As the 2020 US presidential election draws closer, once again we are hearing a debate about what is "American" and "un-American". Some American politicians construct an American identity as a white, male, US-born Christian. Hence, anyone outside this constructed identity will be "un-American". Efforts to create reasonable doubt about the prospective US president and vice-president are not surprising in American politics.
Identity means who we are and what we identify with. It also means how we wish to be seen by others. The factors that usually contribute to our identity include our place of birth, place of residence, name, physical attributes, dress and commitment to place. For example, when I say that I am a Bangladeshi-Australian Muslim woman, I am identifying myself with my place of birth, Bangladesh; place of residence, Australia; and my religion, Islam.
In my research on young American Muslims' identity, many Muslim participants, aged 15–17 years, identified the word American with people born and residing in America, holding an American passport and showing loyalty to America. They associated the term "un-American" with Islamophobia, racism and disloyalty.
The participants in my study took pride in identifying themselves as Muslim American, or Bangladeshi American, Egyptian American, Palestinian American and so on. They spoke highly of American democracy, diversity, tolerance and cultural coexistence. They were inspired by the election of the first Black US President Barack Hussein Obama. As one participant commented, "Twenty years ago, if you told someone 'Oh, there'll be a Black president', he'd start laughing at you. They'd say 'No, that's impossible'." The participant added, "You look at our presidents so far, white, white, white, white, and then you have Barack Obama, the president of 2008, Barack Obama, African American president. That's a huge inspiration."
Yet it was not an easy ride for President Obama. The US-born President Obama's father was a Muslim, born in Kenya, Africa, and his mother was a Christian, born in Kansas, USA. His parents were divorced when Obama was 2 years old and Obama was raised as a Christian.
The presidential candidate Obama faced hurdles from within his Democratic Party because of his Muslim-sounding middle name "Hossein". In early 2008, Senator Hilary Clinton (a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination) played the fear card, and attempted to create reasonable doubt that he was a Muslim by associating Obama with some controversial people, for example the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Then on 21 July 2008, the cover image of the New Yorker magazine published a cartoon that depicted Obama in one-piece Muslim garb and headgear (a Muslim topi). His wife Michelle Obama carried an AK-47 and an ammunition belt slung over her shoulder. They were bumping their fists in the President's Oval Office. The depiction showed how some media can induce fear against a religion.
In the 2012 US election campaign (when President Obama sought re-election), the Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich described Islam as a threat to the country. Newt Gingrich commented that he would only support Muslim presidential candidates if they "would commit in public to give up Sharia". His comment was criticised by Muslim-American organisations and academic experts on Islamic law.
This sort of negative publicity further tarnished public perceptions of Muslim Americans who follow the Islamic sharia in their daily lives, for example offering prayers five times a day and fasting during the month of Ramadan. Later, both politicians, Santorum and Gingrich, suspended their campaign and endorsed the former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney to run for president of the United States in a bid to win the 2012 presidential election. Mitt Romney cherished a similar ideology – Islam as the dangerous "Other".
In spite of such fear-mongering tactics against Muslims by the Republican Party, Democratic President Obama was re-elected as the US President in 2012. The participants in my study aligned the word "American" with democracy, leadership and equality, and the 2012 US election vindicated this.
In the 2016 US presidential election, the Republican presidential candidate, Mr Donald Trump, was elected. Focusing on the question of American identity or Americanness, President Trump's slogan was, "We will make America great again." Accordingly, Mr Trump signed executive orders for the construction of a border wall between the United States and Mexico; and banned foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from visiting the US for 90 days. At that time, I was living in Washington, DC, USA. I saw many Americans hold peaceful rallies and protest against President Trump's policy of exclusion.
Now, in the 2020 US presidential election, US politics may take a turn towards acceptance and coexistence if the Democratic Party comes to power. The former Democratic Vice-President, and the current Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, chose US Senator Kamala Harris as his Democratic vice-presidential candidate. US-born Kamala Harris is the daughter of an Indian-born mother, Shyamala Gopalan, and Jamaican-born father, Donald Harris. Her parents were divorced when she was seven years old. However, Kamala Harris said that she was brought up with both Indian Hindu culture and music by Black American artists.
When Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris as the vice-presidential candidate, he commented, "All across the nation, little girls woke up, especially little Black and brown girls who so often feel overlooked and undervalued in our communities". Biden added, "But today, today just maybe they're seeing themselves, for the first time, in a new way — as the stuff of presidents and vice presidents" (npr.com. 12 August 2020). Mr. Biden's policy of inclusion will surely impact positively on racial and ethnic minorities in America.
On the other hand, earlier in 2019, Trump Jr shared a tweet, then deleted it, stating, "Kamala Harris is *not*[AH1] an American Black. She is half Indian and half Jamaican" (The New York Times, 28 June 2019). In other words, he questioned Kamala Harris' American identity.
On 20 August 2020, in her acceptance speech, Senator Harris stated, "And let's be clear — there is no vaccine for racism. We've gotta do the work. For George Floyd. For Breonna Taylor. For the lives of too many others to name. For our children. For all of us." Senator Harris added, "We've gotta do the work to fulfil that promise of equal justice under law. Because, none of us are free ... until all of us are free" (npr. org, 19 August 2020). It should be noted that both George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed by police atrocities in 2020.
The Republican President Mr Trump's priority has been exclusion, as revealed by his executive orders, and the Democratic presidential candidate Mr Biden's emphasis is on inclusion. Both leaders' focus is on America but their approaches are diametrically opposite. The 2020 US presidential election result will again bring the debate on what is "American" to the forefront.
Dr Nahid Afrose Kabir is Professor of History at the Department of English and Humanities at Brac University, Bangladesh. She is the author of Young American Muslims: Dynamics of Identity (Edinburgh University Press 2013); and Muslim Americans: Debating the Notions of American and Un-American (Routledge 2017).