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.