arab, Islam, Islamism
When identity becomes a choice

Homegrown Arab: Choosing a Positive Identity in a Time of Populism

‘Nearly all Americans have ancestors who braved the oceans – liberty-loving risk takers in search of an ideal – the largest voluntary migrations in recorded history… Immigration is not just a link to America’s past; it’s also a bridge to America’s future.’

George W. Bush

Arab American, Islam, Identity, Prejudice
Arab American National Museum/Source: Fabrizio Constantini

When Identity Becomes a Choice

The upbringing of a second generation Iraqi-American is a curious one. In my particular case, I am the only member of my immediate family who was born in the United States. My religious heritage is Muslim; had it been Christian, perhaps my experience would have been different. Growing up, I heard stories from my family members about the atrocities of war and sociopolitical discord they had witnessed. This left me feeling as if I were not too far removed from my ‘Iraqi identity’ and I still feel this way today. I wanted to learn more but my family told me, ‘we came here so you would never have to witness this. So we can be free and you would be born free. You should be playing instead’.

My relationship with my Iraqi heritage was not a bitter one, but rather one of fascination and curiosity. I showed interest in my home country from a young age. Like any child, I played outside a lot with my friends, as well as with my pet rabbits. My mother watched over me but, at the time, her English was still improving. My siblings were often busy with their own endeavours as there was a large age gap between us; I was the youngest. I taught myself how to read early on through word games and study books from the local public library. I was enrolled in a relatively progressive Islamic Sunday school at the time and naively believed that the reading skills I’d developed were owing to faith rather than proclivity for hard work. I eventually progressed in reading comprehension skills beyond other children my age. My parents took notice of my penchant for reading and writing and my father gave me books to read on Mesopotamian history. For my 8th birthday, my brother gifted me a copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It really does not get any more Iraqi than this!

I enjoy Middle Eastern and North African cuisine, I regularly dance to Iraqi and Arabic music, and I watch old films from Egypt, the Hollywood of the Arab world, depicting the timeless Arab glamour icons. To this day, I am captivated by the beauty of the past. I am entranced by the enchanting voice of Warda Al-Jazairia and the sensuality of Soheir Zaki’s belly dance. I laugh until my sides ache at unorthodox Iraqi humour I overhear from my elders as they drink tea and transform their past hardships into jokes. All of this was enough for me to connect with my Arab identity in a positive and fulfilling way.

Arab American, Soheir Zaki, Islam, Iraq, Identity
Soheir Zaki / Credit: YouTube

Eventually, my family moved to a neighbourhood with slightly different demographics. The majority of this neighbourhood was white Anglo-Saxon Protestant and there was also a sizeable Muslim community from various ethnic backgrounds. I felt that I got along with everyone. I socialised with as many people as possible, regardless of their identity. At the young age of eight, identities seemed irrelevant. The ‘coexist’ concept seemed unnecessary because coexistence was already the norm. My peers were curious about my family heritage and I happily shared with them. I am still in touch with some of these childhood friends today. My interaction with the Muslim community in public school at that time was casual. I remember having a lot of friends and positive interactions with my peers.

September 11th and Community Identity

When the September 11th attacks happened, I was a child. Virtually every American who was of age at the time to form lasting memories can give a detailed account of where they were, what they were doing, and how they felt when they received the news on that morning in 2001.

The weather was beautiful and it was a calm morning. It was ‘business as usual’ until one by one, my classmates were picked up from our elementary school. Teachers and faculty members did not inform any students of what happened. My sister picked me up early from school. When I got in her car, I asked her why she had picked me up. My sister, making no eye contact, took a deep breath and asked me, ‘Sara, do you know what a terrorist is?’

When we arrived home, my entire family was crowded around the television. The look of terror on their faces will never leave my memory. I looked at the television and saw the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. I was in such shock, I almost did not realise that there was a stranger in our home speaking German on the phone. I asked my father about this woman. He told me, ‘She knocked on our door and needed to call her family. We need to stick together at this time’. We lived close to a metro station and she was a tourist visiting the area.

The days following the September 11th attacks changed the dynamics of my community. Many of my former friends told me they had been instructed not to interact with me anymore because ‘[my] people want to kill Americans’. I was about 11-years-old when I first heard anti-Muslim or anti-Arab slurs, let alone had them directed at me. Despite losing friendships, I did not allow this to fill me with hatred. After all, I had read about Hammurabi, and ‘an eye for an eye’ did not resonate with me.

By 2003, The United States had declared war on Iraq. I was entering my teenage years. Prejudice against me grew as the war progressed. I was often at the receiving end of identity-based threats and bullying that sometimes turned physically violent. I never provoked it, nor reciprocated it.

‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ 

Post 9/11, the Islamic weekend school I used to attend had been long shut down due to lack of funding. I was subsequently enrolled in an Islamic Sunday school held at a mosque and Islamic centre. It proved to be a short-lived experience. I walked out on the hateful, misogynistic, xenophobic, and fundamentalist rhetoric that was being preached there. But if I thought I would be leaving the hatefulness behind in that dreaded building, I was wrong. Muslim bigotry was not confined to the mosque.

In various settings, other Muslim-Americans my age who complained of the bullying they endured approached me. They were visibly enraged. They often insulted non-Muslims behind their backs, they would all agree that Jews were the ultimate enemy. They were so entwined in their Muslim identity, they did not see the hypocrisy in their actions. They claimed to hate ‘the system’ despite regularly benefiting from it. It very quickly occurred to me that I was witnessing the nascence of a social enclave — and I wanted no part of its self-imposed segregation.

The Muslim American community, who had initially told me I was safe with them, found my lack of blind hatred of non-Muslims to be repellent. I was perfectly content to count my friends on one hand and stay true to myself, even if this meant going to heavy metal concerts, which many Muslims believe is Satanic. I was considered ‘whitewashed’ by the Muslim American community. Thankfully, my family was proud of my decision to walk out on hate. Many parents are unaware of what is being preached to their children in Islamic schools and centres. When you ask a child, ‘What did you learn in school today?’ The typical response is, ‘Nothing’.

At this point, I was at the receiving end of bullying from non-Muslims who did not think I was American enough and Muslims who thought I was a traitor of some sort for not hating America — our country of birth, the country that gave me the tools to excel professionally, the country that gave us all the opportunities we would never have had access to had our parents not made the choice to risk everything to immigrate here.

Campus Conditioning

I breathed a sigh of relief when I entered university; a large campus with a variety of social groups meant I could be who I was. Times changed and the people I encountered were much more friendly. Even so, I still encountered individuals who made me feel uneasy. I was taking a required course which included class participation as part of the grading scale. At one point I mentioned that I was an atheist. After class, a Muslim classmate followed me as I went out for a cup of coffee. She asked me questions about my ethnic background and wanted to know why I was an atheist. She berated me about my choice of clothing. My existence as a free-thinker somehow upset her. She followed me for weeks, explaining to me that I was a victim of western propaganda fuelled by zionism and that I was destined for a life of misery and an ‘afterlife’ of eternal hell-fire. I finally had to bring the harassment to the attention of the administration at the plea of concerned friends, family, and colleagues.

When this woman graduated, I felt safer on campus for a while. It was short-lived. With a strong Muslim presence on campus, I heard the same narrative building up within the second generation Arab and Muslim-American immigrants I encountered. When asked about my major, the common response I received was, ‘Global studies? A western bias I assume? So you want to be a traitor when you graduate, huh?’ I wanted to know where they were getting this same narrative from. It seemed almost scripted. Despite the criticism, I pursued a graduate degree in the very same field.

Educating on Miseducation

In the last semester of graduate school, I dedicated my Master’s final research project to an analysis of Islamic curriculum and its effect on second generation Muslim-Americans. Not only did I analyse reading material offered by Islamic weekend schools in the west, including the one I attended, but I also looked into other platforms on which many Muslims receive their miseducation. I came across the work of Muslim public figures with a large following, some with hundreds of thousands of followers. Their work was targeted at a young adult audience and the content was deplorable to say the least.

Consumers of such propaganda were encouraged to alleviate issues like serious mental illness with Islamic prayer. Women and girls were encouraged to subscribe to a level of modesty culture so obscenely archaic that it would almost certainly block them from career advancement. Jews were deemed ‘the enemy.’ Christians were deemed ‘misinformed and inferior.’ Polytheists were ‘evil-doers and sorcerers.’ And atheists were ‘the ultimate disgrace to humanity.’ The common denominator in all of this rhetoric was the notion of ‘Islamic supremacy.’ These ideas were being pushed by Muslim public figures born in western societies and it certainly reflected in my interactions with many second generation Muslim-American immigrants.

Finding Answers

So why is the second generation so often prone to accepting hate speech as part of their intellectual framework? From what I saw growing up, they likely received a large amount of discrimination. They were taught that jihad means ‘struggle’ and nothing more. They were taught to feel that pain and struggle define their identity. Islamist clerics and public figures hide behind social justice movements to sell anti-western sentiment and an overall distrust of the west. I do not buy into the idea that ‘islamophobia’ is an excuse for what drives these individuals to adopt extreme viewpoints. I do not even subscribe to the idea that anti-Muslim bigotry is the culprit. Almost all children experience bullying at some point, virtually every minority has encountered bigotry in one way or another, but it is not an excuse for radicalisation. Even as a vocal ex-Muslim, I am still at the receiving end of anti-Muslim bigotry from ignorant individuals, but this does not sway my core beliefs as a secular humanist.

The answer lies in the propaganda of Islamist media as well as Islamist curriculum distributed worldwide. The enchanting voice of Warda Al-Jazairia? Haram. Soheir Zaki’s sensual belly dance? Haram. Laughing at a joke? Haram. The distribution of Islamist material seeks to erase the intricacies of not only Arab culture, but a multitude of cultures. It seeks to erase the joyous cultural practices that are still present in Muslim-dominated regions such as song, dance, and a particular brand of humour. After erasure comes amalgamation of whatever is left. Islam is being falsely advertised as a unifying force through Islamism. The narrative sells the idea that one is no longer Arab-American, Afghan-American, or Turkish-American, et cetera – they are simply ‘Muslim’ and that is the only identity that matters. This sort of propaganda is easily accessible through major social media platforms as well as local mosques without recourse from authorities. All the while, ex-Muslims, Muslim reformers, and moderate/secular Muslims are censored, de-funded, or even vilified while the true villains hide in plain sight, exploiting the liberal values of western society.

Creating Solutions By Acknowledging the Problem

Throughout my life, I have dedicated myself to using every possible privilege I have, no matter how seemingly insignificant, for a greater cause. I have prioritised my own education keeping in mind those women who are unable to do the same. They are my inspiration and I am acutely aware I could have easily been in their position had I not been born in a western country. I can certainly say that I did not choose to dedicate my education to global studies to be a traitor to anyone. My allegiance has and always will be with freedom. My goal is to formally learn about the aspects of the world that I could not otherwise learn simply from being born into an identity. My focus is on truth, intellectual advancement, and on freedom of thought.

One thing I learned from an Islamic Sunday school that I can use today is that productive knowledge is not achieved through propaganda-fuelled curriculum. Positive enlightenment is rarely found in mob mentality. I am not proud of being born because I do not believe being born is a notable achievement. Fierce nationalism is an ideology that has been proven to fail, time and time again. Although I do enjoy aspects of my identity, I also believe pride in one’s heritage makes very little sense. It took no effort on my part to be born to Iraqi parents. I am, however, proud of the choices I made given the circumstances I was born into. Blaming my successes or failures, my happiness or sadness, on something I had no control over is not only unproductive but arguably a form of self harm.

We ask ourselves why there is an influx of ‘homegrown terrorists’ and perhaps there are multiple answers. Many second generation immigrants of Muslim heritage may feel out of place in the United States as they are growing up and finding a social identity. This is the time when identity politics and identity policing can prove noxious. The exchange of Islamist propaganda is harmful to society because the implementation usually begins during a time of impressionable youth and childhood. Additionally, religiosity in general is harmful because it replaces empirical evidence and natural science with mythology and superstition. Islam is no exception. The exchange of the ideology of Islamism has lead to widespread death, torture, destruction, and a slew of basic human rights violations.

If Islamism in the west is not taken seriously, I hypothesise that Islamist populist movements and incidents of homegrown terrorism will show a notable increase. This is dangerous on an individual level because it teaches individuals to disregard the law of the land as well as scientific theories and laws. If such basic knowledge is denied, religion takes precedence over rationality, reason, and overall quality of life. To acknowledge this is not bigotry or hatefulness. It is common sense, rationality, and indicative of a love for humanity.

About Sara Al Iraqiya

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Writer, Ex-Muslim, and 2nd generation Iraqi-American.

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2 comments

  1. Love this..Beautifully worded. I am Hispanic & can pass for Middle Eastern. In passing, I notice men & women of strict Muslim upbringing stare at me in judgement. I’ve had a teen male American of ME descent do the same to me and he seemed so bitter that it occurred to me he was probably angry at the world because he doesn’t quite fit in. We have a lot of ME in the area but where he’s at, it’s quite Hispanic. This encounter made me think how easily this could lead a young person down a negative path. What you described makes perfect sense to me as a former forced-Catholic. 😉 I love God & my fellow man- end of story. Great message to carry out there… Peace to you.

  2. So informative; so well written. It provides a lot to think about

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