Our Arab identity is being smothered by our religion

Our Arab identity is being smothered by our religion
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Our Arab identity is being smothered by our religion

Arab Christians are marginalized, ignored and pushed aside by everyone even though we can play a critical role in trying to bring the East and the West, the Christian and Muslim Worlds, together towards understanding. This issue surfaces all the time and most recently when the mainstream media reported on the Golden Globe Award won by Egyptian Arab comedian Ramy Youssef recently. No one wants to talk about it, but it is “the camel in the room.”

By Ray Hanania

I was very excited to see Ramy Youssef win a Golden Globe on Sunday. The Golden Globes are the second most important performance awards an actor can receive next only to the Academy Award Oscars. Winning a Golden Globe usually increases the odds that an actor, or actress will win the Oscar which will be presented next month.

But of course, the excited is quickly smothered by the fact that Youssef’s achievement isn’t honored as an achievement for Arabs, but rather an achievement for Muslims.

Social media took off in thunderous excitement for Youssef’s win as a victory for Islam and Muslims. Many of the social media posts from the Arab and Muslim community across the world focused on his fearless use of the phrase Allah uh-Akhbar, which as most Arabs know is Arabic for “God is Great.”

Christian and Muslims iconic religious images in Occupied Jerusalem, Palestine. Photo courtesy of Ray Hanania

Christian and Muslims iconic religious images in Occupied Jerusalem, Palestine. So close and yet so far. Photo courtesy of Ray Hanania

Most Americans who heard Youssef offer the supplication on the Golden Globe stage probably associated it with Islam as a common Muslim cry usually at times of violence and religious fervor.

The truth is Allah uh Akhbar is as much a Christian declaration as it is Muslim. Unfortunately, few outside of the Arab and Muslim Worlds will ever know that because the essence of being Arab is being pushed aside by the Islamic identity of the Arab World.

I watched “Ramy,” the 10-part streaming series when it first broadcast on the popular online streaming service Hulu last April. To me, Ramy’s challenges as a Muslim in America were actually challenges of being Arab in America.

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The very same stereotypes that Muslims must face in America and the West, fueled by the bias in the mainstream Western news media, as the stereotypes and challenges that Arab Americans must also face.

But the challenges of racism and discrimination that Arabs face, and the challenges of educating an often closed-minded Western audience to the realities of being Arab, will never be answered.

Arabs are harassed as often as Muslim in America. Americans view Arabs as harshly as they view Muslims, fueling the rise in discrimination that is taking place against both, although we often only hear about the discrimination that is taking place against Muslims.

Some might ask, why are you complaining that you are not being victimized as a Muslim and that you can escape societal persecution because you are just an Arab?

My answer, I am suffering as certainly as does every Muslim in America, and maybe even a little bit more.

As a Christian Arab, I am discriminated against all the time, but not because I am Arab but because most Americans think I am Muslim. Many Americans and people in the West can’t tell the don’t know the difference and see Arabs and Muslims as being the same, although they only identify us as Muslim.

Yes, that does concern me. It’s one reason why no one really seems to care that Christians are steadily disappearing from the Arab and Muslim Worlds. The Western World doesn’t see the Christian Arabs. In part that’s because we’re not treated equally in the Muslim World.

Although I am a proud Christian, I am also a Christian who proudly declares himself as being “Muslim by culture.” Yet take a look at all of the big Middle Eastern conferences where the focus is no longer on being Arab but on being Muslim. Sure, there are a few Christians invited to speak, but very few. One of the few is the Archbishop of Jerusalem, my friend and a powerful voice for Arab and Muslim rights, Atallah Hanna.

There is no real difference between Christian Arabs and Muslims, Arab and non-Arab, as people. We both share the same challenges and face the same levels of racism and discrimination. We both are persecuted because of who we are, Arab and Muslim.

Part of the problem is that Americans are among the most educated people in the World but the least educated people about the world. In my humor and reality book about growing up Arab in America, “I’m Glad I Look Like a Terrorist: Growing up Arab in America,” which soon will be re-released under a new title by Cune Press, I despair about that irony in the naivete of Americans who can’t tell the difference between Iranians and Arabs. Readers of my American newspaper columns often write to me accusing me of being an Iranian, and a Muslim, too.

I am proud to be mistaken for a Muslim, but I am always perplexed when I am mistaken for an Iranian – Iranians are not Arab but are Persian. They don’t speak Arabic and if I were employed at a U.S. Embassy on their territory, I would probably be held captive along with the rest.

So, when Youssef cried “Allah uh Akhbar,” I cheered his accomplishments as an Egyptian American comedian, recognizing his unique and refreshing sense of humor, and his winning one of America’s top performance accolades. Because to me, that’s a cry I have heard all my life as an Arab, not in an act of violence but in an act of religious attrition and often as a cry of pride and even pain. More importantly, I didn’t just hear it from Muslims. I heard it from Arab Christians, too, a segment of the Arab community that is often shunned, marginalized and pushed aside.

Few actually “see” or recognize “Arab Christians” and we are too often pushed out of the focus on activism, debate and solutions to the growing problems that plagued the Middle East.

My father is from Jerusalem and my mother is from Bethlehem. Both prayed using the word “Allah,” which too many Americans misunderstand as a word that represents the name of the “Muslim God.” The reality is that the word Allah is merely the Arabic word – not Muslim word – for “God.”

It’s too bad few people in the West, especially Americans, will never understand that aspect of Arab and Muslim life, or recognize the broad achievements of Arab Muslim actor Ramy Youssef’s success.

The problem may be with the lack of education on the part of Americans and people in the West. But the reality of the problem starts with the failure of Muslims to treat Arabs, especially Arab Christians, as an identity they are proud to acknowledge.

Let’s stop saying that Christian Arabs and Muslims are the same when in fact in reality the Arab American and Arab World celebrate our victories as achievements of being Muslim.

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