‘Arabs in America’ or ‘Arab Americans’?
An Analysis of an Al-Hewar Discussion Forum
on Arab American Identities and Citizenship

Dr. Caroline Nagel[1]

Department of Geography

Loughborough University, England


Prof. Lynn Staeheli

Department of Geography/Institute of Behavioral Science
University of Colorado, Boulder


America is today experiencing the highest levels of immigration since the ‘Great Migration’ of 1880-1920.  The renewed expansion of immigration can be traced to the lifting of ‘national origins quotas’ in 1965, though at the time, politicians did not anticipate the scale of migration that was to follow in subsequent decades, nor the changing face of the immigrant population.  As of 2000, the foreign-born population was over 28 million people, a number that rises to 33 million if undocumented immigrants are included. While the percentage of foreign-born residents is smaller overall than it was at the turn of the 19th century (about 10% versus 14-15%, respectively), the clustering of immigrants means that over a quarter of the population of certain metropolitan regions, such as Los Angeles and Miami, is foreign-born.  Immigration also is affecting metropolitan regions that previously had seen little or no immigrant settlement.  One such metropolitan region is Washington, DC, where historical black-white divisions are being complicated by the settlement of Hispanics, Asians, Africans, and Middle Easterners. 


The growing presence of immigrants has generated a great deal of discussion about the potential impact the newcomers on American society and culture.  Such discussions center on immigrants’ ability to adapt to American society and their willingness to become full, participating members of American political life.  For some commentators, today’s immigrants are following the timeworn path of earlier generations of newcomers, adjusting to American life and integrating into social institutions and urban landscapes.  But others contend that today’s immigrants, by virtue of their cultural and religious distinctiveness, their economic position, and their enduring attachments to homelands, are unable and unwilling to fully integrate into American life.  They remain, from this perspective, incomplete citizens—‘in America’ but not ‘of America.’


Certain groups such as Hispanics (now the largest minority group in America) have tended to find themselves at the center of debates about immigration.  Recently, for instance, Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington has argued that Mexican immigrants, in particular, reject Anglo-America’s ‘core values’ and are intent upon forming their own Spanish-speaking society-within-a-society.[2]  Such sentiments in the population-at-large manifests themselves in support for English-only campaigns and legislative efforts to restrict social services for undocumented immigrants. 


Hispanics are not the only group to attract attention and controversy.  Arab and Muslim immigrants, too, have been the subject of debate in recent years.  More than other immigrant groups, wider public perceptions of ‘Arabness’ and Islam rest upon negative images of events taking place overseas  (for instance, the Iranian Revolution and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).  For many Americans, bombarded with footage of burning American flags, suicide bombers, and women in burqas, Arabness and Islam represent values and attitudes that are contrary to American ‘values’ and interests.  This has especially been the case since September 11, 2001.  


Arab American activists and organizations have been responding to this difficult situation by asserting their loyalty to American society, by becoming more fully engaged with the American political system, and by building links with other minority groups and civil rights organizations.  But it is more difficult to assess the ways in which ordinary Arab Americans—those who may not be active in organizations or community networks—are responding to wider public questioning of their ability to be ‘fully American’.  Our research has attempted to understand the ways in which Arab Americans negotiate a political and social milieu that is, at times, hostile to and suspicious of Arab identities.    Much of our research has focused on activists and organizations.  But we had the opportunity in August 2003 to speak with about 30 members of the wider Arab American community at a discussion forum organized by Al Hewar Center in Washington DC.   Among the participants were immigrants and individuals born in the US, men and women, Christians and Muslims, citizens and non-citizens.  The dialogue that took place revealed the complex ways in which Arab Americans express their identities and relate to American society.  One message that emerged is that while many feel themselves able to combine quite successfully their ‘Arabness’ with their ‘Americanness’, they feel that a full sense of citizenship has been elusive because of America’s involvement in the Arab world and the targeting of Arab and Muslim communities in the name of national security. This article provides a summary and analysis of the different views expressed in this discussion forum.  In doing so, it attempts to shed some light on current debates about immigrants and especially Arab immigrants.  To begin, this article will review in more detail some historical and contemporary perspectives on immigration and immigrants.


America’s ambivalent attitude toward immigration


Immigration is central to America’s national identity, and America prides itself on being a ‘country of immigrants’ and a melting pot of multiple cultures.  One of the greatest symbols of American freedom and democracy—the Statue of Liberty—has also come to represent America’s openness to the ‘huddled masses’ of newcomers.  Today, Ellis Island, America’s main processing center for immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which sits in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, is a national historical monument that pays tribute to American’s immigrant heritage.  But despite the public celebration of immigration, America’s attitude toward immigrants, both historically and in the present day, can best be described as ambivalent.  Just four years before the Statue of Liberty was being erected in New York’s harbor, for instance, the US Congress, in the heat of nativist reaction, passed the ‘Chinese Exclusion Act,’ which banned East Asian immigration and which led to tight restrictions on the naturalization of people of Asian origins.  And in 1924 (the same year that the Statue of Liberty was dedicated as a National Monument) Congress, fearful of political radicalism and racial impurity, instituted ‘National Origins Quota’ to cut off immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe.   


Today, in the midst of one of the most expansive periods of immigration in American history, immigration is again at the forefront of public debate.  Today’s politicians, pundits, and academics constantly ask, Are immigrants able and willing to blend in?  Do they intend to participate fully in American society?  Do they view citizenship simply a passport to a better lifestyle? Are they loyal to American ideals and values, and to America’s causes overseas?  


Many of these discussions reflect the belief that today’s immigrants are fundamentally different from earlier generations of immigrants in terms of racial characteristics, cultural practices, socio-economic status, and links with homelands.  For instance, it has been noted that today’s immigrants are far more polarized in economic terms than their predecessors.  While immigrants are more likely than the native labor force to hold advanced university degrees, they are also more likely to lack a high school diploma and to be working in unskilled, low-paying occupations.   This polarization is seen to have a variety of social impacts.  Lacking in skills and education, many immigrants—especially those from Mexico and Central America—are less likely to achieve socio-economic ability across generations; they are also more likely to cluster geographically, which further impedes assimilation into ‘mainstream’ (i.e., white middle class) life.  Immigrants at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, in contrast, are able to acquire the trappings of middle class life almost immediately, and may be relatively well dispersed in suburban environments.  Yet because of their relatively secure economic status, they feel little pressure to assimilate culturally and, it is believed, will often maintain their cultural distinctiveness. 


Linked to this argument is the view that today’s immigrants are more culturally, racially, and religiously distinctive from the ‘mainstream’ than earlier waves of immigrants, and that their differences will persist.  From this perspective, while immigrants of the ‘Great Migration’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries faced discrimination and prejudice, they were essentially Europeans, and as such, were destined to be absorbed into the mainstream.  Over time, the mainstream would come to be defined not solely as ‘Anglo-Saxon Protestant’, but much more broadly as ‘white’ and ‘Judeo-Christian’.  Contemporary immigrants, however, are not overwhelmingly ‘white’, but instead, are primarily Asians and Latinos, and as such, are racially visible.   Moreover, many new immigrants have religious affiliations—Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, et cetera—and associated cultural mores that do not fit into the ‘Judeo-Christian’ mainstream.  


Finally, it has been argued frequently in the past several years that today’s immigrants are far more inclined than their predecessors to maintain links with their homelands.  While earlier generations of immigrants had little opportunity to remain connected with their places of origin, today’s immigrants have the benefit of telephones, the internet, satellite television, and relatively inexpensive air travel, and are therefore able to maintain closely linked with their home societies politically, socially, and culturally.  Some of these ‘transnational’ linkages have been encouraged by the governments of immigrants’ countries of origin, who are eager for their émigré’s remittances and votes.   These linkages also have been facilitated by greater tolerance for dual citizenship in both sending countries and in the United States. 


With all of these vast shifts in the nature and character of immigration, many commentators suggest that assimilation is likely to take place differently than it has in the past, if it takes place at all, and that the meaning and practice of citizenship is likewise bound to change.  It should be noted that not all scholars and social commentators take this position, and the arguments outlined above have been vigorously disputed.  But regardless of whether these arguments are valid or accurate, they shape the ways many Americans perceive and understand contemporary immigration.  And this may have an important impact on immigrants’ sense of self and on their engagement with society-at-large.


Views of Arab Americans

As alluded to earlier, particular immigrant groups tend to be the focus of discussions about immigration, assimilation, and citizenship.  Mexican immigrants, for instance, have attracted a great deal of attention because of their large numbers and their relatively low socio-economic status, combined with the growing phenomenon of bilingualism in certain regions of the country.  For Arab and Muslim immigrants, the focus of concern has not been language or labor market position, but their association with political causes and religious beliefs that some regard as illegitimate.  


To begin, who are Arab Americans?  Despite the best efforts of Arab American activists, the US census does not have a separate ethnic category for Arab-origin people.  Most estimates of the Arab American population, therefore, are based on the census ancestry question, which allows individuals to enumerate multiple ethnic origins, and place-of-birth statistics for the foreign born.  Such statistics, of course, are highly problematic for several reasons.  On the one hand, the use of these statistics may attribute an Arab or Arab American identity to those who might not espouse one.  On the other hand, it is widely believed that reliance on these statistics vastly underestimates the number of people—especially second- and third-generation Americans—who trace their origins to the Arab world.  Estimates of the size of the population, therefore, needed to be treated with caution.   With this caveat, most sources estimate the Arab American population at between 1.25 million and 3.5 million people,[3] the majority of whom are concentrated in a handful of states, particularly California, New York, and Michigan.  The growth of significant Arab-origin populations has been noted in cities like Columbus, Ohio, and Washington, DC, which, as mentioned earlier, are not traditionally important reception points for immigrants.  


In socio-economic terms, the Arab American population is very diverse.  As with other immigrant groups, such as Indian Americans, many Arab Americans have come to the United States either with advanced degrees in hand or to study for an advanced degree.  Arab Americans are known for high rates of business ownership, and some surveys show higher income and educational levels than the US population as a whole.[4]  Yet there are also significant pockets of poverty among refugees and low-skilled workers, and local activists have established social service agencies in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and elsewhere specifically to serve disadvantaged Arab populations.  Some sources claim that the Arab American population is almost three-quarters Christian, owing to early waves of immigrants from Lebanon and Syria.  But it is also understood that the Arab American population has become more Muslim since large-scale immigration resumed in the mid-1960s.  Regardless of the actual religious composition of the Arab American population, Arabness and Islam tend to be associated with one another in the popular imagination.


While many Arab Americans hold prominent positions in government, industry, and academia, the position of Arabs and Arabness in public discourse and the public imagination has been problematic.  Several scholars have noted the unclear position that Arab Americans occupy in America’s racial hierarchies.  That is, while Arabs generally have not been stigmatized as ‘black’, nor have they been fully accepted as part of the white mainstream.   Even in the early 20th century,  ‘Syrians’ were involved in a number of court cases in the American South to establish their ‘whiteness’, which was crucial to obtaining citizenship rights in the years following Asian exclusion measures.   The records of the trials reveal the uncertainty surrounding Arabness:  were Arabs part of a pure ‘Caucasian’ race or part of a degenerate ‘Asiatic’ race?  Today, while turn-of-the-century ideas about race have largely been dismissed, Arab Americans continue to struggle for full inclusion in narratives of American nationhood and the structures of citizenship.  As Suad Joseph notes, ‘If the condition for full citizenship is that one is shaped to conform with social unity…the persistent representation of Arabs as essentially different and not comprehensible to the Western mind is designed and has the effect of precluding the full citizenship for Arabs as Americans.’ [5] Some Arab American activists have embraced the idea of multiculturalism as a way to work around some of these problems.  But even finding a place for Arab Americans in narratives of multiculturalism (for instance, in university ethnic studies curricula) has been a struggle.  


Many scholars point to the demonization of Arabs and Arab struggles by the American press and politicians as the crux of Arab Americans’ predicament.  The Arab world, as the late Edward Said noted, has been subject for centuries to Western ‘orientalizing’—that is, the relentless stereotyping that posits Arabs and Muslims as exotic, inferior, barbaric, emotional, and irrational.  In the modern-day context, this process has centered on Palestinian suicide bombers, whose rage and despair is rarely explained or placed in context, and on al-Qaeda terrorists, whose actions are blamed on what former Bush speechwriter, David Frum, calls ‘Arab fascism’ and radical Islam.  Politicians, especially after September 11, have tended to portray the world as divided into ‘good’ and ‘evil’ camps—the good represented by America and the evil represented largely by Arab Muslims.  This black-and-white portrayal of the world is surely discomforting to many Arab and Muslim Americans who have built lives in America, but who may continue to see events emanating Arab and Muslim world in shades of gray.


In the current political climate, there has been significant questioning of the role of Arab-origin people in American society.  One common claim found in newspaper editorials and on-line discussion forums in the wake of September 11 was that people of Arab origin have the duty to prove their loyalty by closely monitoring their communities and by offering their support to the ‘war against terrorism’ at every turn.  Many Arab Americans seemed to take this to heart, and tens of thousands of Arab and Muslim non-citizen men voluntarily registered themselves at the request of the Department of Homeland Security.  After 85,000 registrations (some reportedly involving the ill treatment and verbal humiliation of those registering themselves) and thousands of additional searches at ports of entry, only eleven individuals were found to have any links to so-called ‘terrorist organizations’. (The voluntary registration program reportedly is to be eliminated due to these poor results).  


Another argument that has appeared in recent years concerns the alleged danger that Muslim- and Arab Americans pose to American political culture, namely in their support of Palestine and their adherence to what some commentators regard as an illiberal faith.  The Center for Immigration Studies, and influential Washington, DC-based think-tank, has published a number of articles warning that Muslim and Arab immigration will lead to diminished support for Israel, a weakened voice for American Jews, and a higher incidence of anti-Semitic bigotry.  One writer, in particular, contends that  ‘anyone even vaguely acquainted with the Koran knows, numerous surahs preach hatred and violence and call for ruthless war against unbelievers in the name of Allah…And it is but a short step from class Islamic supremacism and supercessionism to hatred, a short step from the belief that one’s own faith possesses absolute truth to the readiness to inflict violence, even death, on those who choose to stand outside it…’[6]


In fairness, the notion that Arab Americans are an embattled minority needs to be balanced against the fact that some members of Congress have come out strongly in support of Arab Americans (for instance, in vocal opposition among some US Senators to the appointment of Daniel Pipes to the US Institute of Peace), and that Arabs and Muslims are making notable gains as a political constituency.  Moreover, there have been a number of small but significant symbolic gestures in recent years—including the creation of an Eid postage stamp and the institution of a post-Ramadan feast at the White House—to foster the societal inclusion of Arab and Muslim Americans.  Yet the position of Arab Americans and Arabness in the public imagination remains precarious, and community members remain vulnerable to political attack, as outlined recently by Yvonne Haddad,[7] as well as verbal and physical attack.


Arab American leaders and organizations have adopted a number of different approaches to address this situation.  For some, the response has been to forge alliances with other types of organizations and to assert civil liberties and full political rights of Arab Americans.  Others have emphasized the accomplishments of Arab Americans and have encouraged more outreach activities to improve the image of Arab Americans in the community-at-large.  Some have sought to increase lobbying efforts and political mobilization, while others seem to have retreated from political activity in order to emphasize community-based cultural and philanthropic activities.  Many organizations have pursued a combination of these tactics.  But what is clear from our interviews with almost thirty activists in Washington, DC and Los Angeles is that the negative stereotyping of Arabs and the lack of full inclusion of Arab Americans in the political process remains a key concern.  Most of these activists contend that citizenship is of central importance to their activities—citizenship in the sense of being active participants in society, in integrating community members into the community-at-large and the political system, and adhering to ‘universal’, human values.  But how do ‘ordinary’ Arab Americans feel about these issues?  How do they understand their identities?  How do they understand citizenship and their position in American society?


The Al Hewar discussion group: identity, values, citizenship and belonging

One of the aims of the discussion forum was to get a sense of how people understand the idea of being ‘Arab American’ and whether this identity has any meaning to them.  It became clear from the start of the discussion that Arab American is not the only identity that audience members ascribe to themselves; on the contrary, they adhere to a multitude of different identities, viewpoints, interests, political affiliations and cultural attachments.  Participants, for instance, identify themselves in terms of gender, religion, political leanings, and particular countries of origin.  One respondent seems to eschew all such identities, preferring to refer to himself simply as a human being.   But the concept of ‘Arab American’ does resonate with many, if not most, of the group.  The respondents describe how this identity signifies having roots and important life experiences in two places—of being, in some respects, in a state of being in-between culture.  One male respondent states, for instance, 


I’ve lived more than half of my life here in the States, and, of course, I am American.  But I am not born here, and I cannot say I’m just American, but I am Arab American…I am very pleased for my work here and my life here.  But I cannot say I am American because half of my life [has been in Egypt].

A female respondent states,

I relate to American culture and what I appreciate in it, and also I relate to my roots.    I’m very proud of them and feel they make me unique in this environment.  I’m not totally American, and I’m not totally Arab and the only thing I can fit in is Arab American.


Such responses suggest that being Arab and being American signify different things—different values and cultural practices, different forms of interaction, different norms and social expectations.  This is especially evident in the words of a female respondent who states, 


I think of myself as Arab American.  Arab, because I grew up partly in the Middle East, and my whole heritage, my family, the language I speak with my parents, the way we socialize, the way we associate with each other is very Arab in nature; it’s not Western…But I also think of myself as an American, predominantly because I’m a woman, and America, with its Western ideas…allows women to be who they really are.  So, in that aspect, I combine both.


While most respondents seem to feel that being Arab and being American encompass two different sets of values and attitudes, they tend to reject the idea that being Arab is at odds with being American.  Instead, they suggest, Arab and American values can be combined quite successfully, in part because America allows individuals to choose which values and ways of life to pursue.   As one woman puts it, ‘the matter of choices is a value that I was born to respect.  I like to have choice and I like people to have choice, because if you impose certain things, people will do it in a fake manner and do it in hiding.  But if you allow the choice, what you see is what you get, and this is what I like’.  In part because of this element of choice, the respondents express that, for the most part, different identities fit together quite seamlessly, and that if one exercises a degree of what one man called ‘elasticity’, different values can overlap and combine with little difficulty.


It should be noted, however, that some respondents have a difference of opinion.  One female participant, in particular, argue strongly that American and Arab values and social practices are not only distinctive but also incompatible.  She states,  ‘I consider this society very permissive, and I don’t subscribe to American values at all.  I reject them.  I subscribe to my Muslim Arab values.  People here have a very low level of morality and ethics.’


Yet this view seems to be exceptional.  And, indeed, what emerges in later discussions about citizenship is a theme of the universalism of values.  This idea is anticipated by one male participant, who remarks that one needs to distinguish between traditions and values: while traditions may be quite distinctive, values are more universal in nature.  He states, ‘Values [are] for all human beings around the world; it’s not really just one country or one origin’.


Respondents’ views on citizenship reflect both this sense of universalism—that citizenship encompasses values that are for all human beings—and a sense that citizenship encompasses a variety of relationships.  One woman speaks of citizenship as a relationship between individuals and government, and one that rests on the honesty of both.  She states, 


For me, being a citizen is like any other relationship—it’s give and take and also about caring.  Caring includes honesty in dealing.  I like my country to deal with me on issues in a very honest way and open way, and also I like to deal as a citizen with my government in an honest way…It’s not a blind alliance…


According to a several of respondents, being a ‘good citizen’ is about being socially responsible—that is, fulfilling obligations toward one’s country, including obeying laws and paying taxes, and also actively participating and steering society toward the path of goodness.  The female respondent quoted above also states, for instance, ‘To be a good citizen is to always tell my country that what you’re doing is right and wrong, like any other relationship.’  Similarly, a male respondent contends,


Being a good citizen is to do my duties and my obligations toward the country I belong to, including participating in elections, and maybe I run for office just to serve the people; I have to pay taxes, and I have to work throughout my work life.  And if I see something wrong, I have to direct it to the right.  That’s my feeling about citizenship, regardless of where it is.


And another male respondent states,


Citizenship means that everyone is a member of the larger group or society.  This member has to in-put positive thinking in that society.  Whatever is right, whatever you think is right, you will say is right, and whatever is wrong, you should say is wrong.  So we keep the good track of society and a good direction.

A key point that emerges in the discussion is that participants’ sense of citizenship is not necessarily tied to a particular country.  Citizenship, for instance, can refer to one’s social responsibility to particular communities within a country.  Thus, one woman refers to citizenship as social responsibility ‘to your community, to the larger community, to be willing to be out there, not necessarily to serve the country but to try to improve around you, your community’.  For one of the male participants, social responsibility can also extend beyond one’s own country, and being a good citizen means exercising ‘good ethical values’ wherever you might be.  Another respondent concurs with this view, adding, ‘If each citizen, whatever his nationality is, believed in [the right] direction, that means the whole world would reach one point, so we’d be closer and closer because we are reaching one universal value.’ 

But there is another, more emotional element of citizenship, and one that perhaps ties people more intimately to particular places.  Citizenship, according to one young male participant, refers to a sense of belonging that may exist even in the absence of formal citizenship status.  He states,  ‘Even for some of us who are not yet citizens, we feel that we are part of this society maybe, partially, because we’ve lived here for a long time, but also we’ve learned a lot and we appreciate it…It’s a psychological connection in my view.’ Similarly, another male respondent states, ‘how do you feel who you are?  That’s what defines citizenship.’


If we combine these different perspectives, it is clear that citizenship is a complex concept with a number of different meanings.  In ideal terms, citizenship, according to the views of the Al Hewar discussion group, refers to a relationship between individuals and the country in which they live—a relationship that may be both practical/political and emotional.  But this is a relationship that rests on universal ethical values—specifically on a sense of social responsibility.  And this sense of social responsibility may apply not just to one’s country, but also to one’s local community and to the world as a whole.  Being a ‘good citizen,’ in other words, does not preclude a concern with one’s local community or with the world as a whole.


Do the participants feel that they and other Arab Americans have achieved this idea of citizenship?  Do they feel that they are able to fully exercise their membership in society?  Responses to these types of questions are very mixed.  But there is a sense that identifying fully as American citizens has become somewhat difficult in recent years, not because of a clash of values, but because of a political context which does not fulfill their own expectations of what is ‘right’ and ethical.


One woman, who had earlier described herself as relating as much to American culture as to her Arab roots, decries what she sees as the double standard emerging in American politics, which, she feels, compromises her faith in the fairness of the American system.  She states, 


When I was raising my children [during the first Gulf War], they’d come and say, ‘they call me certain names’, so, I said, ‘Look, the law that is protecting others is protecting us, so believe in that.’  Now, I feel that there are certain laws that have been issued targeting certain communities, especially mine, and they are a deviation from what I believed when I came here.  Some people come for economic success, some people come for values.  When you come for values and you see these values changing because of national security and threats, you start doubting if there is a fair system in this world. 


Along the same lines, a young American-born attorney in the audience speaks of his concerns about the government’s treatment of Arab and Muslim Americans. Describing a case involving what he feels to be FBI harassment of a Muslim client, he states, 


After filing a series of pleas in the US District Court, I learned that [the FBI] had filed a clandestine warrant to seize my e-mail accounts, and they were basically thumbing their nose at me saying, ‘…If you want to file a civil rights action, go ahead, but we’re not going to give you any documentation of why this was done and who did it and where the information went.’  So, I would say that Arabs and Muslims of whatever flavor in this country have a long row to hoe.  And it’s going to get worse, I think, instead of getting better.


For several participants, events taking place overseas have a constant, though largely unwelcome, presence in the minds of Arab Americans, making their position in American society frustrating and problematic.  As one man states, ‘I think the publicity about Arabs comes from the lobbyists for Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian problem.  I feel that if we don’t have the Israeli-Palestinian problem, then we don’t have any problem here in the United States’.  A female respondent also makes reference to events in the Middle East, expressing her frustration at the unwillingness of the government to allow Arab Americans to contribute as citizens to a solution to America’s problems in the region:  


We felt that with problems in an area [with which] we are so familiar, we could be productive by giving our input and feedback.  [But] we were isolated as suspicious, and that’s frustrating because we could have contributed to the society as citizens and tell them how to solve the problem in a much more effective and economical and shorter way than it is done now.


And another female respondent further articulates a sense of frustration with events in the Arab world and their effects on Arab Americans’ sense of inclusion: 


[T]hese issues keep Arab Americans tied to that part of the world in a very emotional way, keep them from being the good citizens that they want to be.  They want to live in peace like anyone else, but this emotional issue that’s always there keeps them always in a bind to that part of the world.  It kind of keeps a barriers always from them feeling ‘I want to be an American, I love this country, it’s wonderful…’.  But then there is this issue that just keeps the emotions going.


Of course, not all participants in the discussion feel that the problems facing Arab Americans are rooted in problems of the Arab world or the US government’s one-sided handling of these problems.  One respondent notes, quite simply, that not all Arab immigrants are citizens, and so it is difficult to expect them to have a full sense of citizenship or to consider themselves as American citizens and Arab Americans.  And another respondent suggests that many Arab Americans are reluctant to fully participate in American society because of their own internal conflicts and inhibitions.  He states, ‘It seems to me that none of the issues we feel we’re faced with are inherent to us, are internal to us; it’s everything that the others are doing to us.  We are also faced with severe issues on the inside that are hurting us, including identity.  Who are we?  We are so afraid of assimilation.’  


But the overwhelming sentiment in the groups seems to be that citizenship in the fullest sense of the word—a sense of belonging, an honest relationship between the government and the people, a sense of social responsibility—has been tested and compromised by America’s involvement in the Arab world and its concomitant treatment of Arabs and Muslims within the United States itself.   Participants continue to adhere to an ideal of citizenship that is both universalistic in nature but also oriented toward one’s country and local community.  But they question the extent to which this ideal is borne out by events unfolding in the United States today.  For some, at least, the desire to practice citizenship and to feel citizenship has been stifled or frustrated by the government’s seeming unwillingness to pay attention to their concerns as it engages in policies in the Arab world which they feel are misguided, unjust, and beneficial neither to Americans nor Arabs.

Some Tentative Conclusions

How does this discussion help us to understand the viewpoints of Arab Americans?  How does it help us to understand some of the wider debates currently taking place about immigration, assimilation, and citizenship?


It is, of course, important to bear in mind that these findings are not based on a representative sample.  Those who participated in the discussion were self-selecting, and they undoubtedly reflect the relatively well-educated and affluent socio-economic composition of Arab Americans in the Washington, DC area.  It is likely that we would receive a rather different set of responses were we to conduct this same discussion forum in another city and with a different group of individuals.    But the value of the exercise was to identify a range of viewpoints and to shed some light on recent analyses of immigrant identity and citizenship.  By examining the responses of participants, we have been able to identify, to however limited a degree, some of the different ways in which people understand their membership in American society, and to assess why they might feel ambivalent about this membership. 


To go back to issues raised at the beginning of this article, there is a common perception in the United States today that immigrants are not as able or willing to assimilate as their predecessors.  Many reasons are given for this, including changing economic circumstances, cultural differences between newcomers and the native-born, and persistent ‘transnational’ links between immigrants and their places of origin.  Whatever the reasons given for the lack of immigrant incorporation, many commentators feel that citizenship is losing its value and waning in significance, as immigrants supposedly remain insulated within their own cultures rather than engaging with the broader society. 


But such arguments might not capture the tension that many immigrants face between engaging with the broader society and feeling excluded from that society.  To begin, it seems unreasonable to expect that immigrants will simply dispense with their identification with their home countries—this certainly was not the case with earlier waves of immigrants—or that they will embrace a single identity.  The discussion at Al Hewar Center emphasizes that any given individual might have several identities, not all of them related to either home country or ‘host society.’  This is undoubtedly true not only of the discussion forum participants, but of people more generally, whether or not they are immigrants.  At the same time, it is far from clear that having different identities precludes an individual from valuing citizenship or identifying with one’s adopted country.


Those with whom we spoke at Al Hewar Center indeed take citizenship seriously, and citizenship has multiple meanings to them.  Some speak of a sense of belonging to one’s country.  But identifying with one’s country certainly is not equated with an unquestioning acceptance of government policy.  Indeed, for some participants, being a ‘good citizen’ requires that one constantly question the government’s motives and ensure that the country pursues a just path.  Citizenship also signifies a sense of social responsibility to one’s country, to particular communities, as well as to the world.   For none of those with whom we spoke does citizenship signify ‘just a passport’.  And this is perhaps why respondents speak so passionately about their frustration with the gap that exists between their ideal of citizenship and their experiences with the political system. 


The viewpoints gathered in the discussion forum suggest that immigrants (Arab or otherwise) may face many problems in adjusting to a new country, including the need to reconcile very different sets of values and cultural practices.  But many of the tensions that Arab Americans face seem to be the result not of irreconcilable cultural differences or cultural insularity but of political circumstances.  One’s sense of citizenship—of being fully part of the social and political life of the United States—can be compromised by persistent feelings marginalization.  For many of the Arab Americans with whom we spoke, such feelings result from the government’s course of action in countries of origin and from the government’s treatment of community members in the US itself.  The continued concern for political events in the Arab world, in this respect, does not appear to be entirely a matter of choice for those with whom we spoke.   But it is important to note that concern for these events does not seem to weaken participants’ belief in the citizenship ideal.  Rather, it makes them more cognizant of the limits that may be placed on citizenship in a particular political climate. 


[1] For more information about our research, please contact Dr. Nagel at C.R.Nagel@Lboro.ac.uk

[2] Samuel Huntington, ‘The Hispanic Challenge’.  Foreign Policy, March/April 2004. 

[3] The smaller figure comes from the US Census, based entirely on the ancestry question; the larger figure is based on research conducted by Zogby International and published by the Arab American Institute (see www.aaiusa.org)

[4] See website above.

[5] Suad Joseph, ‘Against the Grain of the Nation: the Arab-.’  In M. Suleiman (Ed.), Arabs in America (pp. 257-271).  Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

[6] S. Steinlight, ‘The Jewish stake in America’s changing demography: reconsidering a misguided immigration policy.’  Discussion paper published by the Center for Immigration Studies, Washington, DC, 2002.  Available at www.cis.org.

[7] Yvonne Y. Haddad, ‘The Quest for “Moderate” Islam.’  Presented at Al Hewar Center, 18 February 2003.

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