Islamic Identity in America
The Doha Network, Saban Center at Brookings’ Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World
A review by Saleem H. Ali of the new documentary: Journey Into America
Much has been written or reported through various media sources on Islam in America but the complexity of Muslim lives in this great country has eluded most analysts. There is either a tendency to celebrate America as the most diverse land of opportunity on the one hand or to lament the legacy of discrimination towards Muslims following September 11, 2001. It was thus quite refreshing to watch a new documentary titled “Journey into America” in which some of the struggles that Muslim-Americans face within their own communities, as well as externally, were presented with nuance and objectivity. The film had some very dominant Pakistani overtones since the producer and host was none other than Dr. Akbar S. Ahmed, former Pakistani civil servant and ambassador to the United Kingdom a decade ago, and now a famed and often controversial public intellectual. Perhaps best known in Pakistan for his feature film production on Jinnah, Dr. Ahmed’s latest venture brought forth his anthropological pedigree most favorably.
Traveling with a group of American students through scores of Muslim communities in North America from “sea to shining sea,” the documentary attempted to show how the clash of cultures that is so frequently talked about is affecting daily lives for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The film starts with the “Muslim Day Parade” in New York City which is greeted with celebration by one side of the street and invective on the other. While some non-Muslim onlookers are cheering on the crowds as a mark of American diversity, others are jeering them with slogans of “no sharia,” and defamatory slogans about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). There are even some Muslims themselves who are seen opposing the march as a mark of subservience and acquiescence to the dominant culture. The parade is an apt allegory for the messy state of Muslim affairs in America which continues to struggle with reconciling its multiple identities.
Most significantly the documentary recognizes that the greatest challenge to Islamic identity in America comes from within the Muslim community which continues to be fragmented by fanaticism. In one telling story the documentary notes the story of Farhan in Michigan, the president of the Muslim Students Association in a local college who was attacked by other Muslims and barely escaped being run-over with a car by the assailants. His only “crime” in the eyes of his jihadist attackers was that he was trying to promote dialogue between Muslims, Jews and Christians. Such stories of Muslim attacking Muslims in America are not isolated and frequently progressive Muslims receive threats by radical elements for spreading “fitnah.”
The texture of American Muslims ranges from relatively impoverished African-American communities in urban ghettoes to wealthy South Asian doctors and Arab traders spread out across the country. Their experiences are just as varied as the vast landscape of the continent. However, there is definitely a greater adjustment challenge for Muslims than for other faith traditions in America, partly because of their own reluctance to change and partly because of embedded prejudice within the host society. Following 9/11, there has been far greater polarization across the country on issues pertaining to Islam. Many Muslims have become defensive and more assertive of their Islamic identity by boasting beards and wearing hijab while others have been totally repulsed by their religion altogether. Similarly, some non-Muslims have either come forth to defend Islam at the behest of “diversity,” while others have been attracted to Islamphobic web sites that perniciously cast doubt on all practicing Muslims.
Some analysts in U.S. think tanks, such as Parag Khanna, have also argued that we should reject the usage of the term "Muslim world," arguing that American relations with Muslim countries will never be consistent or unified given the heterogeniety within Islam. However, Islam has a very robust concept of a commonwealth or "ummah" to unify Muslim identity which cannot be ignored either.
With all these conflicting narratives, the prospects for conciliation across sects and creeds may seem bleak if it were not for the American political system and the opportunities for constructive confrontation it has provided through democratic processes. By engaging at all levels of governance, American Muslims are slowly beginning to get more “mainstreamed” within American society. As an example, Dr. Ahmed interviews Bernie Stone, the vice-mayor and alderman of Chicago who established “Jinnah Street” in the Devon neighborhood of Chicago alongside “Gandhi Road.” The alderman supported five mosques being established in the area and noted jovially that he gets more votes from Muslims than his own Jewish brethren!
Even conservative talk shows have to contend with Muslim interest groups that lobby vociferously for their rights. Progressive versus traditionalist Muslims are beginning to voice their dissent through competitive lobbying rather than fist fights or fatwas of blasphemy. The fanatics are still there and their dormant presence cannot be ignored but increasingly Muslim communities in America are realizing that they must marginalize such elements. At the end of the day, Islamic identity in American will need to follow the Hebrew advice noted by Dr. Ahmed that is enshrined in two words – Tikkun Olam – which means to strive in healing a fractured worldly relationship.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and Asian studies at the University of Vermont and the author of Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassas (Oxford University Press, 2009) www.saleemali.net