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Who is a 'Muslim American?'

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I recently read two very informed and informative pieces on Al Jazeera on the situation of "Muslim Americans." One was very critical and the other, quite complimentary. Both authors of these two short essays were making important and cogent points. I did not think I had to take side with one or the other. They were both making valid points.

In one of those articles, I read about "the political impotence of the Muslim American community," in which Ali Al-Arian argued: "Today prominent Muslim American figures and organisations stifle the spirit of political resistance in our community." In the other, Abbas Barzegar countered: "Actually, American Muslims are at the centre of the resistance," further telling us: "Despite challenges inside and outside the community, Muslim Americans have stood up to Islamophobia and the far right."

I always read these pieces with obvious interest and a bit of curiosity for I wonder who gets to be this thing they keep calling "Muslim American?" In between their learned exchanges I kept asking myself a question they were both taking for granted.

Who is a "Muslim American?" I am a Muslim. I am also a US citizen. Am I a "Muslim American?" Yes, no, maybe - and if so in what particular sense? When they say "our community" who exactly is the member of this community? Are they all Americans who profess to be Muslims, or those who congregate at certain types of mosques? The question at some point becomes quite existential.

Certain types of Muslims have now cornered the market in defining who or what an "American Muslim" is. They get themselves invited to the White House, serve on certain panels, perform certain rituals. They, of course, have every right to define how they understand what the term "American Muslim" means. But can they seriously delimit the meaning of the category in an inclusive or exclusive way?

If you sport a beard or wear "the hijab," as it is called, then you are a Muslim. If you pray in a particularly prescribed way or fast during the month of Ramadan or have performed your Hajj pilgrimage, well you are certainly a Muslim and if you are also American then that will make you a "Muslim American".

During the last US presidential elections, a certain Khizr Khan and his wife........

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