American Muslims: Challenges
by David L. Johnston
70 percent of Jews agree with 92 percent of Muslims that American Muslims have no sympathy for the jihadists – that was one of the findings from a 2011 Gallup Poll report called, “American Muslims: Faith, Freedom and the Future.” What is more, large majorities of American Jews and Muslims (roughly both six million) agree on the necessity of finding a two-state solution to the Mideast crisis.
That unexpected common ground between the two communities of faith was one of three rather surprising conclusions of that poll. In this, the second blog in a series of two, I would like to discuss some of the challenges the U.S. Muslim community faces in the coming years. Three challenges came out in the course of the previous blog:
a) The Muslim population is much younger than that of other faiths in America.
A related challenge as second and third generations come of age is how the religious establishment – in its many different currents – can find ways to keep them religiously educated and spiritually involved.
A Philadelphia paper ran an AP article about a 31-year-old imam, Mustafa Umar, who works specifically with the younger generation at the Islamic Institute of Orange County in Southern California. He is especially well-equipped for that task, as he’s a native Californian savvy in the use of social media and a trained Islamic scholar in Europe, the Middle East, and India.
When you consider that the great majority of imams in the USA are foreign-born, you begin to wonder how these mosques will be able to retain any hold on the children of these immigrants who grow up in a very free and secular society.
Philip Clayton, provost at Claremont Lincoln University (the first interreligious seminary in the U.S.) now has a program to train Islamic leaders. Clayton puts this challenge pointedly: "Mosques that remain insular, focus on ethnic identity, and don't engage with the realities of being Muslim in America won't survive," he said. And the more engaged imams and mosques become, the less likely confused youth are to turn to radicalized forms of Islam, the way the Boston marathon bombing suspects did.
b) On average, the Muslim population is poorer than their religious counterparts.
This flies in the face of what the famous imam of the Manhattan mosque, dubbed Park 51, Feisal Abdul Rauf, wrote in a 2011 article entitled "Five Myths About Muslims in America." One of the myths he seeks to debunk is that “Muslims are ethnically, culturally, and politically monolithic.” That, we know from the recent Gallup poll, could not be farther from the truth.
But then he adds that "Muslims are an indispensable part of the U.S. economy. Sixty-six percent of American Muslim households earn more than $50,000 per year — more than the average U.S. household.” Earlier he had been quoting from a 2007 Pew Poll. In any case, what is clear from the more recent poll is that there is quite a gap in incomes between some of the more recent South-Asian immigrants and some of the other Muslim communities – the difference between the urban poor and the suburban middle and upper-middle class.
Omid Safi, who I introduce in greater detail later, lists this as the very first challenge of the Muslim community in the US:
“The first is overcoming the divide between immigrant and African American communities. It remains to be seen how much unity can be forged between the immigrant Muslim population in America and the African American Muslim population. There are profound class divisions between the two, which often dictate communal, social, and political participation.”
c) Finally, the 2011 Gallup Poll revealed a latent distrust among Muslim Americans of the organization meant to represent them.
A 2006 special report by the U.S. Institute of Peace on “The Diversity of Muslims in the United States” (find it here) offers a great list of American Muslim organizations in three categories – religious and interfaith, civic and political, and legal organizations. In the Gallup Poll the front runner was clearly the (civic and political) Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), followed by the (religious) Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and then the (civic and political) Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). By the way, CAIR must be doing something right . . . Its Philadelphia chapter (one of 20 nationally) is led by a Jew!
The following are three more challenges put forth by three Muslim American leaders to American Muslims.
1. To invest in the American political structures.
The Iranian-American scholar Omid Safi, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, contributed as co-editor and writer of the 5-volume Voices of Islam. In the fifth volume (Voices of Change) he has an essay entitled, “I and Thou in a Fluid World: Beyond ‘Islam versus the West.’” This is the second challenge he puts forth, particularly for the Muslim immigrants:
“Many came to this country for the same reasons that other immigrants have: the pursuit of a better life, the promise of freedom, and so on. Yet at least the first generation of immigrants have often looked back toward their origin as their real ‘‘home’’ and have not fully invested monetarily and emotionally in American political and civic structures. Many immigrant Muslims have led lives of political neutrality and passivity, seeing their primary mission as that of providing for their families. There are, however, signs that this political lethargy is beginning to change in the charged post-9/11 environment, particularly among the second-generation immigrant Muslims.”
2. Continue the work of empowering women.
Feisal Abdul Rauf is the imam of the famous al-Farah mosque in Manhattan which, after 28 years, moved to its Park51 location near Ground Zero. More than that, Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan are high profile leaders in interfaith dialogue in the U.S. and many other parts of the world. They lead two influential organizations, the Cordoba Initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA). Khan herself also founded Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) and constantly travels, speaking and organizing Muslim women's conferences.
A frequent contributor to the Washington Post and other media outlets, Abdul Rauf posted a piece in 2011 that directly relates to our topic: "Five Myths about Muslims in America." The third myth he chose to debunk was that “American Muslims oppress women.” Now keep in mind that such an article is, by definition, apologetic. He is attempting to rebut a common accusation about Muslims in general. So his first paragraph highlights America’s female movers and shakers:
“According to a 2009 study by Gallup, Muslim American women are not only more educated than Muslim women in Western Europe, but are also more educated than the average American. U.S. Muslim women report incomes closer to their male counterparts than American women of any other religion. They are at the helm of many key religious and civic organizations, such as the Arab-American Family Support Center, Azizah magazine, Karamah, Turning Point, the Islamic Networks Group, and the American Society for Muslim Advancement.”
Then he admits that the poor treatment of women and their relatively low status in many parts of the Muslim world remains a great challenge: “Of course, challenges to gender justice remain worldwide. In the World Economic Forum’s 2009 Gender Gap Index, which ranks women’s participation in society, 18 of the 25 lowest-ranking countries have Muslim majorities.”
My point here is simply that among the many recent immigrants from those very countries that do “oppress” women there are some hefty obstacles to overcome in this area. A number of American Muslim women write about these difficulties very openly. No doubt the scholar and mother of five, Amina Wadud is the most controversial of American Muslim feminists (read my piece on her). Have a look at her book Inside the Gender Jihad for a candid personal recounting of her own struggles as an African-American Muslim woman.
3. Overcoming the Muslim victim complex – what University of Delaware professor Muqtedar Khan calls "the globalization of Muslim victimology."
Khan wrote that this piece for The Huffington Post was “triggered by the look of sheer agony that flashed on my 14-year-old son Rumi's face when I told him that the alleged Boston bombers were Muslim.”
What is this victimology? It’s “The perception that every problem in the Muslim world from the civil war in Syria, the sectarian violence in Pakistan and Iraq, to unemployment in Egypt and the crashing of my nephew's old laptop, is as a result of a deep-rooted Western conspiracy to destroy Islam.”
OK, so there are hot spots in the world where Muslims do feel victimized: “The main themes of Muslim political discourses, besides the Arab spring, are still the plight of Palestinians, the Indian occupation of Kashmir, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Russian atrocities in Chechnya and so on and so forth.”
But is surely very one-sided, retorts Khan:
“We Muslims are selective in our obsessions of injustices; we ignore the plight of Shias in Pakistan, the Kurds in Turkey, Christians in Egypt, or women everywhere. But this idea that Muslims are the victims of injustice is a strong emotional trigger that seems to be built into the Islamic identity and with increased religiosity comes a feeling of Muslim solidarity and heightened awareness of geopolitical injustices. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that there are no injustices, there are many. I am trying to impress that in order to arrest the radicalization of Muslim youth, we need to find a way to enable heightened religiosity without a concomitant spike in anger, frustration, and desire for revenge.”
He then writes this phrase: “Muslims should seek change, not revenge.” After all, many Friday sermons around the world end with this qur’anic verse: “Indeed Allah has ordered justice with beautiful deeds” (16:90). Here the Arabic word translated as “beautiful deeds” is ihsan – doing good. So here is his parting challenge:
“Ihsan, doing beautiful deeds, is, according to most Muslim scholars, the highest manifestation of Islam. It is time we taught our kids to take the highroad.”
This plain talk on the part of Muqtedar Khan – no defensiveness here – represents for me the beauty and strong faith I see in many of my Muslim friends. Catholics and Jews found it very difficult for so long to be accepted as genuine contributors and full-fledged participants in this great American experiment. Muslims are now finding their way. That is so encouraging to me.