Getting Comfortable In Our Own Skin

Last week, President Obama hosted an Iftar at the White House.  “Iftar” is the nightly breaking of the fast during Ramadan, the holy month during which Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight hours.  The president has hosted an Iftar dinner for five years now.  Mr. Obama is, of course, very familiar with Ramadan.  His father was a Muslim, his stepfather was a Muslim, and he spent some of his childhood years in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.  Barack Obama is the most Muslim Christian president we have ever had.

Just about every Muslim ambassador from every country that has any Muslims was invited to the Iftar.  So were a senator and two congressman from Michigan (home to the largest concentration of Arabs in America), the two Muslim representatives of Congress, the Muslim-American mayor of Paris, TX, and a Muslim-American state congresswoman from Detroit.  Finally, in addition to elected officials, many prominent and successful Muslim-Americans from the private sector were invited as well.

A debate in the Muslim and Arab American communities ensued.  Should we attend an event like this, at a time when this administration is in the midst of a years-long bombing campaign in Muslim countries?  Should we break fast with a president who has still not closed Guantanamo Bay, despite his repeated promises to do so? Should we celebrate with Barack Obama, who has been more pro-Israel than perhaps any president in history?  Now, this debate could have happened in any year before this one, and with other presidents.  But it is happening now because Arabs and Muslims are starting to ask an important introspective question: When do we become comfortable in our own skin?

There is nothing that scares our community more than being seen as unpatriotic.  That’s why we sing the Star Spangled Banner at every one of our events.  That’s why we were the first ones to raise American flags after 9/11.  And that’s why no one who received an invitation to the White House Iftar would even think about declining.  We are not comfortable enough yet to decline.  We are not mature enough yet.  We are not strong enough yet.

We still seek acceptance.  And somehow, when the White House holds an Iftar and invites us, we feel accepted, included, incorporated.  We feel like we’re finally a thread in that beautiful thing we all call the “fabric of America.”  But see, that’s where the problem lies.  As long as we keep seeking approval, we are never going to get it.  As long as we keep chasing the carrot on the stick, they will keep dangling it.

It may be true that the best way to affect change is to “work within the system.”  But that doesn’t mean simply groveling and being subservient to politicians.  Why are we the only ones that still think that we should work for the benefit of the politicians, instead of the other way around?  Why do we still think that we should define our power in terms of how politicians view us, instead of making them define their power in terms of how we view them?  And why do we still think that simply having our picture taken with an elected official means that we have “made it”?

“Working within the system” can also mean standing up for justice and speaking truth to power.  It doesn’t have to mean selling out.

We have been here for generations.  We have built communities. We have educated ourselves and started successful companies.  We work hard and we love football.  We have put up mosques and churches in every state (I don’t know about Alaska and Hawaii, but I’m assuming).  We might celebrate Ramadan, but we celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas too.  And we can be found in every corner of this country.

We’re achieving the “American Dream.” And we might be doing it better than anyone else.

So why can’t we feel comfortable in our own skin?  Because right after 9/11, George W Bush told all Americans, “Either you are with us, or you’re with the terrorists.”  But we are somewhere in between, and we still haven’t learned how to tell everyone that.

We can’t speak up until we grow up.

About Amer Zahr 181 Articles
Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."


  1. Waves of new immigrants have always received an unwelcoming stance from the descendants of immigrants already comfortable in the USA. The Irish were hated but today everyone is Irish on St Patrick’s day (especially with the green beer!), Italians were mocked but today pizza is a favorite staple food, Polaks were the butt of countless jokes, the Japanese and Chinese were enigmatic Asians up to no good–just about everyone got a kick in the pants but today those groups have settled in and are more or less accepted. I fear that the Muslims will experience much more agonising pains in establishing roots. Firstly, there are so many Muslims in the world that it intimidates the average American yahoo. Secondly, years of malicious, carefully planted propaganda in the media, movies, TV and literature have drawn an indelible portrait of an angry, scimitar-wielding, bearded, turbaned fanatic screaming “Allahu akbar” as he prepares to slay the nearest infidel who will not convert to Islam. Thirdly, there have been these incessant wars in the Middle East. Although Americans have not experienced the smallest percentage of what the Iraqis, Afghanis, Pakistanis and others have suffered from the weapons of mass destruction of the Western allies who have been bombarding innocent civilians along with suspected terrorists, too many Americans still are convinced that the evil Muslims are determined to totally destroy the West because they hate us, envy our freedom and want to establish a Caliphate over the entire globe, which is clearly spelled out in the Quran. Fourthly, there is Israel. Enough said. Despite all these overwhelming obstacles and ordeals, the new immigrants will not only survive, they will become among the best, most industrious, most loyal Americans ever. I certainly pray so, as I am delighted with all the great Middle Eastern restaurants and groceries that have been delighting my palate ever since the arrival of those wonderful denizens of the mysterious and colorful Oriental climes.

  2. I’ve been afraid to say what you are already thinking Amer… How do you do it?!

    I had a similar discussion with my dad (who has gone through the most patriotic “born-againness” than any other Middle Eastern man I’ve seen) about the whole “do WE ALL have to apologize for the Boston incident” rather than just see it as the act of a couple of crazies and he got annoyed with me to say the least lol… we DO need to grow up.

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