Terrorism and Personal Identity

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Terrorism and Personal Identity

Consider the personal comment of an ethnically foreign US citizen after September 11, 2001:

I became a United States citizen four years ago because of my long love affair with New York....I am a Bangladeshi woman and my last name is Rahman, a Muslim name...Before last week, I had thought of myself as a lawyer, a feminist, a wife, a sister, a friend, a woman on the street. Now I begin to see myself as a brown woman who bears a vague resemblance to the images of terrorists we see on television....As I become identified as someone outside the New York community, I feel myself losing the power to define myself... --Anika Rahman 1

In this poignant statement by a U.S citizen, ethnically Bangladeshi with Muslim linkage, the complex web of issues involved in immigrant identity is dramatically clear. Embedded in this statement are many of the issues that those of us concerned with categories of identification generally, and ethnic identification in particular, grapple with. Identification is typically a complex rather than simple construction, involving multiple aspects of oneself that may overlap or compete. Identification is a dynamic process, in which the meaning, the function, and even the basic labels can change from one point in time to another. Further, and most relevant now, identification is a socially constructed process in which the context and views of others have a significant role, shaping options and consequences for individual experience.

The events of September 11 have without question altered the context of identification for thousands of U.S. citizens and for those immigrants, legal and illegal, whose citizenship is still in flux. The current estimate of first generation Arab-American immigrants in the U.S. is 2,315,392. Current estimates of the number of Muslims in the U.S. are far less certain, varying from 2 to 6 million. (It should be noted that Arab-Americans and Muslims are far from overlapping sets. Many Arab-Americans are Christian; Muslims in turn come from a variety of ethnic groups in the U.S., including African American, Latino, and, as the highly-publicized case of John Walker Lindh illustrates, from Euro American backgrounds as well.)

Attitudes toward immigrants of any stripe have varied in the U. S. over the years. Prior to the restrictive immigration legislation of 1924, for example, opponents of immigration became increasingly strident, and the idealistic image of the "melting pot" offered by playwright Israel Zangwill in 1908 was challenged on both economic and racial grounds.

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