The Dynamics of Islamic Identity in North America
by Yvonne Yazbeck-Haddad and John L. Esposito
The immigration of Muslims to Europe and North America during this century has ushered in a new era in the relationship between Islam and the West, conditioned in part by the Muslim experience of “the West” in the form of European colonialism until mid-century and “American neo-colonialism” since the 1950s. As a result the dynamic between the two is seen by Muslims as being that between conqueror and conquered, powerful and powerless, dominant and weak. This has also influenced the ways in which Muslims have formed questions of identity as they strive to negotiate a secure place for themselves and their children in Western societies.
This paper will attempt a preliminary exploration of the dynamics shaping Islamic identity in North America. It will look at the elements that formed the variety of identities prior to emigration, the immigrant experience in America, and the options immigrants find as they struggle to make their home in an environment that they as Muslims find hostile.
The American experience has provided the Muslims with a variety of encounters and challenges and presented them with a bewildering array of options as they struggle to adapt to life in the United States. At first glance their experience may be seen as similar to that of other immigrants, raising the familiar questions of what of the old identity should be salvaged, what given up, and what renegotiated or invented as the community seeks to find a niche for itself. A closer look shows that there are some profound differences. While some of what they experience can be ascribed to changing times or political considerations, increasingly many see their marginalized situation as deliberate and specific, the product of longstanding tendencies in American society to fear and distrust Islam. Thus, while Muslims may be facing the same problems earlier generations of immigrants had encountered - what language to teach their children or how to implant and perpetuate the faith of the forebears - they are also burdened with the question of whether their children and grandchildren will be accepted in the United States, and whether Islam can ever be recognized as a source of enlightenment, a positive force contributing to a multicultural, pluralistic America.
The Question of Muslim Identity
One of the most important characteristics of the Muslim community in North America is its diversity.
Since the creation of the nation state, the question of identity has been part of nation building and has received a great deal of attention in Muslim states carved out of chunks of imploding and crumbling empires. Following the European model, these nation states focused their efforts on creating a loyal constituency out of the diverse populations that constituted the former empires with their different linguistic, tribal, ethnic, sectarian and religious allegiances. The intellectuals in these states believed that finding the proper vision, ideology, constitution, or constellation of ideas could initiate modernization and development, propelling these nation states into parity with the West.
These ideologies have varied, depending on prevailing circumstances, with each producing a generation committed to a different vision guaranteed to provide the salvation and modernization of their nation. The immigrants to the United States who came throughout this century, therefore, have not only reflected diverse national identities, but in many cases have also promoted allegiances to different ideologies that they believed held the key to revitalization of their home countries. At the turn of the century, the elites in various Muslim countries placed their trust in nationalist ideologies. They drew on an identity of shared history, language, and culture in order to create a shared vision and commitment to helping bring about independence from colonial hegemony. This gave way in the middle of the century to support for socialism as various regimes looked to its implementation for rapid development. Socialism transcended national identities and emphasized a specific economic and social doctrine. Beginning in the mid 1970s, the ideology that has been most attractive has been Islamism, an ideology based on the hope of restoring the transnational Islamic empire, grounded in Islamic history and law. Its vision is of a shared destiny to be initiated through representative government administered by Islamic elites committed to providing economic and social justice.
An interesting development in the mid-twentieth century is the increasing importance of the United States as a center for Muslim intellectual reflection and ferment. Having replaced Europe as the dominant power in the Third World, the United States began to attract to its universities a large number of students seeking technical and professional training. The American government, confident of the validity of the American way of life and seeking to fashion the leadership of the Third World, encouraged the education of foreign nationals in the benefits of capitalism and the evils of Marxism. Many of the graduates of American universities then decided to stay in the United States. In the process, American campuses as well as some of the mosques and Islamic centers associated with them became the locus for reflection on and experimentation with a variety of Islamic world views. In the United States, Muslim students from many nations have been able to forge links of friendship and common purpose, providing the nucleus for an international network of leaders committed to the creation of an Islamic state or an Islamic world order.
At the other end of the spectrum is a different set of American institutions that have become major centers of Muslim reflection and identity, namely the prisons of America, both state and federal facilities. They continue to be an important locus of the African-American conversion to Islam that began in the early decades of this century. While there are no statistics on the number of converts or the scope and effectiveness of conversion in the penal system, some scholars estimate that by the second decade of the twenty-first century the majority of African-American males will have converted to Islam.
The earliest immigrants to found mosques before the Second World War and, for the most part, their children and grandchildren appear to have fitted comfortably into America. They tried both to fit into the new culture and to interpret it in ways that tended to emphasize the respect Islam had for Jesus and his mother Mary and to quote verses from the Qur’an emphasizing the commonalities between the two faiths. To the immigrants who have come since 1960, however, this kind of accommodation seems too high a price to pay. They are critical of their coreligionists who appear to have diluted the importance of Islamic traditions, rituals, and distinguishing characteristics, going so far as to refer to the mosque as “our church,” to the Qur’an as “our Bible,” and to the imam as “our minister.”
The more recent immigrants are neither poor nor uneducated; on the contrary, they represent the best-educated elite of the Muslim world who see themselves as helping develop America’s leadership in medicine, technology, and education. They have been influenced by a different socialization process, and while they appreciate, enjoy, and have helped create America’s technology, they want no part in what they see as its concomitant social and spiritual problems. Confident that Islam has a solution to America’s ills, they have no patience for the kind of accommodation that they see as compromising the true Islamic way. As the executive secretary of the Council of Masajid in North America put it:
In spite of the most spectacular progress in science and technology, man still finds himself in the wilderness of despair. One thing that has constantly eluded his grasp is happiness and peace of mind. Even technology, which is his creation, at times threatens to destroy him and to blot out all his works, as if he never lived on this earth .... Man finds himself in a “blind alley” and there are no exits in it. Should he abandon all hope and resign himself to perish in a nuclear-chemical-biological conflict? Islam’s answer is an emphatic NO! For a Muslim there can be no surrender to despair.
Muslim Identity in the American Context
Perceived by some Muslim leaders as “the mother of all issues” (
America, although a nation of immigrants, is nonetheless not particularly fond of them, no matter where they come from or what they believe in. It expects its social institutions, whether the workplace, the armed services, the schools, the churches, or the courts, to assimilate these strangers and forge them into Americans. Overall, those of European heritage have had a better chance of assimilation than people of Asian origin, who were entirely excluded from the mix until the repeal of the Asian Exclusion Act.
Efforts in the nineteenth century to create an America which was Protestant by choice rather than by mandate made life particularly difficult for atheists, Jews, and Catholics. By the middle of the twentieth century, the United States found it convenient to reinvent itself as a triple melting pot, a mix of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews with no apparent place for other religions. In recent years, Americans increasingly have begun to use the term “Judeo-Christian” to define themselves, a “politically correct” term that for some appears to draw an obvious and tight line of religious acceptance around two major religions, regarding others as transient, permanently marginalized, or destined to disappear into the larger groups.
What is defined as the Judeo-Christian tradition can appear to those of other faiths as an exclusive club, the monopoly of two groups that regard others as outside the polity or subsume them only when they conform to the policies and desires of the dominant groups. It is part of America’s heritage as a country founded on the pious hope for a righteous society to see itself as being against those who it believes do not share that vision. Thus, throughout the history of America different groups have played the role of outsider, non-participant, even enemy, in response to which Americans can reaffirm their identity as a nation standing for the right and the good. Currently, Muslims appear to be the victims of the apparent need to create such an enemy, one that can be defined as the antithesis of the national character and a threat to the righteous order.
This reality plays an important role in the shaping of American Muslim identity. The identity of the community and the awareness that it constitutes a powerless minority are enhanced in the American milieu. Muslims believe that the professed separation of religion and state is violated every time a leader affirms that America is a Judeo-Christian country. They ask why it is acceptable for an American president to call for the implementation of Christian values while denouncing all efforts to build a moral and just Islamic society. And they wonder why America seems to support the concept of a “Jewish state” in Israel while Muslims are urged to be civilized and renounce their “extremist” hope for an “Islamic state.” Furthermore, Muslims are keenly aware that American social life is organized to a great degree around churches and other religious organizations. They watch the parade of religious programs on television which call for commitment to Christian values and wonder why Americans affirm the necessity of pluralism, of secularism, and of national identity only when they address Muslims.
At the same time the American principle of the separation of church and state is welcomed, since it provides for toleration of a variety of religious institutions and identities. Muslims as a minority find that the guarantee of freedom of religion provides opportunities for new experiments and developments in ideas, institution building, and propagation, unequaled in the countries from which they came. By the same token, those committed to an Islamist perception of reality, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their sympathizers, adhere to the belief that it is God’s intent that government should be regulated by the religious decrees of the Qur’an, that there should be no separation between religion and state, and that the only government sanctioned by God for such a task is one devoted to Islam.
Also influential in defining Islamic identity in North America have been the vicissitudes of American foreign policy towards Arab and Islamic countries during the last forty years, policies that continue to trouble and alienate the majority of Muslim citizens. The dramatic acceleration of interaction between American society and the Muslim world does not appear to have had any significant positive influence on policy makers, who continue to ignore Muslim sensibilities especially in regard to such things as American support for the state of Israel, despite the latter’s documented violation of the civil, political, and human rights of its Christian and Muslim citizens; American support for India, despite its record of violently suppressing the right of Kashmir’s population to self determination; and American reluctance to support what are perceived as the just causes of people in Azerbaijan, Bosnia, and Chechnya, among others. Proclamations by the State Department of its advocacy of human rights, pluralism, and minority rights as an important foundation of American policy in the world are increasingly viewed by Muslims as hypocritical.
As a consequence of such biased coverage, Muslims have reported a series of attacks on mosques and other Islamic institutions. In addition to the vengeful acts of some isolated Americans inflamed by media reports about Islam, Muslims fear the more organized hostile activities of certain groups. Most obvious, perhaps, is the Jewish Defense League (JDL),
The negativism toward Islamists comes from various sources. Only one group, the Christian right, is motivated by religious conviction. Others engaged in negative propaganda include officials of the American government seeking support from various sectors of American society. What seems to be an anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, anti-Islam wave sweeping across the United States accelerated beginning in 1980, encouraged by President Reagan’s confrontational style and his Manichaean world view.
Casting Islamists as the enemy of humanity, tolerance, and civilization is also a theme in the chorus repeated daily by officials of Arab governments seeking legitimacy and American support against opposition political groups in their own countries. These opposition groups are generally looking to democratize the authoritarian political regimes that rule in various Muslim states and to hold the corrupt officials accountable to the people. Often they are trying to implement a more equitable and just social and economic order that aims at ameliorating the conditions that exist in these states; they are concerned with the welfare of the people rather than the profit of the Western corporations. They believe that the kind of government they want cannot be created unless it is formed by those initiated into the Islamic consciousness and committed to implementing an Islamist world view.
Among those who see “Islamic extremism” as the enemy are members of the Israeli government and their American defenders.
Americans, conditioned to respond to a world they feel is threatened by malevolent forces that they are somehow mandated to overcome, are quick to see Islam as the next challenge which must be met. For some, the opposition to Islam is subtler. Recent pieces on the editorial pages of our newspapers suggest that Americans should distinguish between good Muslims and bad Muslims, condemning the Islamists and cooperating with the moderates. The moderates are identified as people like Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie, both of whom are seen as apostates by many Muslims. While some may find this an improvement
While Muslims in America have ample reason to fear “Judeo-Christian” prejudice incited as a result of events overseas, they are also concerned about deliberate falsifications of Islam that are perpetrated by those who appear to have declared Islam to be an “enemy faith.” The community is also afraid of becoming a target of Christian missionary assaults by church groups who seek to induct Muslims into the Christian faith through conversion. The demonization of Islam is also perpetrated by Christian fundamentalists who have revised their theology to include Muslims among the villains hastening Armageddon and bringing about the imminent end of time when Jesus will come to initiate the rapture. Muslims are depicted on Christian television programs as war mongers, bent on destroying Israel.
While some segments of the American press have managed to create the image of the Muslim as the consummate terrorist, Muslims surveying the history and experience of the Muslim community worldwide often see themselves as the victims of circumstance as well as conspiratorial forces of hatred. They trace this victimization back to the Crusades and the Reconquista, through the age of imperialism, and see it reinforced in contemporary events such as
the brutal massacres at Sabra and Shatila Refugee Camps in Lebanon, the one-sided Gulf War in which Muslims were pitted against Muslims, the continued repression of the Palestinians in the face of Arab disunity, the indiscriminate slaughter and torture of Bosnian Muslims by Serbians, the persecution of Kashmiris and the Hindu savagery against Muslims in India, the slaughter of Rohingas in Burma, the Civil War and famine in Somalia, the demolition of the Babri Mosque in India, Soviet aggression and internal strife in post-Communist Afghanistan, turbulence in Central Asia, the Kurdish problem, and the suppression of democracy in Algeria, to name only a few.
Muslims as Minorities
A new genre of Islamist literature has developed over the second half of this century by popular authors such as Abu al-A `la al-Mawdudi
The focus of al-Mawdudi’s attention was the community of Muslims living in India. He insisted that minorities deserve to suffer the consequences of belonging to a minority faith and that they must expect to be mistreated and marginalized.
Younger Islamists in non-Muslim societies, aware of the changing circumstances of life for a growing number of Muslims who find themselves needing to emigrate in search of a livelihood, have proposed other solutions. Moroccan Islamist Ali Kettani, for example, insists that Islam seeks the health and well being of the community, conditions that can only be guaranteed by social and political empowerment.
The experience of the Muslim immigrant community in Medina during the formative period of Islam provides a choice between two models, each based on the example of the Prophet. According to the first, the immigrant community must prepare to return from whence it came in order to cleanse the oppressive system it left behind, just as the Prophet did when he returned to Mecca. Emigration in this case becomes a matter of refuge, of empowerment, of organization, and of planning focused on the domain of Islam. According to the second, extrapolating from the hijra from Mecca to Medina, relocation and settlement are permanent and unceasing effort is required to Islamize the society in which one lives. The final goal is to create an Islamic state in the land of immigration.
The realization that immigrants in the West currently are in no condition to take over the rule of the countries in which they live, or to utilize the power of these countries in the interest of bringing about an Islamic state, led Kettani to recommend that they instead live in special enclaves. There they could establish a truly Islamic community based on the brotherhood of Islam, an organization that is not elitist, sectarian, partisan in politics, or divided into racial or professional distinctions. Such enclaves, if governed by Muslims through the principle of
For Muhammad Abdul-Rauf, former imam of the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., isolating the community through fear was unnecessary for two reasons. First, he trusted the tenacity and ability of Islam to survive powerful cultural influences just as it has successfully resisted them in other places during the fourteen centuries of its existence. Second, he did not believe that the United States was about to crush the Muslims. Although “largely dominated by the Judeo-Christian tradition,” he says, “the hospitable American melting pot”
A few American-born Muslims in the United States have looked to another incident in the life of the Prophet and the first Muslim community, namely the emigration of the Muslims from Mecca to Ethiopia in search of security, as a model for determining Muslim roles and identity in a Christian environment. As developed by a Muslim Sunday school teacher
Islamic Identity and the American Experience
The American experience forges as well as forces a new Muslim identity that is born out of both the quest to belong and the experience of being permanently depicted as “the other.” As one young Muslim said, “I cannot be a white Anglo Protestant, but I have to be something. Everyone has an identity. People keep asking: ‘What are you?’ ‘What do you believe?’ ‘Why does Islam oppress women?’ ‘Why do you marry four wives?’ ‘Why does your religion teach violence?’ Suddenly, you begin to realize that you do not know what a Muslim is and you begin to search for yourself.”
There is no unanimous Muslim understanding of the American challenge or of how to respond to it, what strategy to employ, or what kind of identity to foster. Questions persist as to whether as Americans, Muslims should participate in the political arena, support a particular party or candidate, vote, or run for office. Other questions that surface periodically are whether to build umbrella political organizations or organize political-action committees and negotiate coalitions with other interest groups; whether to risk participation in interfaith activities or refrain from such activity as undermining Muslim unity; whether to relinquish authority in running the mosque to a trained leadership, and whether this leadership should be American home-grown or dependent on religious leaders trained overseas who bring ideas that are not compatible with the reality of the American context.
Three of the most influential Islamic thinkers in the United States in the last two decades - the late Fazlur Rahman, the late Isma`il al-Faruqi, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr
The ideas of Seyyed Hossein Nasr have had a wide international impact, especially among intellectuals in the United States who are interested in Sufism and who find in its focus on privatizing religion and emphasis on the relation with the divine a superior Islamic identity for North America. Nasr has participated in various forums of interfaith dialogue and has written and spoken extensively on what he sees as some of the impediments to mutual understanding. He has also advocated a separate track of Christian-Muslim discussions, arguing that participants in the Christian-Jewish dialogue appear to have reached a level of consensus that makes it very difficult for Muslims as newcomers to join in the conversation.
Isma`il al-Faruqi was especially interested in the leadership potential of the community in the United States and labored to organize intellectual institutions to provide committed Islamic leadership, not only for the immigrant community, but for the whole world of Islam. He is credited with organizing the American Association of Muslim Social Scientists and with establishing the International Institute of Islamic Thought as well as the American Islamic College. His ideas helped maintain the mosque movement that has flourished in North America since the 1970s, and have been adopted by a large number of Muslim immigrants who have found in them the way to a superior identity as well as a strategy for survival.
In order to combat the feeling of defeatism and weakness that may overwhelm the Muslim student and/or immigrant, Isma’il al-Faruqi recommended the appropriation of an Islamic ideology. Muslims are not in the United States as beggars, he said, but as contributors to the building of a just society. Faruqi stressed that the adoption of an Islamic ideology or vision frees one from the sense of guilt at having left the homeland and achieved some measure of success in a new place. It also liberates one from the need to be grateful to the adoptive country because success belongs to God. Meanwhile, the Muslim will help address the ills of American culture by posing the challenge of Islam. “The Islamic vision,” he said, “provides the immigrant with the deepest love, attachment, and aspiration for a North America reformed and returned to God.” When this transformation has taken place, immigrants and converts alike will find their lives taking on a new meaning and significance “whose dimensions are cosmic….”
From this perspective, Islam is a unique order of life established by God for humanity, where religion and politics must be intertwined to ensure justice and freedom. It provides special cohesiveness and communal support to a community going through a troubled time in which it sees itself rejected, the object of hate and fear. For many Muslims, America seems to have been hijacked by special interest groups, as a result of which it has departed from the values and the vision that previously had merited God’s blessing. Thus, it is in need not only of salvation but also of radical transformation that can restore it to its mission as a country living in obedience to God. The answer is the kind of Islamic vision articulated by Faruqi. The Muslim who opts for this vision identifies with a universal ideology of brotherhood that does not discriminate between human beings according to race, color, language, or national origin; its goal is the conversion of the world. In this way distinctiveness and separateness are experienced not as the result of rejection by the host culture, but as a divine blessing made necessary because America has deviated from a moral life devoted to God.
A Time for Constructive Engagement
Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm had a profound effect on the Muslim community worldwide.
The cutoff of aid in the 1990s led the Muslim community to reassess its mission and its goals as well as to generate resources to maintain the institutions it had so diligently established during the preceding two decades. The Gulf war also made the Muslim community fully cognizant of its lack of political power in the United States and its inability to influence American policy. Its weakness became evident when new immigration laws were passed by the American Congress restricting the immigration of people from Muslim countries and when various segments of American society launched a relentless campaign against Islam and Muslims. This drove some Muslims to seek security by further isolating themselves from the dominant society; others took refuge in further Islamization, while still others continued the quest for a negotiated place on the American scene.
Concern over the marginalization and demonization of Muslims in American society, as well as what was seen as the failure of the models projected by the leadership of the 1970s and 1980s, led to the formation of the North American Association of Muslim Professionals and Scholars (NAAMPS) in April 1993. At its first annual conference a variety of concerns were discussed and participants began to reassess the goals that had been followed in the previous two decades and to indulge in some self-examination.
Addressing the annual conference, Fathi Osman, the former editor of the London-based magazine Arabia , called for a clear vision “to eliminate wishful thinking and ambiguity…[for] confidence is not sufficient if it is not grounded in fact and reality.”
There was agreement that the boundaries that separate Muslims from the larger society must be breached and that the Muslims must identify new ways for the community to relate to other Americans. Addressing the same conference, Maher Hathout of the Islamic Society of Southern California recommended that they start by learning how to listen to Americans as well as talk to them. It cannot continue to be a one-way operation in which the Muslims are explaining what they are about. There is a need to change the rhetorical apologetic and defensive message that has been adopted by Muslims until now, affirming an idealized Islam that has no relation to the condition of Muslims. By separating Islam from the Muslims, apologists have been able to project a perfect system and believe in it. The discrepancy between the projected ideal and the real conditions of Muslims is a source of embarrassment not only because Muslims fail to embody and demonstrate the efficacy of Islamic teachings, but, more important, because in so doing they cast doubt on the vision itself. Those observing reality, whether outsiders or Muslim children, can see the discrepancies.
Muhammad Ahmadullah Siddiqi then accused Muslim intellectuals in North America of living in the past, busily directing their efforts toward peripheral issues, unable to realize the changes taking place in American society in this era of globalism and pluralism.
As a result some Muslims still believe that they have nothing to contribute to this society, and their only duty is to save themselves from the evil that prevails in this Dar ul-Harb (the land of nonbelievers). They create an island and live in that without caring about how they and their religion are perceived by the next-door neighbor, a nonbeliever. The most they worry is about their children, whom they are unable to restrict to the island. So they frighten them with the monstrous West; however, to their dismay most of these children sooner or later suffer miserably by losing an identity as a Muslim, because of them Islam is not relevant in this developed society.The second response is to build institutions, mosques, and Islamic organizations as a symbol of Muslim presence in North America. Eager to make the minaret a prominent feature of the American skyline, those who follow this line sometimes do not question their sources of funding. Siddiqi criticizes them for accepting contributions from oil-rich Muslim countries. “For them it does not matter whether their donors are the legitimate representatives of the people they rule or whether they help strengthen the forces of the status quo.”
A third response, and the one adopted by the majority of Muslim professionals and intellectuals in this country, is not to be concerned with how Islam manifests itself in American society. They go about their business in isolation from the other two groups, in some cases dissociating themselves from them. Meanwhile, “the Muslim presence in North America is defined by what Muslims do and say in other parts of the world, with modern media emphasis on portraying conflict and chaos.”
The agenda Siddiqi sets for Muslim intellectuals is derived from a mix of issues facing the community that need redefinition by involved Muslim intellectuals. These include the relationship with non-Muslims, family values, public morality, Islamic education, Islamic economics, politics, science and technology. Like other Muslim scholars he starts with the need to ground all intellectual endeavors in an understanding of the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the Islamic intellectual heritage. His emphasis, however, is on contemporary interpretation.
For many contemporary Muslim thinkers a better understanding of the reality of America must involve participation in the political process and an awareness that using American methods of pressure and lobbying may be more effective than relying on the foreign organizations Muslims had hoped would be able to work for Islamic causes. For example, Salam al-Marayati writes how he came to realize that his small political-action group had perhaps become more powerful than the Organization of the Islamic Conference which represents the governments of about fifty Muslim nations.
We can be more powerful than the Organization of the Islamic Conference. At the Organization, when we called them to see what they were doing, they told us that they have to go to the United Nations before they can do anything about Bosnia. The Organization of the Islamic Conference is politically castrated. And it is our job to guide our community to an independent pathway. We can be more powerful than so many other Islamic groups because we live in a free society and we can organize politically and we can represent to help ourselves here and help others elsewhere. But we must invest in the political career.Hathout also calls for a change in the approach to interfaith relations. He notes that the current apologetic strategy that addresses the theological divide between Christianity and Islam and attacks a variety of Christian doctrines that Muslims find offensive such as the Trinity and the infallibility of the Bible have not been helpful.
We say how stupid Christians are to believe in the Trinity. But what do we achieve by saying such a thing other than making them angry? Instead of talking about how stupid the Trinity is, why don’t we talk about how oneness of God is the light and the solution? Why do we try to make a career in proving that the Bible is nonsense? Why don’t we spend time in showing that the Qur’an is the light and solution, and delivers people from slavery to liberty?Another issue of concern to the Islamic movement is commitment to human rights and democracy. “We should support oppressed people not because it is being said and used like a slogan, not because it was man-made, but because every human being has these God-given rights,” says al-Marayati.
Just because somebody raises the flag of Islam, or says he is a Muslim, does not mean that we should go to their [sic] defense. If somebody does something wrong, then it is our Islamic duty to say that it is wrong. The Qur’an enjoins us to stand up for justice, even if it is against yourself, your family, or your friends. So we base the analysis of these movements on human rights and democracy….We are politically, financially, and even ideologically independent from these other groups, like the Ikhwan, or Hizbut Tahreer, or Jamaat-e-Islami, and other groups that are active.Al-Marayati insists that Muslims must seek engagement with the larger society and attempt to break out of their isolation.
We can get trapped into the false choice of assimilation or isolation. We cannot say that we are Muslims so we have to be isolated from the rest of the society. What good is our message, if we cannot deliver it to the world, to the humanity, or to the public? Contrarily, we cannot assimilate and lose our Islamic identity because we want to be involved in some ethnic group, or we think that is the American thing to do. That is not the right thing to do. Yes, we can be Muslims, offer Islamic values, and be American citizens - all in one.Some Muslims find the development of the ethnic mosque an objectionable and unhealthy development, part of the Americanization process which has historically divided the various immigrants into their constituent national identities on the path of assimilation. As Hathout puts it:
Most of our institutions in America, unless they change fast, will fall into major errors. Most of our centers are institutions to deal with homesickness, not headquarters for driving and guiding the Islamic movement in America. Egyptians miss Egypt, so they form a part of Egypt here in Los Angeles, where they can come together. So it is with Pakistanis, and Palestinians, and so forth. Indeed, you can walk into a center and say that this is an Indian center, a Pakistani center, or an Egyptian center. From people to food to virtually everything - you can see, you can feel it in the air - these were not built here for America after all. They are built so that I do not feel lonely. I am scared out there and I need my buddies to come together the way we used to huddle back home.Hathout also objects to the development of ethnic mosques since some of their advocates defend their existence as a means of grounding their children in the faith and culture of their ancestors. He sees such efforts as counterproductive for, while the ethnic mosques may provide comfort for the immigrants, they are an alienating experience to many of their children.
[W]hile we huddle together as Pakistanis or Egyptians or Iranians or whatever else, our children are, whether we believe it or like it or hate it or not, American kids. The question should be whether they will be Muslim-American kids or just American kids. Anyone who believes that he will raise an Egyptian boy in America is wrong; the maximum we can do is to have a distorted Egyptian kid. The grandchildren will be without doubt American.According to Siddiqi, the crisis of Muslim intellectuals persists because they continue to believe that they hold a key to the future, that it is their mission to create a workable ideology that can set the world straight. Right thinking - and increasingly, some think, right planning and execution - will provide the remedy for underdeveloped Muslim nations to embark on the path to achieving parity with the West. The quest for the right paradigm for initiating the revitalization of society needs to include a reconciliation between contemporary scientific advances and social and political thought, on the one hand, and the Islamic value system, on the other.
At the 1993 NAAMPS annual meeting there was a call to reassess the mission of Islam in North America. The speakers proposed that rather than seek to convert the whole nation, the Muslims should strive to illuminate it with the light of Islam. The Islamist groups in the United States had decided to center their interaction with American society on an effort to convert the American population to Islam. Osman wondered whether the time may have come to work with them rather than against them. “I would like the younger generation of Muslims to focus on ‘change’ rather than conversion. We are always obsessed by the conversion of individuals to Islam, as if one billion Muslims in the contemporary world is not enough. We want to change the lives of Muslims as well as the lives of non-Muslims for the better.”
Muslims should gain the confidence of other people by their positive contributions to the growth of the contemporary civilization, which is universal, and by participating in the concerns of all their fellow human beings. This surely does not mean being lost in mere imitation of others. Muslims should have their own understanding and stands, but with regard to the interests of humanity at large and restricted to their own selves, however numerous and extensively distributed all over the world they may be. There are areas of cooperation where Muslims should not hesitate to work with others without compromising on their differences. Sometimes Muslims talk about social justice in a totalitarian way which is rejected by the world. We should be careful about our words and pay attention to the limitation of our audiences. We have to consider the importance of modern thinking and not try to underestimate or ignore it because of its shortcomings. We may not agree with many contemporary ideas and thinking, but we cannot also rule out that they have also led to achievements. If our thinking is so oversimplified that it considers every modern institution as superficial and every emphasis of human right as hypocritical, then how can we be a partner in this world and how can we benefit from these international institutions and documents for our peoples and for the whole world?
Immigrant-Convert Relations: An African-American Complaint
The conversion of Americans to Islam, regardless of color, has encouraged the community to seek growth through the propagation of the faith. The convert is a valuable commodity, an important visible validation of Islam and its efficacy for life in America. His testimony to the faith manifests publicly Islam’s claim to universality. Converts through conviction often eschew identity with American culture and in the process condemn it as inferior to Islam. This provides a confirmation for immigrant Muslims that what they are struggling to preserve is inherently right, legitimating their efforts to protect from erosion what they understand to be Islamic cultural identity. The importance of missionary work and the appeal of conversion have led several overseas organizations to provide missionaries to help convert Americans. The conversion of whites to Islam has reaffirmed the mission of Islam to transform the world to a degree that for some has made the definition of a Muslim synonymous with
The conversion of African-Americans to Islam has been both an inspiration and a challenge to the immigrant Muslim community. During the early part of this century, African-Americans sought to shed an identity shaped by the experience of slavery and to reconstitute the link to their roots. As this process continued, the African-American rejection of this identity has been not so much an act bearing the “earmarks of masochism,”
At the heart of the matter is the desire to be free to choose what one believes is compatible with one’s own identity and to create one’s own culture. Some in the African-American community have become increasingly sensitive to immigrants who insist on including regional cultural preferences as an essential part of the definition of Islam and set themselves up as arbiters of Islamic norms and of what it means to be Muslim. Unlike immigrants who are drawn to Americanization and struggle to resist its seduction, African-Americans in many cases have rejected its imperialist and racist culture. Initially, African-Americans paid special attention to the cultural aspects of Islam, assuming Islamic names, donning Islamic dress, and appropriating a variety of imported Islamic cultural norms. They tended to take seriously anyone who claimed to have particular knowledge of Islam, with the result that they made changes in dress, in food, in greetings. Then they were told by others that these were local cultural definitions, not part of the essential culture of Islam. Many African-Americans grew tired of hearing various immigrant groups insist that theirs was the only Islamic way. One former imam from the American-Muslim Mission referred to the struggle for cultural identity in the African-American community by saying, “We have become cultural chameleons.”
Imam Warith Din Muhammad, the leader of the African-American Muslim community since 1975, who transformed the majority of his father’s followers in the Nation of Islam into Sunni orthodox Muslims, has been resisting absorption by the immigrant groups insofar as that means subservience to a foreign leadership or agenda. At one time he called his organization the American Muslim Mission, placed American flags in the
Black Muslim sects continue to flourish in the ghettos of urban America, attracting members to such groups as the Nation of Islam,
In the proceedings of the NAAMPS conference, Professor Aminah Beverly McCloud of DePaul University expressed concern that the immigrants not only are confident that they are the carriers of true Islam, but see themselves as the only experts who can judge its activities in the United States. She noted that, although the majority of American converts to Islam are the product of African-American rather than immigrant
McCloud also faults immigrants for not living up to the ideals of Islam that they preach. Immigrants like to insist that “there is no racism in Islam or ethnicity is second place in Islam, when in fact there is no racism in Islam but there is plenty among Muslims, and ethnicity is a priority when it comes to who is really Muslim.”
Another area of debate between African-American and immigrant Muslims is whether or not individuals are free to interpret the scripture. African-Americans generally come from an evangelical background where the individual’s encounter with the word of God is an individual effort that may precipitate a unique experience or interpretation. Immigrants for the most part have difficulty in accepting this and fear that individual interpretation not supported by the consensus of the community and heritage may lead to deviance and to new sectarian movements.
The diversity of the Muslim community in North America and the cultural differences it represents have raised the question of whose cultural definition is truly Islamic - Arab, Pakistani or whatever. Can the immigrants feel comfortable enough to make room for an African-American definition? Will the immigrants trust the African-American Muslim community to create an Islamic world view relevant to their life in the United States, or will they trust the Qur’an to transform the lives of new believers, in new ways without immigrant mediation of what is acceptable and allowed? In the final analysis will they trust God to be at work among the new believers bringing about the salvation of a minority long oppressed and the redemption of a people long victimized? Or will they insist that God works in the world only in the ways identified and codified by Muslim authors centuries ago?
For the Muslims in North America, the need to define themselves by religious identity and increasingly by ethnicity is in a sense a product of the Americanization process. The current culture is in flux, with strong sentiments supporting the definition of America as a Judeo-Christian nation and others advocating a pluralistic society. Initially, it may appear that the Islamist identity that has flourished among certain groups in the mosque movement since the 1970s is a foreign import of self-imposed boundaries that constrains the Muslims within a dogmatic and ideological definition. A closer look reveals that it is also in a very important way a reflection of what obtains in American society at large, enhanced and reinforced by an America increasingly paranoid about Islam and the Muslim presence.
For many immigrants and their children, Islam has become a survival mechanism. Identity is negotiated among the members of the group in response to marginalization and anti-Muslim diatribes by various sectors of American society. Commitment to an ideal Islam that confronts all cultural institutions seen as deviating from the moral imperatives revealed by God in the world as man-made and consequently deficient, if not evil, will probably continue in the foreseeable future to garner the support of some of the Muslim immigrants and the converts who are disenchanted with the American reality. The appeal of this ideology rests in its affirming the nobility of the identity of the individual in a culture that degrades it and in preserving the integrity and integration of the group that is relentlessly depicted as the “other” or as a threat to the polity. Given the experience of prejudice in the American context, Islam will for some continue to serve as a haven of refuge and for others as the efficacious instrument guaranteed by God to transform America, redirect it from its present course of evil, and in the process redeem it and utilize it for the salvation of the world.
While there is no apparent shortage of leadership potential in the community given the high ratio of highly educated professionals and intellectuals who see themselves as the vanguard of the revitalization of Islam, nor any apparent shortage of ideas of what needs to be done, two major problems are the lack of consensus on what needs to be done and the lack of expertise in forging one, owing to a lack of experience among the immigrants in participatory democracy. As Maher Hathout puts it, “We really do not know what we want to do,” a fact that leads to “contradictions in our performance.”
If the American system of religious pluralism is grounded in consensus rather than insistence on difference, Muslims question why there is deference to one group that can call itself distinctive with special rights because it is chosen by God. If the American system of pluralism calls for acceptance of other ways to salvation and the abandonment of proselytizing, why are the Muslims targeted by Christian groups for conversion? One strategy is to insist on exclusiveness and provide a haven for members where they not only celebrate their distinctive cultural heritage, but also arm themselves against competing views. Others seek ways of blending in; sometimes abandoning the faith, they adopt a theology of separateness. Demonization by the press reinforces their assurance of the truth of the message they have received. Their hope is that somehow America can both realize and admit its nature as a multicultural and multireligious society and that finally it can be proud of its identity as Christian, Jewish, and Muslim.
From Muslims on the Americanization Path? © 2000 Oxford University Press. Arab Culture and Civilization: A collaborative web project created by NITLE and sponsored by MEPC. Originally published on the NITLE Arab World Project site.