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Why Arab Americans Should Feel American on the 4th of July

posted on: Jul 3, 2019

By: Cait O’Connor/Arab America Contributing Writer

On July 4, 2016, Americans set off 285 million pounds of fireworks to celebrate their independence, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.

Fireworks have been used to entertain and arouse patriotism since the first celebration of American independence from Britain in 1777. Representing freedom and glory, fireworks are about as symbolically American as the parades, apple pies, and barbeques that accompany them.

However, even in this most patriotic display, the ethnically-diverse nature of American cultural traditions shines through.

Fireworks are an ancient Chinese innovation dating back to the 9th and 10th centuries. Picnics have French roots, and barbeque stems from the Spanish culinary tradition. Watermelon, in fact, is Egyptian in origin.

Many favorite American traditions are either inspired or directly influenced by the cultures of other nations. On the day of its independence, America has many foreign actors to thank for its cultural development.

Uncertain Celebrations/Loyalties

Beyond the popular summertime melon, the Arab world has had a vast influence on American culture, from its language and cuisine to its scholarship and politics.

However, in spite of this influence, Americans of Arab or Muslim descent may have reservations about participating in the holiday. In an article describing her American identity, Maha Elgenaidi writes,

“I’ve always felt slightly disingenuous about becoming emotionally involved in the 4th of July holiday. I was never quite sure about my American-ness, despite my citizenship, nor did I feel that my fellow Americans, particularly those of European descent, viewed me as authentically American.”

Indeed, there is considerable irony in engaging with a holiday celebrating freedom in the face of so much repression, in a country with an often violent history of discrimination and hatred. Especially in today’s political climate, with discrimination emanating from the White House, the realities of America’s “freedoms” are increasingly unclear.

Historic Arab and Muslim Influences in America

The Arab and Muslim worlds have been involved with American affairs since the country’s foundation.

Sultan Muhammad III of Morocco was the first world leader to recognize America’s sovereignty as an independent nation.

He hoped to build peaceful relations with Christian nations as part of his ultimate goal to uplift the struggling Moroccan economy through maritime trade. The 1786 Treaty of Marrakech establishing this trade connection is one of America’s earliest international agreements. 

Within the young country, Thomas Jefferson kept a copy of the Holy Qur’an in his private collection. Jefferson was an avid reader and a student of world religions, and his study of the Qur’an suggests the early recognition of diverse religious traditions in America.

Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of the Qur’an (Smithsonian)

While Jefferson studied Islam in the privacy and comfort of his estate, life was much more difficult for practitioners of the faith. Around 20% of the enslaved population in early America was Muslim.

Faced with enforced Christianity, many Muslims either practiced in secret, incorporated it into other traditions, or abandoned their faith altogether.

Omar ibn Said (Smithsonian)

One of the most outspoken Muslims was Omar ibn Said, a Senegalese man imprisoned shortly after his arrival. During his imprisonment, he transcribed Qur’anic verses in Arabic script on the walls of his cell, citing his faith as the reason for his survival.

Although eventually forced to convert to Christianity, he set a precedent for Muslim expression of faith in colonial America. His literary ability and broad knowledge of religious text shaped early American perceptions of Muslims as a learned, enlightened people.

Today, about 7 million Muslim Americans live in the U.S., 41% of whom identify as white (including those of Arab descent). 70% of the Arab American population identifies as Christian, undermining the common association of “Arab” and “Muslim.”

While Islam and other global religious traditions are Constitutionally permitted, believers face discrimination and oppression as a result of negative stereotypes. Especially under the discriminatory rhetoric of the current administration, Arabs and Muslims may be made to feel ostracized from the American population. In reality, however, America’s history is deeply intertwined with and influenced by Muslim and Arab populations.

A Brief History of Arab American Immigration

Close to 4 million Arab Americans currently reside in the United States. 82% of Arab-Americans hold U.S. citizenship, and the majority reside in California and Michigan. 

The first wave of immigration began in 1880 and lasted until World War I. The majority of the roughly 60,000 migrants arriving at this time were young Christian Syrian men seeking economic opportunity in America after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

The second wave took place between the 1940s and 1960s.  This wave was prompted largely by political unrest, especially following the Arab-Israeli War. The mass migration of young people from Egypt, Syria, and Iraq during this time has been termed the “brain drain.” Seeking refuge from political conflict in the Middle East, young people took their educational skill and economic potential elsewhere. 64% of foreign-born Arabs immigrated during this time, including many more Muslims than the previous wave.

The third wave encompasses both Arab political asylum seekers in the 1980s and present-day refugees. This migration was largely fueled by political insecurity in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. Today, the majority of immigrants carry a refugee status. Because of political necessity, this wave has brought people of all social and educational backgrounds, from entrepreneurs to unskilled laborers.

Changing Arab Perceptions/Abuses

While early Arab immigrants, largely Christians, blended easily into rural societies, perceptions of Arabs became intensely negative following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and oil embargo. The Reagan administration’s anti-terrorist campaigns further ostracized the Arab population through negative media coverage and false stereotyping.

Hate crimes against Arabs were highest in the mid-1980s, and many Muslim communities were directly threatened during the early 90s and the Gulf Crisis era. Beginning in the 1960s, the federal government and the FBI conducted illegal surveillance of Arab American students and communities. This project, termed “Operation Boulder,” involved raids, residency status restrictions, and information gathering. 

To read about the presidential legacy of Arab surveillance from Bush to Trump, click here.

Similarity of Morals

The irony of this discrimination is that, on paper, the moral and ethical values of Islam, Christianity, and American democracy are highly similar, suggesting a natural unity of thought and expression.

The Qur’an states that:

“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also, a white has no superiority over black nor does a black have any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”

Although they trace their roots back to Muslim-majority countries, many Arabs practice Christianity. In Lebanon, Christians make up 30-40% of the population. 70% of Arab Americans are Christian, and their faith aligns with the moral values of the Qu’ran and the American consititution alike.

When the Bible urges its followers to “Love thy neighbor as theyself,” it reiterates the shared idea of the ultimate equality and deserved compassion between all people.

The Declaration of Independence further supports this idea, suggesting that:

“All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

This passage also expresses this sentiment of equality by birth-regardless of the unnamed “creator.” This statement has been frequently distorted and reinterpreted, yet on the anniversary of the document’s creation we must honor the heart of its sentiments.

In spite of oppression, Arab Americans have played a foundational role in the creation and continual development of all aspects of American culture.

Famous Arab Americans

Arab Americans have contributed to American culture in every aspect of its identity, from politics to academia. Below is, of course, only a very small sampling of notable Arab American cultural, industrial, and political icons. This is by no means an exclusive list. The extent of Arab influence on American culture is immeasurable, assisted by every person of Arab descent who has called this country a home.

Military/Political Leaders


A Jordanian of Syrian and Greek descent, Hajj Ali was an early Arab American hired by the U.S. Army. He has become popularly known as “Hi Jolly,” a transliteration of his birth name. Ali was one of six camel herders in the 1856 Camel Cavalry Core, a group created by Jefferson Davis to test the military potential of imported camels in the Arizona desert.

The experiment was ultimately abandoned at the start of the Civil War, with most of the 77 camels released into the wild or sold away. Hajj Ali’s career in the American West continued, however. He worked as a prospector, fought in the army, and raised a Muslim family in Arizona.


Lebanese American four-star general George Joulwan served as the NATO Supreme Allied Commander of Europe.


Ralph Nader, of Lebanese descent, was the first Arab American presidential candidate and consumer activist, running for the Green Party in 1996.


Donna Shalala, also of Lebanese origin, was the first Arab-American appointed as Cabinet secretary. She was also the longest-serving Secretary of Health and Human Services and is currently pursuing a Congressional Democratic campaign.

Innovators/Heads of Industry

ERNEST HAMWI (1883-1943)

Today a hallmark of American summertime, the ice cream cone was actually invented by a Syrian immigrant. At the 1904 World’s Fair, Ernest Hamwi realized that his waffle-like pastries, called zalabia, could be rolled up and used to hold ice cream after the fair ran out of serving dishes.

PAUL MANSOUR (1913-??)

An early combined American grocery store (Library of Congress)

One of the earliest Arab-American innovators was a Palestinian named Paul Mansour. After immigrating to America in 1913, he is credited with the creation of the first modern grocery store. His “Citizens Market” conveniently combined a variety of grocery items (meat, baked goods, produce) into one establishment.

GEORGE ADDES (1947-1990)

Addes, far right, with other Auto Workers Union leaders (Reuther’s Library)

As a second-generation Lebanese American, George Addes founded the United Automobile Workers Union in his home state of Michigan. As the secretary-treasurer of the union for ten years, Addes was instrumental in advocating for improved labor rights, including higher pay and safer working conditions.


The world of men’s fashion has been shaped by Joseph Haggar, a Lebanese immigrant who founded the Haggar Clothing Company in 1926. Under the continued operation of Haggar’s son Joseph Jr., the multi-million dollar company would go on to become the nation’s largest supplier of men’s jeans. The company was the first men’s clothing line to air an ad on live television-one first among many for the long-time retail partner of Kohl’s, JCPenny, and Target. Haggar supplied clothes for sports and political celebrities alike, even producing specially-tailored pants for President Lyndon Johnson.


Also instrumental in men’s fashion is Lebanese-American designer Joseph Abboud. The recipient of many fashion and design awards, Abboud maintains a high-quality manufacturing facility for his signature suits and coats outside New Bedford, MA.


Palestinian American Tony Ismail is the CEO of Alamo Flags, the largest American flag enterprise. Ismail donated a large portion of his company’s earnings to victims of the 9/11 attack.

Read Fortune magazine’s interview with Ismail about being an Arab-American businessman in the U.S. here.


MICHAEL SHADID (1882-1966)

Shadid, a Lebanese doctor who emigrated to America in 1898, is known for his improvements in American medical practice and healthcare services. After receiving his doctorate and observing the American medical system for several years, he published his 1912 book The Self-Physician outlining his concerns. Shadid was a pioneer in “preventative medicine,” emphasizing the medical and financial benefit of preserving individual physical health at home.

In 1929, Shadid founded the Community Hospital in Beckham County, Oklahoma-the first cooperatively owned and operated a hospital in the United States. The hospital eliminated traditional fees to provide inexpensive healthcare to the rural poor. The hospital marked the beginning of the cooperative health movement in America, and Shadid himself served as the president of the Cooperative Health Federation of America from 1947-1949.

AHMED ZEHWAIL (1946-2016)

Ahmed Zehwail, an Egyptian chemist, was awarded the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize in Chemistry. His work was revolutionary in the field of femtoscience. His research enabled researchers to examine high-speed molecular movement. He also worked in the field of 4D electron microscopy, attempting to visualize the fourth dimension.

Zehwail was a well-respected physics professor at Caltech and the recipient of over 100 international awards, including the 2009 Albert Einstein World Award. He was also elected as a member of Barack Obama’s presidential advisors on science and technology.

Find a UNESCO interview with Zehwail about his work and aspirations here.


El-Baz (left) with Apollo Mission director Rocco Petrone

Egyptian American scientist Farouk el Baz worked on the Apollo missions at NASA. As a member of the astronaut training team, he was nicknamed “The King” in honor of his strong teaching and technical abilities. He has received wide press approval and media attention throughout his career in aeronautics and space exploration. The television show Star Trek even named a shuttle in his honor!



One of the leading activists for Arab American rights in the U.S. was Abdeen Jabara, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Born in Michigan of Palestinian descent, Jabara spent much of his career as a lawyer specializing in cases of civil rights violations perpetrated against Arab Americans.

The majority of his cases involved illegal police surveillance of Arab Americans, of which Jabara was a victim in 1972. He sued the FBI for invasion of privacy and won, clarifying that his work fell within his constitutional rights as an Arab American.

Read an interview with Jabara about his surveillance experience here.

Jabara was also the editor of the Free Palestine publication in support of the PLO. He initiated the “Eyewitness Israel” program to encourage media coverage of human rights abuses in Israeli-occupied territories.

Despite a career spent confronting racism and discrimination, Jabara was optimistic about the relations between Arabs and Americans, believing in 1985 that the image of Arabs in America had dramatically improved. The origin of hateful acts, Jabara argued, was ignorance instead of malice, making further cooperation between Arabs and Americans necessary for improved relationships.


Zogby is the co-founder of the Arab American Institute, a non-profit organization working to increase Arab American political participation. The AAI also directly contributed to the creation of the Arab American Institute Foundation, which is instrumental in distributing information about Arab contributions to American culture.


Lebanese American Candance Lightner created the iconic organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving following the death of her daughter in a drunk driving accident.


HELEN THOMAS (1920-2013)

Helen Thomas with President Kennedy at Georgetown University Hospital

Lebanese-American Helen Thomas was a prolific journalist who worked as a United Press International Correspondent for 57 years. She also served as the dean of the White House Press Corps. As a fierce and controversial interviewer, Thomas broke down traditional racial and gender stereotypes in the realm of political journalism. Ultimately, her controversial and outspoken views condemning Israeli attacks on Gaza led to her resignation.

EDWARD SAID (1935-2003)

In terms of academia, Edward Said is a renowned Palestinian-American intellectual whose signature work “Orientalism” is a hallmark text of upper-level education, relevant in classes ranging from global studies to philosophy. His intense critique of Western appropriation of Eastern culture has brought to light the problematic nature of Western scholarship about the Middle East.

ANTHONY SHADID (1968-2012)

Washington Post correspondent Anthony Shadid, of Lebanese descent, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting and is regarded as the leading reporter on Middle East affairs. For an overview of his legacy and integrity, see GQ’s article.

Pop Culture

Arab Americans have also been influential in popular American culture. Two notable Syrian-Americans include Grammy-award winning music artist Paula Abdul and actress Shannon Elizabeth. Egyptian TV director Asaad Kelada has directed many popular American sitcoms, including Family Ties, Everybody Loves Raymond, and The Office. On Broadway, Arab-American John Bowab directed the classic hit “Sweet Charity.

The Electric Arab Orchestra, based in Minneapolis, blends traditional Arabic folk music with American rock. The National Arab Orchestra in Michigan plays traditional Arab music in a symphonic orchestra setting.

Watch a video of their performance highlighting the influence of Arab women in music here.

A still from the film “Gaza Surf Club” to be shown at the 2018 film festival

This year marks the 21st anniversary of the Arab Film Festival in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The festival previews films produced over the past year by Arabs and Arab-Americans. Click here to view the festival trailer.

Continuing Tensions

In spite of their rich and diverse history of contribution to and participation in all aspects of American life, Arab and Muslim Americans have in the past been excluded from independence day festivities.

In 2011, members of the Arab American Association of New York were barred from participating in a July 4th picnic at the Bay Bridge. The event coordinator, Chip Cafiero, defended the discrimination, stating that:

“Arab Americans are more than welcome to come down, but they come down as American Arabs…America is a melting pot. But it’s all about all the different nationalities becoming Americans

Association President Linda Sansour refuted this statement about the nature of cultural appreciation, arguing that:

“Having an Arab-American band play at an Independence Day event visually displays that Arab-Americans are patriotic and they are a partner in all aspects of the community…we as Arab-Americans will not stand to be defined nor will we ever hang our ethnicity at the door for anyone or event. We will not separate our multiple Identities to satisfy an event that is supposed to celebrate the freedoms that people of all ethnic backgrounds came in search of and cherish so deeply.”

The history of cultural integration in this country is conflicted, marred by decades of struggle and oppression that continue today. In celebrating its independence, America must also take time to recognize the people that have fought for their right to live freely in this country, and have in the process contributed greatly to its cultural heritage. Arab-Americans have every right to take pride in the American identity they have helped to create.

Returning to the aforementioned article by Maha Elgenaidi, she writes of her ultimate choice to celebrate the holiday:

“I now know that my roots in America run much deeper than my own few years and that indeed Americans of Arab and Muslim background, whose enduring courage, dedication, and efforts have contributed to our nation’s growth and development, share the American story and history. I am indebted to them, and thankful for their contributing meaning to the 4th of July holiday, which is now authentically a celebration of my American-ness.”