American Society Is Still Conditioned by Race Politics

A sense of 'otherness'.


Sumaiya Hamdani, 41, was born in Egypt to an Indian mother and a Yemeni father, who taught Islamic history at the American University in Cairo. When he received a new teaching appointment, her family moved to Milwaukee, where the 7-year-old Sumaiya was the only Muslim in her school. Now she teaches Middle Eastern history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where the GMU Muslim Students Association has more than 800 members.

Our religious identity was important, but at the same time, my family approached religion as a civilizational legacy. We practiced at home; we prayed; we fasted; but our attitude about Islam was that it was more than just rituals and worshiping God. It was also our cultural identity.

We moved to the States at the height of the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the antiwar movement. We weren't citizens yet, but we attended political rallies, demonstrations against the war. Within a year or two, the Watergate scandal broke, and my father was amazed that the president of the United States was actually subject to the law. This made a huge impact on us, and it definitely lessened the difference we had with people in the States.

Still, I felt a sense of otherness because even in the best of times American society is conditioned by race politics. I remember feeling as though I did not belong after the oil embargo in 1973 and during the Islamic revolution in Iran during 1979. The media and public opinion were unashamedly racist against Muslims and Arabs. In school, I remember having to listen to my 8- or 9-year-old peers disparage my heritage. As a result, in that very American way, I became even more invested in who I am.

I channeled my pride in my heritage academically, but for my students, religious identity is a much more real and obvious thing. Their parents came to escape some horrific war or for economic opportunity. They're often working a number of jobs and trying to live out the American dream. But they're also terrified of American society, so they enroll their children in Islamic schools, where they often emerge more fundamentalist than their parents. Many of my female students have told me they wear a veil though their mothers do not. That contributes to this very heightened sense of identification to Islam. And they've acquired an appreciation for the politics of diversity, which is a very American thing. So to put on the veil is, in many ways, an American impulse. It's a way to celebrate your group identity, like gays wearing rainbow shirts.

After September 11, I found that a lot of American non-Muslims adopted the veil in a gesture of sympathy with Muslim women who may be scapegoated. So the veil became even more secular. But the fear and apprehensions among Muslims were still heightened.

One thing that's happened is outreach. A lot of people from mosques and [other] Muslims are visiting churches and synagogues. That will make Muslims seem less exotic and foreign looking. But one thing I would still like to see is a debate over our identity as Muslim Americans. Segregating ourselves, adopting the veil, and promoting religious observance are not necessarily going to endure. The majority will want to assimilate. Three or four generations down the road, will Muslims feel connected with the old country? Will these traditions endure? I think they will be revised, and new sources of identity are going to have to be adopted. We're not going back.

-As told to Bret Schulte