COMMENT: Islamic identity in America —Saleem H Ali
The fanatics are still there and their dormant presence cannot be ignored, but increasingly Muslim communities in America are realising that they must marginalise such elements
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 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, a 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 favourably.
Travelling 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. 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 recognises 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 at 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 Muslims 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 ghettos 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 polarisation 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 Islamophobic websites that perniciously cast doubt on all practicing Muslims.
The situation would seem rather bleak if it were not for the American political system and the checks and balances that it has developed 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 neighbourhood 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. The fanatics are still there and their dormant presence cannot be ignored, but increasingly Muslim communities in America are realising that they must marginalise such elements.
At the end of the day, Islamic identity in America 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