Muslim first, Arab second, American third

The Baltimore Sun

The Pew Research Center recently issued what it called the first nationwide, random-sample survey of Muslim Americans and found them to be largely assimilated, happy with their lives and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world. Muslim Americans said that since the 9/11 attack, they found it has become difficult to be a Muslim in the United States and the government has singled out Muslims for increased surveillance.

And almost half of them said they considered themselves Muslim first and Americans second.

Such an attitude is understandable.

Last year, a book by Geneive Abdo, Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11, declared, "The real story of American Muslims is one of accelerating alienation from the mainstream of U.S. life, with Muslims in this country choosing their Islamic identity over their American one."

Is there a contradiction between being an American and being a Muslim?

If there is, I don't see it. But that doesn't mean I identify myself first and foremost as an American. I am Muslim first, Arab second and American third.

My relation to God is the core of my identity. It supersedes my relations to nations and peoples and is separate from my citizenship. Before I became a U.S. citizen, pledged allegiance to the Constitution and carried a U.S. passport, I was a citizen of Sudan, obeyed its rules and carried its passport. If I become a citizen of, say, China, and follow its rules and carry its passport, my relation to God will still be paramount.

I am an Arab second because Arabic is my native tongue and the core of my culture; I think, talk, write and dream mostly in Arabic. I have a foreign accent (and get tired of people asking me where I came from or to repeat myself, or praising me for speaking "good" English). I don't know how many innings are in a baseball game, I never played golf, I don't understand most of Chris Rock's jokes and I can't follow New Yorker-type fast talkers.

To me, America inspires love first, allegiance second. My love for America started long before I came to here, when I was reading, writing, thinking and dreaming about America - in Arabic. My religion was never an obstacle; it was, rather, an incentive: dreaming of worshiping God in America the way I wanted, with no restrictions from the oppressive Islamic governments and medieval Shariah scholars.

When I speak the words of the Pledge of Allegiance - "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God" - I say to myself, "God is paramount here, too."

For a long time, I wondered why America attracts people from all over the world. It took me many years to learn that Christianity and Western civilization are the core of what makes America tick. I, a Muslim and Arab, had to "submit" to this. I also found that the spirit of Christianity - but not necessarily organized religion - is the spirit of America. Now, in addition to the mosque, I almost regularly pray in a Methodist church not far from where I live. My favorite hymn is: "Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the Living God."

In any case, if American Muslims put faith ahead of country, they are hardly alone in doing so. Previous Pew Research Center polls showed that 42 percent of Christians identify with their religion before their country.

And that doesn't make them any less American.

Mohammad Ali Salih is a correspondent for a London-based international Arabic daily newspaper and other Arabic publications. His e-mail is

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