Alhamdulilah, We Live in a Muslim Country: Searching for Safety and Constructing Belonging

Date of Award

May 2020

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Robert A. Rubinstein


Anthropology, Migration, Muslims, Safety, Security, United Arab Emirates

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


In this dissertation, US-citizen Muslims’ transnational migrations between the United States and the United Arab Emirates act as a vehicle to explore the themes of safety and security. In social science literature, safety and security are often used interchangeably or treated as security and insecurity. However, thinking of safety and security in these ways oversimplifies a complicated reality. I demonstrate that safety and security are dyads in tension with each other in which the interactions between these concepts leads to unintended consequences. One such outcome is that state-level national security undermines the relationship between legal citizenship and affective belonging. This study of a group of highly mobile US-citizen Muslims illustrates how such tensions arise.

US-citizen Muslims stress that when they migrated to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the early 1990s, they were primarily searching for safety. Once they arrived, through the act of proselytization, they began contributing to the state's security mechanisms in a way that aligns with their religious values. Safety, for these Muslims, is something personal and subjective, pertaining to their desire to flee from dangers both real and perceived in the United States. I contrast this notion of personal safety with security, which, I argue, pertains to regulations, norms, policies, and laws implemented by communities (religious, ethnic, racial, or national, for example) to address an urgent state or communal issue. Fortunately for these US-citizen Muslims, they developed relationships with UAE royalty through their membership in a global proselytizing movement called Tablighi Jama'at (Preaching Party). Royal family members sponsored Muslim Americans, especially converts, to live in the UAE so that they could perform da'wa (invitation to practice Islam). By making da'wa, converts help to deter cultural threats to Emirati national identity. Through proselytization, they perform a securitizing role in the UAE that is synergistic with Tablighi security norms of enjoining the mar'uf (good) and forbidding the munkar (evil). They can never obtain ethnic Emirati citizenship, yet my research participants feel safe and as if they belong. Still, they are not entirely secure in the UAE because they lack formal Emirati citizenship. Thus, they are vulnerable to other factors in the country. Recently, the combination of the UAE's changing economy and the US' international tax policies have compelled them to remigrate to the United States. Upon remigration to the United States, they face institutional discrimination under "War on Terror" policies and experience everyday intolerance. Thus, after remigrating to the United States in the 2010s, they adopt a new safety narrative that focuses on their religious identity. It is for this reason that they feel that they do not belong in the United States. So, their desire for safety and feelings of attachment to the UAE leave them longing to return to the Arabian Peninsula, where they will likely never obtain legal citizenship.


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