September 04, 2006
By Geneive AbdoThat's a shame. One would think that anyone coming to a country to adopt themselves to it, would in turn, adapt to it. A big problem for European nations has been their inability to assimilate Muslims into becoming French citizens, British citizens, etc., loyal to their adoptive countries. Placing loyalty to religion over loyalty to country is a problem when that particular religion is open to such interpretation as to endorse homicide bombings and the murder of nonbelievers.
Sunday, August 27, 2006; Page B03
If only the Muslims in Europe -- with their hearts focused on the Islamic world and their carry-on liquids poised for destruction in the West -- could behave like the well-educated, secular and Americanizing Muslims in the United States, no one would have to worry.
So runs the comforting media narrative that has developed around the approximately 6 million Muslims in the United States, who are often portrayed as well-assimilated and willing to leave their religion and culture behind in pursuit of American values and lifestyle. But over the past two years, I have traveled the country, visiting mosques, interviewing Muslim leaders and speaking to Muslim youths in universities and Islamic centers from New York to Michigan to California -- and I have encountered a different truth. I found few signs of London-style radicalism among Muslims in the United States. At the same time, the real story of American Muslims is one of accelerating alienation from the mainstream of U.S. life, with Muslims in this country choosing their Islamic identity over their American one.
A new generation of American Muslims -- living in the shadow of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- is becoming more religious. They are more likely to take comfort in their own communities, and less likely to embrace the nation's fabled melting pot of shared values and common culture.
Part of this is linked to the resurgence of Islam over the past several decades, a growth as visible in Western Europe and the United States as it is in Egypt and Morocco. But the Sept. 11 attacks also had the dual effect of making American Muslims feel isolated in their adopted country, while pushing them to rediscover their faith.
From schools to language to religion, American Muslims are becoming a people apart. Young, first-generation American Muslim women -- whose parents were born in Egypt, Pakistan and other Islamic countries -- are wearing head scarves even if their mothers had left them behind; increasing numbers of young Muslims are attending Islamic schools and lectures; Muslim student associations in high schools and at colleges are proliferating; and the role of the mosque has evolved from strictly a place of worship to a center for socializing and for learning Arabic and Urdu as well as the Koran.Ok, I am not Muslim, so maybe I can't relate. But being a hyphenated-American myself, I know the stinging barbs of racism. And personally, I do not see Muslims in this country being persecuted. You can dig up an incident here or there, yes; but those, I would say, are the exceptions to the rule. Does someone have statistics that show that I am wrong on this?
The men and women I spoke to -- all mosque-goers, most born in the United States to immigrants -- include students, activists, imams and everyday working Muslims. Almost without exception, they recall feeling under siege after Sept. 11, with FBI agents raiding their mosques and homes, neighbors eyeing them suspiciously and television programs portraying Muslims as the new enemies of the West.
The President has repeatedly made it clear that this is not a war against peaceful Islamists. He has gone out of his way to make that point (sometimes to the consternation of those of us more critical of Islam and who are not required to nerfify our slings and arrows). When he uses the term "Islamic-fascists", why on earth is that an insult to Islamists who do not fit the definition? Our hypersensitivity on the topic of race drives me absolutely nuts!
Such feelings led them, they say, to adopt Islamic symbols -- the hijab , or head covering, for women and the kufi , or cap, for men -- as a defense mechanism. Many, such as Rehan, whom I met at a madrassa (religious school) in California with her husband, Ramy, also felt compelled to deepen their faith.Personally, I think it was classless and inappropriate for a stranger to presume as much, and say that to this woman. A head scarf is only oppressive if it is forced upon the wearer.
"After I covered, I changed," Rehan told me. "I felt I wanted to give people a good impression of Islam. I wanted people to know how happy I am to be Muslim." But not everyone understood, she said, recalling an incident in a supermarket in 2003: "The man next to me in the vegetable section said, 'You'd be much more beautiful without that thing on your head. It's demeaning to women.' " But to her the head scarf symbolized piety, not oppression.
But what I don't understand is why this need to "rebel" and alienate oneself further from mainstream America? Why feel like YOU are under attack, because you share "a certain thing" in common with a group of crazed killers bent upon the destruction of you and I? After all, they are as much responsible for the mass killing of Muslims as any non-Muslim nation has been. What if I were Korean. Should I feel like my identity were under assault, because my government is at odds with Kim Jong Il and North Korea? Was it appropriate (not whether it violated his Constitutional Rights or not- it probably has) for Raed Jarrar to wear a "We will not be silent" t-shirt in Arabic and English (so those who supposedly hate "his kind" could understand his "eff-u" message of defiance) aboard a plane, say, right on the heals of a foiled plot by Korean extremists to hijack and kill passengers aboard planes? I suppose so, if there was any proof that my government and my fellow Americans were treating me like the enemy. But that is not the case we have here, as far as I can see it. What people like Jarrar end up doing, is just reinforcing the perceived alienation of Muslims in this country, by segregating themselves off from said country. They bring about the very thing which they fear and are fighting so hard against.
Do you want to know how to dispell the negative image Islam is currently experiencing? By not being so hypersensitive and hyper-defensive; by not identifying with the those terrorizing the world in the name of your religion. That inadvertently happens when you feel the need to rationalize their actions and think that you yourself are under assault when you are not. Identify with those of us who are fighting the jihadists, and you will give more credibility to the "Islam is a religion of peace" message of yours. Do what Irshad Manji and Nonie Darwish are doing. They give a better name and do greater service to Islam than the Raed Jarrars of the Islamic community do.
A group of young college-educated women at the Dix mosque in Dearborn, Mich., described the challenges many Muslims face as they carve out their identity in the United States. I spoke with them in the winter of 2004, after they had been to the mosque one Sunday for a halaqa (a study circle) focused on integrating faith and daily life. They were in their twenties: Hayat, a psychologist; Ismahan, a computer scientist; and Fatma, a third-grade teacher.This is an interesting paradox to me. One of the things that we, as Americans, value highly is the freedom of individual expression and non-conformity. We sort of celebrate those who "stick out from the crowd", unlike, say, the Japanese, who believe that a nail that sticks out needs to be hammered back into place. But what happens when the very thing you are embracing, in its strict fundamental tenets, is incompatible with "the American way"?
Hayat said veiling was easier for her than it had been for her sister, 10 years her senior, because Hayat had more Muslim peers when she reached high school and felt far less pressure to conform to American ways.
When she went on to the University of Michigan, she was surrounded for the first time by young Muslims who dared to show pride in their religion in a non-Muslim setting.She complains "we are not treated like Americans" and says she has a right not to assimilate? It's a strange fix, because that very attitude of defiance is rather American; and yet, it's like shooting oneself in the foot, to reject assimilating into the very culture that gives you the freedom to have that defiant freedom. Pride in ones cultural roots and heritage is one thing; segregating yourself off from mainstream America and carrying a chip on your shoulder is to disassociate yourself from being integrated and accepted as American. We all, to one degree or another, take pride in where we or our forefathers came from; but we don't walk around saying, "I'm an Italian Catholic first, American second", "I have German pride; not American pride". If we all did that, we would not be "One nation" but many nations; we'd be a bunch of mixed up people tossed around like ingredients in a salad bowl, distinguishing the differences between us, rather than embracing a commonality. We'd be the United Nations of America; and that's a very scary thought. Nations within a nation, identifying only with those who share our skin color or religious beliefs.
Ismahan recalled similar experiences. In elementary school, she had tried to fit in. As an adult, though, "I know I don't have to fit in," she said. "I don't think Muslims have to assimilate. We are not treated like Americans. At work, I get up from my desk and go to pray. I thought I would face opposition from my boss. Even before I realized he didn't mind, I thought, 'I have a right to be a Muslim, and I don't have to assimilate.' "
Fatma described the mosque as central to her future: "What made me sane during years of public high school," she said, "was coming to the halaqa every Sunday." Fatma was also quick to distinguish herself from other young Muslim women who embrace American mores. "Some Muslims do anything to fit in. They drink. They date. My biggest fear is that I might assimilate to the American lifestyle so much that my modesty goes out the window."So you fear having your values tested, and being too weak-will not to give in to your wants and desires? This isn't unique to Muslims. Anyone of strong religious character will feel the same; and those immigrants from more conservative cultures than ours, also feel the challenge. Quite simply put, we Americans put up with our more liberally-minded citizens....even when they're being morally decadent idiots.
Imam Zaid Shakir -- who teaches at San Francisco's Zaytuna Institute, America's only true madrassa -- refers to such young Muslims as the "rejectionist generation." They are rejectionist, he says, because they turn their backs not only on absolutist religious interpretations, but also on America's secular ways. Many of these young American Muslims look to Shakir (and to celebrated Zaytuna founder Hamza Yusuf) for guidance on how to live pious lives in the United States.It sounds like the same kind of approach as the one used by Raed Jarrar, daring people to call him "unpatriotic". A show of "Muslim pride". Again, the approach taken by those like Irshad Manji will do more for establishing Islam's image in a positive light, than taking on an air of defiance and naming your football team, the "Mujahadeens" or "Jihadists".
I spent several days at one of the institute's "mobile madrassas," this one in San Jose, and watched hundreds of young Muslim professionals sit on cushioned folding chairs and listen intently as Yusuf delivered his lecture. "Everywhere I go, I see Muslims," he told them. "Go to the gas station and the airport. Muslims are present in the United States, and that was not true 20 years ago. There are more Muslims living outside the Dar al-Islam [Islamic countries, or literally the House of Islam] than ever. So we have to be strategic in our thinking, because people who are our enemies are strategic in their thinking."
The "enemies" Yusuf referred to that day were not non-Muslims, but rather those who use Islam as a rationale for violence. For the students at this madrassa and for many Muslims I interviewed, their strategy focuses on public displays of their faith.
Being ambassadors of Islam is daring behavior when you consider that American Muslims live in a country where so many people are ignorant of -- if not hostile to -- their faith.Being a good "ambassador of Islam" should entail one to go after the radicals and militants who are killing in the name of your religion; not go on the attack toward those who are fighting the Islamic terrorists and jihadist thugs.
In a Gallup poll this year, when U.S. respondents were asked what they admire about the Muslim world, the most common response was "nothing" (33 percent); the second most common was "I don't know" (22 percent).
Despite contemporary public opinion -- or perhaps because of it -- Muslim Americans consider Islam their defining characteristic, beyond any national identity. In this way, their experience in the United States resembles that of their co-religionists in Europe, where mosques are also growing, Islamic schools are being built, and practicing the faith is the center of life, particularly for the young generation.And seeing how you are given the freedom to do all this, unopposed, how exactly are you feeling persecuted and alienated? You are alienating yourselves! That's the problem.
In Europe and the United States, young Muslims are unifying around popular imams they believe understand the challenges they face in Western societies; these leaders include Yusuf in the United States and Amer Khaled, an Egyptian-born imam who lives in Britain. Thousands of young Muslims attend their lectures.
In my years of interviews, I found few indications of homegrown militancy among American Muslims. Indeed, thus far, they have proved they can compete economically with other Americans. Although the unemployment rate for Muslims in Britain is far higher than for most other groups, the average annual income of a Muslim household surpasses that of average American households. Yet, outside the workplace, Muslims retreat into the comfort zone of their mosques and Islamic schools.I disagree that it is U.S. foreign policy that persists in the division. The division is in the misperception that the U.S. has done anything against Muslims, on the grounds that they are Muslims.
It is too soon to say where the growing alienation of American Muslims will lead, but it seems clear that the factors contributing to it will endure. U.S. foreign policy persists in dividing Muslim and Western societies, making it harder still for Americans to realize that there is a difference between their Muslim neighbor and the plotter in London or the kidnapper in Baghdad.
It is the political correctness disease and the multicultural idiocy that has robbed us of our common sense. It has poisoned the minds of immigrants into the false notion that the way to be a good American is to preserve your cultural and religious tenets, 100% with zero attempts at integration and adaptation to the core values and customs of the western country to which you are now calling "home". Unfortunately, it's those very same western values and customs of ours that enables this "non-assimilation" to be tolerated. Instead of a melting pot, the multiculturalists have confused the welcoming concept of America, and have instead been tossing and stirring a salad bowl approach, where all cultures are given equal status; and segregation and the preservation of one's foreign identity is encouraged as being "American". It is the notion that all cultures are equal. It is the same kind of mentality that will see the creation of multi-language voting ballots not as a practicality and a courtesy, but as a given right and a necessity. That America accomodate immigrants, and not the other way around. That our Judeo-Christian roots that founded this modern nation, be minimized, giving equal footing and equal treatment to the cultural values and beliefs of other nations....some of which are the very enablers for providing fertile grounds for genocidal regimes to gain a stranglehold and for economic quagmires to take root and flourish.
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Geneive Abdo is the liaison for the Alliance of Civilizations at the United Nations and author of "Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11" (Oxford).
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