Uncovering Muslim Identity

Kenji Yoshino—01/2006
Regarded as a melting pot of multiple races and creeds, America post-09/11 has shown itself to be intolerant diversity. Kenji Yoshino examines the US Muslim identity issue.

ON JULY 11 2004, Rajinder Singh Khalsa, an Indian Sikh man, was accosted by a group of men as he stood in front of his brother's restaurant wearing a turban. "Give me that dirty curtain," one of the men said. "It's not a curtain," Khalsa said. "It's a turban." "Go back to your country," another man shot back. Khalsa said: "But we are American, where should we go?" The man suggested Iran. Khalsa said: "We are not Iranian. We are not Muslim. We are Sikhs from India." He said: "Then go back to India." The men began to attack his brother. "Don't do this, he's innocent," Khalsa said. The men then turned to him. They beat him on the nose, eyes, head, everywhere, not stopping until he was unconscious on the pavement. Before they left, they took off his turban and threw it away.

This and other stories are captured in Valarie Kaur's forthcoming Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath, a film chronicling the American response to 9/11. The documentary suggests that many Muslims, and those who can be mistaken for Muslims, are living in a climate of fear. Steeped in that climate, many individuals are facing hard choices about whether to distance themselves from Islam by, for instance, dropping their veils or their Arabic in public. The plight of Muslims in a post-9/11 world sets into a relief a question Americans of all different backgrounds are asking: How much assimilation is enough? And how much is too much?

America has had a longstanding love affair with assimilation. At least since Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's 1782 Letters from an American Farmer, this country has touted assimilation as the way Americans of different backgrounds would be "melted into a new race of men." By the time Israel Zangwill's play of that name was published in 1908, the "melting pot" had acquired all the burnish of an American ideal. Only with the civil rights movement of the 1960s was this ideal challenged in any systematic way, with calls to "celebrate diversity" and to move "beyond the melting pot." And notwithstanding that challenge, assimilation has never lost its hold on the American imagination. Indeed, as our country grows more pluralistic, we have seen a renaissance of the melting pot ideal. Fearful that we are spinning apart into balkanized groups, even liberal lions like Arthur Schlesinger have called for a recommitment to that ethic. In the United States, as in other industrialized democracies, we are seeing the "return of assimilation."

It's easy to see why assimilation would be so alluring. Assimilation is often necessary to fluid social interaction, to peaceful coexistence, and even to the dialogue through which difference is valued. It would be foolish, even petulant, to argue categorically against assimilation, as speaking a language, wearing clothes, having manners, and obeying the law are all acts of assimilation. As these examples suggest, some forms of assimilation are a precondition of civilization.

At the same time, we should recognize that assimilation also has a dark side. An ethic of assimilation can force politically vulnerable groups to conform to the dominant group, often at great cost. One of the primary ways in which this occurs is through the demand to "cover." The sociologist Erving Goffman coined the term "covering" in 1963 to describe the ways in which individuals mute or downplay their stigmatized identities to fit into the mainstream. It was Khasla's failure to cover his religion by removing his turban that triggered the violence against him.

Famous contemporary examples of covering abound. Ramón Estévez covered his ethnicity when he changed his name to Martin Sheen, as did Krishna Bhanji when he changed his name to Ben Kingsley. Margaret Thatcher covered her status as a woman when she trained with a voice coach to lower the timbre of her voice. Long after they came out as lesbians, Rosie O'Donnell and Mary Cheney still covered, keeping their same-sex partners out of the public eye. Issur Danielovitch Demsky covered his Judaism when he became Kirk Douglas, as did Joseph Levitch when he became Jerry Lewis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt covered his disability by ensuring his wheelchair was always hidden behind a desk before his Cabinet entered.

What's puzzling about these instances is that they all concern identities that are already protected by civil rights laws. Albeit with varying degrees of conviction, Americans have come to a consensus that people should not be penalized for being different along the dimensions of race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, disability, or religion. That consensus, however, does not protect individuals against covering demands. The civil rights revolution has stalled on covering because Americans still view assimilation to be a benign force.

Yet as the case of post-9/11 Muslims suggest, the covering demand can often be less an escape from discrimination than its effect. Soon after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, an article was published about Muslims in New York City that read like a covering ethnography. The piece reports that Muslim private schools are telling children to conceal "any religious emblems," and that "some Muslim leaders are discussing plans for women to change the way they dress, perhaps exchanging headscarves for hats and turtleneck pullovers." It depicts a woman who, "a day after the attack, arrived at a New York City Health Department office demanding bureaucrats change her son's surname from 'Mohammed' to 'Smith.'" The article also observes that "neighborhoods in New York where you were more likely to see Egyptian, Jordanian, or Syrian flags… are now covered in American flags, their Middle Eastern flags discreetly hidden for the time being."

Such fear-based assimilation is the civil rights issue of our time. We need to have a national conversation about why we will protect being a particular identity (such as being a Muslim) but not protect doing the things culturally associated with that identity (such as wearing a headscarf). The immediate answer seems to be that "flaunting" an identity betokens a choice to take pride in that identity, rather than doing all that one can to hide or downplay it. Yet a protection for an identity that forecloses any expression of affiliation or pride is a thin protection indeed.