Fort Hood and the invisibility of Arab Americans

A memorial to the victims of the Fort Hood shooting stands on the grounds of Casa Del Norte, the apartment complex where the gunman Maj. Nadil Malik Hasan lived in Killeen, Texas. (Eli Meir Kaplan/Getty Images)

The Fort Hood shootings have re-ignited conversation about the place of Arab and Muslim Americans in U.S. culture. Syrian-American civil rights attorney Alia Malek has probed the question deeply in her book "A Country Called Amreeka: Arab Roots, American Stories," published by Free Press in October. The book tells the individual tales of Arab Americans working the assembly line, holding public office and serving in the armed forces. Malek has discovered that despite their contributions Arab Americans remain mostly sidelined in the story of America. Here she reflects on Arab-American invisibility which tends to vanish only in moments of national tension.


Arabs - both Christian and Muslim - began emigrating to the United States in appreciable numbers from the Arabic speaking world in the late 1800s. But too often their lives here are invisible, absent from national conversation, except in moments like the one we are living through right now in the wake of the tragedy at Ft. Hood. We tend to check in with this diverse community only when something goes "BOOM" in America or when someone of Arab or Muslim descent does something criminal.

It's a shame because the Arab-American contribution stretches across the landscape and, significantly, into the U.S. armed forces. Consider Navy SEAL Mike Monsoor who threw himself on a grenade in Iraq on September 29, 2006. The device had landed among SEALs and Iraqi soldiers, and Monsoor absorbed the blast with his body, saving everyone's life but his own. For his act of self sacrifice, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor last year.

Then there's Lance Corporal Abraham al-Thaibani of New York who enlisted with the Marines after his city was attacked on 9/11. On the day the World Trade Center towers fell, al-Thaibani ran through the streets of Brooklyn looking for his veiled wife to protect her from any potential backlash. He went to war in Iraq, a battleground chosen by American leaders for reasons that were unclear to him. He focused his efforts on seeing that every Marine he knew came home alive and tried to help Iraqi civilians where he could.

Abe's brother followed in his footsteps, enlisting and serving in Fallujah. He won the Purple Heart for his service.

These men are just a few of the thousands of Arab Americans who are in the armed services or have served in U.S. forces over the years. Like other Americans in the service, their experiences have run the gamut from ordinary to valiant to the ultimate sacrifice.

Arab-American history is long and deep in the United States but Arab and Muslim Americans are not part of how we imagine who we are as Americans or how we perceive what makes up the American experience. Now, in the national discussion among commentators, politicians, and others in the aftermath of Ft. Hood, we can see the dangerous effects of Arab-American invisibility; in that vacuum, acts of a single individual, Major Hasan, cast a shadow of collective guilt on millions of Americans.

Timothy McVeigh warped the interpretations of the Constitution but we easily dismissed that without pondering whether there was inherent evil in the Constitution. The same cannot be said of how we view the relationship between the Koran and violent behavior - we unfairly blame individuals' horrific acts on the teachings of the Koran. We ignore needed discussion of evident mental health issues, which were the focus when other service people have cracked and murdered their colleagues, and instead engage in lazy analysis about ethnic predilection of violence.

How can we move the conversation forward? If we knew more about the soldiers mentioned above and other Arab Americans, if their stories were familiar to us, if the origins of their names recognizable to us, how would the conversation be different?

While the murders at Ft. Hood and the resulting discussions show that the visibility of Arab Americans has yet to come into sharp focus, it also is a turning point that indicates that we have grown as a nation since 9/11. Eight years after the attacks, many Americans who are non Arab or Muslim - in the media, law enforcement and on the street - were immediately sensitive to potential backlash and spoke out. That says to me that we have begun to see Arab and Muslim Americans as a part of us, and that we realize that "us" is many things, from the murderous to the heroic to the ordinary.

By Steven E. Levingston |  November 16, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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Arab Americans are truly patriotic only if they regard their duty to fellow Americans higher than their duty to fellow Muslims elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, loyalty to nation above loyalty to Islam and fellow Muslims is against the teachings of the Koran.
Islam undermines nation states by undercutting the value of patriotism. Muslim believers are enjoined by it to take up temporary alliances with non-believers as long as it furthers the long term military goals of fellow Muslims. In that respect, there is no doubt that Nidal Hasan was a model Muslim, and that is the shame of Islam.

Posted by: rajivmedanki | November 16, 2009 10:54 AM

While there are indeed a few individual examples of Islamists actually being loyal Americans, one must always remember that the vast majority CHOOSE to remain invisible in thought and word about the excesses committed in the name of their peaceful, enlightening and serene religion. Perhaps if they spoke up against the crazies they would not be all lumped in together. Not my fault. Only theirs. Deport the illegal muslims. The 1st Amendment says we cannot outlaw Islam, but we CAN enforce our existing laws.

Posted by: Dionysis | November 16, 2009 11:02 AM

Thanks to the guest blogger Alia for this piece and for reminding us of how sensory and short-sighted we can be at times (overlooking the presence of hundreds of thousands of Arab-Americans or millions of Muslim-Americans who contribute regularly to the fabric of our society, while reacting to a single Arab/Muslim-American's with irrational generalizations).

To the commenter named Rajiv: I'd just like to remind you that there are millions of Christian Americans and Jewish Americans who choose religion over country/state. I've regularly encountered folks like this in churches I've attended. For you to single out Muslim-Americans is short-sighted and dishonest.

Posted by: andrewelk | November 16, 2009 11:20 AM

Thanks for the article - some good points in there. Amazing to see some people comments above using a few bad examples to define a whole religion or race- no one would say that all Jewish Americans are more loyal to Israel than the US just because Jonathan Pollard spied on the US for Israel or even after Scientist Stewart David Nozette was arrested a few weeks ago for spying for Israel against the US. Or that Christians can't be trusted after Timothy McVeigh or in May when Army Sgt. John M. Russell killed 5 fellow soldiers in Iraq. For some reason though its acceptable in American society to use blood libels against a whole race or religion when it comes to Arabs and Muslims.

Posted by: joecascio | November 16, 2009 11:34 AM

heres the thing...
we don't hear them condemning the radicals...
it's as if they are afriad of them for some reason...
yet we see videos of them cheering after 9/11 when the towers went down...
muslims have done a poor job of p.r....
it's their fault and not too late to change their image...
people are responsable for the people they elect or support...
religious or otherwise...

Posted by: DwightCollins | November 16, 2009 11:41 AM

Right wing conservaives have become the neo-KKK targetting arab americans.

Posted by: MumboJumboo | November 16, 2009 11:46 AM

DwightCollins: you must be deaf not to hear Muslims condemning Radicals. All major muslim groups and individuals condemned radicals.Videos of People cheering when the tower fell down werent muslims. They were Israeilis arrested by Immigrations but then were released to be sent to Israel( read fox news on the story).

Rajiv: you are confusing your own narrow minded interpretation of other things as the religion itself.

Posted by: hemonto | November 16, 2009 2:20 PM

I hated seeing the videos after 9/11 of those few hundred people cheering but how can they represent the Muslim world of 1.2 billion? I recently saw on youtube a video of young Israelis calling President Obama the "n" word because they hate him so much in Israel. Do these handful of racist Israelis represent all Jews?! Of course not!

Posted by: joecascio | November 16, 2009 2:51 PM

I am a SEAL who served with Mike Monsoor, and was with him when he died. He did not consider himself to be an Arab-American. In fact, he was half Lebanese and half Irish, and all Catholic. His familymembers do not think of themselves as Arab-Americans, either.

I am disgusted that my teammate's name is thrown around at a time when a Jihadist murderer killed my brothers-in-arms - to be used as a lever for pity - pity for a terrorist!

Mainstream Media: stop distorting the facts to support your weak theses.

Mike was not a Muslim, and was not an Arab. He was American.

We, the American people, are watching you, and we will hold you accountable.

Posted by: seancurrensmith | November 16, 2009 2:58 PM

Seancurrensmith: Very good post. The media has to stop using Arab/muslim names to infer the person is some how follows Islam. Because my daughter named two of my grandsons: Noah and Eli doesn't mean they're Jewish. I am retired US Army and I am getting upset by the media fueling the flame. Yes the military has some persons in it that are less than desirable and they need to be delt with. The military UCMJ has done a good job of that in the past. Political correctness has done alot of harm to the people how have to protect us but don't label soldiers based upon their names, do it on their deeds.

Posted by: rexngail | November 16, 2009 4:24 PM

Non-boundary countries global policy created a rather serious political problem to Western World: allowing or not religion rule over the ESTATE laws in the name of individual freedom and God's determination. It seems obvious to Westerns that religion is a matter of private belief only, whereas the Estate rules to secure public freedom and well being to all including the right to religious practices. In a culture where religion is set forth to overrule the Estate then it is to expect that whenever a conflict Estate/Religion type arrives religion should always prevail. And that jeopardizes trust over any muslim living either in United States or in another country of equal ideology.

Posted by: lenafrota | November 16, 2009 4:30 PM

I am a SEAL that served with Mike and was with him when he died as well. Mike was an unhyphenated American. Not an Arab-American, or a Muslim-American. These journalist who twist the truth to create spin have no soul. We will not let you use Mike's heroism to couterbalance a terrorist act at Fort Hood.

Posted by: timdominico | November 16, 2009 4:54 PM

The article seems to have a simple point-that while people might have superficial similarities (such as country of origin-and yes Lebanon is a Middle Eastern country with Arabic identified by its constitution as the official language) they are likely to be very different. The differences only multiply once an ocean is crossed and a new culture and identity is formed. Two soldiers with varying Middle Eastern origins can have utterly different natures-with one being a hero who gave the ultimate sacrifice for his fellow soldiers and country. And it is only fair that it be their character and sense of identity that defines who they are rather than a label. Unfortunately people like labels, and so they need to be reminded, as this article tries to do, that it is the individual who is paramount. Already there are some misstatements on here, for instance, that arab = muslim. This is simply not true, take it from a Christian Arab (a Christian who goes to Church weekly). Do I like to be confused with Islamic Radicals just because I have dark hair? No, do I think my Muslim or Sephardic Jewish friends enjoy being confused with radicals either? Probably not. It is as the WEB DuBois says at the end of The Souls of Black Folk, that trouble happens between men because "men know so little of men."

Posted by: hsmlk | November 16, 2009 5:19 PM


How ignorant of you to define "American" along racial lines.

Besides Lebanese are Arabs:ethnically,culturally and linguistically. Arabs can be either xtian or Muslim;the most aredent Arab Nationalists are xtian Arabs:Contstantine Zuryek,Michael Afelq,Geroge Habash,the late and great great Palestinian American intellectual and Professor at Columbia University Edward Said and presently Azmi Bishara.

Of course you would not recognize these names because you ignorance and bigtory are astounding.

Take a trip to Lebanon and find out for your self if the Lebanese are Arabs.

With the exception of the illegal jewish immigrants who now occupy Arab Palestine,the ME from Baghdad to Casablanca is ARAB.

Arab is not necessairly an ethnic term-it is much broader and inclusive:those who speak Arabic,to belong to the Arab culture,history and civilization and whether they are xtian or Muslim,are Arab byy definition.

History testifies that Arabs are perhaps the most tolerant people in the world.

Posted by: asizk | November 23, 2009 2:20 PM

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