The Islamic Centre America in Dearborn, Michigan

by IMTIYAZ YUSUF, Bangkok Post, June 8, 2008

I recently got back to Thailand after a one-and-a-half month stay in the United States, where I was a student of Islamic Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, and where I spent seven years during the 80s and 90s. The tour revealed to me a very different Islam in the post-9/11 United States. In the face of widespread bias and prejudice, personal attacks, deep suspicion and misinformation about Islam marked by the prevalence of Islamophobia in the American mindset, Muslim society in the US has undergone a tremendous internal transformation, with the aim being to prove loyalty to the American nation by undertaking steps towards political, social and civil integration. The seven million-strong American Muslim community is emerging and evolving as both an integral part of the American socio-political milieu and a distinct section of the worldwide Muslim community.

There is historical evidence to suggest that the presence of Islam in the Americas began around the 10th century, when Muslims from Spain and West Africa arrived in South America centuries before Columbus. Some Muslims are said to have accompanied Christopher Columbus to the Americas in 1492, as to have joined later explorations as well.

With the end of Muslim rule in Spain around 1498 and the institution of the Inquisition in 1499, many Spanish Muslims fled to other countries, including America.

There are two historical documents alluding to the presence of Muslims in Spanish American territories. The first was a decree issued in 1539 by the Spanish King Charles V which prohibited the grandsons of Spanish Muslims from migrating to the West Indies. The second was the order of 1543 which expelled Muslims from all overseas Spanish territories.

Yet the immigration did not stop.

The second major influx of Muslims came in the form of West African slaves between 1530-1850. It is reported that many of the African slaves were Muslims, that at least 16% of the slave population in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries were Muslims whose religious and ethnic roots went back to the ancient African Muslim kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. It is believed that many of those West African Muslim slaves brought with them Islamic beliefs and practices such as having Islamic names, writing in Arabic, praying five times a day, fasting during the month of Ramadan and wearing Muslim clothing.

It was also during that time that some white American Christians converted to Islam, one of the first being Muhammad Alexander Webb, an American diplomat stationed in the Philippines. Upon returning to the United States he founded the American Muslim Propagation Movement in 1893. Webb was the main representative for Islam at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Recently, a new detailed biography of Webb written by an eminent American Muslim scholar has appeared.

African American Muslims who also make up a large Muslim community in the USA represent an important section of the American Muslim community. Among other things, Islam can serve as a vehicle in tracing their roots to Africa.

In 1930, Wallace Fard Muhammad founded the Nation of Islam , which offered an interpretation of Islam which identified with Africa. It presented African Americans mostly confined to the ghetto a sense of hope by emphasising self-respect, economic independence and moral integrity. Wallace Fard Muhammad was succeeded by Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam for three decades.

The prominent African-American civil rights movement leader Malcolm X was a member of the Nation of Islam. After his famous hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964 where he experienced the non-racial and universalist character of the worldwide Islamic Ummah or community, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam to join mainstream Islam. He was assassinated in 1965.

Following the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, his son and successor Imam Warith Deen Muhammad transformed the Nation of Islam into a mainstream Islamic body by forming the American Muslim Mission in 1980. Meanwhile, the former Nation of Islam continues to function under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan.

The next major wave of Muslim migration to the United States took place over a long period of time, between 1875 and the 1960s, when many Middle Eastern, East European, Balkan, South Asian and African Muslims migrated to the United States. Among them were students and professionals who espoused Islamic political orientations, fleeing from authoritarian, communist and socialist political regimes in the Middle East and Asia, such as the Nasser regime in Egypt.

The United States offered these groups political refuge and freedom to practise their religion and pursue their political aspirations in relation to the home Muslim countries. For example, in the late 1970s thousands of Iranian students in the USA opposed and protested against the dictatorial regime of the Shah of Iran. This group of immigrants to the United States was comprised of educated, economically well-off, political elites from the Muslim world. For them, the USA offered a political freedom absent in the Muslim world. They were different from their counterparts in the UK and Europe who mostly came from the labour and blue-collar sections of the Muslim world.

The main Southeast Asian Muslim community found in the USA is that of Cham Muslims from Vietnam and Cambodia who fled to the USA during the Vietnam war.

Preserving Identity

The trend of Muslim migration to the United States continues to this day. This is largely due to the lack of economic opportunities and absence of political freedoms in the Muslim world. Hence, it is not surprising to find that many of the taxi drivers and menial workers in the main cities of the USA are of Muslim background.

Although they are a small minority of American Muslims, many white American men and women have also converted to Islam. They are for the most part attracted by the monotheistic theology and the Sufi mystical dimension of Islam.

The majority of Muslim immigrants to the USA soon become naturalised citizens, and as a high percentage are educated, they fit well into the professional lifestyle in American way of life.

Over the decades, as a way of preserving their religious identity, American Muslims have engaged in building around 1,300 mosques. Also to preserve their identity and to achieve political integration, they have established many Islamic associations and centres, for example the Muslim Students Association, the Islamic Society of North America and the Islamic Circle of North America. Presently, Dr Ingrid Mattson is the first woman president of the Islamic Society of North America.

Muslim political organisations which look out for Muslim political interests and uphold human and civil rights in the American public space include the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).

Prior to 9/11 American Muslims mostly devoted their efforts to building up their communities. Attention was paid to issues like preservation of the Muslim identity, building religious institutions, observance of religious rituals and promoting Islamic religious education programmes for American-born children.

The attitude towards other religious communities in the United States, and of others towards them, was of live and let live. The 9/11 catastrophic event left a large impact on the consciousness of the diverse American community, and in particular it has resulted in building bias and prejudice against Islam, especially in the form of Islamophobia among non-Muslim religious fundamentalists.

On the other hand, it has galvanised moderate American Christians, Jews and Muslims to come together and build interfaith relations.

9/11 brought the awakening thought to American Muslims that if America was to be their home and the country of their future generations, they would need to undertake more strident efforts towards integration into the American way of life.

Overwhelmingly, youth who are American in their worldview and dynamically Muslim in their consciousness are contributing toward a future shape of Islam in America which is radically different from the Islam found in their parents’ countries.

Interfaith Dialogue

Today, the building of interfaith relations has become a major occupation of several Muslim centres and mosques around the country which are engaging with Christians and Jews. Many organisations have set up interfaith relations committees, though these still need to be equipped with the intellectual and philosophical dimensions of the art of interfaith dialogue, thereby moving them from a mere cosmetic appendage.

The Islamic Society of North America has set up an Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances in Washington DC near the Capitol building. In cooperation with the Union for Reform Judaism, this office has produced a dialogue guide titled Children of Abraham: Muslims and Jews in Conversation for mosques and synagogues to facilitate understanding between Muslims and Jews. This effort is the first of its kind in contemporary times.

Unfortunately, these interreligious activities are mostly restricted to the relations between the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and as yet have not fully included the Asian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Shinto. This is largely due to the lack of information about the religious dimension of these Asian religions among the Abrahamic faiths.

In perspective, it is important to note here that while contemporary religions in the Middle East and Asia are moving towards exclusivism, religions in America are moving towards inclusivism and pluralism. The former forget that their rivalry is based in the memory of the bad baggage in the history of religions, which can always be transformed into building positive interrelations if there is a will to do so.

Currently, there is in America a lot of academic interest in Islam and the Muslim world, as evidenced by the many academic and research programmes devoted to this in American universities and think tanks.

In recent years, there have also appeared Muslim academies operated by white American converts to Islam who were educated in the famous seminaries of the Muslim world. These academies aim to study, research and present Islam as an alternative worldview to contemporary materialism. They present the viewpoint that Islam is not an obstacle to the modern way of life and pluralistic living. They are much inspired by the relevancy and meaningfulness of Islamic teaching. Two of these new-styled Muslim academies are the Zaytuna Institute in Berkeley, California and the Nawawi Foundation in Glenview, Illinois.

The seven million Muslims in post-9/11 America are facing tremendous challenges, but at the same time undergoing an exciting experience in terms of practising religious faith in a pluralistic society.

Ideally, the current American initiative in building interreligious relations after catastrophe will offer to other parts of the world still reeling in the illusion of religious exclusivism a much-needed lesson, before it is too late.

Dr Imtiyaz Yusuf is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Philosophy and Religion, Assumption University, Bangkok. His visit was part of a study and lecture exchange programme under the title Faith and Community: A Dialogue organised by the Indiana Center for Cultural Exchange, Purdue University in cooperation with the US State Department. The purpose of this exchange programme was to understand how religious communities can cooperate with one another in order to contribute to positive and constructive civil discourse in ways that still respect diversity and further the public good. Twelve Muslim participants from Thailand and the Philippines took part in this exchange programme.