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Covering Islam and Muslims
in America

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Muslim Ethnic & National Diversity

While the overriding cultural image of a Muslim in America is that of an Arab in a flowing djellaba robe, the reality is that Islam contains some wildly diverse ethnicities – such as the black Nation of Islam, the South Asian Pakistanis and Malaysians and North Africans.

Most of these “flavors” of Islam do not appear in the media, which is unfortunate, because the media are the means by which images and representations are communicated to the rest of the U.S. Nowhere was that more evident than in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks when people with a certain look were attacked, “whether they were Arab or Muslim or not,” said Edward E. Curtis, a professor of religious studies at the University of Indiana.

The important thing, he said, is to “describe not what ought to be, but what is and has been ... and what is is a panoply of interpretations of what it means to be a Muslim.”

Curtis also discussed the issue of race within the Muslim community. Despite the racial divide in Islam, there has always been contact between different groups within the religion, he said. From the beginning, African-Americans have had connections with a multi-racial Muslim community in the United States. However, he added, there is still a “serious racial divide between black American Muslims and non-black American Muslims.”

One issue he felt needed more address in the media is the “importance of the racialization of American faith communities.” He said that “Southern California is pretty famous for having communities where Muslims cross ethnic and racial lines,” and asked, “who is crossing the lines, who is not crossing the lines? Are there larger processes going on that are affecting Muslim Americans that have very little to do with religion?”

South Asian Muslims in America
Karen Leonard, a historian and anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine, said that it was South Asian Muslims who first reached out to African-American Muslims and led the effort to unite all Muslims in the United States. She argued that Muslims from Pakistan and India and other South Asian countries had more advantages and privileges which allowed them to create this push for unification.

Some of these advantages were:

  • They have experienced religious and cultural diversity in South Asia, allowing them to bring experience as a minority and a knowledge of different strands of Islam;
  • They are not polarized by the Israel-Palestine issue;
  • They are more flexibile on issues of freedom, autonomy, gender and sexuality.

Leonard also added that journalists should “instead of religion, religion, religion ... look at the diverse identities of Muslims in this country, look at class ... look to language, look to generation change ... look to gender issues.”

Arab Muslims in America
Sarah Gualtieri, a USC professor in American Studies and Ethnicity, discussed the topic of Arab-American representations and key issues for journalists interested in exploring the diversity of the community.

Arabs are now officially considered “white,” and there has always been tension around what race they belong to, Gualtieri said. This is inconsistent with their life experiences and the political coalitions they have forged with people of color.

She also discussed the term “Arab-American,” saying it was coined in the 1960s when Arab nationalism in the Middle East gained popularity. Immigrants who came to the United States during this time were committed to the idea of broad Arab solidarity and redefined the term “Arab.”

This brought up an issue concerning census estimates on the Arab-American population. The U.S. Census Department estimates that to be around 1.2 million, she said, while the Arab-American Institute estimates the number to be closer to 3 million.

“How do you define who is Arab?” Gualtieri asked. And more importantly, “how do persons who are identified as Arab-American, how do they...identify themselves?”

She stressed the importance of thinking of Arab-Americans as having complex identities. “There is a tendency to homogenize the Arab population in the media and to think of it as perpetually foreign,” Gualtieri said. “More attention needs to be given to how Arabs in America think of themselves as many things, as having identities tied to their cities of origin, to their places of residence and also to their political alliances.”

"I would like to see a lot more attention to generation issues and to youth,” she said. “One of the most successful events the Arab-American community held in New Orleans was a hip-hop recital. I think there are really interesting things going on in youth culture that need more attention. We have to think about the population’s secular orientations.”

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