No Space in the American Narrative

We all occupy space. And if we aren’t occupying it, someone or something else is. We expand our spaces, we limit them; we define them; we let them expand. It is also possible for a number of individuals and/objects to occupy a single space. When shared, we engage with fellow occupants in a manner defined by the space itself. At the same time, however, the space itself also defines our relationships with those sharing the space with us. I become who I am, what I am by virtue of the space(s) I inhabit. I create, at some level, the space around me without realizing that my free will to do so is slightly but inevitably obscured by the very space I think I am creating. I move within my space but my space dictates my movement.

A space can also have several spaces within it. The larger the space, the more the occupants and thus the greater the diversity of spaces which exist within it. These individuals create and live in their spaces while being a part of a greater space which dictates the creation of the smaller spaces.

As individuals we all are affiliated with countless greater collectives. From religious groups to political parties to weekly book clubs to tribal clans. All of these groups have their own Narrative comprised of the individual narratives brought forward by their individual components. Throw in something like the modern state, a country or a nation. The country has its own overlapping Narrative which both creates and is created by the narratives of the individual groups that live within it – even if the narratives of these groups transgress the boundaries of the country.

Individual group narratives constantly challenge the greater Narrative, forcing adoption or resistance depending on the foundation and content of The Narrative.

While built on a violent history, the American Narrative has evolved into one of inclusivity. Albeit designated as a melting pot, the emphasis on the importance of the individual – his rights, freedoms and liberties – does at the same time promote a type of inclusion. By subscribing to this basic premise – and the idea of American exceptionalism – one becomes a part of the American Narrative. America’s not so distant past, as violent and backwards as it may have been, has allowed for the fostering of a part of The Narrative which treasures differences as long as a certain level of ‘Americanism’ is fulfilled in identity and in engagement with society. The viciousness of slavery, the denial of humanhood, the strength of the abolitionist campaign and the subsequent Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, for instance, have cultivated a large part of the modern American Narrative – both in positive and negative ways. For the Blacks of America, their movement within the physical and metaphysical American space was heavily limited and whatever space they were allowed reminded them of their grotesquely assigned second-class human nature. It was only when the American Narrative was challenged by the likes of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.,  amongst countless others and in different ways, was the Black allowed greater space in which he could move. Over the years, this space has widened for the Black American and while the racist legacies of the past continue, the Black American is no less American than the White American; his individual history is inextricably woven into the history of the United States and that of his White American brothers, and this relationship has been recognized even if strained and not without problems.

The Black Americans were not the sole group to experience such a shift in their spatial movement and engagement within the American Narrative; The Jews, the Irish, the Italians, the Catholics and women are amongst the countless groups who had to fight in various ways, sometimes through legal institutions, to get the right to engage in the American space as equals with their countrymen. Perhaps the only group which has been denied continuously a proper space and a proper place in the American Narrative has been the Aboriginals, who remain ‘exoticized’ and on the fringes of American society.  Of course, the inclusion of the near-extermination of the indigenous people of a land conquered would add a little too much deviance to a carefully conducted Narrative.

More recently, Mexican Americans have found themselves awkwardly situated in the American Narrative and in the country’s physical space. Of the 31 million Mexicans living in the United States, over 6 million are believed to be illegal – more than half of the estimated total 12 million illegal immigrants. Labelled as “aliens” in an unconsciously intentional dehumanizing way, illegal Mexican immigrants have been at the forefront of the national debate on immigration reform, with the state of Arizona recently taking federal matters into its own hands with Senate Bill 1070, which has been criticized for promoting racial profiling in its effort to ‘clamp down’ on illegals. Yet, while the debate regarding immigration reform would, or rather should, affect any and all illegal immigrants in the United States, the discussion has revolved around illegal Mexican immigrants and has thus brought the entire community – due to the ever-loved trope of guilt by communal association- under a silent and sometimes not so silent attack. As integral as Mexican Americans are to American history and the  ongoing creation of the grand Narrative, their current status within it and the encroachment of their physical space within the country within mainstream political debates, fringe radical right politics and state-led legislation signifies a long fight ahead for the Mexican community for a just and inclusive space.

Another group which continues to find itself further and further from the American Narrative is that of the American Muslims, who are increasingly having their space impeded upon. The now-seemingly distant outcry over the construction of an Islamic Center two blocks from Ground Zero, this past summer, provides us with another disconcerting instance of an American minority being denied both physical and narrative space. This particular spatial and narrative marginalization, however, comes within a framework unlike that of the previous and present minorities who faced and are still facing similar marginalization.

Despite all the new rubble and reconstruction, Ground Zero remains heavily occupied with meaning and implications. As a physical space it has come to take on a significance within the greater American Narrative, a reminder of many things – an injustice served against thousands as well as the beginning of a new global paradigm which overwhelmingly has come to define domestic and international relations. For Muslim Americans, however, the significance of Ground Zero’s place in the American Narrative has heavily characterized their own standing and story.  The uproar over Park51 especially as a part of the greater campaign to use Muslims and Islam – and the apparent subsequent Shar’ia takeover of the United States – for political ends for the then-pending elections, emphatically reminded American Muslims of the sort of space they have been designated in their country’s narrative: outside of it.

Islam has been a part of American history since the early colonial conquest. It has permeated throughout the centuries, through the Atlantic Slave Trade to the Civil Rights movement to even sports and music. Islam is, ultimately, inseparable from the American narrative as it is nothing new or ‘alien.’ Yet with the post-9/11 discourse and recent attacks – literal and verbal – on the physical space of Muslims (as well as their ‘religious garb’), Muslim Americans are made to be completely outside of the very identity and narrative they have helped construct. Rather, they are seen as constructing a completely counter narrative to the one which reigns in their country.

Many have said that the sort of challenges Muslims, as a large group, are facing today are similar to the challenges faced by countless other minorities over the centuries. This particular line of thinking, however, places Islam within the same category as ethnicities. What the recent direction of the American narrative tells us, in fact, is that it is not merely the amount of Muslims that is the problem or even their particular lifestyles: Islam is the problem.

Islam has been pitted against the American Narrative, as a set of beliefs constructing a completely opposed narrative. It is heralded not as just as a faith, but an ideology. We are told that religion isn’t the problem, the ideology, which is based on an interpretation of the faith, is the problem. The religion, however, is also a way of life. It encompasses every action of a Muslim, every deed and every intention. So even the peaceful Muslim is governed primarily if not wholly by his faith.

Does he have room for any other space? Or narrative?

The religion is also not isolated to a particular geographic region, as perhaps the Irish or the Italians were in the minds of Americans back when these groups were discriminated against; its adherents are everywhere and there is a long historical trajectory of violent and hostile encounters between Christendom and the Muslim Empires – as much as there is also a long, historical trajectory of good exchanges, cultural and intellectual. American Muslims face great challenges that will not be easily overcome. It is near-well foolish to think this. Their faith and identity lend themselves to political opportunism and an internal ‘external’ threat to keep their fellow citizens afraid and unwaveringly trusting of their governmental officials. It is high time, however, that American Muslims – as well as Muslims and non-Muslims elsewhere caught within constructed civilizational faultlines – to continue to hold steadfastly onto all the spaces and narratives of which they are part and to continue to engage within them and not to treat them as distinct or oppositional.

Ultimately, however, our inhabited spaces and constructed narratives change without almost any effort from us, by the mercy and silent longevity of time.

4 thoughts on “No Space in the American Narrative

  1. I know you’re not a historian but you’ve ignored a very significant part of American history–one that undercuts your contention that Islam is somehow different, that bigotry against Islam won’t dissipate the way bigotry against other groups did.

    Al Smith lost his Presidential bid in 1928 because of widespread anti-Catholic sentiment. When John F. Kennedy ran for office in 1960, he had to address the question of his Catholic faith, having to state the obvious: that he “believe[d] in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act.” A whole political party, aptly named the Know-Nothing Party, campaigned vociferously against Catholics and spewed hatred to toward Catholics–regardless of ethnicity.

    Catholicism in 19th and early 20th century America was “the problem” for it was a way of life so opposed to the American, Protestant Narrative. Many non-Catholics believed that Catholics were ultimately loyal to the Pope, not to America or the Constitution; that these people weren’t capable of being American.

    Compare that with anti-Muslim sentiment today, and you’ll find striking parallels. But America got over it, and it will get over anti-Muslim bigotry once the international scene evolves, and Americans conjure up yet another alien foe. And one day, I promise you, there will be a Senator named Muhammad railing against the Chinese, much like Catholic Senator Joe McCarthy did against communists.

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  3. Political historian. And don’t you forget it.

    I didn’t forget this. I’m well aware of the situation you cite and it’s a great point. The problem, however, with comparing the treatment of Catholicism with the treatment of Islam/Muslims, today, is the following:

    1. It works on the presupposition that the relationship between Protestantism and Catholicism, in particular, can be paralleled to the relationship between Islam and Christianity. Despite the vicious history that exists between the two sects, there is still a historical and even geographic relationship that is irrevocable and known, at least in epistemic terms. The historical relationship between Islam and Christianity as a whole – at least that which is emphasized – is shown and known as completely separated. There is no relationship besides on the holy battlefield. (Again, in mainstream ..and also in some or many academic circles).

    2. Denies the reality of the political and military presence in Muslim countries, aggressive and “peaceful” which in turn has effects on not only subject formation – how Muslims then regard their relationship with the United States but also on how the object formulates his/her own standing and relationship with his/her subject. Were American troops present and militarily engaging throughout the Catholic world, then we’d have a better comparison.

    I think the closest historical comparison is Communism – but that’s still a dirty word in the United States.

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