Faculty Voices: Growing Up Arab, Muslim | MSUToday

Linda Sayed (her) is assistant professor of comparative cultures and politics at James Madison College. She is a faculty member of the Muslim Studies program. Sayed earned her Ph.D. in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies from Columbia University. As an interdisciplinary scholar, her research and teaching focus on the politics of citizenship as they relate to issues of marginalized communities, refugee rights, accessibility to health care, and national and international governance systems that inform global public health concerns in the Middle East and among Arabs. communities in the United States.

When people ask me where I come from, I naturally answer: “New York. Queens to be exact. This is where I consider my home. Although I was born in Michigan and moved back and forth between New York and Michigan during the early part of my childhood, when people ask me where I come from, the expected answer is neither l neither of these places. I have lived a large part of my life as someone who has no place.

Growing up as an Arab, Muslim, and American daughter of immigrant parents from Lebanon was not always easy. I entered the public school system in a predominantly white suburb of Detroit. I spoke Arabic at home, so English was not my main language.

The teachers didn’t know how to treat me. I was placed in ESL classes, withheld a grade because teachers assumed I was not ready for formal education, and largely ignored. I finished first year thinking that something was wrong with me because I was having trouble learning to read.

When we returned to New York, where the schools were more diversified, I found myself among teachers and students who knew how to welcome immigrants and the children of immigrants. Having teachers who believed in me gave me the confidence I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

However, there were still so many obstacles.

This was largely due to the perception of Arab and Muslim Americans in the United States; one who viewed them as terrorists, violent, uncivilized, foreign and “other” and, therefore, un-American. Quite frankly, I don’t recall any positive depictions of Arabs or Muslims on TV or in the news.

Ethnic, political and religious diversity

The number of Arab Americans in the United States is estimated at around 3.6 million, with ancestry from at least one of the 22 Arabic-speaking countries located across North Africa and West Asia, called Middle- East. Arabs are ethnically, politically and religiously diverse, but are united by a common cultural and linguistic heritage.

A common misconception is that all Arabs are from the Middle East or that all Arabs are Muslims. Arab countries represent only one-fifth of the world’s Muslim population, while the Middle East is made up of nations and communities that are neither Arab nor Arabic-speaking. About 25% of Arab Americans practice Islam, with about 63% to 77% practicing Christianity.

Although people identified as Arabs arrived early in the United States, some documented as early as 1700, the period from 1860 to 1920 saw a large wave of immigrants from the Syrian region (now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine) of the Ottoman Empire. . During America’s nationalization era (1790-1952), being white was a prerequisite for citizenship, which also guaranteed various rights such as property and the right to vote.

Not all Arabs got guaranteed citizenship

Because Arabs were assumed to be Muslims and presumed not to be white, they were not eligible for citizenship. It was during this period that Arabs, especially Arab Christians, used Christianity to invoke their whiteness and demanded eligibility for citizenship. In this way, Christianity became a substitute for race and whiteness and a way in which Arab Christians sought citizenship before the law in 1915.

Despite this, Arabs continued to be considered non-white. American policy since the 1960s has treated Arabs as a distinct racial group, seen as a national security threat associated with terrorism.

This notion was further exacerbated after 9/11, when many Arab and Muslim Americans endured state-sponsored forms of surveillance, discrimination, racial harassment, and anti-immigrant policies that constantly drove them to live in fear.

Having the name “Linda” provided a certain level of ease that my brothers never experienced, as they have distinct Arab-Muslim names.

Being Arab and Muslim

Growing up Arab and Muslim in the United States was living by omission. Rather than telling people that I was fasting during Ramadan, I just didn’t eat when I was with my peers. I used to tell people that I was a vegetarian before explaining why I couldn’t eat meat that wasn’t halal. I would observe without disclosing.

A brother of mine witnessed the fall of the Twin Towers, and what followed that day was a trauma in itself. But to be Arab and Muslim in a post-9/11 world is to exist under a microscope. Every time you hear about a terrorist attack or an act of violence, there is this fear and this hope that the culprit is not an Arab or a Muslim.

This is largely due to the way the media constructs the Arab-Muslim narrative. As a specialist in the Middle East, I push for change by rewriting history.

Fighting harmful stereotypes

It was only during my graduate studies that an Arabic teacher challenged my understanding of Muslim, Middle Eastern, and Arabic studies beyond the Western approach I encountered as a major in undergraduate history.

To be a first generation Muslim Arab woman is to sort through this feeling of not belonging to various spaces for various reasons. I easily identify with students who reveal feelings of inadequacy for not having the tools and skills to navigate higher education. I try to help them see that their experiences are valid and that they belong in these spaces. Reshaping and remaking the way we make education accessible and a sense of belonging is important to me and my approach to teaching.

One of the courses I teach is MC202: To Belong or Not to Belong: Being a Muslim in the United States. This is an intensive research writing course for first year students. We explore the long history of Muslims in America, discuss Islamophobia and how Muslims come from different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. There are opportunities to explore how 9/11 shaped some of the Arab and Muslim American experiences that are common today as we critically analyze language and imagery in the media.

Challenging these harmful stereotypes that essentialize and homogenize Arab American experiences and identities, and render them invisible in American history, is important for necessary change to occur.

National Arab American Heritage Month

In 2019, Michigan and Arab-American Rep. Rashida Tlaib, along with Rep. Debbie Dingell, released a congressional resolution to recognize National Arab-American Heritage Month, or NAAHM, nationwide. NAAHM is a time to recognize and celebrate the diversity of Arab American history, culture, and contributions.

Michigan holds the second largest Arab American population in the United States. With such a large Arab community in our backyard, I urge all Spartans to learn more about its rich history and visit places like the Arab American Museum in Dearborn.

MSU’s Muslim Studies program offers several events and programs that help celebrate Arab American Heritage Month. The program also houses the “Muslims of the Midwest” digital archive project. We have a wealth of resources at our fingertips. Let’s use them.