Special Report

Americans Second

The importance of being American first.

By 11.8.06

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Current wisdom has it that in the U.S. -- as distinct from Western Europe -- our Muslims are reasonable and moderate fellows, well assimilated, and above all true blue Americans. Indeed, Americans have smugly viewed the sectarian mess that plagues Western Europe -- where novelists, politicians, cartoonists, journalists and professors have been forced into hiding, and where filmmakers have been butchered for offending Islam -- and breathed a hearty sigh of relief. Thank God our Muslims aren't like that. Thank God our Muslims have melted into the great American stewpot.

Maybe not. A new poll of American Muslims paints a considerably less rosy picture of their assimilation.

One notable finding was that a large majority of respondents (214 out of 307) consider themselves to be not Americans first, but Muslims first and foremost. This mirrors similar findings in Western Europe, where 81 percent of British Muslims considered themselves Muslims first, and citizens of Great Britain second. Or perhaps third. They weren't asked to specify.

But before you get your nose all out of joint, please note that the same poll found a good many Americans (42 percent) consider themselves "Christians first and Americans second." Presumably these results do not cast doubt on the patriotism of Christian Americans. Nor are they cause to doubt Muslim Americans' patriotism.

Nothing to concern ourselves about, right? Wrong. If the top brass of al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah had taken the same poll, the responses would not have differed much. Those Muslim Americans polled overwhelmingly said that the U.S. government was at war with Islam, that it had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, but allowed the attacks to occur anyway, and that the U.S. was wrong to invade Afghanistan after 9/11.

It gets worse. A majority said violence against U.S. troops on American soil and against U.S. officials is justified "in retaliation for the American government's actions in the Muslim world," sentiments that, in another time and place, would have qualified as treasonous. Perhaps most disturbingly, a clear majority said Iran "should develop nuclear weapons," weapons that could one day be turned against the U.S. or its allies.

PERHAPS THE RESPONDENTS weren't representative of American Muslims as a whole? Perhaps the poll was flawed? That would seem to be wishful thinking. The poll was conducted by a group called Muslims For A Safe America ("established after the 2005 London bombings, to encourage honest and informed discussion among American Muslims about Islam and American national security, and to empower American Muslims to contribute actively to the ongoing national discussion about how to make America safer"). The results were based on the responses of 307 American Muslims -- all U.S. citizens -- during the 2006 Islamic Society of North America Annual Convention. ISNA is the largest Islamic organization in the US, and parent group for hundreds of Islamic organizations in North America. In other words, these are the leaders of America's Muslim communities. If anything Muslims For A Safe America would have had a vested interest in suppressing the unflattering data.

So where does this homegrown anti-Americanism come from, and in particular, this hatred of the US government? Certainly not from official U.S. government statements. The Bush Administration has bent over backwards trying to convince Americans that Islam is a religion of peace. That means American Muslims get their anti-American messages from their imams, the media, and Muslim organizations, all of which point to the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, American support for Israel, stories of the torture of terror suspects at Abu Ghraib and the continued detainment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay as proof of an anti-Muslim conspiracy.

Yet another factor plays into homegrown Muslim anti-Americanism: Historically, Muslims have been taught that nations are irrelevant, false constructs forced upon them by the colonial powers during the last century. Instead Muslims learn that the world is divided, not into nation-states, but into Dar al-Islam (lands under Muslim rule) and Dar al-Harb (lands outside Muslim rule). Giving one's allegiance to an infidel nation is not very Islamic. This twisted thinking explains how some American Muslims can regard the U.S. as their enemy because it is allied with Israel, which is seen as committing genocide against Palestinians and the Lebanese. (Note that this kindred spirit of Islamism seems to dissipate when, say, Iranian Muslims go to war with Iraqi Muslims.)

The basic tenets of Islam would seem then to be in conflict with the basic duties of American citizenship, that is, giving one's allegiance to one's country. Americans are taught that certain duties come with citizenship, but some immigrants seem to regard the U.S. (and Western Europe) as nothing but a large job market, a place to earn big bucks. They will obtain American citizenship if necessary, but they don't intend to assimilate into American culture or adopt American values and principles, or participate in American-style democracy, which many abhor. This would seem antithetical to the spirit of Americanism, as summed up time and time again by Pres. Theodore Roosevelt:

"[T]he man who wishes to do his duty as a citizen in our country must be imbued through and through with the spirit of Americanism...[N]one of these [immigrants] would have been worth their salt had they continued to act after coming here as Irishmen or Germans, or as anything but plain straight-out Americans. We have not any room here for a divided allegiance. A man has got to be an American and nothing else; and he has no business to be mixing us up with questions of foreign politics...and no business to try to perpetuate their language and customs in the land of complete religious toleration and equality."

America has always been vast enough that Puritans, the Amish, even Mormons (when they moved far enough West) could practice their religion and customs without too much grief. Doubtless some have considered themselves primarily Mormons, Amish or Christians, and Americans second. But ultimately all have come to a peaceful understanding and compromise with American culture and society. Eventually American Muslims will too. But only after they cease looking back to the Islamic world, and begin to see themselves -- as TR would have us all see ourselves -- as Americans first.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.