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Can A Muslim Truly Be An American?

[Image from CAIR] [Image from CAIR]

There are numerous ways to approach this question.  From a legal standpoint, many Muslims are American, having been born in the United States.  Many Muslim immigrants are in possession of a United States passport, an item that ideally would be the only criterion by which one is judged “American.” National identity is only partly informed by formal citizenship, however.  In the United States today, as throughout its history, citizenship is invested with crucial symbolic features. Most of the symbolic features of proper American-ness involve race or religion (wherein, say, Jews or African Americans aren’t seen to be fully American ideologically or, in some cases, legally). Another, often related, feature is political belief:  dissent from what politicians and corporate media deem the national interest isn’t traditionally a welcome feature of true American-ness (i.e., the normative American). In turn, the politically-mainstream white Christian is the truest American of all.

Current conceptions of the normative American can best be detected in the recent imbroglio over the “ground-zero mosque,” a histrionic misnomer popularized by right-wing media. The proposed Muslim community center two blocks from the northeastern tip of ground zero, actually called Cordoba House, has created a national frenzy that compels us to reassess the symbolic qualities of citizenship in the United States. By expressing such loud opposition to the community center, a significant portion of Americans has again reinforced a limited definition of American-ness, in this case one that excludes Muslims from the full rights of citizenship. 

The debate over the community center in the United States is framed by troublesome assumptions and implications. Most commentators focus on moral questions about the purported insensitivity of constructing a mosque so close to the site of one of America’s deepest tragedies. Because Muslims perpetrated 9/11, the reasoning goes, their association with ground zero is absolute and irreparable. Otherwise, the conversation revolves around a rights-based discourse. Supporters of Cordoba House invoke constitutional rights as a reason that the community center ought to exist. 

It would be useful to look beyond these morals- and rights-based discourses and instead examine the issue from the perspective of belonging and citizenship. If Cordoba House is simply a matter of constitutional rights, then its inability to function (whether by legal or popular decree) merely formalizes the reality that Muslims have constricted access to the rights of American citizenship. If the rights of the Cordoba House planners are upheld but those planners are impelled by widespread outrage to abandon the project, then Muslims are delimited in their moral and ontological rights. 

These matters come down to the fact that most Americans (as polling suggests) are unwilling to perceive Muslims as normatively American.  The categories of “American” and “Muslim” in the popular imagination are mutually exclusive. The normal privileges of citizenship for Muslim Americans, then, can be circumscribed without abandoning the ideals of democratic belonging. For this reason a cross can be mounted above the Oklahoma City memorial without controversy, even though the bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building was an act of terrorism carried out by Christians. Unlike Christians, the embodiment of a Messianic America, Muslims can be readily associated with the behavior of extremists, while Christians are freed from the burden of their own fanatical ideologues. 

Even the sporadic defense of Muslim Americans does little to clarify their restricted access to the ideals of citizenship. Trying to allay his readers’ fear of Muslims, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times writes, “My hunch is that the violence in the Islamic world has less to do with the Koran or Islam than with culture, youth bulges in the population, and the marginalization of women. In Pakistan, I know a young woman whose brothers want to kill her for honor—but her family is Christian, not Muslim.” Kristof enters into dangerous territory here by indicating that the very culture of the East is indelibly different than that of his idealized America. (Kristof is also tendentious: many women in the United States are murdered by angry husbands or male family members who happen to be Christian without even a mention of culture or religion.) 

In Kristof’s formulation, Muslims can be defended on legal and ideological grounds but nevertheless remain outside the boundaries of normative American-ness. This is made clear when he invokes the seemingly-requisite specter of Osama bin Laden: “Osama abhors the vision of interfaith harmony that the proposed Islamic center represents.” For Kristof, Cordoba House emblematizes only the proverbial “good Muslim”—the pro-American, moderate, assimilated, ecumenical fantasy of xenophobic reactionaries—and he does little to foster the acceptability of Islam itself. 

Too frequently ignored or overlooked in the great ground zero mosque debate is the attribution of irrational violence to Islam, which effectively subdues acknowledgment of the profound violence perpetrated by the American state (military intervention, police brutality, labor exploitation, torture, legislative racism). The debate is fundamentally incomplete:  it begins with the assumption that all Muslims are subsumed in a religious violence that is somehow nonexistent in Christian modernity. Muslim Americans are thus endowed a historical burden that no community could ever possibly overcome. 

As to the question of whether a Muslim can ever truly be American, the answer at present is no.  The current perceptions of the normative American do not provide space in the national community to the Muslim who does not disavow the forms of Islam invented by his patriotic interrogators.  For the Muslim truly to become American, it is not the Muslim who must change, but the restrictive and racialized ideals of American national identity. 

Religion is an important factor of this racialized American identity:  one of the primary arguments in opposition to Cordoba House either proclaims or intimates that white Christianity is the primary basis on which American normativity should be judged. In this schema, even secular logic is inherently religious. It is also a specious logic. 

If America, in essence if not in law, is in fact a Christian nation, then no crosses should be allowed in Panama, Iraq, Palestine, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Grenada, Lebanon, Haiti, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, East Timor, Somalia, Afghanistan, Mexico, and Japan, for in these places American violence caused extraordinary destruction, and in that destruction all Christians are implicated. Indeed, given the countless atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples directly in the name of Christianity in the so-called New World, it is certainly insensitive to build churches anywhere in the United States. 


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9 comments for "Can A Muslim Truly Be An American?"


Beautifully written article.

Razan wrote on September 07, 2010 at 08:37 AM

I agree with your view of how many in the US see citizenship and the State itself based on religion. However, there is a huge difference between husbands murdering their wives in the West, and husbands who commit "honor" killings. If you don't identify the problem (the concept of a man's "honor" being related to the "morality" of ones wife or daughter), you can't combat the widespread phenomenon.

Elizabeth wrote on September 22, 2010 at 09:26 AM

Para.1: You conflate pre-1960s “melting-pot” America with post-1960s “multicultural” America. The “ideal” you refer to no longer exists. Para.2: You conveniently neglect to mention that the community center houses a mosque. The right-wingers may indeed be “histrionic,” but omitting this fact is deceptive. Para.3: “…absolute and irreparable” is hyperbolic. There is an “association” and that association is the problem; deal with the problem, not with an inflated version of it. Para.4: You begin the paragraph by wanting to “look beyond” a “morals-based” discourse yet end the paragraph whining about having “moral rights” restricted. What on earth is a “moral right” anyway? Who grants them? And what is an “ontological right”? Who is your audience? Para.5: You conflate terrorism carried out by Christians with Islamist terrorism. The Oklahoma City bombing were not religiously motivated; Islamist terrorism is. This simple conflation undermines the entire debate and runs through your entire article. That Timothy McVeigh did not shout out “Jesus is great!” at any point during his terrorist activities is a profoundly important point. Are you truly unaware of this? Para.6: Do American husbands who beat their wives to death do so for “cultural” reasons comparable to the “honor”-killings in the Islamic world? Also, the Islamic world is not “the East.” There are some teeny tiny places called “India” and “China” that fit into one category but not the other. I know you know this, but overstating your case weakens it. Para.7: “Islam” is not monolithic (there is no such thing as “Islam itself”), even though bigots on both sides of this debate often pretend otherwise. There is a violent section of modern, Arab Islam that simply does not have a counterpart in other modern religions. If you’d like to go back to the Crusades to make the point that all religions sometimes have violent sects, that’s fine, but a thousand years will probably matter to your audience. (Well, given how this article ends, maybe not.) Para.8: The “attribution of irrational violence to Islam” is “too-frequently ignored”? Really? And again, state violence is not comparable to religious violence. At least not in the context of the argument you are trying to make. Third, I don’t think even the stupidest redneck would say that “all” Muslims are “subsumed” in religious violence. Some modern Muslims are indeed subsumed in it, but all modern Muslims are, rightly or wrongly, associated with it, and therein lies (part of) the problem. Fourth, yes, it does seem to the average American that angry mobs of flag-burning, Quran-burning, “Death-to-all-Muslims”-on-a-sign-carrying Christians are “somehow nonexistent in Christian modernity.” I wonder why. Para.9: Islamist terrorism was “invented” by “patriotic” Americans? Now you have crossed the line from being simply irresponsible to being actively part of the problem.

anonymous wrote on September 23, 2010 at 04:11 AM

Why is it when Muslims are offended it is taken as a given that they have a 'right' to be? Whereas when some New Yorkers are offended, as in the mosque debate, they are deemed racist and islamophobes? I would suggest Steven Salaita turn some of his critical thinking towards himself and examine his own prejudices.

soros wrote on October 01, 2010 at 02:57 AM

Part of the problem, soros, is your assumption: what makes you think Steven is writing as a Muslim? Or that he is Muslim. More than that, what makes you think that even if he was a Muslim, he is responding to religious sensitivities? He could be a non-Muslim who thinks this is a horrible thing that is happening--as a human being. Or, he could be a non-believing/non-practicing Muslim who thinks this is a horrible thing that is happening. Why don't you engage the content instead and make an argument instead of an (near-obviously) erroneous assumption based on what little knowledge you seem to have of Arabs and Muslims, or different parts of the world. Try it. It's free.

Samir wrote on October 01, 2010 at 10:19 AM

Mohammedans everywhere segregate themselves from others through their ideology and clannishness. It's not an American problem. Lee Kwan Yoo said the same of Singapore.

Carl Stoll wrote on July 02, 2011 at 01:29 AM

USA is not a Christian nation, just like Israel isn't a Jewish nation. American obsession with Israel adopts a lot of Israels political style and it cost's us way too much, not just money. Demonizing Islam is one of those things. It is a legal religion, just like Christian, Judaism or any other, so it has to be respected. Islam, on the other hand has to respect all other religions in countries where they all have equal freedom. So, in my opinion, American Muslim has to respect individual rights and that is even freedom of his own family, who may want to leave Islam. Otherwise such people can leave USA and emigrate where they feel at home. I feel the same way about supporters of Israel. They should move there, instead of draining USA. But that's an other topic.

Jerry wrote on July 03, 2011 at 12:18 PM

let's see now. the original colonies were composed of

>> puritans/pilgrims: new england ...the winners of a tiff that ultimately resulted in the puritan revolution and regicide

delaware,virginia ....the losers of the above.anglicans

maryland ....refuge for catholics fleeing persecution in england

pennsylvania .....quakers from england, and protestant sects from other countries

new york .....dutch reformed, anglicans and others. pretty ecumenical from an early period

the carolinas ....anglicans and unchurched, the latter refugees from barbadoes

georgia .....penal colony

all of these places have slavery of africans from the 1670s on. a tidbit: up to 1/3 of african captives were MUSLIMS. further tidbit: the christians in one way or other were the inheritors of a good century of religious warfare in europe. the warfare was so atrocious that all sides finally adopted the treaty of utrecht, one of the bases for supposed international law. so on the african continent and continental europe, ground zeroes were established even way back then. then came colonialism, imperialism, the two world wars,fascism:"colonialism applied to europe" neocolonialism, and all of the craziness of capitalism's post-1973 period.

today, the rich are sitting on the deck chairs of the titanic, the ship feels like its tilting, and i think i hear the voice of celine dion singing. citizens and residents should slowly and methodically get their life-jackets now and avoid the rush.

gary wrote on July 07, 2011 at 03:58 PM

The US is a nation of immigrants, in which immigrants are assimilated systematically. The process is generally understood to take three phases/generations. Muslims are in the first phase : raw immigrants from societies that are at odds with American values in many ways. The second generation remains wedded to the values of the Old Country, as interpreted by communities of coreligionists in America. These people are partially-assimilated Americans. Muslims will reach the third phase--- regular Americans--- when they identify the Jews and Christians and atheists of America as "my people," and the residents of Saudi Arabia as "foreigners".

The speed at which assimilation occurs is determined by several factors, which derive from the Old Country culture. The most problematic factors for Muslims are : 1) does the Old Country have a civic non-religious ethos, and 2)does the Old Country endorse multiculturalism. For Muslims in America, these have to be learned and internalized from nothing. It's the work of generations. On the Muslim-receiving end, it doesn't help that Muslim immigrants echo the Death to America, Death to the Jews, chants that we see on TV news every night from one violent foreign Muslim slum or another. It doesn't help that they are regularly arrested in synagogue and airport bombing plots.

One last point. Immigration quotas to America are set by national, not religious group. Pakistanis, Egyptians, Moroccans immigrate to America, not Muslims.

Izak Friend wrote on July 12, 2011 at 12:38 PM

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