Expectations of American Muslim Leaders
by Rose Aslan
One of the biggest challenges facing American Muslims nowadays is getting other Americans to realize that we are just as American as they are. As American-born Muslims, we are tasked with the responsibility to change the way Islam is perceived by mainstream America as well as to change American Muslim institutions from within. American Muslim youth have grown up in America, with varying degrees of religiosity at home, just like American youth from other religious traditions– the only difference is that some Americans treat them as if they were foreigners in their own country. At the same time, not all Muslim leaders do a good job of embracing the fact that American Muslims are fully American: some leaders preach their belief in an isolationist philosophy, threatening that if Muslims fail to isolate themselves and their children from non-Muslim society, they will fall into unbelief and sinful ways. But there is hope, there is a growing movement of Muslims, both native-born and naturalized citizens who have been contributing to the emerging discourse of creating a truly American Muslim identity.
Native-born American Muslim leaders, such as Hamza Yusuf, Zaid Shakir, Usama Canon, Khalid Latif, Sherman Jackson, Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Ingrid Mattson, (and foreign-born leaders like Mohamed Magid), and many others not only encourage American Muslims to embrace their national identity, but also stress awareness about the long history of Muslims in America. Scholars of Islam in America, such as Edward Curtis, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, and Sylviane Diouf have worked to present measured histories of the centuries-old narratives of Muslims in America. From the West African slaves who attempted to hold on to their religious beliefs and practices under pressure from their slave owners, to Turks and Arabs from the Ottoman Empire who traveled to the US to start new lives as peddlers in the Mid West, to generations of African American Muslims who entered by way of the Nation of Islam, some later converting to Sunni Islam under the influence of Warith al-Deen Muhammad. Scholars have also highlighted the history of Muslim immigrants who hail from diverse parts of the world, including Pakistan, Egypt, China, Morocco and many others as well as the growing trend of converts who come from a rainbow of ethnic and religious backgrounds. All of these studies bear witness to the community that the American Muslim population is indeed diverse, it is perhaps the most diverse community of Muslims in the world. In some multicultural mosques, it is possible to pray next to a Guyanese of Indian background, an Indian from Kerala, a Tunisian from Sfax, a Chinese Muslim from Xi’ian, an Iranian from Shiraz, a Gambian from Serrekunda, a Mexican-American from the Bronx, and a Buddhist Sufi Muslim from Portland.
Muslim leaders need to embrace the rich diversity of our Muslim community and to recognize the multiplicity of expressions of Islam instead of pushing a monolithic view of Islam that greatly limits the potential of Islam in America. Not only do American Muslims need to embrace the diversity of their community, and Muslim leaders also need to acknowledge this diversity and work to spread this image of Islam. The media also needs to focus on more positive portrayals of Muslims instead of sensationalized portrayals of radical Islam, and the Muslim community can help create this change.
I imagine that the portrayal of Muslims in the media as well as the general perception in America will transform dramatically within the next ten to twenty years, thanks to both Muslims and non-Muslims who are patiently working behind the scenes to make this happen. Their efforts are still seen as suspect by many in the community, but as the youth gain positions of prominence within the Muslim community, the marginal will become part of the mainstream, and mosques will become a refuge where all Muslims as well as non-Muslims are welcomed without judgment.
Wa Allahu allam (and God knows best!)
Rose Aslan is a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Department of Religious Studies, where she specializes in Islamic Studies. She received her MA in Arab and Islamic Civilizations from the American University in Cairo and her BA in Religious Studies from the University of British Columbia. This was originally published on State of Formation