Monday, November 9, 2009

When is an American not an American?

The question of what it actually means to be an American is quite relevant this week.

Following the massacre of fellow soldiers at Fort Hood by army psychiatrist Malik Nadal Hasan, the US Muslim community will clearly find itself under scrutiny. The extent to which Hasan's faith played a role in his murderous actions is yet to be fully understood, but up until recently he would have been considered a model citizen - American-born, opting to get a good education and carve out a successful career serving in the military. Take Islam out of the picture and Hasan would seem to fit the profile of various non-Muslim average joes who flaked out due to various pressures and figured killing people was the solution. Unlike previous perpetrators of shooting massacres, public opinion is making this one all about Islam.

Over at the right-wing site, the comments section is afire with thoughts of retribution against their fellow Americans. When they are not finding ways to somehow blame the shooting on Barack Obama, readers are expressing sentiments like this:

curmudgeon: "the media has somehow not been able to notice that the perpetrators are "peaceful" muslims. i have only one question.......why have we not already deported all muslims?"

and this:

enrique: "We should strike a decisive blow against those who are actively attempting against our way of life and security. We are dealing with fanatics who won't stop at nothing to harm us. I say let's expedite their meeting with their 72 virgins! Let's go in the offense rather than at the defense. Lets kill some muslims. There is no harm. They are going to their virgins. What a great day for them when we will help them achieve their dreams!!! As a matter of fact why don't we run a nationwide campaign allowing them to be killed, by us, and we will call it martirdome. Who said that America ws not the land of opportunity!"

It is because of nutjobs like Enrique above that President Obama urged people not to jump to conclusions while the shooting is being investigated. Of course, the Townhall crowd are pillorying him for that as well.

So clearly, a Muslim American is not really an American in the eyes of many; the many who cannot make any distinction between violent extremists and the average Muslim citizens who go about their daily business much like any other American.

I came across this video over at the Stuff White People Do blog. Its more than a year old, but is worth watching - an ABC news segment observing the reactions of people when confronted by a blatant piece of racist discrimination against a Muslim woman. In a staged scene, she is refused service at a bakery, due to her not dressing like "an American". What blew my mind was that despite how almost unbelievably ridiculous the racism displayed was, some onlookers agreed wholeheartedly with it. I think these sort of hidden-camera set-up stunts are always to be regarded with a bit of scepticism, but it's fascinating nonetheless. The reactions of the various onlookers are at turns disgraceful and inspiring.

Another event made news this week. Thankfully it is a much nicer news story, but the reaction to it is very revealing. Sports Illustrated reports on Mebrahtom ("Meb") Keflezighi, the winner of the New York Marathon. Due largely to the dominance of runners from East Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia and similar countries) he is the first American to win the race since 1982.

But for some, Keflezighi does not really count as an American. Born in Eritrea, he arrived in the US at age 12. Despite his East African birthplace, all his training and competition has been under the US system. But that has not meant acceptance as a truly "American" runner.

CNBC sports writer Darren Rovell wrote a heavily criticised article claiming that Meb's victory is little for Americans to get excited about.

"Given our disappointing results, embracing Keflezighi is understandable. But Keflezighi's country of origin is Eritrea, a small country in Africa. He is an American citizen thanks to taking a test and living in our country. Nothing against Keflezighi, but he's like a ringer who you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league. The positive sign was that some American-born runners did extremely well in yesterday's men's race. If any of them stand on the top step of the podium in Central Park one day, that's when I'll break out my red, white and blue."

Rovell had the good grace to write a follow-up article admitting he had not realised how long Meb has lived in America, and taking back some of what he had written. But his initial article is only one of a number that have questioned how American this immigrant really is. It is funny to contrast this to Australia's eagerness to claim any famous person with even a hint of Australian-ness (Mel Gibson, the Bee-Gees, etc).

Bear in mind that Mebrahtom Keflezighi is not a Muslim but a Christian. As he won the event he pointed to the "USA" singlet he had on, and knelt down to kiss the ground of the country he calls home. His family story is the sort of inspiring tale that Americans should be proud of, involving a harrowing flight from war-torn Eritrea, then forging success through hard work and education (his numerous siblings have graduated with degrees in medicine, law, economics and more).

But there's just no pleasing people. In an age when many still believe their own President is not an American, it's no suprise really.

Related posts:

"Send them all back" - even if they are Australian

Obama bows to Saudi king - clearly he must be weak or a Muslim extremist

Is the anti-Obama movement motivated by racism?

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