Negotiating Identity and Community After September 11

I became a United States citizen four years ago because of my long love affair with New York….I am a Bangladeshi woman and my last name is Rahman, a Muslim name…Before last week, I had thought of myself as a lawyer, a feminist, a wife, a sister, a friend, a woman on the street. Now I begin to see myself as a brown woman who bears a vague resemblance to the images of terrorists we see on television….As I become identified as someone outside the New York community, I feel myself losing the power to define myself…

–Anika Rahman 1

In this poignant statement by a U.S citizen, ethnically Bangladeshi with Muslim linkage, the complex web of issues involved in immigrant identity is dramatically clear. Embedded in this statement are many of the issues that those of us concerned with categories of identification generally, and ethnic identification in particular, grapple with. Identification is typically a complex rather than simple construction, involving multiple aspects of oneself that may overlap or compete. Identification is a dynamic process, in which the meaning, the function, and even the basic labels can change from one point in time to another. Further, and most relevant now, identification is a socially constructed process in which the context and views of others have a significant role, shaping options and consequences for individual experience.

The events of September 11 have without question altered the context of identification for thousands of U.S. citizens and for those immigrants, legal and illegal, whose citizenship is still in flux. The current estimate of first generation Arab-American immigrants in the U.S. is 2,315,392. Current estimates of the number of Muslims in the U.S. are far less certain, varying from 2 to 6 million. (It should be noted that Arab-Americans and Muslims are far from overlapping sets. Many Arab-Americans are Christian; Muslims in turn come from a variety of ethnic groups in the U.S., including African American, Latino, and, as the highly-publicized case of John Walker Lindh illustrates, from Euro American backgrounds as well.)

Attitudes toward immigrants of any stripe have varied in the U. S. over the years. Prior to the restrictive immigration legislation of 1924, for example, opponents of immigration became increasingly strident, and the idealistic image of the “melting pot” offered by playwright Israel Zangwill in 1908 was challenged on both economic and racial grounds. In the 1950s and 1960s, more positive attitudes emerged, reflected in John F. Kennedy’s posthumously published A Nation of Immigrants and culminating in the immigration policy reforms of 1965. Yet in the wake of that legislation, with the consequent dramatic increase in immigration to the U.S. (and from countries other than the previous Western European mode), there is evidence that views toward immigration are becoming increasingly negative. National survey data show a majority of both white and black Americans favor a decrease in current levels of immigration (while this is a minority position for Latinos and Asian Americans). 2 An analysis of the images of immigration on the covers of wide-circulation magazines in the U.S. shows fewer affirmative and more alarmist messages in the period from 1965 to 1999. 3 Anti-immigration discourse has emerged in the political arena as well, as evidenced in legislative initiatives in California and the political platform of the Reform Party.

Attitudes toward Arab immigrants have not been given a great deal of attention until now. Indeed, it is likely that for most Americans, ideas about Arabs and about Muslims are not well differentiated, and attitudes about Arabs in particular are not well defined. More general work on attitudes toward immigrant groups suggests that both simplicity and negativity of image are associated with immigrants whose culture is unfamiliar, and who are more “different” from the U.S. norm in appearance, language, and culture, 4 all of which could characterize Arab Americans. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that, prior to September 11, the prevailing stereotype of Arab Americans was somewhat negative but not particularly well articulated and, indeed, that many Americans had given little thought to the subject.

On such a weakly defined concept, the impact of a dramatic and terrifying event such as September 11 can be considerable, overwhelming the field and creating images that are both vivid and lasting. Such is the case, I believe, for many people, whose image of Arab Americans and Muslims now begins and ends with a terrorist. Such images, in turn, lay the groundwork for incidents of prejudice and discrimination toward the target group, many of which have been reported in the media.

It is in this newly-defined context that the Arab American immigrant must consider questions of identification of the kind that Anika Rahman raised: What do I call myself? What does it mean to be that kind of person? And how is that ethnicity valued, by me and by others? These questions are central to the study of identity and to an understanding of the processes by which identity is negotiated.

At the simplest level, one can ask whether the immigrant to the U.S. sees him or herself primarily as an American, an ethnically-hyphenated American (e.g. Arab-American), or as the ethnicity of origin (e.g. a Bangladeshi). Or, as we have increasingly coming to appreciate, as some combination of these identifications, with the relative salience of any particular identity dependent on when and where the question is raised. Underneath the label itself are issues of meaning and value. The meaning of one’s ethnic identity comes from multiple sources-from the traditions and heritage of the country, from the social practices of one’s immediate network, as well as from the social representations held by the culture at large. Evaluation is a more unidimensional notion, a general feeling of the relative goodness or badness of one’s group. Early theorists tended to assume a “looking glass self,” in which the views of society would be mirrored in one’s own appraisal. We now find, however, that most groups have a positive view of themselves, regardless of negative evaluations and stigmatization that may exist in the society at large. Yet, in the case of an overwhelming negative event such as that of 9/11, even those basic tendencies for positive regard may be challenged – to the extent that one sees some basis of connection between one’s own group identification and the characteristics of the other.

For the immigrant in general, and for the contemporary Arab American immigrant in particular, these processes of identity negotiation, selection, and presentation are necessarily carried out in a context – a context that makes some choices easier and some more difficult, that offers a particular set of opportunities and constraints, and that shapes the outcomes one is likely to experience. At least three specific patterns have been evident in the wake of September 11, which might be loosely linked to the classic triad of approaching, avoiding, and leaving the scene.

In the first of these, the goal is to reach out in some way, making both a statement of who one is and attempting to establish some basis of connection or communication with others who are not part of one’s group – others who may be a potential source of threat, discrimination, and prejudicial action. Taxis in New York City, for example, that rapidly sprouted American flags on windshield and hood were, in my impression, most likely to have drivers who might, by appearance, be labeled Arab or Muslim. These included those for whom the label was inappropriate, as among the large community of Sikhs who were frequently mistaken for Palestinian or Muslim. Another example of what I might term a strategy of self-proclamation or self-explanation is one with potentially more beneficial long-term effects, exemplified by the myriad of educational efforts that have developed in religious, artistic, and political communities. Here the focus is not on the ethnic or religious label per se, but rather on what means and values are associated with that group membership. As examples, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City offered a series of plays exploring the lives of women in Muslim cultures around the world. Churches, mosques, and synagogues across the country organized panels to explore the meaning of religion and the common bases of worship. In these efforts, the goal was to increase knowledge and create positive images of Muslims and Arab-Americans, a counter to the tendencies to simplify and negate.

A second strategy evidenced by Arab American immigrants in the past several months is one of turning more inward, relying on the network of family and friends who define one’s group and share its values. The choice to find a community of kindred souls is nothing new for the immigrant, of course. Despite the dominance of assimilation models in American social science, immigrants have often sought to establish neighborhoods and organizations that can serve as sites for ethnic maintenance. By example, one of the earliest immigration studies in the social science literature, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America 5 reported on the ways in which Polish-American societies were formed and operated through boarding house, church, and community center. More recently, discussion often points to the patterns of Latino migration and the development of highly concentrated neighborhoods (e.g., the Cuban-American community in Florida), the development of Spanish business communities, and the growth of Spanish newspapers and television programming.

In times of threat, such as many Arab-Americans are feeling now, it is not surprising that a tendency to “circle the wagons” would be more in evidence. Threats from an outgroup almost invariably lead to a strengthening of ingroup resolve and cohesion, as members of the group gain strength, security, and an affirmation of meaning from sharing with others who similarly identify.

A third reaction of Arab Americans is to “leave the scene,” that is, to return to the country of origin rather than remain in the more uncertain U.S. environment. Although there have been a number of reports of this “flight” pattern following September 11, it is difficult to yet determine how prevalent this reverse migration is. Reverse migration is again not unique to the present situation. “Transnationalism” has become a popular term in immigration discussions, pointing to the many people who either return to their country of origin after some period or who maintain essentially a dual-country life style. Yet as Nancy Foner has shown, transnationalism is not a new phenomenon. In the first two decades of the 20th century, another period of high immigration, many immigrants returned to their home countries after varying periods of residence in the United States – 36 for every 100 who arrived. 6 Causes for this reverse migration are many, but economic shifts are often one of the more influential factors. As for the Arab Americans who choose to leave now, there is no reason to assume that the return to country of origin is a permanent move; it is quite reasonable to expect that, dependent on future political and economic developments, either the same or later generations would again find a community in the United States.

The events of September 11, and the events that have succeeded them, in many respects spotlighted issues that are fundamental to the analysis of immigration in the United States. Ethnic and national identities are always negotiated in a context in which both positive and negative outcomes accrue. Priorities change and networks are reformulated – sometimes in a way that is consistent with an assimilation paradigm of blending to the norm, sometimes in ways more complicated and multifaceted. The context is always an important component of the process and it, too, can not be considered in static terms. Not all immigrants arrive to the same “America”: color, religion, and history have always made a difference. Further, as the wonderfully evocative title How the Irish Became White 7 suggests and as the internment of Japanese-Americans during the World War II period illustrates, groups receive different treatments at different points in time.

For Arab-Americans in the United States in 2002, the situation today is much more volatile than it was a year ago. For those who view Arab-Americans, as members of their immediate communities or from afar, the challenges of understanding are in much higher relief than they were before. In the months to come, the ways in which all sides respond and take action will tell us much about the condition of the U.S., now in its sixth century as a home for immigrants.

  1. Anika Rahman, “Fear in the Open City”, New York Times, September 19, 2001, p. A27.
  2. D. O. Sears, J. Citrin, S. V. Cheleden, and C. van Laar (1999). “Cultural Diversity and Multicultural Politics: Is Ethnic Balkanization Psychologically Inevitable?” In D. A. Prentice & D. T. Miller (Eds.), Cultural Divides: Understanding and Overcoming Group Conflict (Pp. 35-79). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  3. Leo R. Chavez, Covering Immigration: Popular Images and the Politics of the Nation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  4. Mullen, B. (2001). “Ethnophaulisms for Ethnic Immigrant Groups.” Journal of Social Issues, 57(3), 457-475.
  5. W. I. Thomas and F. Znaniecki (1958). The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (2 vol.). New York: Dover Publications.
  6. N. Foner (2000). From Ellis Island to JFK: New York’s Two Great Waves of Immigration. New Haven and New York: Yale University Press and Russell Sage Foundation.
  7. Ignatiev, N. (1995). How the Irish Became White. New York & London: Routledge.