in American history that has been fraught with widespread misunderstanding of Islam and Muslims.

Muslims, particularly in the United States and Europe, were asked to condemn extremism and to prove that they were patriotic to their respective countries. Amid the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment, one question became the norm to ask: Are you a Muslim or an American? Which one comes first?

If one chose Muslim first, then he or she was unpatriotic. If one chose American first, then it seemed like one was giving less importance to his or her Muslim identity.

In a recent post on the Muslim Matters website, Muslim convert Iesa Galloway wrote about how he believes that Muslims in the United States should use the phrase “American Muslim” when asked how to identify themselves. His line of reasoning was twofold: First, semantically speaking, American Muslim is correct; to be American is an adjective and to be a Muslim is a noun. Courtesy of English grammar, an adjective comes before a noun, and therefore one is an American Muslim.

Additionally, one’s “American" identity constantly changes and refers to one’s culture and nationalism, therefore it does not have to conflict with religious practice. In other words, he wrote, “accepting that your Muslim identity is ‘first’ is a charade that falls into the traps set by anti-Muslims and Muslim radicals.”

He argued that using the construction "American Muslim" is practical because: 1) what differentiates Muslims in America from Muslims elsewhere is nationality, not the practice of Islam; 2) what differentiates Muslims in America from other Americans is the creed.

The second part of Galloway’s reasoning asserted that the phrase “American Muslim” with no hyphen should be used, “because the hyphen model of identity is primarily used with regards to one’s ethnic or racial lineage. (And) If we racialize our identity, we buy into the hyphenated status as an American and therefore in many ways accept the 'otherness' that is pushed on us.”

He argued that this serves those who depict Islam as anti-American or incompatible with Western civilization. Galloway finally asked:

Will using American Muslim over Muslim-American solve all our problems?

No, but it will help. It rejects the foundational attacks that Muslims are not real Americans and that Islam is a threat to America.

An interesting argument ensued in the comments section of the post. Some readers disagreed with Galloway's argument.

Junaid wrote:

The moment we feel the need that we have to prove to someone that we are as “American” or “Canadian” as they are or that we are citizens, we’ve already lost the debate. The question is invalid, and Muslims should not have to prove our loyalties to anybody. We should dismiss such debates such as this. In my opinion they are more harmful than good, and it draws attention to a matter that should have never been framed from the beginning.

In my opinion, I’m just a “Muslim.” If that stirs up discomfort with some people, they probably lack knowledge as to what being a Muslim means. And so that’s the starting point, explaining Islam and the Muslim identity.

Another reader, Amy, agreed with Galloway, but on the whole felt that it didn’t matter in the end:
I recently heard a convert say that he was an "American Muslim, in that order." I took issue with the point because it seems to force a collision between two ideas that needn't collide. It seems to say that if he had to choose only one, either American or Muslim, that he'd choose to be American. I don't even think most Americans would put their country above God. Don't they say "God, family, country," in that order?

Personally, I don't think the sequence of the words should extend their meaning. One might call himself an American Muslim to distinguish himself among Muslims from other countries, while one might call himself a Muslim American to distinguish himself among other Americans. The two terms describe different spheres by which a person can identify himself, and affect different parts of his life.

I consider myself to be an American Muslim (or Muslim American, whatever) without conflict. But I know that when I die, only one of these will matter, and that's my priority. In fact, I think that's what makes me a Muslim in the first place.

The American Muslim-Muslim American argument also surfaced earlier this year, in light of the first round of congressional hearings on "radicalization" among Muslims in the U.S., spearheaded by New York Republican Rep. Peter King. Muslim leaders condemned both King and the hearings, asserting that the hearings were anti-Muslim in nature.

In a CNN interview at the time of the hearings, the anchor asked two Muslim guests whether they considered themselves American first and Muslim second, or vice versa.

In response, Rhonda Ragab, a USC graduate student, posed the question on a list serve whose members are Muslim women from across the United States. Ragab asked:

I was watching an interview on CNN where the guy was asked, "Are you an American Muslim or a Muslim American?"  If you were asked whether you are Muslim first or American first, what would you say?

Yasmin Mogahed, who blogs about Muslim issues, replied:
The question itself implies that the two are by definition incompatible and therefore you must choose one to be first.  No one asks are you Christian first or American first. Are you black first or Christian first? Are you a plumber first, or a husband first? No one asks this because no one sees any contradiction between the two.

UC Irvine student Meena Malik said she preferred to identify herself as American Muslim:
I think the identity crisis for us comes when we feel forced to choose, whether we ourselves think that or when we're told we can't be both. For me, I definitely think that as soon as I started realizing that being Muslim didn't take away from being American and being American wasn't excluding Muslims, then I felt like I could still be part of the larger American society, while embracing my faith.

There's some sort of invisible force that tells us we can't be both, that they are diametrically opposed. I think this is how some non-practicing Muslims in America feel.

For me in high school, this was a huge thing to come to realize and to accept. Now I’m happy and I don't have pressing identity issues!

Aliyah O' Keefe, whose name hints at her background, saw it better to dismiss the question:
I’ve been told I'm a contradiction and I can't be both (as I am Irish American and Muslim). As for the terms American Muslim and Muslim American, I think abstaining from the question and treating it as a silly question of semantics is the best approach, because one could take it any way he or she wants.

If you say you're an "American Muslim," then you could also argue your primary identity is Muslim and American is just an adjective. And if you say "Muslim American," then people will say, "oh you chose Muslim first". The silliness is in the question - we aren't "choosing" one or the other. We are Americans and we are Muslims.

It does open up an opportunity for  a good discussion on Islam being a religion/faith and not a culture/nationality. I think the confusion with Jews and being identified as "Jewish American" is that Jews do see themselves as a culture/ethnicity. So they will call themselves Jewish American just like African American, Irish American, etc., to denote lineage/ethnicity.

So how do I identify? I am a Muslim who happens to be an American.

My mother is Iranian and my father is Egyptian, but I don't identify as either when asked about my nationality. I first identify as an American, because I was born here and my family and friends are here.

My mother is from a Shi'a family, and my father is Sunni, but I don't indicate either one when asked about the type of Islam I practice. At my core, I am a Muslim, or at least, I try to practice Islam in the best way that I can. That is how I live, because Islam is a way of life.

What it means to me to be an American is ever-changing, which is why I see it as a way of describing myself in terms of my culture. America is a mix, and I am one, too, which is why I fit perfectly here.

So you can call me whichever, American Muslim or Muslim American. You can’t compare the two, because they are not on the same platform. In the end, to choose one or the other doesn't change who I am.