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Negotiating Muslim Youth Identity in a Post-9/11 World

21 June, 2014 10:45

Muslim youth in United States of America after 9/11.

Negotiating Muslim Youth Identity in a Post-9/11 World

By Cynthia White Tindongan


The post-9/11 era is poignant for a number of populations and groups in the United States. Each of those communities wrestles with the abject impact of the events of 9/11 in its own way marshaling strengths and excavating pre-9/11 identities toward a new way of being members of those communities and participants in U.S. society. Muslims and immigrants to the U.S. are among those most affected by the reconfiguration of mainstream American life. As students in public schools Muslim youth engage in challenges unique to those with their religious, cultural and/or national backgrounds. Given the historical and current implications of colo- nialism, and postcolonial and transnational issues for immigrants, this discussion of the litera- ture centers on postcolonial and transnational theories and post-9/11 dispositions as possible frameworks for discussing the lived experiences of Muslim immigrant children in U.S. public schools. Additionally, I will look at a variety of identity issues as they may be applied to Muslim youth with a particular emphasis on post-9/11 concerns in U.S. public schools.


Muslim immigrants in the United States are living in diaspora. According to Clifford (1994), diasporas constitute lived experiences that “usually presuppose longer distances and separa- tion more like an exile: a constitutive taboo on return, or its postponement to a remote future. Diasporas also connect multiple communities of a dispersed population” (p. 304). Though many Muslim immigrants may not share the “constitutive taboo on return,” often the sense of “multiple communities of a dispersed population” rings true. Over the last several decades globalization has prompted Muslim peoples’ movement from their home countries to the United States. Muslim immigrants, are border-crossers living in the liminal space outside their homelands, and yet not quite at home in this country. They enter the Western world carrying the legacy of their countries’ often troubled relationship with Europe and the U.S. Coming from nation-states formerly colonized by European powers, the damaged social capital these Muslim immigrants bring makes their entry more problematic and complex than that of many other immigrant populations at this point in time. The nature of this troubled and exploitative rela- tionship between Western nations and the Middle East and South and Central Asia has been characterized as Orientalism. Said (1979) defined the concept of Orientalism:

Anyone who reads, teaches, writes about or researches the Oriental; a style of thought based on the ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident;’ a corporate institution for dealing with the Orient; a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” (p. 2–3)

Whereas the West’s approach to countries in Asia and Africa presently manifests, to some degree, differently than it has in the past, the patterns of Western relationships to nation-states in Asia and Africa continue to be uneven and lack parity. Because of this unevenness and on-going inequity, Muslim immigrants face a layered and complex entrance into U.S society.

The colonized history of the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and North Africa created these troubled diasporic transitions, but they were exacerbated by the attacks on September 11, 2001 (9/11). When Muslim and/or Middle Eastern peoples enter the United States, where a vast majority of U.S. citizens know little of the history of colonization, Islam, or how this global faith is situated in the world, these migrants are set up to be easily Othered. This Othering is manifested in various ways in U.S. society from television shows about sleeper cells to racial profiling and even to the overrepresentation of news coverage of peoples and events presumably associated with Islam (Bayoumi, 2008; Abu El-Haj, 2010; Jackson, 2010).

By extension, public schools, as microcosms of society, reflect the narrow and negative representations of Muslims in the wider world. The purpose, curricula, and social envi- ronment of many U.S. schools fail to meet the needs of children from many different backgrounds; for this and other reasons, schools have long been contested places (Spring,2007; Darder, Baltodano, & Torres, 2009). Too little attention is paid to how a child’s psychic or internal development is impacted by the way we perform school (Alexander, Anderson, & Gallegos, 2005). In fact, in our current political climate, educational policy gives even less attention to the whole child with the current movement toward standardization and high stakes testing (Nichols & Berliner, 2008; Ravitch, 2010). Identity and culture are sec- ondary issues or are even absent. The arts, carriers of culture, are dropped from the cur- riculum in favor of additional preparation for standardized testing, the results of which impact school funding. Scant consideration is given to the social and cultural identities of children and how those identities are supported or rejected by curricula and school environ- ments (Liese, 2004).

The Muslim immigrant community (here after referred to as Muslim immigrants, Muslims, and Muslim students interchangeably) in the United States is a population that experiences misunderstanding based on what they look like, how they dress, where they come from, and confusion about their religion. Muslim students are no exception. Given their multiple identities as adolescents, immigrants, and Muslims, these students face a rough terrain of obstacles because of who they are and where they come from. Their status as Muslim stu- dents of color has often been problematic. Young people invariably encounter difficulties as they grow into adulthood. Add to these growing pains a sense of outsider status and a reli- gion that is marginalized and misunderstood, and one has a recipe for internal conflict and external contestation. Additionally, in today’s climate Muslim immigrant students are faced with a complicated cultural milieu. The impact of 9/11 on the lives of Muslims in the U.S. has been far reaching and includes their misrepresentation in the media (Peek, 2011, p. 280; Jackson, 2010). In response to the negative imagery of Muslims, Sen (2006) argues against the common understanding of a singular Muslim identity as monolithic, oppressed, one- dimensional, and oriented towards terror. The presence of Muslim immigrants in the United States is complicated both historically and currently by events and movements including 9/11, colonialism, globalization, and transnationalism.

Postcolonial and transnational landscapes

Because we live in the midst of a postcolonial milieu where nation-states struggle with self- determination and their role on the global stage, postcolonial and transnational theories as well as the post-9/11 environment are lenses through which to view the lived experiences Muslim immigrant students in U.S. public schools. The contemporary Othering of Muslims in U.S. society is due in large part to a complex history of relations between Western colonial powers and their Muslim-centered colonies. Said (1979) explicates the extreme extent to which Africa, Asia, and the Middle East were shaped by the colonial practices of the Western world. Human and natural resources in these regions were exploited and justified as a project of Western industrialization and expansion. Western elements of colonialism included the slave trade, the study and representation of Eastern cultures by anthropologists, writers, and artists; the cultivation of foreign markets for manufactured goods; and the representation of indigenous peoples as savage heathens in need of occupation, education, civilization, and Christianity.

Though many colonies gained their independence prior to or around the middle of the 20th century, the legacy of colonialism continues to damage human and cultural capital in the 21st century. Vestiges of colonialism continue to shape, through the political and economic forces of globalization, relations between American and European powers and the Middle East and the Global South. Postcolonial theory is relevant here because according to Bhabha (1994): Postcolonial criticism bears witness to the unequal and uneven forces of cultural repre- sentation involved in the contest for political and social authority within the modern world order. Postcolonial perspectives emerge from the colonial testimony of Third World countries and the discourses of ‘minorities’ within the geopolitical divisions of East and West, North and South. (p. 245) The “unequal and uneven forces” to which Bhabha refers both precipitated colonial practices and continue to perpetuate power imbalances.

Utilizing postcolonial theory leads to a layered understanding of the lived experiences of Muslims in U.S. society. In addition, transnationalism as a construct may be used to explore current patterns of Muslim migration to the U.S. Using postcolonial studies and transnational studies as theoretical frameworks it can be argued that the geopolitical disposition of the United States relative to the Middle East at the time of the 9/11 attacks cannot be understood fully without addressing the historical contexts of the postcolonial world at the end of the 20th century.

Besides understanding the complexities of existing in what many call a postcolonial world, transnational theories are also helpful in framing the current Muslim immigrant experience. Understanding this context is crucial because it, in part, identifies many Muslim students in the U.S. Transnationalism implies the movement of peoples and cultures across borders. In exploring the worlds of Muslim immigrants and their children in schools, their lived experi- ence may be conceived of as fluid, changing, and impacted by their families’ movements. Khagram and Levitt (2008) present transnationalism thus: By transnational, we propose an optic or gaze that begins with a world without borders, empirically the boundaries and borders that emerge at particular historical moments, and explores the relationship to unbounded arenas and processes. It does not take the existence of, or appropriateness of, the spatial unit of analysis for granted. A transnational perspective is also, therefore, a way of understanding the world, a shared set of questions and puzzles, and a different expectation about what constitutes an acceptable answer. (p. 5)

Hence, in addition to a colonial past and a postcolonial present, Muslim immigrants in the U.S. in the twenty-first century may be considered transnational. Yet, because of the way they are misunderstood in the West, they are more likely conceived of by mainstream Western institutions and individuals as “foreigners.” The cultural and religious identities that Muslims carry with them from their ancestral homes tie them to their homelands. As transnational peoples shift into and out of their home countries and the places they temporarily or more permanently reside, individuals and families are also changed by the very movements them- selves. If, “The task of Transnational Studies is to uncover, analyze, and conceptualize similarities, differences, and interactions among trans-societal and trans-organizational realities, including the ways in which they shape bordered and bounded phenomena and dynamics across time and space (emphasis original)” (Khagram and Levitt, 2008, p. 11), then applying a transnational orientation to the educational lives of Muslim students seems apt because they, or their parents, experience trans-societal or trans-organizational realities based on their movement from homeland to the United States.

Much has been written on the consequences of 9/11 on U.S. culture and society. Muslim immigrants are faced with discrimination, harassment, and hostility (CAIR, 2004a, 2004b, 2004c, 2004d; Wingfield, 2006; Abu El-Haj, 2007, Bayoumi, 2008). Additionally, Arabs and South Asians may or may not be Muslim, but to the mainstream American mind brown skin, turbans, and other head coverings such as scarves or veils are conflated with Islam and Islam is conflated with terrorism. Identity formation for Muslim Americans has dy- namics that are heightened as a result of their coming into an environment that is highly charged with anti-Muslim sentiment. This kind of identity construction is influenced by a number of other factors. One is the historical legacy of colonialism and postcolonialism; another is the transnational experience itself. The very act of leaving one’s country and establishing residence elsewhere cannot be underestimated. A trans-migrant not only changes his or her address, but leaves behind a homeland and enters a new and alien landscape. For young people the shift is even more dramatic as they must navigate the complexities of school and their own adolescent development as well as socio-cultural differences. It is to the confluence of these phenomena of history and religion and to negotiated identities that we now turn.

Negotiated identities

Muslim immigrant communities in all their varieties of origin and practice have been Othered by the West, and held hostage to Orientalist misunderstandings and exoticized impressions perpetuated by Western governments, media, religions, and hysteria. Following 9/11, Muslim immigrants, along with their children, have been irrevocably impacted by the responses and reactions by much of mainstream America to the attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. This creates a problem for Muslim immigrants because the events of 9/11 have not only altered the cultural landscape for U.S. mainstream communities, but have changed the way Muslim peoples identify themselves and are identified by others. They must negotiate multiple identities, for example, as residents who function much as every other citizen even as they are perceived as threatening outsiders.

Exploring how multiple identities are managed by Muslim youth and perceived by others is crucial because as young first-generation immigrants their identities as Muslims and as American students are sometimes in conflict. Conceptions of identities include: border- crossing identity, transnational identity, hyphenated identity, hybridity, double conscious- ness, and multiple negotiated identities. Each of these identity manifestations includes the pressures of marginalized individuals to acquire language fluency and the culture of the domi- nant group in order to function in mainstream society. Keeping a foot in each of two worlds is the job of a minority; the dominant group has no such burden. Members of privileged mainstream culture need not pay attention to how marginalized peoples manage their lives as minorities, but marginalized peoples must constantly negotiate their own identities against the backdrop of the dominant society. These various manifestations of identity may be con- ceived of as coping strategies or tactics for young people who must adopt a variety of personas, depending on the environment in which they find themselves at any given time.

Exploring double consciousness is useful in unpacking the identity experiences of Othered youth. W.E.B. Du Bois (1903/1994) wrote of double consciousness in The Souls of Black Folk. Double consciousness is an experience in which one’s perception of his or her self is colored by the experience of his or her subordination. Double consciousness is “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (p. 3). Du Bois spoke of double con- sciousness as it applied to Black people in the Jim Crow south. Young (2010) expands the context to which double consciousness can be related. She writes: Double consciousness [sic] arises when the oppressed subject refuses to coincide with these devalued, objectified, stereotyped visions of him or herself. While the subject desires recognition as human-capable of activity, full of hope and possibility-she receives from the dominant culture only the judgment that she is different, marked, or inferior. (p. 42)

Maintaining double consciousness means that an individual is unable to grow in, or into, his or her own identity in a way that allows that person to privilege his or her cultural roots. The kind of identity influenced by double consciousness requires attending to two worlds, two realities. The conflict double consciousness creates is that not only must one learn the “lan- guage” of the oppressor, but he or she must also remember his or her own language and be adept at transitioning from one to the other, never forgetting where each voice must be used.

One cogent example of border-crossing and negotiated identities is conveyed by Rodriguez (1982). “Once upon a time, I was a ‘socially disadvantaged’ child. An enchantedly happy child. Mine was a childhood of intense family closeness. And extreme public humiliation” (Rodriguez, 1982, p.1). Rodriguez’ early childhood was happily centered on home and family, but when he and his siblings entered school the nuns required that his parents speak only English to their children at home. This autobiographical text portrays a difficult upbringing in which Rodriguez learns as a very young child that Spanish is a private, family language and that “only English” is spoken in school. For Rodriguez to understand and maintain his new identity he must necessarily reject his language, family, and culture. He never forgives his parents or himself for their betrayal and carries his own guilt for not having more effec- tively navigated his multiple identities. Rodriguez’ privileging of a public identity in the domi- nant world of school over his home identity came at great cost to his psyche. His relationship with his family suffered irrevocably and his identification with his Latino culture was irre- trievably lost. Much later, as a faculty member in a position of relative power, he denied the Chicano/Chicana movement of his students. He writes: “Schooling was changing me and sepa- rating me from the life I enjoyed before becoming a student” (p. 45). His academic success therefore came at the cost of his Latino identity and intimacy with his family. In Rodriguez’s mind, the only way to live a “whole” life was to choose the dominant culture and language.

Appiah (1992) describes his negotiated transnational identities in a narrative of growing up Ghanaian and Asante, and of learning English, the colonizing and unifying language of Ghana. As he grew through childhood in the 1950s and 60s his multiple identities did not conflict. He grew up believing in, honoring, and practicing his traditions as well as understanding his father’s commitment to Ghana’s economic development. These ideals of his home and community life paired with his father’s vision of moving Ghana forward economically, edu- cationally, and technologically did not seem incongruent to Appiah. Only later did he perceive a dichotomy of identities: Ghana, development, and democracy on one hand and Asante, heritage, and chieftaincy on the other. The first group was associated with the state, the second with home and community. Appiah accepted a dichotomized identity i.e. public versus private, community versus home, as did Rodriguez.

Ajrouch (2004) looks at social patterns within Arab immigrant groups. She utilizes boundary theories to explore the formation of identities of second-generation Arab American adoles- cents. Boundary theories are concerned with symbolic internal boundaries, for example, how the movements of Muslim girls are controlled in communities and peer groups. In exam- ining how gender and religion shape identity formation Ajrouch posits that “moral superiority” in controlling girls’ behavior is justified by traditional Islamic teachings. She explains how symbolic boundaries are held by peer groups, families, and communities and are contested by members of each. Ajrouch shows how, for Arab adolescents, the distinction between second generation immigrants and newly arrived migrants is an important intra-group cul- tural dynamic. The newer immigrants are referred to as “Boaters” with limited cultural com- petencies and the “Whites” are longer-standing residents who more easily weave in and out of U.S. dominant culture.

The emergence of this “white” category is significant in that it (1) underscores the fact that these adolescents view America as a pluralistic society, not as one big pot into which all peoples melt, and (2) demonstrates that they view the dominant society with some apprehension. (Ajrouch, 2004, p. 380)

These young women’s ability to successfully navigate multiple identities is made possible by their sophisticated categorization of immigrants based on their gender and time of arrival.

The White identity of Arab girls sets up a conflict because though they have gained White status as long-standing immigrants, these Arab girls equate “White” with questionable moral behavior on the part of females, an identity from which they wish to distance themselves. These Arab girls must continually negotiate identities that demarcate their Muslim faith and their U.S. environment, though one identity is often placed as primary. Allegiance to their parents’ culture challenges their American lives and their interest in U.S. youth culture affronts their traditional way of life.

Additionally, even second-generation students are compelled to negotiate multiple identities (Sarroub, 2005). Sarroub writes of a young Yemeni woman in a U.S. public high school, and “…how difficult it is to construct an identity that makes sense in the American and Yemeni Muslim worlds she inhabits” (Sarroub, 2005, p. 1). Young Yemeni women in high school seeking to reconcile their multiple identities feel as if they never quite get the balancing act right. They either fail at being American or at being “good Muslim women.” She claims: It is often easy to overlook that American children of immigrants straddle two or more worlds and must negotiate various systems of beliefs that may not complement one another. That this process is further complicated by a combination of factors such as religion, ethnic identity, gender, language, social economic standing, and school sociali- zation norms emphasizes how much we need to know to make decisions for improving schools and relations among schools, communities, and homes. (Sarroub, 2005, p. 3)

In Sarroub’s ethnography the young women who are her subjects seek an identity with which they can live. On one hand, at home they are Yemeni daughters who will marry Yemeni boys chosen for them and on the other hand they are American teenagers at U.S. schools. They are called hijabat, girls who wear hijab or headscarf. They walk a challenging line between obeying their parents at home and pushing their own cultural boundaries at school. They are monitored by their brothers and male cousins outside the home to ensure their conformance to their social and religious mores. The hijabat occasionally take classes with only female teachers and classmates. In these instances they are allowed to lock classroom doors and remove their headscarves. They can let down their guard and enjoy freedoms not available to them in more open school environments such as the cafeteria and playground.

While some of the girls seek to throw off their traditional Yemeni identities, it is not at all clear that they desire a more liberal lifestyle. In any case, removing their veils is in resistance to their parents, home culture, and community. They also resist the school culture that frames them with the singular identity of wearing hijab. Sometimes respected for their academic work and at other times disregarded for who they are assumed to be, the young Muslim women resent the presumption that they are oppressed.

Hyphenated identities often include “American” as a signifier. The term Muslim-American, for example, labels a person not only as an American who happens to be Muslim, but defines that person by religion rather than nationality or ethnicity or any other way in which he or she wishes to be defined or described. Problematic is emphasizing the Muslim part of a person’s identity in a way that is not done for Christians. For example, Sirin and Fine (2007) depict Muslim American youth living hyphenated lives post-9/11. Sirin and Fine describe these hyphenated identities as a “dialectic labor of psychological reconciliation” (p. 151).

Untangling, creating, and recreating identities is a developmental task of adolescence in general, but for young Muslim adolescents living under a microscope in a highly charged political and religious environment tension and strife are often a daily part of life. As an element of life, schools are implicated and are relevant places to be examined for their com- plicity in reinforcing hegemonic cultural norms.

Sirin and Fine (2007) argue that cracks appear in the fragile lives of youth when social and cultural identities are interrogated by the dominant discourse. Muslim students enact the con- flicts happening around them whether in a family, school, community, or social environment. Although their feelings, attitudes, and actions may be interpreted by adults as hormonal or developmental, they are more likely personal crises in response to their troubled environment.

Living in the midst of Islamophobia and global crises, teens enact these global conflicts in their own lives. The events of 9/11 have had a decidedly negative effect on young Muslims in the U.S. They are not only under attack by the dominant culture, but are also perceived as a threat to its well-being (Sirin & Fine, 2007). Sirin and Fine write: Youth embody and perform the very economic, and we would add cultural, conflicts that constitute global politics. Adolescence is precisely the moment in which international, national, social and personal ‘crises’ erupt most publicly and spontaneously, and, unfor- tunately, they are more often than not misread as simply personal, hormonal, disciplinary or developmental ‘‘problems’’ (Abu El-Haj, 2007; Appadurai, 2004; Fine, et al., 2004; Sen, 2004; Sirin, Diemmer, Jackson, Gonsalves, & Howell, 2004; Sirin & Rogers-Sirin, 2005). Growing up in the midst of what Fazal Rizvi (2005) calls Islamophobia, Muslim American youth offer us a lens into the developmental challenges that confront teens who live on the intimate fault lines of global conflict; teens who carry international crises in their back- packs and in their souls. (p. 151)

This dynamic creates the double-bind of being threatened and being perceived as threatening. According to Sirin and Fine the psychological impact of living in this kind of liminal space is grave indeed.

Sirin and Fine (2007) find example after example of stifled social and academic lives that Muslim youth attribute directly to 9/11. They draw pictures of binaried identities, loss, and sometimes, in the case of girls, flowing swirling identities blending with one another. Sirin and Fine suggest that these students “live at the hyphen” (p. 156). The girls seem to manage their dichotomized selves easily. They are quite aware that they are viewed as oppressed and that their hijabs are objects of contempt, curiosity, and pity. The boys, on the other hand, feel the weight of political and religious hegemony directly on their shoulders. In response to this pressurized environment Sirin and Fine argue that the boys react with a diasporic longing for the homeland.

That boys and girls react differently may be attributable to, at least, some of the girls experi- encing more freedom in the U.S. than at home. In the U.S. environment girls take on the role of teacher nurturing cross-cultural understanding. Boys, conversely, feel displaced and dis- rupted. Sirin and Fine (2007) describe, as empowered, youth who take an active stance against prejudice. Agency has antidotal qualities and the students who exercise it seem to be targeted less often than students who react more passively to aggression.

The nature of dual identities has contributed to the desire of Muslims to connect with immi- grants who share a Muslim background. Sirin, Bikmen, Mir, Fine, Zaal, and Katsiaficas (2008) suggest the emergence of a community of Muslim-identified American residents and citizens stemming from post-9/11 events: namely the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Membership in this Muslim-identified community predominantly comprises those from Muslim-majority countries. Being Muslim is their common identity. The moniker “Muslim-American” is used in the dominant discourse to view a number of discreet populations as possessing a single monolithic identity. Typically in U.S. society we do not hyphenate populations according to religion, yet using Muslim-American is a convenient way to group individuals into an imagined community. The authors insist that: The study of a “Muslim-American” identity, therefore, is not necessarily a study of reli- giosity or ethnicity, but rather is a study of an emerging collective identity, which is influenced not only by religious background, but also by a specifiable historic (i.e., attacks of 9/11) and political (i.e., war on terror, USA Patriot Act) contexts. (Sirin et al.,2008, p. 262) According to Sirin et al. forging identities as parallel, integrated, or conflicted is a develop- mental task of hyphenated, Muslim-American youth.

Flanagan, Syvertsen, Sukhdeep, Gallay, and Cumsille (2009) explain how identity formation for some adolescents includes exploration of and attention to their ethnicity. These youth con- sider their place in society and their ethnic identity relative to discrimination. Flanagan et al. explore, “…whether they believe that the tenets of the American social contract of fair treat- ment and equal opportunity apply to all” (Flanagan et al., 2009, p. 500). These authors argue that ethnic minorities are in a unique position to gauge the impact of prejudice and to be more committed to the principles of tolerance. The discrimination experienced by ethnic minority youth, including Arab-Americans, leads to their politicization. Hence, the objective of Flanagan et al. is to assess the extent to which minority youth engage in civil commitments as a result of such politicization.

A key factor in adolescents’ understanding of what it means to be a member of an ethnic minority revolves around discussions with their parents. Parents help them understand the treatment group members can expect in the larger society and how best to respond to it. Another consideration for Flanagan et al. is the perception of youths’ general views about the social contract juxtaposed against their feelings about “how the principles of fair treat- ment play out in specific institutional contexts” (Flanagan et al., 2009, p.503). The results of the study indicate that Arab-American youth, more than did African-American youth, tended to believe that the U.S. government responds equally to all groups. It is important to note, however, that these data were gathered pre-9/11. It would be interesting to know the results of a parallel study conducted ten years after 9/11. These data would be informative in com- parison to the study by Flanagan et al. Muslim students who negotiate multiple and hyphen- ated identities may inhabit psychic spaces that are liminal.

Liminal spaces are spaces and places where marginalized peoples often reside. These spaces exist in the zone between two worlds or in the place where these two worlds overlap. The two worlds are the world of the home culture and the world of the dominant society. One of the liminal spaces Muslim students inhabit is public school. In school they are adolescents like their classmates, but unlike their classmates they transition to an alternate cultural environ- ment the moment they walk out of their parent’s house. School is a nested environment within the larger U.S. culture. Hence, students’ transitions involve negotiating two dimensions of liminal spaces. School environments mirror the wider society, thus the lived experiences of Muslim immigrants in U.S. society play out in classrooms and on playgrounds. The Othering of Muslim immigrants creates tensions that tend to influence Muslim children’s experiences in school (Liese, 2004; Abu El-Haj, 2007). Navigating multiple identities between one’s family setting and mainstream U.S. culture is demanding. Living in the liminal space of the adoles- cent developmental processes of emerging identities and the public school environment is highly complex and often a confusing state of mind for young people. Growing up requires walking through emotional mine fields at best, but for immigrant students from marginalized groups the journey may be daunting.

Ogbu (1991) argues that differing experiences of minority groups in the United States can be measured to some degree by examining whether those groups came to this continent by force e.g. enslaved Africans, or by choice e.g. many European immigrants in the twentieth century. However, to characterize Muslim students as “minorities” in this sense may be problematic given the use of the term in the literature as reminiscent of the Native/Other binary. Though Muslim immigrants arrived on this continent voluntarily, their history as colonial subjects renders them Others in the United States. Indeed, the processes of immigrant acculturation and assimilation unfold in vastly different ways for poor people and/or people of color from the Middle East and Global South than for White Europeans. Thus, access to resources that open doors to mainstream middle-class U.S. society have often remained unavailable to working-class immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Edu- cation that prepares students for college and career success is inequitably accessible across immigrant and domestic populations (Anyon, 1980; Ogbu, 1991; Finn, 2009). Muslim students, especially those from the Global South, may be among the minority students lacking access to resources leading to autonomy and success.

It is estimated that 0.8 percent of the population in the United States practices the Muslim faith. Much of the Muslim community in the U.S., however, is comprised of recent immigrant groups. As of 2010, 60 to 65 percent of United States Muslims hailed from South Asia and the Arab states of the Middle East and North Africa. Native born, mostly African American Muslims, comprise 25 percent of the current population (Gallup, 2009). Nonetheless, the dominant culture fails to recognize that Islamic peoples have a long history in the United States. Moreover, when a tragedy like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor with grave social and political consequences occurs, it is inevitable that a targeted group not protected by dominant culture, emerges. After the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941 U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were interned in remote, military-like camps (Zinn, 2010). Similarly after 9/11 Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians were harassed, attacked, and arrested (DeRosier, 2004; Maira, 2004), Sheridan, 2006; Wingfield, 2006;, 2010).

Stereotypes, misunderstandings, and limitations impact the identity negotiation of Muslim adolescents as they navigate through their U.S. school experience. Simmons (2008) cites esti- mates ranging from 2.35 to7 million Muslim residents in the U.S. currently (p. 255). In as much as research suggests that in 2010, the majority of Americans had a positive view of Muslims in this country, there remains a dearth of understanding about Islam and the Muslim community (Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 2005). Whereas there appears to have been a great deal of progress in kindling awareness and support of Muslim Americans, these data point to the fact that stereotypes and ignorance persist.

Patterns of immigration have impacted when, where, and how Muslim peoples have accul- turated and/or assimilated into the fabric of U.S society. From the 1960s to the present time increasing numbers of Muslim immigrants have journeyed from South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to the United States. Simmons (2008) posits that despite the fact that Islam is the world’s second largest and the fastest growing religion, Americans failed to acknowledge its significance until the Arab oil embargo of 1973, the Iranian revolution of 1978–79, and 9/11. Unequivocally, 9/11 has resulted in an intense backlash against Muslim peoples over the last nine years (CAIR, 2004a, 2004b, 2004c, 2004d).

Because of this intense backlash U.S. Muslim youth struggle to embody the multiple identities associated with religion, culture, nation of origin, and gender (Sarroub, 2005; Sirin & Fine, 2007; Abu El-Haj, 2007). Such identifications at times co-mingle and at other times clash. Negotiating multiple identities creates tensions reflecting the inner turmoil associated with questions about who one is and where one “comes from.” One thing seems certain. The complicated, shifting, and often troubled relationship Islam has had, and continues to have with the United States will no doubt inform future interactions between Americans from the dominant group and Muslim immigrants. These challenging dynamics are indicative of the postcolonial climate in the 21st century.


Analyzing the post-9/11 era is paramount given the profound impact felt in the lived experi- ences of Muslims in the United States. In the U.S. and around the world 9/11 has become a defining geopolitical, economic, military, and cultural moment. Its repercussions on the lives of Muslim students in the United States have been far-reaching. The attack provided a ser- viceable kind of knowledge that fed into Islamophobic hysteria and precipitated the “war on terror” and wars against two nation-states. It created a convenient opportunity for Othering Muslims and has conflated Islam with fundamentalist Islamic movements and terrorism. One example of this changing landscape is the increased discrimination and prejudice against Arab Americans, Muslims, and South Asians post-9/11 (Forman, 2001; Zehr, 2001; ARADI, 2003; Sheridan, 2006; Kumashiro, (2006); Shah, 2006; Wingfield, 2006; Bigelow, 2008; Abu El-Haj, 2010; Jackson, 2010).

A Council on American-Islamic Relations’ (CAIR) study estimates the U.S. Muslim population at six to seven million. Even given this sizable and visible presence research conducted by CAIR (2004a, 2004b, 2004c, 2004d) indicates that about one fourth of average Americans sur- veyed held anti-Muslim stereotypes. Maira (2004) writes: Before 9/11, about eighty percent of the American public thought it was wrong for law enforcement to use racial profiling, popularly used to refer to the disproportionate tar- geting of African American drivers by police for the offense of “driving while black.” However, after the shock of the 9/11 attacks, sixty percent favored racial profiling, at least as long as it was directed at Arabs and Muslims. (p. 221)

This increase in negative sentiment puts Muslim immigrants, including public school stu- dents, at continual risk of narrow and erroneous belief systems and discriminatory actions. Directly following 9/11 hate crimes against Muslims and people perceived to be Muslim, rose 1,700% in 2001 (Curtis, 2009, p. 100; Peek, 2011).

The U.S. government responded to 9/11 in various ways. Curtis (2009) reports that the FBI attempted to interview some 8,000 Muslim men to determine their association with terrorist activities. Additionally: About 1,200 Arab, South Asian, and Muslim men were held on suspicion of possible ties to terrorism. This was no ordinary law enforcement action. In many instances, the detainees’ names were not released, they were not allowed to access a lawyer, and they were held in jail without being charged of a crime. (Curtis, 2009, p. 100)

Clearly, in what was perceived of as a national emergency, conventions of detainment and custody were relaxed to accommodate the federal government’s efforts to protect the U.S. from terrorist threats.

Given the conflicting reports about how mainstream people in the U.S. view Muslims and Muslim immigrants Huda (2006) cites a survey conducted by The Pew Research Center for the People conducted immediately after the London subway bombings in 2005. Pew reports that, “55 percent of Americans had favorable opinions of American Muslims, an increase from 45 percent in March, 2001. The Pew report showed that there was considerably less hostility toward Muslims in the United States and Europe than four years previously” (p. 3). Addition- ally, the Pew survey “Islamic Extremism: Common Concern for Muslim and Western Publics” (2005), reported that: The number of Americans who believe Islam is more likely than other religions to encour- age violence fell noticeably, from 44 percent in 2003 to 36 percent in 2005. A majority of Americans (55 percent) said they have a favorable opinion of American Muslims. That figure is significantly higher than the 45 percent holding favorable views in March, 2001, prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2005) The results of this survey point to the various perceptions of Muslims and Islam as good, bad, or neutral.

Mamdani (2002) speaks to the political and social climate precipitated by 9/11. He critiques the political, military, economic, and/or socio-cultural agendas of the United States gov- ernment and mainstream media regarding Muslim and/or Arab immigrants. Mamdani (2002) points to the cultural discourse of politics and religion. According to Mamdani the framing of “Good Muslim” versus “Bad Muslim” is a way to underhandedly vilify entire populations, namely Afghans and Palestinians. “The implication is undisguised: Whether in Afghanistan, Palestine, or Pakistan, Islam must be quarantined and the devil must be exorcized from it by a civil war between good Muslims and bad Muslims” (Mamdani, 2002, p. 776).

Mamdani questions how it is that Islamic politics are perceived to reflect Islamic civi- lization when the same relationship is not drawn between Western politics and Western civilization. He also challenges the notion of considering the cultural in political and terri- torial senses. “Political units (states) are territorial; culture is not” (Mamdani, 2002, p. 767). Dominant discourse fails to consider terrorists as bad people rather than good, or as criminals, rather than productive citizens. Mamdani contends that the conflict resides within cultures not between them. Orthodoxy and fundamentalism of any variety do not connote terrorism.

Jackson (2010) looks at negative stereotypical portrayals of Islam and Muslims in the U.S. media, emphasizing media attention post-9/11. She recommends critical media literacy as a pedagogical tool, as a critical skill for students to learn. She argues that young people, from marginalized groups as well as students from the dominant population, are bombarded with stereotypical images presented by mainstream media. These images narrowly depict Islam as violent and prone to terrorism: I argue that the commonality of stereotypical representations associating Muslims with terrorism in mainstream media reveals widespread belief among producers of media messages that the association, or connection, is normal, reasonable, and/or acceptable, which is then applied to, and learned by young people, rather than the view that, alter- natively, the association is biased and stereotypical and harms Muslims, making them vulnerable to prejudice and discrimination in the public sphere. (Jackson, 2010, p. 6)

The most common representation of Muslims since 9/11 has been of a “scary, shady character: an unlikable, intolerable enemy of society” (Jackson, 2010, p.9). Jackson’s focuses on images of bin Laden and cartoons about Muslims and Islam. Jackson emphasizes that educators need not access the “best” resources about Muslims, but rather, provide images from a variety of sources that interrogate the status quo. She challenges educators to teach students to critique prevailing notions about Muslims and Islam post-9/11 that mainstream media present to the American public.

In addressing the need for interventions to “ease ethnic tensions and improve the school social climate” (p. 7) in the aftermath of 9/11, DeRosier’s (2004) study found that indeed it was young peoples’ relationships that were most likely to be impacted by 9/11. Students of Middle Eastern descent lost friends. They were exposed to bullying and other kinds of victimization. DeRosier reports that whereas prior to 9/11 Middle Eastern students were voted popular, none were several months following 9/11 (p. 13). According to DeRosier, due to the negative influences on the school social climate, most probably resulting from 9/11, interventions concerning ethnic tension, bullying, and violence are needed in schools to foster an environ- ment tolerant of students from all backgrounds.

Wingfield (2006) determines that Anti-Arab sentiment has increased due to 9/11. In addi- tion, U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq has focused negative attention on Arab-Americans which may include Christians or people from other faiths. Wingfield differentiates between Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans. He gives an historical over- view of the Arab-American presence in the U.S., stating that Arabs, like Hispanics, are a “linguistic and cultural” (Wingfield, 2006, p. 2) group. Although most Arabs are Muslim, most Muslims are not Arab. He posits that at any given time in the history of an Arab pres- ence in North America discrimination was evident. Although racially Arabs are considered “White,” culturally and religiously they have been rendered non-White minorities. Anti- Arab discrimination stemming from U.S. foreign policies, access to oil, and engagement with Israel have combined to create a climate intolerant of Arabs in the U.S. Portrayals of Arabic people in the news, media, films, television, books, and multi-media are decidedly negative (Wingfield, 2006).

A history of military interventions, such the U.S. bombing of Libya in the 1980s and the 1990s Gulf War, have sparked incidents of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim rhetoric and crime. Wingfield continues by enumerating anti-Arab discrimination including violence, death threats, and harassment from students, teachers and staff in schools post-9/11. Girls wearing hijab were particular targets. The failure of discriminators to distinguish between Arab and Muslim populations is indicative of ignorance in the dominant worldview about characteristics of various immigrant groups.

Wingfield (2006) examines the practices of educators in deciding how to teach about Arab and Muslim subjects. The increasing numbers of centers and institutes on Middle Eastern studies at universities and of public outreach organizations aimed at educating teachers have shown promise in preparing teachers to teach about Islam and the Muslim world. Wingfield connects anti-Arab sentiment and events like the 1990s Gulf War and 9/11. He highlights distinctions between Arabs and Muslims and a lack of recognition of those distinctions in the mainstream American imagination.

Abu El-Haj (2007) explores the landscape inhabited by Palestinian American youth as they negotiate their transnational identities. Students come into conflict with teachers over dif- fering views of international politics. Palestinian students’ experiences of living under Israeli occupation and questions about the very legitimacy of Palestine’s existence create tensions between them and their teachers. Students have even been disciplined for their refusal to accept their teachers’ positions on Palestine. Abu El-Haj addresses the complex relationships among the education of immigrant youth, ethnicity, national identity, and nation formation. The youth in this study embark on a journey of identity formation that negotiates between U.S. citizenship and Palestinian homeland mentality.

Exploring how the U.S. education system could use the phenomenon of transnationalism to inform the process of democratic education is the primary focus of Abu El-Haj’s (2007) text. Members of Muslim communities in Western societies are racialized to the point of being perceived as contrary to democratic values. As members of “multiple imagined communities” (Abu El-Haj, p. 287), Palestinian youth can be supported in their desire to fully participate as members in U.S. society as well as be supported in their sense of belonging to Palestine. Abu El-Haj (2007) utilizes the approach to observing not only the processes of accultura- tion and assimilation, but also the “processes of nation formation at work in schools and society” (p. 288).

Nation formation in schools causes conflict for many Muslim students. One young person’s “discourse suggests that being Palestinian American is fraught with tensions and can involve a fractured rather than a hybrid or even hyphenated sense of identity for these youth” (Abu El-Haj, 2007, p. 292). Abu El-Haj surmises that students’ “…connection to a kind of trans- national village was amplified by their nationalist longing for an independent state” (p. 295). Culturally, these youth most strongly identify as Palestinian , but also recognize the distinct advantages of holding a U. S. passport. “Palestinian students presented a view of U.S. ramifica- tions of citizenship as a possession carried rather than an identity inhabited” (p. 299). Palestinian students have grappled with the nuanced resistances to pledging allegiance to the U.S. flag: by standing during the pledge, but not pledging; or refusing to stand, and all that those choices imply in a U.S. nation-building environment. This environment puts these Palestinian students in the untenable position of being forced to take sides in their own binaried identities. The kind of citizenship schools prepare these students for is not one of membership in a just pluralistic society, but rather as pursuant of U.S. interests at home and abroad.

Abu El-Haj (2007) concludes that schools are critical in preparing students for active engaged democratic citizenship and must, therefore, deal with a changing demographic landscape in order to address inequality and identity. Because schools are charged with educating for social change, curricula need to recognize the experiences of residents and citizens who have been denied human and civil rights. Educators must be informed and empowered to teach about 9/11 in order to counter the negative effects of such nation building on communities and students (p. 310). Congruent with Abu El-Haj’s assertions Haque (2004) writes: Islamophobia exists today as a social phenomenon that seems to be omnipresent. It is not surprising that such views, so prevalent in general society, also influence how students view Islam and their Muslim peers. Pejorative attitudes affect classroom interactions between teachers and students and among students. (p. 4)

Haque considers the repercussions of 9/11 on the lives of Muslim students, especially those born in the United States. She reports that Muslim students feel rejected by their own country. For example, she reports Muslim girls being sent home for wearing hijab. She then offers suggestions for confronting Islamophobia. Haque claims: “The humanities, social studies and history are all subject areas that offered opportunities to confront Islamophobia and espe- cially the popular belief that Islam is synonymous with backwardness and that Islam and ‘civilization’ are opposite constructs. This is false” (p. 16). Haque contends that opportunities for deconstructing Islamophobia are available to educators.

Liese (2004) relays the story of an Iraqi child who was asked to walk under the American flag, rather his own Iraqi flag, in his school’s multicultural day parade. This request was framed as a need to “avoid discrimination.”

The US’s problem with Iraq was not with its people but with its President’s decision to invade Kuwait. Most Iraqi refugees in the United States shared similar sentiments about Saddam Hussein, but that doesn’t mean they had to feel shame or anger about their own ethnicity, culture, religion or country of national origin. (Liese, 2004, p. 64)

According to Liese, school officials struggle to strike a balance among patriotism, supporting the fight against terrorism, and respecting differences in students’ backgrounds. “The pejora- tive stereotypes against Muslim students are often justified, as we have seen, in the guise of patriotism” (p. 65). Liese concludes that five levels of discrimination are evident in schools. “Levels of prejudice and discrimination: 1. Verbal Slurs. 2. Avoidance. 3. Discrimination. 4. Violence. 5. Murder.” (p. 67)

In addition, to illustrate teachers’ attitudes towards “difference,” she cites what she calls McCain’s 10% Rule:

• 10% of school personnel teach sameness.
• 10% of school personnel teach difference.
• 80% of school personnel are confused, ignorant, and tired of the conversation. (Liese, p. 69) This is a indictment of failing multicultural pedagogy.

Abu El-Haj (2010) looks at a large urban public school in Pennsylvania immediately after 9/11. In reporting that one teacher voiced a desire to round up all the Palestinian students, Abu El-Haj writes: Although this teacher’s demand was clearly egregious, it represented an extreme expres- sion of a more commonly held idea that would haunt the Palestinian American youth at Regional High for years to come: despite their legal status as U.S. citizens, these youth were immediately constructed as potential enemy-aliens whose status as members of this national community was open to question. Moreover, this incident symbolized and antici- pated the ways that, in the wake of 9/11, Regional High would be engaged in the everyday processes of nation-building that occur in relation to the United States “war on terror.” (2010, pp. 242–243)

As referenced in Abu El-Haj’s earlier piece (2007), she perceives schools as sites of nation building of U.S. national and international interests especially after 9/11. In examining the practices and culture of one school, Abu El-Haj finds U.S. nationalism proffered through “everyday racialized and gendered discourses inside one school” (p. 243). She sees schools as taking on the role of educating for a particular kind of citizenship. Abu-El-Haj asserts that part of being educated for citizenship means denying one’s background in favor of accepting U.S rhetoric without dis- sent. “Models of citizenship that depend on identification and allegiance with a nation-state do not reflect the lives of transnational communities” (Abu El-Haj 2007, 2009; Maira, 2004).


Investigating the socio-cultural contexts in schools and society, including the influences of 9/11 for Muslim students in U.S. public schools, it appears that the links among multiple- identity issues relevant to Muslim immigrant students and a Muslim presence in the United States past and present can, indeed, be plausibly drawn. Utilizing postcolonial and trans- national frameworks, exploring varieties of identities, and interrogating the practices and policies of some public school environments has served as a construct from which to explicate the lived experiences of Muslim students. Extraordinary changes have been precipitated by
9/11. That young Muslim people feel the brunt of that backlash is unsurprising. As they negotiate their multiple identities at home, school, and community Muslim adolescents carry with them a complicated history beginning with a time when much of the world was colonized by Western states, through 9/11, and to the present. That school environments have taken on the mainstream discourse of wider society is expected. The nation-building, perhaps conceived of as modern-day internal colonialism, that schools proffer leaves little space for Muslim students with hyphenated senses of self and their classmates to learn an alternative kind of history, politics, social studies, and media literacy. From the literature cited it may be concluded that the various characteristics and complications of colonialism, decolonization, postcolonial and transnational constructs, and identity conspire to create a complicated landscape that Muslim students must negotiate. Indeed, Bhabha’s (1994) “unequal and uneven forces” (p. 245) may still be at play in U.S. public schools even in the new transnational world order.


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