Mona Fetouh

Mona Fetouh
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October 25
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Egyptian-American aid worker currently in Thailand

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Salon.com
Editor’s Pick
SEPTEMBER 16, 2010 4:46AM

Both Muslim and American

Rate: 21 Flag

 

Up until 9 years ago, we were largely invisible. Millions of Muslim-Americans had been quietly studying, working and living in communities across the US for decades and most of our fellow Americans paid marginal attention. Growing up in upstate New York, I might occasionally have been asked to give a presentation on Eid during school holiday specials, or classmates may have teased me about not eating the ham sandwiches in the school cafeteria, but for the most part, I went through the same struggles any kid does growing up, especially when navigating between two cultures which felt equally relevant to who I was and who I was becoming.

A Pew Center poll in 2007 confirmed that my experience in America was not unique. American Muslims are well-assimilated and in fact on average are better educated and have higher incomes than the average American. When I moved to France several years ago and witnessed the tensions surrounding Muslim populations there—tensions which are mirrored across Western Europe—I felt a sense of smug superiority. The American system, including birthright citizenship and a national identity based on ideals rather than ethnicity, had proven that immigrants and their children could participate in American life in a way that our fellow Muslims in Europe could only dream of. I had never considered myself as not American, or felt that there was a conflict between my American, Arab, Egyptian and Muslim identities. I never felt the need to choose allegiances, because in my mind all were compatible. Muslims Americans have widely expressed the same sentiments.

Our state of invisibility ended on September 11, 2001, when a small group of people claiming to act in the name of their version of Islam mounted a horrendous attack in the US, aiming to kill thousands and destroy symbols of American government and economic systems. Like all Americans, American Muslims were attacked that day as well, and suffered the same grief, shock, disbelief and anger that the rest of the country felt. And while some hate crimes did occur, most of us had our initial fears of backlash laid to rest due to the outpouring of support from our communities. But suddenly a new spotlight shone upon our religion, upon the policies and events related to some of our home countries, and upon us, who were no longer invisible. While many sought to understand—the “why do they hate us” soul-searching that was common in the months after the attack—others looked for someone to blame, and somewhere to place their very palpable and understandable fear and anger. And unfortunately, the administration at the time, despite their platitudes that “Islam is a religion of peace,” reinforced those feelings by cynically exploiting the basest fears of Americans, reminding us that we are constantly under color-coded threat, in order to advance their political interests and wage war on a country that had nothing to do with September 11.

Meanwhile, American Muslims were in a position we had never experienced before. The initial support we all experienced faded. Muslims-Americans who had traditionally voted Republican due to social and fiscal conservatism, began to turn left, politically, due to the Bush administration’s policies on Iraq, Guantanamo and the erosion of civil liberties which affected us disproportionately. Even so, we continued to live among our communities as we always had and the spotlight faded slightly over the years.

All that changed when a black man named Barack Hussein Obama was elected in 2008. A certain segment of American society began to feel mistrustful of someone they viewed as not like them. Fringe conspiracy theories questioning his birthplace and religion somehow found airtime in mainstream news outlets and a group of people aligned under the Tea Party banner protested that they wanted their country back, thus prompting the question, “from whom?” Because it is thankfully no longer acceptable to openly discriminate on the basis of race, the right’s rhetoric on Obama shifted to his “exoticism” so that white fears could focus on a more socially acceptable prejudice—that against Arabs and Muslims. A recent Pew center poll showed that a disturbing number of Americans feel “distrust” towards Muslims and that many believe that Obama is Muslim or “aren’t sure” what his religion is. Despite the fact that Obama’s policies are centrist, and have included scaling up the war in Afghanistan and continuing the Patriot Act, he has been viewed by this same segment as somehow more radically leftist than previous Democratic presidents. The resulting anger has found a convenient scapegoat in Muslims and Muslim-Americans

Suddenly, that harmonious co-existence of identities which had been the foundation of my American experience was being called into question by people with an agenda to perpetrate fear and mistrust for political ends. A coalition of right-wing bloggers and media personalities created fake controversies to rile up groups who are already feeling disaffected and angry over the economy. But in doing so, these same groups are calling into question the core values—not just freedom of speech and religion, but those which have made America uniquely able to absorb waves of immigration in a manner which has strengthened, not divided, the country. And for the first time, I am being asked to defend my religion and my place as an American, despite never having doubted this place before.

Perhaps this wave of anti-Muslim sentiment will pass once midterms are over. And perhaps debates over non-issues like an Islamic center in lower Manhattan or the rantings of a Florida pastor will open up a wider discussion on the role of religious diversity in American life. But for now, as a Muslim-American, I feel compelled to remind people that I am here, I am one of six million, and we are as committed to American values as the rest of our compatriots. And what better way to honor those values than to use these recent events as an opportunity for engagement rather than further division. 

 

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Comments

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Very much enjoyed your comments and the truth behind them. America has values--we just have to get back to them and move forward.
Excellent article. I understand your views and values as a Turkish-Canadian born Muslim. We need to speak up and educate Americans and Canadians who are getting a wrong perspective on Islam and painting all Muslims with the same tainted brush. Basic values and humanity are same for all mankind. ~R
Thank you for this thoughtful piece.
I'm not sure why this isn't being read and rated more, but I intend to Facebook it the moment I get out from behind this firewall.
Nice try, Moneya, but those of us who get all of our information from cable news and talk radio - we're on to you. We know that you're actually a stealth jihadist who secretly intends to impose Shari'a Law on the rest of us by some mystical and sinister artiface.

Rest assured, we're prepared. Right now I'm wearing my tri-corner hat to ward off your Muslim Mind Rays. And I'm constantly scanning blogs like RedState and Little Green Footballs for updates on your stealth plans. You won't get me!
Congratulations on your EP on the very first piece you published.
Outstanding article. I do believe that much of the rhetoric will end after the mid terms but sadly, not all of it. I almost never mention my own post in someone else's comments but tomorrow am I am posting a piece on this subject, with a different POV.
wow so much in that piece. i am happy t see you a normal childhood. this country is not full of racist. some on the left like to say so, well then how did obama get to the white house ? as for the war it's not against a country, just the muslim terrorist that use the place for bad things. for the tea party wanting their country back, it's from the attack by the socialist and marxist in and outside the government.
back to the founding principals and our constitution. i believe in personal freedoms not the collective. you have enjoyed the opportunities and freedoms that america offers, but these freedoms are slowly being taken away. join that the fight to return america back to her rightful place.
This is an excellent post, moneya. I hope you will continue to offer us your unique perspective about Muslims and their issues.

Lezlie
Moneya,
Superb article. So glad that the editors noticed it and gave it an EP.
When I was working in the high school, there was a local controversy (pre-9/11) which brought out some very ugly letters to the editor which should never have been printed. The Muslim kids in school were scared, shocked that these ignorant and hostile feelings were being expressed in the community where they had always felt pretty safe.
There is intolerance and racism in our country but there are more of us, I believe, who are not hateful and support the American values of freedom of religion.
Thanks for being here. Hoping that you will stay to illuminate the corners around here.
Great post! The increase in prejudice in this country is truly frightening - as you point out, there has always been prejudice, but until recently, our country was moving (albeit slowly) toward inclusion. I never thought I'd see so many people in this country speaking so harshly and so publicly against any religion, especially one as mainstream and peaceful as Islam. There are terrible historical precedents for this and I'm afraid that if we don't see a shift soon, we'll return to one of those dark places.

There was an interesting article in Slate this week about why people believe propaganda, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Check it out: http://www.slate.com/id/2267299/.

Rated.
Thanks everyone for your thoughtful and supportive comments. I was reluctant to post my thoughts and am encouraged by the response. And thanks to jp1954 for making me literally laugh out loud!
Yours is a necessary voice.

Thank you.
thanks. as an oef veteran i appreciate your comments
I've known many Muslims. And they were all very kind. Very kind.
Thanks for a great post, Moneya - and salam alaikum from a fellow American Muslim! :)
I'm deeply sorry for your lost of identity. It is easy to say that every immigrant group experiences such denigration before they reach middle class acceptance. It is another to expect an individual to accept such a rationale. As a Jewish-American I have personally experienced exclusion, ridicule and other anti-semitic activities. Please know that you are not alone and that there are many Americans who accept you for who you are as a Muslim-American or an Egyptian-American but primarily and simply as an American.