American Muslims and ‘Integration’

Parvez Ahmed

Posted Apr 15, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Parvez Ahmed

At a recent historic meeting in Vienna, European Muslim religious leaders, or Imams, exhorted Islamic communities to better integrate and participate effectively in all aspects of European society. They also urged European governments to give Muslims the opportunity to become full participants in their respective societies. “Integration is no one-way street, but should be seen as a mutual process,” said the final declaration of the second Conference of European Imams.

Conference participants also issued an unequivocal condemnation of terrorism in all its forms, urged stepped-up efforts to learn national languages and promoted development of mutual intercultural skills. Many of the participants believed the conference was a turning point in relations between Europe and its Muslim minorities.

For more than a thousand years, the discourse in Europe has been to view Muslims as outsiders and Islam as the “other.” Islam and Muslims in Europe and America remain embedded in stereotypical assumptions and misguided pronouncements regarding their beliefs, attitudes and customs. But Islam and Muslims can no longer be viewed as “outsiders.” Today, Islam is as integral to the West as Judaism and Christianity.

The American Muslim community has seen remarkable growth - from one congregation in the mid-1920s to more than 2,000 organizations institutions of all types at the end of the 20th century. All indications suggest a growing momentum among Muslims in favor of integration into America’s civic and political life.

Mainstream Muslims consider core American values to be consistent with normative Islam. Chief among these are the norms of hard work, entrepreneurship and liberty; civilian control of the military; the clear institutionalization of political power; a diffuse process of public decision-making; and a functioning civil society that gives voice to competing interests.

The American Muslim community is unique in its diversity. Studies indicate that 36 percent of American Muslims were born in the United States, while 64 percent were born in 80 different countries around the world. No other country has such a rich diversity of Muslims. The American Muslim community is thus a microcosm of the Muslim world.

The American Muslim Poll by Project MAPS showed that the American Muslim community is younger, better educated and better off financially than average Americans. More than three-quarters of Muslim respondents reported that they had been involved with organizations to help the poor, sick, homeless, or elderly. Seventy-one percent had been involved with a religious organization or a mosque, and over two-thirds have been involved with school and youth programs. A little over half of those surveyed also stated that they had called or written to the media or to a politician on a given issue or had signed a petition.

A majority of American Muslims (58 percent) believed that individuals, businesses or religious organizations in their community had experienced discrimination since September 11. An overwhelming majority (93 percent) nonetheless favored participation in the American political process.

Despite such integrative attitudes, the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in America creates tensions and hinders quicker integration of Muslims. A recent Washington Post poll suggests 46 percent of Americans have a negative view of Islam and Muslims.

Muslims have enjoyed an uninterrupted presence in America for more than a century. Yet they remain conspicuous by their absence in many spheres of American public life. Despite being about 2 percent of the population, Muslim representation in policy making is negligible even when such policies directly affect Muslims here or abroad. American Muslims are by and large absent from representation in major policy making circles of the three national branches of the U.S. government.

Muslims in America, like their counterparts abroad, are dealing with issues related to democratization, gender equality, minority rights, religious tolerance, freedom of thought, and social justice.

Normative Islam provides basic principles that can embrace each of these ideas in positive ways. Muslim societies that in the past have suffered from the malaise of unthinking dogma are changing as evidenced in the reviving of critical inquiry, often leading to renewed understanding of Islam’s congruence with the ever-shifting ideas of “modernity.”

European-Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan in his book “Western Muslims: Isolation or Integration?” notes that Western Muslims are likely to play a decisive role in the evolution of Islam worldwide. By reflecting on their faith, their principles and their identity within industrialized, secularized societies, Western Muslims can lead Muslims worldwide in reconciling their relationship with the modern world.

[Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D., is board chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group. He may be contacted at: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)