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The Race Is On: Muslims and Arabs in the American Imagination by Moustafa Bayoumi

Interventions: A Middle East Report Online Feature

The Race Is On: Muslims and Arabs in the American Imagination by Moustafa Bayoumi

March 2010

(Moustafa Bayoumi, an editor of Middle East Report, is author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America [Penguin, 2008].)

“We are so racially profiled now, as a group,” the Arab-American comedian Dean Obeidallah says in his routine, “that I heard a correspondent on CNN not too long ago say the expression, ‘Arabs are the new blacks.’ That Arabs are the new blacks.” Obeidallah continues:

When I heard that -- I’m going to be honest -- I was excited. I’m like, “Oh my God, we’re cool.” Before you know it, hot Asian women will stop dating black guys and start dating Arabs. White kids in the suburbs, instead of acting and dressing black to be cool, will now start pretending to be Arab…. Pimping their car to look like a taxi cab. Dressing like Arabs, some old-school in traditional Arab headdress…. Tilt to the side a bit. Walkin’ up to each other, goin’, “What up, Moustafa?” Sayin’, “Where my Arabs at?” “Arab, please!”[1]

It is a funny bit, but Obeidallah is on to something more than a joke, something about the mischievous power of race and representation in contemporary US culture both to incorporate and to reject. By taking an observation -- the analogy of Arabness to blackness -- to its literal extreme, Obeidallah is playing with general perceptions of blackness and whiteness along the way. And by turning a liability into an asset, he flips the script of social exclusion to one of popular inclusion. What is more American today, after all, than the African-American?

But most people mean something else when they talk about Arabs (or Muslims) becoming “the new blacks,” a sentiment routinely expressed since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Perhaps most directly, the idea is meant to evoke the practice of racial profiling. “Black New Yorkers joke among themselves about their own reprieve from racial profiling,” explains a New York Times article from October 2001. “Even the language of racial grievance has shifted: Overnight, the cries about driving while black have become flying while brown -- a phrase referring to reports of Muslim Americans being asked to get off planes.” The article continues. “Ever so slightly, the attacks on the trade center have tweaked the city’s traditional racial divisions.”[2] These oscillations prompted African-American novelist Ishmael Reed to write, “Within two weeks after the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings, my youngest daughter, Tennessee, was called a dirty Arab, twice.” America’s racial legacy, replete with the “one-drop rule,” where a single drop of African blood made a person black in the eyes of Jim Crow law, enabled Reed, after September 11, to ask the question, “Is anyone with dark skin Arab-American?”[3]

The reasons are easy to see. Racial profiling was almost universally loathed prior to 2001, so much so that candidate George W. Bush explicitly ran against it. But the practice acquired a new lease on life in 2003 when President Bush’s Justice Department ordered a ban on profiling but included exceptions permitting extra scrutiny of racial and ethnic groups when officials had “trustworthy” information that members of these groups were plotting a terrorist attack or a crime.[4] While it could be said that profiling per se was officially un-American, the fine print made it clear that profiling Arabs and Muslims made good national security sense. The program of Special Registration, whereby adult males from 24 Muslim-majority countries had to register their whereabouts in the country, is just one example of state-mandated racial profiling. Special Registration led to approximately 14,000 deportation proceedings.[5] (The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has repeatedly called on Washington to end “racial profiling against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians.”[6]) After the London bombings of 2005, conservative critics like the Hoover Institute’s Paul Sperry, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) and the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer advocated further profiling, prompting another Washington Post columnist, Colbert King, to respond with a column titled “You Can’t Fight Terrorism with Racism.” Echoing Reed, he wrote: “It appears not to matter to Sperry that his description also includes huge numbers of men of color, including my younger son, a brown-skinned occasional New York subway rider who shaves his head and mustache.”[7]

Prior to September 11, popular perceptions of Arabs and Muslims had no significant American component. Invisibility was the word heard most often. In Food for our Grandmothers, a 1994 anthology by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian feminists, the editor Joanna Kadi labeled Arab-Americans “the Most Invisible of the Invisibles.”[8] In “Resisting Invisibility,” an essay published in a 1999 volume, Therese Saliba noted, “When Arabs are mentioned within the multicultural debate, it is often as a point of political tension between blacks and Jews, or as an afterthought, ‘as the other Jewish Americans.’”[9] Through the 1980s, as Edward Said puts it in Covering Islam, the “ubiquitous” images of Arabs and Muslims outside the United States were “frequent caricatures of Muslims as oil suppliers, as terrorists and…as bloodthirsty mobs.”[10] The reliance on Orientalist stereotypes was premised on the idea of an unbridgeable distance between two essentially different parts of the world, the rational Occident and unruly Orient.

No Offense, Sir

But in a present of growing immigration and international terrorism, things have changed (and, of course, also remain depressingly the same). In the domestic arrangement of race and difference, Arabs and Muslims in the United States have been pushed from the shadows into the spotlight, and the associations they carry are often ones of racial differences that can be patrolled with profiling. Such associations surface in small, curious ways. In a 2008 New York Times book review, for example, the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, commenting on racial profiling, reaches not for the African-American example, but writes that “nearly all of us have a civil liberties threshold: Imagine Pakistani madrassa graduates lining up at airport security; race matters in such cases, and need involve no animus.”[11] Spike Lee’s film The Inside Man has only one significant scene of racial conflict: A Sikh hostage in a bank heist emerges from the building hooded like the perpetrators, who have cleverly dressed in matching coveralls and forced the bank personnel and customers to do the same. The cops yank off his hood, thinking he is a bank robber, then spot his turban and lose their cool. “Oh shit, it’s a fucking Arab!” one cop yells, as they back away, guns leveled. The Sikh then has his turban ripped from his head and is beaten. In the next scene, he complains to the detective, played by Denzel Washington. “I’m not saying anything until I get my turban back! I’m sick of this shit, man. Everywhere I go, my civil rights are violated. Go to the airport, and I always get pulled out. Random search, my ass!” (Washington responds, “But you can always get a cab, right?” “It’s one of the perks,” he admits.)

And in John Updike’s silly and thoroughly unconvincing novel Terrorist, there is a deep and abiding devotion to America’s enduring racial hierarchies mixed with shopworn nostalgia for the WASP-y simplicity that has packed up and moved away to the pages of history. Updike’s story revolves around Ahmad Malloy, 18, half-Irish, half-Egyptian and totally confused. Ahmad, who Updike repeatedly describes as “dun” of complexion, searches aimlessly for meaning in his failing suburb of New Prospect, New Jersey, finding solace at the feet of Sheikh Rashid, an embittered Yemeni imam who exhorts the neophyte to violence. Meanwhile, Ahmad’s high-school guidance counselor, Jack Levy, has an affair with his mother. Levy eventually brings the boy back from the brink, saving the nation from a senseless terrorist attack. In the meantime, he tells him that he has “fucked his mother,” prompting this ridiculous exchange in the final pages of the novel:

“No offense, sir, but do understand…. I’m not thrilled to think of my mother fornicating with a Jew.”

Levy laughs a coarse bark. “Hey, come on, we’re all Americans here. That’s the idea; didn’t they tell you that at Central High? Irish-Americans, African-Americans, Jewish Americans; there are even Arab-Americans.”

“Name one.”

Levy is taken aback. “Omar Sharif,” he says. He knows he could not think of others in a less stressful situation.

“Not American. Try again.”

“Uh -- what was his name? Lew Alcindor?

“Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” Ahmad corrects.[12]

The confusion of labeling Abdul-Jabbar, who is African-American, as Arab-American, is obvious, and appears to indicate Levy’s own ignorance, making the character bizarrely more American in his daftness. But Levy stands for more than that. Against the foreignness of Arab-Americans, Updike uses Levy’s Jewishness as a measure of successful American ethnic assimilation, as opposed to all those who now “occupy the inner city,” namely those who are “brown, by and large, in its many shades.”[13] (“Jews and Irish,” Updike writes, “have been sharing America’s cities for generations.”[14]) Levy’s overweight wife Beth believes that Levy “will never leave her: [out of] his Jewish sense of responsibility and a sentimental loyalty, which must be Jewish, too. If you’ve been persecuted and reviled for two thousand years, being loyal to your loved ones is just good survival tactics.”[15]

If Arab-Americans are now frequently coded with a kind of blackness, then being Jewish today is to have earned the status of whiteness, demonstrated by Levy’s ascribed loyalty to wife, city and country. Nor is honorary whiteness limited to Jewish characters. Hindus, too, are often endowed with similar respectability. Think of Thomas Friedman’s endless exultations about Indian capitalists and Silicon Valley pioneers. Or consider this paragraph from Steven Pinker’s 2008 article in the New York Times Magazine titled “The Moral Instinct.” Pinker writes about ethics and moral foundations held in common across distinct societies in the modern world. His is an effort to promote a family-of-humankind Weltanschauung. But in so doing, he divides the world in interesting ways. “Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres,” he writes. “Think of…the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), [and] the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority).”[16] Of course, “holy ablutions and dietary restrictions” could just as easily be attributed to Muslims (and not just the orthodox), but instead Jews and Hindus are lumped together in this benign behavioral mode. Muslims, on the other hand, are assigned rage.

What is going on here? In brief, Arabs and Muslims (who, in the real world, are two overlapping categories, but in the world of American perceptions essentially the same thing) have entered the American imagination with full force, but their entry has been racialized. What this means in the specific inflections of the American vernacular is an association with blackness, for Arabs and Muslims in America are not a part of the immigrant fabric of the nation but a social problem to be dealt with. While Jews and Hindus are today handed ethnicity, Arabs and Muslims are saddled with race. They have become an American dilemma.

The difference between race and ethnicity matters. To be ethnic means to have mores, habits and rites that do not interfere with being modern. In fact, the rituals often lend to bland modernity the color and richness that it so often seeks. Ethnics make tactical decisions about when and how to reveal or put away those charming, atavistic aspects of themselves when in public. They are, in other words, given agency.

Races, however, have little to no agency. Agencies rather formulate policies about them. Races do not make history. They are history. Social forces pulsate through them. While ethnicities are threads in the tapestries of the nation, races are the elements that make the nation’s mix combustible. What James Baldwin wrote about the black man in 1955 is almost as applicable to Arab/Muslim Americans today. “The Negro in America,” Baldwin writes, “is a social and not a personal or human problem. To think of him is to think of statistics, slums, rapes, injustices, remote violence.”[17] (Consider Pew’s 2007 study on Muslim Americans in this light. Is it likely that a flagship survey of any other religious group would be subtitled Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream?[18]) Ethnicities get their documentary histories screened during PBS pledge week. Races appear as the subjects of government and police commissions of inquiry, on episodes of PBS “Frontline” with the spooky voiceover, and on the crawl on Fox News.

And political leanings matter little. Liberals view the situation of Muslims and Arabs in America as an example of the limits of the nation and its excesses in maltreating those who are irretrievably “other.” Conservative define them as a minority threat to a perceived majority. Either way, the race is on.

Be All That You Can Be

The irony is that while Arabs and Muslims are increasingly racialized as black (in ways that approximate Cold War images of African-Americans), African-Americans are emerging in popular culture as leaders of the American nation and empire. Moreover, this depiction revolves fundamentally around the idea of black friendship with Muslims and Arabs, a friendship not among equals but one reflecting a modified projection of American power. This image appears to seek to transform the image of the United States itself.

Consider two different films in this regard: The Siege (1998), again starring Denzel Washington, and The Kingdom (2007), starring Jamie Foxx. The Siege was, of course, made before 2001 and has since been lionized for its prescience in portraying a large-scale Arab terrorist attack on American soil, but it is essentially about how Clinton-era foreign policy failures endangered the nation’s institutions. Its story centers on Special Agent Anthony Hubbard, a law degree-wielding veteran of the Eighty-Second Airborne with a Catholic school upbringing in the Bronx. At one point, Hubbard sarcastically dubs himself “Colin Powell,” and the implication is clear. Hub, as he is called, is the embodiment of African-American achievement, like the future secretary of state who was then widely thought to be Most Likely to Be Elected President While Black. Upright, industrious, serious but not dour, Hub is the film’s moral center. The main spoke on his wheel is Frank Haddad (played by Tony Shalhoub), a Lebanese Shi‘i FBI agent (the only American in the film, incidentally, who speaks with a foreign accent) who serves as chauffeur and translator.

After US commandos capture a radical imam modeled after Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, a series of terrorist attacks plague New York City. Elise Kraft, a CIA agent of loose morals played by Annette Bening, competes with Hub in investigating the attacks. Her mole is Samir Nazhde, a Brooklyn College professor of Arab studies who appears (and later is confirmed) to be connected to the terrorists. When Hub and the FBI are unable to stop the rash of attacks, the government proclaims martial law in Brooklyn, and Bruce Willis’ character, the unsubtle Gen. William Devereaux, who was responsible for the extralegal extraction of the imam, rounds up Arab-American males in ways reminiscent of Japanese-American internment during World War II. Haddad’s son, 13, is jailed, leading the FBI agent to a crisis of faith in American righteousness. He rashly surrenders his badge to Hub, saying he will not be the government’s “sand nigger” any longer. But Hub eventually gets Haddad’s son out. Hub and Haddad, meanwhile, discover that Nazhde is the final terrorist in the country, and follow him to a showdown. Nazhde is killed, Kraft is sacrificed and Hub stands up to Devereaux’s unconstitutional torture and murder of an innocent Arab-American man. Martial law is then lifted, and the constitution is saved.

With its two Arab/Muslim characters, one an FBI agent, the other a terrorist, The Siege operates within the logic of “good Muslim, bad Muslim” that Mahmood Mamdani has identified as central to the cultural logic of the “war on terror.” “The central message of such discourse,” Mamdani explains, “[is that] unless proved to be ‘good,’ every Muslim [is] presumed to be ‘bad.’ All Muslims [are] now under an obligation to prove their credentials by joining in a war against ‘bad Muslims.’”[19] Melani McAlister astutely names The Siege as a film “incorporating the challenge of multiculturalism into the logic of the New World Order.”[20] But it is also something else. The Siege taps into the paranoia surrounding immigration, which, together with geopolitics, has turned the streets of Brooklyn into the stereotypical “Arab street,” redolent with strange smells and teetering on the edge of apocalypse. (The script identifies Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue as “The Third World. Teeming, roiling. Kinshasa meets Beirut meets Tel Aviv meets Moscow,” and Hub says, “America’s the place to be if you’re a terrorist.”) Moreover, this frightening external world that is invading the US is suffused with an Arab and Muslim proclivity for ancestral feuds. When Nazhde is taken in, he is punched by Haddad, who apologizes to Hub saying, “Sorry, family matter.” Later, Haddad is upbraided by Hub, who tells him he will “have his badge” if he “ever hit[s] a prisoner again.” “Someday I’ll tell you what those people did to my village in 1971,” Haddad responds.

But the key message of The Siege is that US entanglement in these ancient hatreds has compelled the US to sell itself, body (the whorish Elise Kraft) and soul (the heartless Gen. Devereaux). In so doing, the national security state is losing the heart of the nation. This betrayal is why Hub’s character is so essential. In his enduring commitment to values, Hub is the most American of all the characters. He is uncorrupted by international politics (“I need names,” he says to his agents, “I don’t need a history lesson”) and willing to fight both the racist policy of internment and the brutal violence of the Arabs. Who better than Hub, after all, to show his Arab underling that the US is not, at bottom, racist, in either its foreign or domestic policy? His own story of uplift illustrates all that “America” can be. Hub is best suited to protect Arab-Americans not only from the overreach of the state but also from themselves.

“America’s Not Perfect”

If The Siege projects the idea that an African-American will save the nation, The Kingdom does this trope one better. The US empire has a Great Black Hope as well. In The Kingdom, terrorists attack an American compound in Riyadh. Back in Washington, the FBI itches to investigate the carnage, particularly since two of their own have been killed. Domestic politics initially holds them back. (This setting is almost certainly inspired by the FBI’s inquiry into the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, where the lead investigator John O’Neill battled in vain with the US ambassador in Yemen, Barbara Bodine, who refused to let him interrogate Yemeni government officials he thought were in league with al-Qaeda. O’Neill later became chief of security at the World Trade Center and was killed on September 11.) The attorney general is concerned that American boots on Saudi Arabian soil will anger Muslims, but, as in The Siege, the FBI is independent of the dirty machinations of the political world and stands for American righteousness. “If you were running the FBI,” the attorney general tells Special Agent Ronald Fleury (played Jamie Foxx), “you might turn it into Patton’s Third Army.” Fleury takes the initiative by threatening the Saudi royal family, and the FBI is given immediate approval to land in Riyadh. He leads a team of four, himself, a white woman, Agent Mayes, and two men, Agent Leavitt, who is Jewish, and Agent Sykes, a good ol’ boy, in the investigation.

Saudi Arabia turns out to be an odd, inverted world. The team is assigned a minder, Col. Faris al-Ghazi, a police officer who lost men at the compound but whose unit is also implicated in the attack. Just as in Washington, the FBI team must negotiate with timid politicians to gain access to the crime scene, and the agents complain constantly of their pusillanimity. More to the point, the Saudi Arabians are totally inept in their investigation. “Do you understand evidence?” Sykes asks al-Ghazi patronizingly. “Little things that are clues? Clues can be very helpful to a fellow trying to solve a crime.” In this film, civilization is bestowed upon the natives through forensic science.

Initially, the Saudi Arabians are more concerned with policing morality -- taking offense at swearing, uncovered women and non-Muslims touching dead Muslims -- than with solving crime. But al-Ghazi slowly comes around. He is the good Muslim in this drama, a film that turns the capacious boulevards of Saudi Arabia into the dingy avenues of Baghdad. Al-Ghazi has a warm home life, as conveyed by the soft music of the soundtrack while he leads his family in prayer. Fleury and he begin a friendship.

Eventually, the FBI team commences pursuit of Abu Hamza, an Osama bin Laden wannabe who may be the mastermind of the initial attack, and the film’s pace picks up as they near their quarry. After killing several junior terrorists in a firefight, the crew is congratulated for their efforts and are headed home when Leavitt is kidnapped on the road to the airport. The agents track the abductors to Suweidi, “a very bad neighborhood,” which seems to be a cinematic cross between Fallujah and East LA. There, the final shootout of the film transpires. Leavitt is saved by Mayes, the female FBI agent, who stabs an Arab terrorist in the groin (and head) with her knife. Abu Hamza and his son are killed. Al-Ghazi, too, is tragically cut down, and the film ends with Fleury offering his condolences to the Saudi Arabian cop’s family. “Your father was a good friend of mine,” he tells al-Ghazi’s son.

The Kingdom is a pulpy thriller that relies heavily upon stock car chase sequences and plenteous explosions. But it exhibits a few other traits that might also soon be conventions. It divides its swarthy Arabs by the “good Muslim, bad Muslim” logic. Its white male characters are narrow-minded and borderline racist, and its African-American leading man is not just an action hero but also a figure projecting the true compassion of the American state.

The Kingdom only obliquely acknowledges Fleury’s race. “America’s not perfect,” he says to a Saudi prince. “Not at all. I’ll be the first to say that.” It is this kind of honesty that enables Fleury to achieve a level of human communication with the Saudi Arabians that is not shared by the other characters. When he reaches out to al-Ghazi, he discovers that his Arab counterpart is thoroughly Americanized. “I spent four days in Quantico,” al-Ghazi tells Fleury. “I also saw Michael Jordan play for the Washington Wizards.” (It takes a real American to know that Jordan played briefly for the Wizards and not just the Chicago Bulls.) The Saudi Arabian continues that he became a police officer because he watched The Incredible Hulk on television as a child. And, as in The Siege, where one character quips of speaking to Arabs, “Ask a question, get an atlas,” The Kingdom plays up the virtues of an anti-political position, this time attributed to the Arab character. “I find myself in a place where I no longer care why we are attacked,” al-Ghazi confesses to Fleury. “I only care that 100 people woke up a few mornings ago and had no idea why it was their last. When we catch the men who murdered these people, I don’t care to ask even one question. I want to kill them. Do you understand?” “Yes, I do,” Fleury responds.

Interestingly, The Siege emphasizes the Arab-ness of Haddad, its Arab-American character, while The Kingdom highlights the American-ness of its good Arab. Why? Perhaps it is because The Siege is about the need for a principled national ethos for resisting the invasion of international politics (and bodies) into the domestic sphere, while The Kingdom is about the need for proper American tutelage in a harsh and disordered world. The Siege’s imagination is national. The Kingdom’s is more imperial.

Despite their differences, The Siege and The Kingdom are two illustrations of an emerging sub-genre. Other examples include Showtime’s TV series Sleeper Cell (2005 and 2006) and the 2008 film Traitor, starring Don Cheadle. Sleeper Cell’s lead character is Special Agent Darwyn Al-Sayeed, played by Michael Ealy, an African-American Muslim who is determined to save both his country and his faith from the crazy radicals (more like misfits with anthrax, really). Sporting a constipated squint throughout the series, Al-Sayeed tries hard to swallow the anguish of having to pass, not as a white man, but as a terrorist in the service of his beloved religion. (“Don’t African-Americans have a long history of trying to pass for white?” asks al-Farik, the lead terrorist, of Al-Sayeed. “I don’t,” responds the undercover agent.) Traitor replicates many of the same conventions. Cheadle plays the role of Samir Horn, formerly a US Special Forces man supporting the Afghan jihad against the Soviets and currently a seller of illicit weapons to unsavory Muslims. Again, the leading man is a devout Muslim, but the film collapses the good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy into a single character, since the audience is left guessing for the first half of the film where his loyalties lie. Moreover, the central relationship in the film is the deepening bond between Samir and Omar, an Arab terrorist with doubts, and Samir is almost able to bring him over from the dark side before Omar is killed in a climactic gun battle.

The central idea sustaining this sub-genre is the notion of African-American leadership of the Arab world, intertwined with friendship with it. Here there is a twist on a tale already told by Benjamin DeMott in The Trouble with Friendship: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Race. Demott explains how popular culture exploded in the 1980s and 1990s with images of black-and-white comity that served as a kind of “wish fulfillment,” of “interracial sameness,” in order to discover that people of different races “need or delight in or love each other.” The black-and-white friendships of that era, symbolized by the interracial buddy movie (Eddie Murphy and Judge Reinhold, Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson), illustrated that “race problems belong to the passing moment. Race problems do not involve group interests and conflicts developed over centuries. Race problems are being smoothed into nothingness, gradually, inexorably, by good will, affection, points of light.”[21] Interracial amity popped up all over the cinematic spectrum. There was the lowbrow farce White Men Can’t Jump, the high-minded drama Driving Miss Daisy and the middle-class morality play Lethal Weapon, where Danny Glover as the suburban black family man with a badge was a kind of precursor to the character of Hub.

Arab and African-American friendship comes similarly loaded but with an international agenda appended. Such representations suggest that African-Americans know better than whites how to talk to Arabs (Fleury learns a few Arabic words in The Kingdom). The semiotics of African-American leadership roles in film and popular culture today refer to the fact that racial conflict has been made residual and even overcome in the US, which is why race gets only passing mention. Moreover, African-American connections to other people of color seem based on authentic sentiment, as opposed to kneejerk reaction or bald-faced opportunism. They are more real because of the collective past of suffering. African-American leadership of Arab characters illustrates a pilgrim’s progress narrative for the twenty-first century, where the promise of America is most clearly exhibited through racial uplift. The sins of slavery, Jim Crow and Sheriff Clark’s water cannons have been redeemed by achievement. Through such representations, the US is understood as having surmounted its historic deficiencies, and the liberal (and liberating) potential of the American empire is consequently affirmed. Camaraderie, in other words, is connected to the benevolence of American imperialism, for if the face of US belongs to an African-American, how racist could the empire be? Put another way, what is more American today, after all, than the African-American?

A Lot Like Me at Home

But such representations of blacks at the helm, speaking from the liberal heart of American empire, contradict, if not undermine, a long and powerfully expressed tradition of African-American opposition to US expansionism. This tradition connects the denial of civil rights at home to the deprivations of overseas conquest. Its history goes back at least to the US-Mexican war of 1848, which Frederick Douglass labeled as “disgraceful, cruel and iniquitous.” In a potent editorial opposing the war, Douglass wrote: “Mexico seems a doomed victim to Anglo-Saxon cupidity and love of dominion…. We have no preference for parties, regarding this slaveholding crusade.… Our nation seems resolved to rush on in her wicked career…. We beseech our countrymen to leave off this horrid conflict, abandon their murderous plans and forsake the way of blood.”[22]

Fifty years later, the Spanish-American war excited similar outrage among key members of the African-American leadership. Thomas Wallace Swan, editor of Howard’s American Magazine, wrote in 1900, “We recognize in the spirit of Imperialism, inaugurated and fostered by the administration of President McKinley, the same violation of Human Rights, which is being practiced by the Democratic Party in the recently reconstructed States, to wit, the wholesale disenfranchisement of the Negro.”[23] Even Booker T. Washington was uncomfortable with the conflict. “My opinion is that the Philippine Islands should be given an opportunity to govern themselves,” he wrote. “Until our nation has settled the Negro and Indian problems I do not believe that we have a right to assume more social problems.”[24]

African-Americans initially greeted the colonial war in the Philippines with mixed feelings. In an age of massive discrimination and frequent lynching, some believed military service to be a civic duty, where participation in overseas adventure would once and for all prove to the white masses that African-Americans were entitled to full citizenship rights. Others felt that the war would, as William Gatewood puts it, “divert attention from the racial crisis at home.”[25] By the war’s end, disillusionment had set in. Segregation had deepened, mob violence against blacks had increased and black soldiers often felt that they were in fact exporting Jim Crow to the rest of the dark world. (Some black soldiers deserted and joined the Filipino insurgency.) Emigration schemes regained their popularity.

In the first half of the twentieth century, African-Americans spoke out against imperial aggression, linking it again to their plight at home. The Italian invasion of Ethiopia, in particular, incensed many black leaders. Paul Robeson led the effort. “The American Blacks have been yearning for freedom from an oppression which has predated fascism,” he wrote.

It dates most clearly perhaps from the fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Since then, the parallel between his own interests and those of oppressed peoples abroad has been impressed upon him daily as he struggles against the forces which bar him from full citizenship, from full participation in American life.[26]

Robeson later helped found the Council on African Affairs, and W. E. B. Du Bois would be vice chair. Du Bois, of course, was similarly driven by a principled anti-imperialism for virtually the duration of his long career as an intellectual. And both Du Bois and Robeson would pay a price for their politics, as both were investigated for subversion by the US government and forbidden to travel abroad during much of the Cold War.

African-American anti-colonialism ebbed during the Cold War. With the rise of McCarthyism, “civil rights groups had to walk a fine line,” according to Mary Dudziak, “making it clear that their reform efforts were meant to fill out the contours of American democracy, and not challenge or undermine it.”[27] In this period, the American conversation on race changed from an analysis based largely on economics and politics to one oriented around sociology and psychology. According to Penny Von Eschen, “the embrace of Cold War American foreign policy by many African-American liberals, as well as US government prosecution of Paul Robeson and the Council, fundamentally altered the terms of anti-colonialism and effectively severed the black American struggle for civil rights from the issues of anti-colonialism and racism abroad.”[28] (Du Bois, never playing along with the Cold War agenda, would write things like, “We want to rule Russia, and we cannot rule Alabama.”[29]) By 1951, St. Clair Drake was writing, “Whether or not espousal of ‘civil rights’ for Negroes becomes separated, in the popular mind, from ‘Communist Agitation’ may be a decisive factor” in the success of the civil rights movement.[30] Cedric Robinson has described how during this period “the NAACP bent its efforts to constructing political coalitions with similarly liberal and anti-communist organizations.”[31] During this period, black leadership essentially accepted the Cold War on Washington’s terms in order to push for achievable civil rights gains.

With the rise of black militancy in the 1960s, anti-colonialism and internationalism reasserted themselves, explaining Malcolm X’s desire to see the African-American struggle as one of “human rights” versus “civil rights.” “The American white man has so thoroughly brainwashed the black man to see himself as only a domestic ‘civil rights’ problem that it will probably take longer than I live before the Negro sees that the struggle of the American black man is international,” he observed in the final chapter of his autobiography.[32] And in 1972, James Baldwin wrote that

Any real commitment to black freedom in this country would have the effect of reordering all our priorities, and altering all our commitments, so that, for horrendous example, we would be supporting black freedom fighters in South Africa and Angola, and would not be allied with Portugal, would be closer to Cuba than we are to Spain, would be supporting the Arab nations instead of Israel, and would never have felt compelled to follow the French into Southeast Asia.[33]

The dominant paradigm, then, for more than a century and a half, was African-American disapproval of US overseas adventurism, either because such exploits deflated the urgency of the problems at home or because they added to the problems at home and abroad. Either way, these views pointed to a change needed in the basic structure of American society.

Moreover, the connection between African-American international consciousness and the Arab and Muslim worlds is equally rich. This history, though often beset by a conservative cultural politics, is fundamentally concerned with developing alternative structures of allegiance, radical redefinitions of self and community, new universalisms through religion and a kind of critical consciousness through which to examine the structure of power and race in the US and the West. In 1887, for example, Edward Wilmot Blyden published his magnum opus, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race. Blyden frequently suggested that Islam offers a better option for “the Negro, who under Protestant rule, is kept in a state of…tutelage and irresponsibility,” and that African emigration to and colonization of parts of America would create a class of “redeemers” of the race from the ravages of slavery.[34] He argued that Islam had brought dignity and advancement to Africa, while Christianity only horror. “The Mohammedan Negro is a much better Mohammedan than the Christian Negro is a Christian,” he writes, “because the Muslim Negro, as a learner, is a disciple, not an imitator. A disciple…may become a producer; an imitator never rises above a mere copyist.”[35]

In the early years of the twentieth century, several new urban northern religious movements arose among African-Americans, including the Moorish Science Temple, which claimed that black people were not “Negroes” at all, but “Moorish Americans.” The Divine Instructions, the Temple’s holy book, reveals that “through sin and disobedience every nation has suffered slavery, due to the fact that they honored not the creed and principles of their forefathers. That is why the nationality of the Moors was taken away from them in 1774 and the word Negro, black and colored was given to the Asiatics of America who were [of] Moorish descent, because they honored not the principles of their mother and father, and strayed after the gods of Europe whom they knew nothing of.” Membership in the Temple brought one a “passport,” in whose pages Drew Ali declared the holder “a Moslem under the Divine Laws of the Holy Koran of Mecca—Love, Truth, Peace, Freedom and Justice.” The document ended with “I am a citizen of the USA.”[36]

The creed of the Moorish Science Temple differed from that of its later competitor, the Nation of Islam, in its acknowledgement of American citizenship for blacks. The Temple opened a door of rejection for African-Americans from ascribed identities, while the Nation walked through the passage, teaching African-Americans that they must return to their original faith of “Islam.” By combining nationalism and religion, the Nation sought to unite African-American aspirations for racial uplift and nationhood with promises of return to their “original religion.” Malcolm X would become the most famous member of the Nation and later of Sunni Islam in America, rivaled only by the boxer Muhammad Ali, whose Third World identifications also played into his vilification at home and heroism abroad.

But African-American affiliation with the Arab and Muslim worlds was not limited to the sacred realm. Culturally and politically, alliances have been repeatedly forged with the idea that Third World oppression and denials of domestic human rights were similar, if not identical, struggles. A 1963 novel by William Gardner Smith, The Stone Face, for example, tells the story of Simeon Brown, a Philadelphia journalist and painter, who after suffering repeated racial outrages at home, packs up and moves to Paris. There he discovers the African-American expatriate community living well, but the Arabs of France surviving in conditions reminiscent of home. They wear the same “baggy pants, worn shoes and shabby shirts,” and have the “sullen, unhappy, angry eyes” that Brown recognizes from the streets of Harlem.[37] Brown is arrested one night with a bunch of Arabs, and after his release, one of the Arabs he passes in the street asks him a question that surprises him. “How does it feel to be a white man?” he asks him.[38] The novel brilliantly brings together the Holocaust, the Algerian war, racial tension in Paris and the US civil rights struggle to articulate the need for action to transform a debased and race-torn world.

And in 1976, Sam Greenlee published his little-known novel titled Baghdad Blues. The story concerns Dave Burrell, an African-American US Information Agency man assigned to Baghdad in the 1950s, at the time that ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim and his fellow officers overthrew the Iraqi monarchy. As with The Stone Face, this novel connects both domestic and international struggles. “More and more I began to understand the Arabs,” Burrell reflects, “and not until much later did I realize that all that time I was learning more and more about myself.”[39] Later he holds a conversation with Jamil, an Iraqi intellectual and friend (unlike in The Kingdom, this is a friendship of equals). “We will make our own mistakes, solve our own problems, create our own nation. To hell with the Americans and the British,” Jamil says. Burrell narrates:

I loved him, envied him, identified with him. To build a nation….

“Well, man, you know I’m an American.

“Oh, but you are different; you understand.”

“There are a lot like me at home.” As I said it, I wondered if it were true.[40]

Of course, this type of identification persisted in later decades. Andrew Young, US Ambassador to the UN, met with the PLO in the late 1970s, and lost his post as a result. June Jordan wrote powerfully about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. “I was born a black woman / and now / I am become a Palestinian,” says a stanza in her “Moving Towards Home.”[41] Amiri Baraka composed “Somebody Blew Up America.”

The point is that there has been a strong and dedicated cultural politics for a very long time within the African-American tradition that seeks an alliance with the rest of the world, including its Arab and Muslim corners, and the terms of that alliance were fundamentally about transformation. Connecting with other peoples and their struggles across the planet was not about advancement of the race at home. It was about transforming the very nature of American society -- and with it global political culture -- in pursuit of a world free of racist oppression and imperial aggression.

A Real Big Promotion

But the idea of African-American global leadership as a sign of liberal success is not so novel either. It, too, has a history, dating at least to World War II. Robinson has written of how “during the ‘patriotic period’ of the [World War II] and for a few short years afterward, Black liberalism was on the ascendancy, achieving point of purchase among America’s Black political and economic elite.”[42] (This elite would later be excoriated by E. Franklin Frazier in his 1957 book Black Bourgeoisie.[43]) During this period, the image of black success, more than true integration, began to signify (white) acceptance of African-Americans in the general culture.

Black diplomacy was central to this effort. From World War Two onward, African-American leaders pushed the government to employ African-Americans in the diplomatic corps. It would be seen, they argued, as a sign of racial progress, and both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were keenly interested in counteracting Soviet propaganda exploiting American racism. A. Philip Randolph told the State Department that it should hire more black personnel for service in Asian countries, arguing, “The American race problem represents the proving ground to the colored peoples of the world as to the sincerity of the United States in the democratic cause. Jim Crow is America’s national disgrace. Its existence confuses and embarrasses our foreign policy.”[44]

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. informed Eisenhower that “one dark face from the US is of as much value as millions of dollars in economic aid.”[45] And the life and career of civil rights leader and diplomat Ralph Bunche assumed massive public relations proportions. Bunche, who was also the highest-ranking black OSS officer during World War II, when he composed psy-ops pamphlets for North and West African campaigns, stated that the key to winning over the “elite African” was the “legend of America as a liberalizing force in world affairs.”[46] Sounding very much like a character out of the present, Bunche argued that “carefully chosen Negroes could prove more effective than whites [in diplomacy to the dark world], owing to their unique ability to gain more readily the confidence of the Native on the basis of their right to claim a good relationship.”[47]

This line of argument accepted the terms of the Cold War to push for civil rights reform at home. By doing so, the larger connections drawn between global justice and domestic oppression were severed, and black participation in various American foreign policy initiatives was understood as a way of advancing the race. (Some, like Louis Armstrong, refused to cooperate; Stokely Carmichael put it another way: “You can’t have [Ralph] Bunche for lunch.”[48])

Thus, the argument for black leadership within -- rather than transformation of -- the US reappears today, bringing with it the idea that civil rights is yesterday’s news and that global leadership represents individual opportunity, the kind of “upward mobility” that, according to Frazier, produced “exaggerated Americans” out of the black bourgeoisie. Rihanna’s recent video for the song “Hard” is a good example. The video is a disturbing celebration of US military exploits somewhere in the Middle East as visual accompaniment to a song glorifying personal achievement. And in The Kingdom, the Jamie Foxx character’s friendship with al-Ghazi brings the black American to a meeting with a former al-Qaeda operative. “Does he know where bin Laden is?” Fleury asks al-Ghazi breathlessly. “’Cause that’d be a real big promotion for me, if I could get that one.” The East is again a career.

Race, nation and empire. Their mixing, in the end, describes a complicated, if not confused, situation. On the one hand, as they suffer social exclusion, Arabs and Muslims are increasingly racialized. But the same gesture, in a post-civil rights era world, somehow manages to Americanize them. Arab and Muslim Americans signify both the incompleteness and the human triumph of the project of the American nation. African-Americans are cast at the same time in sheltering roles, protecting the nation, those vulnerable and good Arabs and Muslims, and the empire. Such representations simultaneously prove that true equality has been won and that there exists an enduring need for civil rights thinking in the United States. What is largely missing is the recognition that black heroism, for it to be truly noble, must not be staged on the backs of another people. What is required is the critical consciousness that would build an alliance between Arabs, Muslims and African-Americans against global and domestic aggression and terrorism. (To be fair, The Kingdom hints toward this consciousness at the end.) In the absence of that idea, such representations in fact coopt the struggle for racial equality into the project of an unequal nation and that of an expanding empire.

Or do they? For is not the analysis offered here ultimately misplaced or, at the very least, out of date? Does not the election of Barack Obama lay bare the naked truth that all Americans live in a post-racial age? The country has its first African-American president, and he is an ex-community organizer, not a retired general. Does not the presidency of Obama prove -- despite his expansion of drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan or his backtracking on Israeli settlements or his failure to call for accountability for US torture or his use of Bagram air force base as a legal no-man’s land -- despite all of this and more, does not the presidency of Barack Obama prove that the US is prepared to engage in a dialogue with the rest of the world based not on conquest but on mutual respect, shared interests and basic human dignity? Is not a positive transformation of the US away from empire and toward the community of nations what we should expect from an African-American president who publicly cites his debt to the profound sacrifices of the long civil rights struggle and who writes intelligently and sensitively about anti-colonial struggle in his own memoir? In other words, is not Obama himself the culmination of the oppositional agitation in the face of injustice that makes up the enormous depth and richness of African-American history?

To this question, there is but one answer: “Arab, please!”


[1] Dean Obeidallah’s routine is available online at:

[2] New York Times, October 10, 2001.

[3] Ishmael Reed, “Civil Rights: Six Experts Weigh In,” Time, December 7, 2001.

[4] CBS News/Associated Press, June 18, 2003.

[5] See Moustafa Bayoumi, “Racing Religion,” New Centennial Review 6/2 (2006).

[6] See UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, “Consideration of Reports of Submitted by States’ Parties Under Article 9 of the Convention: Conclusion Observations of the Committee,” UN Doc. CERD/C/USA/CO/6 (May 8, 2008). See also UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to United States, September 28, 2009. The letter can be seen at

[7] Colbert King, “You Can’t Fight Terrorism with Racism,” Washington Post, July 30, 2005.

[8] Joanna Kadi, Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Feminists (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1994), p. xix.

[9] Therese Saliba, “Resisting Invisibility: Arab Americans in Academia and Activism,” in Michael Suleiman, ed., Arabs in America: Building a New Future (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), p. 308.

[10] Edward W. Said, Covering Islam (New York: Vintage, 1997 [1981]), p. 6.

[11] Orlando Patterson, “The Big Blind,” New York Times, February 10, 2008.

[12] John Updike, Terrorist (New York: Knopf, 2006), pp. 302-303.

[13] Ibid., p. 12.

[14] Ibid., p. 112.

[15] Ibid., p. 122.

[16] Steven Pinker, “The Moral Instinct,” New York Times Magazine, January 13, 2008.

[17] James Baldwin, Notes From a Native Son (Boston: Beacon, 1984 [1955]), p. 25.

[18] Pew Research Center, Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream (Washington, DC, 2007).

[19] Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (New York: Knopf, 2004), p. 15.

[20] Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media and US Interests in the Middle East Since 1945 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), p. 265.

[21] Benjamin DeMott, The Trouble with Friendship: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Race (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996), pp. 11-12.

[22] Frederick Douglass, “The War with Mexico,” in Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, eds., Voices of a People’s History of the United States (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004), pp. 160, 164.

[23] William B. Gatewood, Jr., Black Americans and the White Man’s Burden, 1898-1903 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1975), pp. 233-234.

[24] Ibid., p. 187.

[25] Ibid., p. 320.

[26] Paul Robeson, “American Negroes in the War,” in Philip Sheldon Foner, ed., Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches and Interviews (New York: Citadel, 1998), p. 147.

[27] Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 11.

[28] Penny Von Eschen, Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), p. 3.

[29] W. E. B. DuBois, “Opposition to the Military Assistance Act of 1949,” in David Levering Lewis, ed., W. E. B. DuBois: A Reader (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), p. 746.

[30] St. Clair Drake, “The International Implications of Race and Race Relations.” The Journal of Negro Education, 20/3 (Summer 1951), p. 269, quoted in Nikhil Pal Singh, Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), p. 165.

[31] Cedric Robinson, Black Movements in America (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 138.

[32] El Hajj Malik el-Shabazz and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine, 1999), p. 371.

[33] James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (New York: Vintage, 2007 [1972]), p. 178.

[34] Edward Wilmot Blyden, Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race. (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1994), p. 125.

[35] Ibid., p. 44.

[36] See C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1994 [1961]) p. 49.

[37] William Gardner Smith, The Stone Face (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1963), p. 4.

[38] Ibid., p. 55.

[39] Sam Greenlee, Baghdad Blues (New York: Bantam, 1976), pp. 103-104.

[40] Ibid., p. 160.

[41] June Jordan, Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2007), pp. 288-290.

[42] Robinson, p. 123.

[43] E. Franklin Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie (New York: Free Press, 1997 [1957]).

[44] Michael L. Krenn, Black Diplomacy: African Americans and the State Department, 1945-1969 (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998), p. 16.

[45] Von Eschen, p. 148.

[46] Singh, p. 141.

[47] Ibid., pp. 140-141.

[48] See Charles Henry, ed., Ralph J. Bunche: Selected Speeches and Writings (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995), p. 15.