America's Muslims Aren't as Assimilated as You Think
By Geneive Abdo
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).
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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