The (Im)Possibility of being a Christian Arab in America

Rami Malek receiving his award for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Drama Series for Mr Robot.
Rami Malek receiving his award for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Drama Series for Mr Robot.

Rami Malek stood on the stage, clutching his Emmy award for his role in the hit TV series Mr. Robot, and spoke about how many buses his mother had to take to get to her job and the struggle of their family to make ends meet. As if right out of the textbook on the American dream, Rami was in shock and gasped: “please tell me you’re seeing this too”. Rami had made it. But who exactly was it that made it? Rami Malek the immigrant son of an Egyptian Christian (Copt), or Rami Malek the naturalized white American Copt, much like his role in Mr. Robot – as opposed to Rami Malek the Arab? Was it a classic case of the individual succeeding against all odds as he emerged out of the melting pot of America? Or is it the story of the Great Gatsby where even when one attains affluence and influence, one is never accepted but is constantly chased by his haunting past?

The singularity of Rami Malek lies in that at the moment he was hailed as an American Copt, his Arabness at once disappeared, fitting nicely with the narrative that Arab Christians have no homeland; or that they are a dying breed due to intolerance, fanaticism, Islam - the list goes on. ISIS here becomes a useful bogeyman, but if we set this aside we see that this story becomes very strategic to traffic in, because it hides the anxieties and problems of white American society.

The story usually begins with a romantic picture depicting Christians in the Arab world as belonging to a biblical pre-Islamic people: Phoenicians, Acadians and Copts. This is a peculiar one-sided history. With the invasion of the Romans and subsuming of several groups into the Roman Empire it becomes counterintuitive to insist that groups still maintained these distinctions until the present day. Can one even speak of a Pharaonic people after the invasion of the Romans? This begs the question then, what is the source of the nostalgia of these groups, whose very identity formation results in a moment that is frozen in time? The answer for that lies today in how these Christian groups are used, much as in the case of Rami Malek.

To celebrate Rami Malek’s Emmy, won as an American Copt while omitting his Arab and Egyptian identity, means that one also omits several other markers of identity. One then forgets the murder of Khaled Jabara in Oklahoma earlier this year at the hands of his white neighbor who called him “a dirty Arab”, paraphrasing the infamous insults “dirty ni**er” and “dirty Jew”. In remembering the murder of Jabara one is also struck at how he had filed a police report before his death, only to be ignored. In this case the police force did not see Jabara as a naturalized American of Arab origin with equal rights – in spite him being a Christian – but as only an Arab who filed a police report. Would the police have acted similarly had a white American filled a similar police report against a black neighbor?

In omitting Rami Malek’s Arab and Egyptian roots we also forget how the FBI framed Sarhan Sarhan for the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, using him as a scapegoat with little to no evidence as his lawyers until today battle for his freedom. To the criminal justice system the circumstantial evidence of a Palestinian kicked off his land in 1947, and the fact that he left in his notebooks writing that indicated his hate for Robert F. Kennedy’s pro-Israel attitude, is enough evidence to incriminate him. This hate of course must be translated as part of the story about Arabs’ inherent fanaticism, even if the autopsy report rules out Sarahan’s gun as the murder weapon. Omitted from all of this yet again is that Sarhan Sarhan is a Christian, it is assumed since he is violent and an Arab, he must be Muslim.

This is not surprising considering that the first hate crime that followed 9/11 involved the murder of Balibar Dodi Singh, another non-white resident of the US who was not a Muslim but a Sikh. Continuing the narrative that America was at war with Islam or Muslims, the second murder victim in the spree of post-9/11 hate crimes was Adel Karas. In San Gabriel, California, Adel Karas was shot in his grocery store in what came as a shock to the community. The FBI began investigating the homicide and it soon became awkward to say that in the wake of the post 9/11 Islamophobia, a Christian Egyptian was murdered for being mistaken as a Muslim. If no money was taken from the cash register then it becomes obvious to state it was a hate crime, but if it is in fact a hate crime what does that say about America’s alleged war on ‘Radical Islam’? In the end it was treated as a simple robbery, even if no money was taken. Another non-white immigrant robbed of the chance to see his kids grow up. Being a Christian did little to save him from being an Arab that was targeted by white supremacists. The slogan used by white Protestant missionaries about the need to save Arab Christians rings hollow after the sound of the gunshots that killed Karas.

Yet how surprising is the story of Sarhan Sarhan, Adel Karas and Rami Malek? Even if they are Orthodox Christian Arabs one should not be outraged and insist on their legibility as Christians. Being an Arab after all does not entail equal treatment to white Americans contrary to what is enshrined in America’s constitution that was established by a religiously persecuted group: puritans. Having access to those rights today is not only predicated on the color of your skin, but the Protestant imaginary. Orthodox Christians, the major denomination of Arab Christians, have no space in that imaginary except in Protestant missionary depictions of those Arab Christians as backward. Even in cases where people do know that the person before them is an Arab and a Christian, they treat them with the same suspicion.

Take Fox News’ coverage of the ‘In Defense of Christians Conference’ in the Middle East hosted by the White House in September of 2014. In an interview with Bishop Angaelos the subject of the conference was left out, and instead Ted Cruz’s appearance and branding of Israel as the guarantor of safety of Christians was the topic of discussion. In fact when Bishop Angaelos ignored the question about Ted Cruz and Israel, citing it as irrelevant, the interviewer pushed again and asked: “I think a lot of people are surprised at the comments on Israel…they thought many of the Orthodox Churches, Evangelical Churches are in great support of Israel and that may not be the case, why is that?” Thus the question is not about Arab Christians who need saving, but Arab Christians who are willing to let go of their Arabness in exchange for valorizing the role of Israel as the guardian of religious freedom. This should not come as a surprise, for much as white protestants in America have for centuries held that same attitude while denying the rights of Native Americans, African Americans, Jews and more recently Arab Christians, so too does Israel.

How else can one explain Trump’s Middle East foreign policy advisor who was part of the Lebanese militia ‘Lebanese Force Fighters’ when his colleague Samir Ga’ga’, using Israeli support, massacred 2,000 Palestinians in the Lebanese villages of Sabra and Shatila in 1982? For Faris to appease his master his Arab identity recedes to allow for his ‘American’ identity to crystallize. The myth of the melting pot in this case is not so much of a dilution of all identities as much as it is about removing one marker and emphasizing another in exchange for concessions. That is why Copts greeted Abdel-Fatah al-Sissi when he arrived to New York for his UN General Assembly address this year with much fanfare despite his continued clampdown on all segments of society, Coptic Christians included. The welcome al-Sissi received in New York, despite being a very contentious topic, continues to happen not because of his popularity as much as it is a sign that the Arab Christian community is also protesting the impossibility of belonging in America. The paradox is of course that al-Sissi is not doing much for these Arab Christians back home either, much as he isn’t doing for other segments of the population. The economic situation continues to be exacerbated due to an incoming IMF loan and its conditions, and Egyptians back home continue to suffer. These Egyptians however hold on to an image, however contradictory that might be, of national independence that gives them closure against US myths about equality and the melting pot as well as the racism they experience. In their protest and welcoming of al-Sissi these Egyptian Christians – among other Muslim Egyptians who were there – acknowledge that as Arabs it is difficult to belong to America. Despite being Christian they are only seen as Arab.

Otherwise why were Sarhan Sarhan, Khalid Jabara, Adel Karas not seen as Christians to the criminal justice system as opposed to Faris? When the issue of Israel is brought in, and we see that to gain legibility in America as an Arab – even as an Arab Christian – one must play the role that is dictated to them. In this case the staging of religious freedom, that age old myth that animates America’s idea of manifest destiny, is staged on the corpses that have fallen; be they of Native Americans, African Americans or more recently Arab Christians. To be an Arab Christian in America is to play the role scripted to you, as the case of Walid Faris, or to omit the category of Arab altogether and pretend to be accepted as Rami Malek was celebrated: a white Christian American. No Arab Christian that is against America, or a victim of its racism, can be allowed to speak – or in the examples of Adel Karas and Khalid Jabara, to live.

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