Celebrating the Fourth of July – An Arab-Muslim-American’s Journey to Discovering their American-ness

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This opinion appeared at the ING blog.

As an American of Arab ancestry and Muslim background, I’ve always felt slightly disingenuous about becoming emotionally involved in the 4th of July holiday. I was never quite sure about my American-ness, despite my citizenship, nor did I feel that my fellow Americans, particularly those of European descent, viewed me as authentically American. I’ve always wondered how other groups, like African Americans reconciled their difficult history in America with celebrations of the American nation, which is reflected in Independence Day. Growing up in the United States, after having emigrated here from Egypt with my parents at the age of 7, we never celebrated the 4th of July holiday, because it wasn’t “our holiday,” as my mother would tell us. Like many children of immigrant parents, I grew up neither being authentically American nor identifying with mine or my parents country of origin. It wasn’t until I was in my 20’s, free from my parent’s control, that I declared my identity as an American, although I still hadn’t fully understood what this meant. I knew what it was not – it only took a year living in Egypt to convince me that I was not Egyptian, and while both my siblings married Egyptians and visited Egypt at every opportunity they had, I didn’t return to Egypt again for two decades. So, embracing my newly found identify as an American, I began a conscious journey in my early 20’s to discovering exactly what being American meant for me.

At first, it meant freedom – freedom from oppressive authorities and ideologies, freedom to do whatever I pleased, freedom – period. I quickly learned that freedom came with responsibility – a lesson that ordinary Americans learn in their teens. Being an American then took on new meaning; it became about valuing certain principles and ideals and living by them in an environment that one is free to create; it meant freedom of choice, access to unfiltered information, diversity of ideas, pluralism of faiths and peoples, creating opportunities, taking civic responsibility, having rights, earning your place at the table, and being whoever you wanted to be without fear of any outside force taking it away from you.

But in spite of embracing these views and attitudes, I still didn’t feel entirely American; not because of anything internal, but because of how my Euro-American co-workers, friends and peers still viewed me, generally as defined by my ethnicity and religion. I realized later however, that to a great extent, this reflected my own uncertainty and confusion with my nationality, feelings which tended to surface around the 4th of July. If I was an American, shouldn’t Independence Day have a deeper meaning to me than just a day off work? It didn’t matter that most Americans did and still do not think too deeply about the significance of this holiday; it bothered me to know that I really didn’t feel as American as I thought I was, especially in the company of my parents and their peers.

It occurred to me much later that what I was lacking was a sense of shared history with other Americans. After all, when I think of the War of Independence and other notable periods in our nation’s history, I don’t recall seeing images of Americans of Arab or Muslim background. That is, until recently when I began to learn about the roots of Muslims in America from scholarly works such as those of Sylvianne Diouf, author of Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, Allen Austin, author of African Muslims in Antebellum America, and Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, author of two forthcoming books on the history of Muslims in America. I learned that up to one fifth of the enslaved Africans who were brought to America, even before the American Revolution were Muslim; I discovered the heroic stories of survival and freedom of figures such as Ayyub Ibn Suleyman (whose slave name was Job, and lived in 1700’s Maryland), Yarrow Mahmout (1800’s Maryland), Ibrahim Abd Ar-Rahman (Prince, 1800’s Mississippi), and Salih Bilali (Tom, 1800’s Georgia). I also learned that many prominent African American abolitionists such as Martin Delany and Henry Highland Garnet had Muslim ancestry, and that the influence of the Muslim slaves of antebellum America extended to American Blues and Jazz, which owe much to West African Muslim folk music.

I also learned that there were many Anglo-American converts such as Reverend Norman, a Protestant missionary to Turkey, who became so impressed with the teachings of Islam that he became Muslim and returned to America with the intent to start a Muslim mission in the United States. I became acquainted with the story of Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, who represented the Muslim world at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 and in 1901, was appointed honorary Turkish ambassador to New York. I also learned that Arab and South Asian immigrants began arriving on American soil as early as the mid-1800’s, including such colorful figures as the subject of a popular camp song, “Hi Jolly” (his popular name adopted from the Arabic, Hajj Ali), who served as chief camel driver in the Army’s Camel Military Corps, which operated in the Southwest between 1856 and 1864. He was in charge of seventy-seven camels in the great Southwestern deserts, where camels were used for reconnaissance, communications, and carrying loads of freight for the Army. His tombstone in the shape of a pyramid outside Quartzsite, Arizona remains one of the state’s national landmarks and a popular tourist attraction.

I discovered that one of the first Muslim-American immigrant communities was formed in Ross, North Dakota in 1900; the small mosque they built in 1920 has been called “the first American mosque,” although it was only one of the first. I also learned that one of the most prominent Muslim South Asian immigrants, Fazlur Rahman Khan, who immigrated to the US in the mid 1960’s, was responsible for designing the Hancock Building and Sears Tower in Chicago, among the world’s tallest man-made structures which make up the most striking features of the Chicago skyline. Fazlur Rahman became world-famous for the buildings, and particularly his ingenious use of tubular design and other innovations, which have transformed the art of modern architecture.

These and other stories are just now coming to light and becoming part of the Arab and Muslim American consciousness, and the diverse narratives that collectively make up this nation’s history. I now know that my roots in America run much deeper than my own few years, and that indeed Americans of Arab and Muslim background, whose enduring courage, dedication, and efforts have contributed to our nation’s growth and development, share the American story and history. I am indebted to them, and thankful for their contributing meaning to the 4th of July holiday, which is now authentically a celebration of my American-ness.

Happy Independence Day America!