We are talked about, fretted about, debated. For some, we are a worry; for others, a cause. We have our own perpetually trending hashtag, which tends to make me, and us, nervous (#Muslims). We are, for better or worse, a “we.” It wasn’t always like this. It happened over time.
For most of my life, I saw myself as an American who happened to be Muslim, rather than a Muslim who happened to be American. But now — almost imperceptibly and without quite wanting it to — I find my identity narrowing. I suppose I have Donald Trump to thank partly for this. From the very start of his campaign, Trump, like so many of his fellow right-wing populists, seemed preoccupied with the “Muslim threat.”
The attacks of September 11 began a process that continues to this day, in which Muslims are categorized as “good” or “bad,” either “loyal” or vaguely suspect. Without really meaning to, Trump has helped to salvage the legacy of President George W. Bush. Today, Bush is hailed as a great statesman for his words of solidarity in the aftermath of the attacks, saying, for instance, that “Islam is peace” and insisting that intimidation against Muslim citizens “should not and… will not stand in America.”
But at the same time, Bush led a different sort of rhetorical charge that was considerably less magnanimous. You were either “with us or against us,” he said. Bush was addressing a global audience, but the formulation was interpreted by many American Muslims as a not so subtle demand to affirm our commitment to a never-ending war on terror that Muslims and non-Muslims alike now understand was inherently flawed. From then on, Muslims were asked to condemn every terror attack committed in their name, as if they themselves, merely by virtue of being born Muslim, somehow bore collective responsibility. It began to seem like no matter what we did or didn’t say, we would always somehow be implicated in the acts of others.
Our opponents attack us as Muslims, but our supporters also defend us as Muslims.
Under Trump — who famously said, “I think Islam hates us” — Islamophobia has intensified, surpassing the paranoia of the post-9/11 period. This more palpable anti-Muslim bigotry has had a number of effects, some unintended. One is that it makes Muslims feel even more conscious of being, well, Muslim. As the Muslim interfaith leader Eboo Patel put it, “A consequence of powerful outsiders attacking an identity is that people with even the slimmest connection to that identity will feel offended, find that once-small part of themselves growing in personal significance, then seek to reconnect with that identity.”
There was a time not too long ago when Muslims in the West weren’t viewed primarily as Muslims, but rather as Arabs, Moroccans, Turks, and Pakistanis. Those are also our identities, but gradually our Muslimness took over. The “Muslim” category offers a kind of clarity. Religious identities, after all, are often more potent than national or regional ones, particularly for second- and third-generation Americans. But “the figure of the Muslim,” to put it more pejoratively, also offers clarity for those who reject us. As I noted in a recent Brookings report, for right-wing populist parties across Europe, Muslims aren’t just Muslims but also repositories for a long list of cultural grievances, including gender equality, gay rights, sexual freedom, secularism, race, the growing irrelevance of Christianity, and declining “native” populations.
Even in the United States, where Muslims are far from the largest minority group, one of the strongest predictors of partisan affiliation is a person’s attitude toward Muslims and Islam. According to polling by Shibley Telhami, favorable views of Islam actually increased significantly during the 2016 presidential campaign, but this increase came entirely from Democrats and independents. This is one of the (few) virtues of a polarized two-party system: If one party doesn’t seem to like you much, the other party will step in to pick up the slack. Among liberals, one of the easiest ways to broadcast your anti-Trump credentials is to be “pro-Muslim.”
Here, too, we are a repository, but in reverse. We have become a key Democratic constituency within the ever-growing and increasingly diverse coalition of minority constituencies. This is great (and it’s why I would vote Democratic even if my policy positions were somehow to change and align with Republicans). I know that at least one of the country’s two main parties would come to our defense if our civil rights and liberties were to come under threat. Our opponents attack us as Muslims, but our supporters also defend us as Muslims.
Safety is one benefit of identity politics. But then there is the other side: the collapsing of individuality; the expectation that one’s views will (or should) align with that of the larger group; that one particular aspect of identity should take precedence; that, as a member of a minority group, I am somehow responsible for or tied to the actions of other members; and that intersectional solidarity matters more than the ideas that we, as individuals, might hold.
For most of my high school years, Bill Clinton was president. In the Philadelphia suburbs where I grew up, I looked different, but in a generically ethnic kind of way. There was one classmate, but only really one, who zeroed in on my Muslimness. He would (jokingly) call me “terrorist.” I don’t recall minding too much, probably because I was impressed that he knew what a terrorist was. That was before Muslims became primarily known for and inevitably linked to their association with terrorist attacks, al-Qaida, and religious extremism.
The accidents of history — the things that never would have happened and never should have happened — matter quite a lot. For me, and for many Muslims, September 11 was a dual tragedy: first, as an American who saw my fellow Americans killed and who watched the smoke rising from the Pentagon that day from my freshman dorm. And second, as a Muslim who, for the first time, had to try to make sense of how those who claimed to share my faith could commit such atrocities in the name of that very faith.
Before long, we found our civil liberties under attack in the form of the Patriot Act and other hasty legislation that disproportionately targeted Muslims. But the terrorists were not of us. They felt — and were — foreign to us. They were “others.” This is the sense Rep. Ilhan Omar was speaking to — addressing a primarily Muslim audience who would no doubt understand — in her now infamous remark that “some people did something [and] all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”
But while 9/11 was a formative experience that shaped my politics, it didn’t objectify me.
I feel like that changed sometime around December 2015. I was on vacation with my parents and brother in a somewhat remote part of Florida. One morning, my father and I walked into an empty café. We were speaking a mix of English and Arabic. In an otherwise quiet room, the television was on, and there were talking heads talking. But this time, the talking heads were talking about us. I kept on hearing the word “Muslims.” Trump, then a candidate in the Republican primary, had just announced his proposal for a Muslim ban (which, at the time, seemed and sounded both shocking and improbable). The pundits were attacking Trump for his bigotry and unseriousness, which was nice. But to say Muslims weren’t a threat was, in effect, to accept the premise that a group of people could ever be something in particular. We had become the objects of other people’s conversations, and I felt self-conscious just being me in a way that I never felt before, even after September 11.
Later, on that same trip, we had a sort of Muslim version of “the talk.” It began as a joke, but it didn’t end as one. Since the election of George W. Bush, liberals have enjoyed fantasizing about leaving the country and living in self-imposed exile. But it stays mostly that: a fantasy. Now, for the first time as a family, it was something we seriously discussed as a worst-case scenario. I hadn’t realized that my dad still had his Canadian citizenship. We had a backup plan!
More than three years later, I’ve mostly processed the Trump era as a relief — at least compared to what we allowed ourselves to imagine that night in Florida. Trump’s anti-Muslim instincts have been checked by the courts, by the Democrats, and by the millions of ordinary Americans who have stood by their Muslim neighbors. (Who but Donald Trump could have inspired Americans to rally behind people praying by baggage claim carousels in protest of the travel ban?)
Yet this recent period of unusually intense polarization will likely prove more consequential in other ways. If people on both sides of the political divide were paying more attention to me, it was only natural that I’d start paying more attention to myself. By helping to usher in a national debate over “identity politics,” Trump — and those who sought to counter him — had propelled questions about how we are who we are to the center of the American imagination. Those questions were always there to one degree or another, but now they were inescapable. As a country, we were looking inward, including at ourselves.
Like so many others, I have been pushed and pressured to feel part of a group. I have been drafted into a war of representation, standing in for something bigger than myself.
For my part, I started to pay more attention to my own “positionality.” I realized that I was sometimes the only person of color in the room and often the only Muslim or Arab. What was I supposed to make of this? It was never self-evident to me that there ought to be more than one Muslim in every room, or even just one. What was the right proportion? Should we be represented, or should we be overrepresented relative to our share of the population?
Regardless, it worked. I became conscious of things I hadn’t been previously. But I’m not sure that’s a good thing, and I’m not sure it can be reversed. One of the key challenges of the “post-liberal” era (if that’s what we are in) is finding a way to live together in all our deep differences. As Eboo Patel puts it, diversity “is simply a demographic fact; pluralism is a hard-won achievement.” We tend to think of pluralism more in terms of relations between groups than within them. Left identity politics — and the policing of rigid conceptions of group identity — make it harder to do this. They flatten differences within minority groups, prioritizing your membership in a community over your beliefs as an individual.
Since that morning in the Florida café, I, like so many others, have been pushed and pressured to feel part of a group. I have been drafted into a war of representation, standing in for something bigger than myself in the perpetual fight against the forces of Trumpism, ethnonationalism, white supremacy, or whatever else.
Like it or not, I’ve become a we.