Moving Beyond the Binary
The July 14th White House Ramadan Iftar incited a heated debate among Muslim-Americans. The exchanges illuminated splintering Muslim-American political outlooks and strategies, and a reinvigorated public discourse about whether progress is best forged from inside or outside of government structures. This article does not weigh in on this debate, but rather, addresses how the “immigrant versus indigenous” binary consistently deployed in this, and other, discourses about Muslim-American identity and interests is both limiting and harmful.
The White House Iftar intersected with a spiraling crisis in Gaza, which rose to the fore of a string of human and civil rights issues resonating with Muslim-Americans. On and off of social media, a number of commentators held that Gaza alone should not bind Muslim-American leaders to boycott the War. “How about the War in Iraq, racism toward African-American Muslims, the Detroit water crisis, and racial profiling,” many weighed in, citing a host of past and present crises that did not spur calls for boycotting the White House Iftar.
“The Gaza crisis is an immigrant Muslim-American issue,” said a Muslim-American government employee. “It alone shouldn’t determine whether Muslim-Americans should attend or not attend the Iftar.” This view was a common one, signaling the entrenchment and institutionalization of a problematic binary that bisects Muslim-Americans and Muslim-American interests into “immigrant” and “indigenous,” and resultantly, overlooks the multi-dimensional milieu of people and interests in between these two rigid axes.
As Muslim-America diversifies, and encounters heated intersections that reflect the population’s racial, cultural and political heterogeneity, a population perceived as a monolith on the outside must move away from seeing itself as a dichotomy on the inside. With the host of challenges faced by Muslim-Americans, and those sure to follow, it is high time to move beyond the immigrant versus indigenous Muslim-American binary.
From Black to Broad: The Diversification of Muslim-American Identity
1965 marked a crucial turning point for Muslim-America. The year witnessed the dissolution of the National Origins Act and Asiatic Barred Zone, xenophobic legislation that limited the entry of immigrants from Asia, Africa, segments of Europe, and other regional feeders of “undesirables.” With no quotas, and whiteness no longer a prerequisite for naturalization, waves of immigrants from the Arab World, South Asia and other nations with considerable Muslim populations migrated to the United States.
As a result, Muslim-America was radically changed. First, what was once exclusively a “Black Religion,” which Sherman Jackson defines as “a holy protest against anti-Black racism” (popularly embodied by the Nation of Islam), transitioned toward sectarian and philosophical diversity.
Second, ethnic and racial demographics shifted. Muslim-America was overwhelmingly black since the forced migration of enslaved Muslims, but took on a broad racial and cultural composition beginning in 1965. Immigrants from India, Morocco, and a mosaic of nations in between and beyond, diversified the Muslim-American milieu.
These immigrants shared a common faith and a desire to start anew in America. But little else.
The word “immigrant” instantly conjures up a range of images and ideas. Beyond the legal definition, the immigrant occupies a liminal position in the imagination of the individual deploying the term. The immigrant lives outside of her home state, and on the fringes of her host society. She is foreign for as long as that title is affixed to her identity, even when and if she becomes a formal citizen of the host state.
When does one cease from becoming an “immigrant?” Is “indigenous Muslim” identity attainable for the children of immigrants? Or alternatively, is there an intermediate status for the children of immigrants, such as a fourth generation Muslim-American from Turkey, for instance?
Forty nine years have passed since the dissolution of xenophobic immigration restrictions and quotas. Immigrants from Asia, the Arab World, Africa and other regions that came to the United States on and after 1965 have, overwhelmingly, adopted this country as their own. A vast majority became naturalized citizens – facilitated by the revocation of law in 1952 that made “whiteness a prerequisite” for citizenship. In addition, these immigrants had children. Their children had, and are having, children. Therefore, “immigrant Muslims” are no longer (legal) immigrants, but integrated (and integrating) into American life.
Yet, the indigenous and immigrant frame overlooks this integration, assigning the latter designation to Muslim-Americans not by legal status or time of arrival. But rather, race and ethnicity, and an inextricable tie with the pioneer waves that migrated to the United States on and after 1965, brand Arab, South Asian, and other Muslim-American groups as forever foreign, and “immigrant.”
Disorienting “Immigrant Muslim” Identity
Islam, in general, is perceived as a foreign faith in the United States. Although practiced well before the creation of modern America, the nation’s second largest and most rapidly growing religion is cast as different, and outcast as threat. The designation of Islam as a foreign faith, rooted in Orientalist baselines and perpetuated by law and media misrepresentations today, in turn, frames the Muslim-American as perpetual outsider. No matter what generation – or citizenship status – the former half of Muslim-American identity diminishes claim to the latter.
Therefore, deploying the “immigrant Muslim” frame entrenches these Orientalist tropes about a set of Muslim-Americans as perpetual outsiders, subversives and looming security threats. Since the “immigrant” designation is a fixed one (for those who subscribe to it), Muslim-Americans of Arab, Amazigh, Asian, and even African descent are confined to the stereotypes that emanate from it, regardless of their legal status, length of residence in the United States, and generation.
In addition, the “immigrant Muslim” designation consolidates still diversifying populations of Muslim-Americans into a racial monolith, with a common set of interests and unified agenda. Arab and South Asian identity are typically conflated, per the Orientalist caricature, and a host of other non-Arab and South Asian Muslim-Americans are unseen as Muslims. Furthermore, their political interests are also stereotyped as overtly and exclusively foreign, prioritizing international matters – such as Gaza or turbulence in Pakistan – over domestic issues, such as state-sponsored racism, affordable housing, affirmative action, and poverty.
Socioeconomic stratification among Muslim-Americans branded “immigrant” are also made invisible. First, the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” newcomer narrative is core to the caricature, insinuating that “immigrant Muslim-Americans” are an upwardly mobile, if not already middle and upper-class, demographic climbing toward whiteness. Aside from minimizing the robust private and state-sponsored racism suffered by “non-indigenous” Muslim-Americans, this essentialization overlooks the large number of indigent and working class Arab, South Asian, and (recent) African American communities. Which in turn, excludes poverty, indigent rights, adequate and affordable housing, and connected concerns as Muslim-American issues.
The “immigrant and indigenous” binary conflates indigenousness with a narrow conception of blackness. For proponents of the frame, indigenous Muslim-Americans are descendants of enslaved Africans, largely concerned with domestic civil rights issues. However, in addition to limiting the scope of political or economic issues engaged by “indigenous Muslim-Americans,” this binary overlooks the anti-black and intersectional racism suffered by a host of “immigrant Muslim-Americans.” Muslim-American Diasporas from African nations, such as Somalia or Senegal, for instance, suffer from anti-black racism and xenophobia, experiencing a compounded animus largely unaddressed by proponents of the indigenous versus immigrant binary.
Moving Beyond the Binary
The White House Iftar debate marked a critical juncture. In addition to highlighting the rifts along lines of civic engagement versus disengagement during moments of crisis, an array of under-heard voices in the middle took on nuanced positions.
These nuanced positions highlighted the following: the interconnectedness of “international” and “domestic” Muslim-American concerns; the plight of working-class, African immigrant Muslim communities marred by anti-Black racism and concern for their families back home; and the struggles of multi-generation Arab and South Asian American Muslim communities in Detroit or New York City, threatened by prospective water cutoffs and unemployment.
The debate, and the diverse range of rationales and positions brought to the table, evidences a richly diverse and still evolving Muslim-American polity. A polity, if only examined through an “immigrant and indigenous prism,” would overlook an emerging host of Muslim-Americans in between and on the margins.