Ethnic Identity vs. Religious Affiliation: Understanding the Divide between Arab American Christians and Muslims

Lanouar Ben Hafsa


The epithets "Arab" and "Muslim" are often confused and, in the mind of many Americans, they expressly mean the same. In reality, they do not even overlap. Actually, although they have become more visible over the past few decades, Arab Americans remain an inadequately described community. The first challenge in studying them poses the problem of determining their size. The non-availability of official census data, added to contrasted estimates provided by nongovernmental institutions, makes it more difficult to draw an accurate statistical picture of such a tiny but extremely diverse group.

This paper seeks to explore the thorny issue of Arab American identity. It aims to track the paths of two communities, Arab American Christians and Muslims, that self-identify as "Arabs", but differ in many respects as to the way they adjust to mainstream society and respond to the stumbling blocks encountered on their way for assimilation. It basically aims to demonstrate how, despite inherited sectarian frictions, both groups succeeded in recent history to cross faith lines and to constitute themselves as a cohesive ethnic entity in the United States. At the same time, it delegitimizes claims that the group named "Arab American" is a monolith, and demonstrates that, contrary to popular assumptions, the two labels, "Arab" and "American", are not mutually exclusive.

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