Loren D. Lybarger, Palestinian Chicago: Identity in ExileSeries: New Directions in Palestinian Studies (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Loren D. Lybarger (LL): I began to reflect on my experiences with the Palestinian community in Chicago during the 1990s as I was finishing my first book, Identity and Religion in Palestine (Princeton, 2007). That book examined the identity effects of the struggle between Islamism and secular-nationalism in the Occupied Territories between the 1980s and the early 2000s. Similar secular-religious dynamics had developed in Chicago, but the specific social and political circumstances differed from Palestine in important ways. The Chicago context gave me an opportunity to document and analyze that difference and its implications for Palestinian identities in exile.

I arrived in Chicago in 1993, right before the unveiling of the Oslo Memorandum of Understanding. I had just finished a seven-year stint in the Middle East. I served as a volunteer English teacher in Beit Jala during the first Intifada (1986-1989); studied linguistics at the American University in Cairo (1989-1991); and directed an English language program in Gaza City (1991-1993). I moved to Chicago to begin graduate study in religion and sociology. A month after I arrived, the Oslo memorandum hit the news. A friend immediately invited me to a citywide meeting of activists at the Random Worlds Café, a place co-owned by Samir Odeh, a longtime leader in the Southwest-Side Arab Community Center. More than fifty people showed up that evening to discuss what the announcement meant. The mood was somber as attendees dissected the weaknesses of the memorandum and expressed grave misgiving for its possible negative impact on the Palestinian struggle. One could feel the confusion and sense of loss, even betrayal.

In the decade that followed, a profound shift in the community occurred. As they moved to the suburbs in large numbers, Palestinians drifted away from the secular-nationalist community centers in the old urban enclaves. At the same time, they began embracing a new Islamic orthopraxy as the framework of individual and collective identity in the community. Central to this process was the emergence of organizations like the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview and, in a very different way, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) on Chicago’s South Side. At a fundraiser for a new social service organization, the Arab American Action Network, which formed at the same time as IMAN, I remember college-aged activists delaying Edward Said’s keynote by making a very public display of performing the maghrib prayer together. I recount this incident in Palestinian Chicago, describing it as a moment that caused me to wonder why this religious shift had happened, what it meant for Palestinian secularism, which had grounded nationalist activism in the community, and what its long-term impact would be. As I completed work on Identity and Religion in Palestine, I began to reflect back on these experiences in Chicago and, as I did so, started to conceive this second book that would trace similar issues in the diaspora.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

LL: Palestinian Chicago ranges across several topics: religion, nationalism, identity, generational change, gender and class tensions, and the contested space of exile. The book opens with a description of a mass demonstration in The Loop, Chicago’s downtown, to protest Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip in July 2014. At the demonstration, I noticed traditional Palestinian flags but also flags with Islamic symbols such as the Dome of the Rock and the shahada—the statement that there is no god save the One God and that Muhammad is God’s messenger—inscribed on them. I go on to show in the book that the seeming overlap and integration of the religious and the secular point to a complex and relatively recent history of tension and shift.

The chapters that follow unpack this history, beginning with the arrival of the first Palestinian immigrants to the city in the early-twentieth century. I describe generational changes that track with similar processes in the Middle East and show, as well, how identities hybridize, making strict distinctions between secular and religious hard to sustain. The secular and religious interact in a mutually fragilizing relation, an insight that Charles Taylor develops in his book, A Secular Age. The Palestinian experience in Chicago provides important insight into this phenomenon, which marks modernity, generally. Gender, race, class, and space are also important considerations in this discussion, since they condition the secular-religious dynamic in multiple ways, producing a range of diverging trajectories. If there is a single conclusion to be drawn from my book it is that Palestinian identity unfolds in exceedingly complex ways that may or may not track with dominant nationalist and religious narratives. My objective in the book was to utilize extensive ethnographic observations and interview data, the result of more than five years of field work between 2010 and 2015, to map this complexity.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

LL: I think of Palestinian Chicago as a companion volume to Identity and Religion in Palestine. The two books address religion and identity questions in the exact same time frame—the 1980s through the post-millennium period—but do so in very different national, political, and cultural contexts. They also reflect my different points of contact with Palestinian life and struggle. The books span the homeland-diaspora divide, providing contrasting, bi-focal perspective on the parallel phenomenon of identity reorientation in relation to what I term the religious shift and the corresponding post-Intifada, post-Oslo division in the Palestinian national movement.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

LL: I hope, first of all, that Palestinians in Chicago will read this book and engage with it as a beginning point for an ongoing conversation about the changes that have occurred in their community during the past century and especially since the 1980s. I hope, too, that Palestinians in Palestine will read it to gain understanding of the particularities of the diaspora—albeit from my quite specific standpoint as a non-Palestinian outsider. Much binds Palestinians across the globe—the shared traumatic memory of dispossession, the ongoing occupation and colonization of Palestine itself, the intergenerational resistance efforts, and the ties of family. But there are also critical differences stemming from the unique conditions of exilic conditions. The exile is not Palestine; Palestine is not the diaspora. Palestinian Chicago speaks both to the continuities and the divergences between these spacesIt does so, too, in dialogue with its earlier companion volume, Identity and Religion in Palestine. Finally, I hope that a wide range of non-Palestinian readers engage this text. Anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism remains deeply embedded within US and European societies. My book speaks directly to this racism, challenging it by resisting the simplistic reduction of Arabs and Muslims to “Islam” as a marker of the irrational and the violent. My book does this by bringing the secular back in and in doing so rendering “Palestinian” and “Arab” and “Muslim” and “Christian,” for that matter, into highly variable and dynamic categories.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

LL: I am finishing a co-authored book on how memory of the period of state terror in Argentina (1976-1983) affects Argentine conceptions of justice in the present. I am also beginning work on a third book that will address Palestinian experience and identity questions in the European context. I think of this next book as possibly completing a trilogy that would include Identity and Religion in Palestine and Palestinian Chicago. 


Excerpt from the book


Protesting “Protective Edge,” Chicago, July 26, 2014

In July 2014, as I was finishing the research in Chicago for this book, Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip in yet another attempt—the third since 2008—to destroy the military and governing capacities of the Islamic Resistance Movement, known commonly as Hamas. Labeled “Operation Protective Edge,” the attack, which killed more than 2,000 civilians and injured an additional 11,000, sparked global condemnation, including a massive public response from Chicago’s Palestinians (Dearden 2014; Waldroup 2014). In a well-rehearsed procedure—this was not the first time they had mobilized—the Chicago Coalition for Justice in Palestine, an ad hoc group comprising the city’s major organizations active on the Palestinian cause, called for a demonstration in the Loop, Chicago’s downtown area. Dramatizing their dominant role in the community, the mosques bussed hundreds of their constituents from the southwest suburbs. Event organizers claimed 15,000 demonstrators; the local NBC affiliate put the figure at 8,000 (Waldroup 2014).

Slogans at the rally and during the subsequent march down Michigan Avenue demanded “free Palestine” and declared “God is greater.” The traditional flag featuring a plain triangle of red and three bars each of black, white, and green mingled with other versions of the national banner. There were two Islamized variations. The first inscribed the shahada declaration (creedal statement) of la ilaha illa llah / muhammadun rasulu llah—“There is no deity save the one God/Muhammad is God’s messenger”—on the white middle field of the banner.

The second superimposed an image of the Dome of the Rock—the site from which, according to tradition, Muhammad ascended through the heavens to the throne of God—and the words “filastin kulluha qudsun.” The words, which translate as “Palestine, All of It [is] Sanctified [or, Sacred, Holy],” played on the traditional name for Jerusalem in Arabic, “al-Quds,” the Sanctified (Sacred, Holy). Both flags appeared alongside the US flag. The juxtaposition signaled a specifically Palestinian claim to American political citizenship and national affiliation. Religious and nationalist symbolic displays also appeared in the clothing choices of some women demonstrators. Women wearing hijabscarves in a checkered black-and-white kufiya (colloq: kaffiyeh or hatta) design or in the colors of the Palestinian national flag walked alongside women wearing kufiyapatterned scarves around their necks but nothing on their heads.


Religious and secular symbols appeared to blend seamlessly in this mass demonstration against Israel’s violence. The secular, in the sense of the priority given to the crisis and question of Palestine, had seemingly assimilated Islamic signifiers as part of a nonsectarian space that included Jewish solidarity groups. But Islam, too, had embraced the nation, centering its cause as an article of faith: devotion to the One God entailed devotion to the liberation of the national patrimony, which God had made sacred […] Nevertheless, behind the integrated display lay a longer history of tension and shift.

The Project

This book documents and analyzes the history of this shift and its present-day impact in one of the world’s most important Palestinian diaspora communities, Palestinian Chicago. At approximately 85,000 strong, this community constitutes the single largest concentration of Palestinians in North America. Its sheer size has made it a target of scrutiny. Chicago’s main newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, has periodically published exposés claiming to have uncovered connections to radical Islamic and leftist groups that the US government has listed as “foreign terrorist organizations.” And, since the 1970s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice have launched probes against activists suspected of supporting proscribed movements (Ahmed-Ullah, et al. 2004; Ahmed-Ullah, Roe, and Cohen 2004; Cainkar 2009, 110-152). Chicago’s Palestinians have, as a consequence, become linked directly to the putative Global War on Terror; and, in response, they have fought back against interventions made against them. Since the election of President Donald J. Trump, for example, activists in the community have led protests against the “Muslim Ban,” the final version of which severely limits travel to the United States from five Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia) as well as from North Korea and Venezuela.


Questions and Data

Four main questions orient this project. First, what historical, social, and political factors have shaped Palestinian identities in Chicago? How, specifically, did secular nationalism and religion—principally Islam in various forms but also Christianity—become primary identity frameworks at individual and community levels? Second, what explains the ascendancy of Islam, in particular, since the 1990s, and what has happened to secularism in relation to this process? Third, what forms of identity have emerged through the ensuing intersections of the religious and the secular in Palestinian Chicago? Finally, what critical perspectives does this case study provide for understanding Palestinian identity in diaspora contexts in the current moment?

I answer these questions through the description and analysis of fieldwork data. These data derive from summer research trips to Chicago occurring between 2010 and 2013 and from a two-year research residency in the city from 2013–15. The data include multiple site observations at mosques, churches, community centers, downtown protests, and community events as well as more than eighty recorded life-story interviews. Each of the interviews lasted two or more hours and in some cases included extended follow-up conversations. Analysis of the data has entailed identification and interpretation of themes within and across the transcribed interviews and my field notes.

Main Assertions

I make several interrelated assertions about what these fieldwork data show. My first claim is that the religious turn in Chicago results from a complex interaction of homeland and diaspora-specific processes. The primary homeland factor is the development, since the late 1980s, of powerful Islamist competitors to the secular-nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization […]. I show how the Islamic shift, in its broad sense, in Palestine and in the wider Middle East has influenced the religious turn in Chicago through family networks spanning the United States and Palestine. But the book also demonstrates the impact of other factors specific to the Palestinian experience in Chicago. These factors include the development of religious institutional structures as part of an ongoing selective assimilation process; the shuttering of secular nationalist community centers; wealth accumulation and the demographic transition to a new suburban enclave; and the anti-Muslim backlash in the long aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

My second main assertion is that the religious shift and the tensions it produces with secularism have generated a range of hybrid identities in the present. These identities defy simplistic narratives about the “Islamization” of immigrant communities or about the “decline” of secularism in the face of a global religious resurgence. This finding pushes back against prevailing scholarship on these matters [that] has tended [either] to raise alarm about the effect of Muslim immigration on Western democracy and secular culture (Brookes and Sciolino 1995; Levitt 2006; Roy 2007; Amghar, Boubekeur, and Emerson, 2007; Sniderman and Hagendoorn 2007; Nasaw 2008; Westrop 2017) [or, conversely,] focused positively on the formation of a Western umma (Islamic community), internally dynamic and contested, auguring a new, transcultural Western Islam (Ramadan 2004; Karim 2009; Grewal 2014; Khabeer 2016). This contradictory discussion parallels a public discourse in which racist and xenophobic portrayals of Muslim immigrants vie with counterclaims about Islam being a religion of peace compatible with a secular democratic order.

Obscured in these contending discourses is the complexity of secular-religious dynamics in the actual lives of individuals and communities. I call attention to this fact, showing how the religious turn has had multiple effects in Palestinian Chicago. As I show, secularism has not disappeared but rather transmuted, taking new forms in interaction with the religious turn. Similarly, the new religious orientations bear the imprint of secularism and in doing so develop in multiple indeterminate directions. Significantly, these transformations have analogs in the experience of Palestinian Christians, whom I also highlight in the chapters ahead. Adding to the complexities of these secular-religious interactions is the impact of a range of other mitigating factors, especially race, class, gender, generation, and space. This book analyzes these factors, showing how they shape the religious-secular dynamics in the narrative accounts of my interlocutors.

My third set of arguments pertains to the broader implications of my findings for Palestinians and non-Palestinian others in the current moment. I make two observations. First, Palestinian identity in the diaspora is likely to continue to develop in multiple directions as the religious shift deepens and as that same shift generates secular-religious hybrid responses. Second, the experiences of Palestinians in Chicago shed light on secular-religious tensions and transformations that manifest in diverse societies globally. These Palestinian accounts contribute empirical depth to arguments that Taylor (2007), Martin (2014), and Riesebrodt (2014), among others, have separately made about how the religious and the secular enter into a mutually “fragilizing” relation, each destabilizing but also conditioning the other in a dialectic that produces new syntheses. The Palestinian voices that register in this book provide crucial insight into these processes and into the possibilities they create for forging new, contrapuntal conceptions of self and other across multiple lines of difference, including the religious and the secular.