America’s Muslims Never Had to Unite – Until Now

Peter Skerry
Peter Skerry Former Brookings Expert, Professor of Political Science - Boston College

January 5, 2003

In the United States today, there is no “Middle Eastern community,” no “Arab community” and no “Muslim community,” certainly not in any politically cohesive sense.

Muslims and Arabs are a disparate lot, especially in this country. Despite our tendency to equate Arabs with Muslims, the fact is that most Arabs in the United States today are not Muslims—they’re Christians from places such as Lebanon. And most Muslims are not Arabs—they’re South Asians or African Americans. Muslims here are riven by national, linguistic and sectarian divisions. And many Middle Easterners (Iranians, Turks and Kurds among them) are not Arabs. The divide between Iranians and other Muslim immigrants is particularly telling. Often identifying themselves as “Persians,” Iranians in this country have not been highly visible as Muslims. Despite their wealth and great numbers in Southern California, they have built few mosques here. This is now changing. All of these groups are beginning to identify with one another, in no small part because the U.S. government and many citizens are treating them as a more or less homogeneous group. Waging the homeland security battle is necessary. Yet, however one feels about the new Immigration and Naturalization Service registration requirement for men from many Muslim countries, or about the profiling of Arabs and Muslims more generally, it is important to understand that our policies are helping to forge a new minority identity. We are pushing these groups together into a political coalition around grievances against the government that will not soon be forgotten. The outcome will almost certainly be a new minority group whose claims against America will be a source of rancor and division long after the current crisis has eased.

This shift was evident to me the weekend before Christmas in Long Beach, Calif., where the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a civil rights and ethnic lobbying organization, held its annual convention. Founded in 1988, MPAC has since Sept. 11, 2001, emerged as one of a handful of organizations speaking up on behalf of those who perceive themselves to be unfairly targeted by homeland security measures.

This gathering of 1,500 or so offered a vivid display of the variety of Muslims in America. There were Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Pakistanis, Indians, Iranians, Iraqis, Kurds, African Americans and others. There were undergraduates as well as elderly immigrants. Some spoke Arabic; many did not.

The many women present wore all varieties of dress. A few were in traditional hajibs, heavily covered. Others had full scarves that gracefully framed their faces. Still others wore small head scarves reminiscent of those my female relatives wore to Catholic Mass in the 1950s. And some, though modestly dressed, had nothing on their heads and would not have stood out in a crowd—except, perhaps, the stylishly dressed, blonde Palestinian who looked like what she was, the wife of a prosperous Southern California physician.

As sociologist Earle Waugh wrote in the early 1990s, Muslims “may have as much separating them from each other as divides them from the host societies of Canada and the United States.” One MPAC leader noted from the podium that there is a pattern of U.S. Muslims from different countries forming separate mosques. But even when this is not the case, as one Pakistani Muslim has observed, “We worship together but then the Pakistanis go back to their curries and the Arabs to their kabobs.” Such tendencies reflect not only the influence of diverse ethnic and national cultures on the practice of Islam, but also long-standing sectarian tendencies within the faith, such as those between Sunnis, Shiites and Sufis.

Not surprisingly, such differences have undermined the political cohesion of U.S. Muslims. As religion scholar Kambiz GhaneaBassiri wrote in 1997, “The most important reason why Muslims have not been successful in their political activities is the fact that they rarely agree on political agendas and are thus unable to form voting blocs.” At the time, GhaneaBassiri also noted: “There is no single problem confronting the majority of Muslims that would require immediate organization and effective unifying leadership.” Now, of course, there is just such a “single problem.”

The nature of that problem, and its potential to forge an overarching group consciousness, was evident at the MPAC convention. The event took place the same week that hundreds of men were arrested in Los Angeles when they went to meet the new registration deadline. Non-immigrant males 16 and older from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Sudan had to register, be fingerprinted and photographed, and answer questions under oath at their local INS office by Dec. 16. Men from most other Muslim and Arab countries must register in the coming weeks. The arrests were for visa and other violations, the INS said, but the policy has been seen as a trap by many of those called to register. Among the arrested were Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims, Christians and Iranian Jews.

If anything could bring such an agglomeration of individuals from disparate backgrounds together, it would be just such a government policy assigning them to the same category and subjecting them and their families to the intimidating discretion of law enforcement bureaucrats. A young immigration lawyer, an Iranian-American woman affiliated with the National Lawyers Guild, drove the point home to the gathering: “It’s not just an Iranian thing. It’s not just an Sudanese thing. It’s not just a Muslim thing.” Moreover, the MPAC leaders who spoke made a point of adding the phrase “American Arabs” whenever they mentioned “American Muslims.”

As charged repeatedly throughout the weekend, the registration policy is seen as only the most recent in a series, which includes racial profiling by law enforcement agencies, the investigation of Islamic charities by the federal government and the secret detention of hundreds of individuals.

This of course is not the first time we have targeted groups in the midst of national crisis. To make sense of today’s events, we rely on historical analogies, yet the ones most widely discussed don’t quite work.

Take the persecution of German Americans during World War I, which led to the virtual elimination of German culture, language and ethnic identity in the United States. This hardly seems a likely outcome of today’s policies, not least because they are far less harsh than those imposed during World War I, when German language classes were dropped from school curricula and songs written by Germans were removed from music books. Today, of course, such policies would be fiercely fought by advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which was in fact organized in part in reaction to the World War I repression. Not coincidentally, the ACLU was highly visible at the MPAC convention.

The more frequently cited analogy has been with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Yet again, however objectionable today’s policies may be, they are simply not as draconian as those experienced by Japanese Americans. And unlike those attending the MPAC conference, Japanese Americans already had a strong group identity at the outset of the war, which had been reinforced by their earlier mistreatment in America. What’s going on now is more subtle. Instead of isolating an already cohesive group, we are fostering cohesion where none existed before.

The historical parallel that makes the most sense is one never invoked: that of immigrants from the Italian peninsula who arrived here a century ago identifying themselves as Neapolitans or Sicilians but who gradually came to see themselves as Italians—largely in response to the way they were treated, and mistreated, by Americans. Those Italians were never targeted by government policy the way Arabs and Muslims are today. But that just highlights the greater pressures at work now, when our nation is under attack.

My purpose here is not to debate whether the federal government’s current efforts to protect us from our enemies, domestic and foreign, are misguided or inappropriate. Rather it is to warn against discounting or underestimating the anger and panic evident at the MPAC convention and elsewhere.

Such may be the tragic outcome of what is necessary to defend the United States. But if the great social laboratory of America teaches us anything, it is that, in times like these, we Americans demand loyalty of immigrants, and are particularly suspicious of group ties and identities. Our history also teaches that the bonds of ethnic, religious and racial identity that have long characterized our national life get forged in times like these—times when members of minority groups feel vulnerable and threatened.

Peter Skerry, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.