Christoph Schumann. The Muslim World. Volume 97, Issue 1. January 2007.
It was not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union that a number of American political analysts and academics predicted that future challenges would no longer arise from ideologies but from other civilizations—one of those being Islamic. Critics of Huntington’s clash-of-civilizations paradigm have mainly focused on his reification of civilizations. The implicit territorialization of civilizations in his thesis, however, did not give rise to much concern. For too long, Huntington and many others perceived Islam as something happening in “strange and distant lands” subsumed and identified by the notion “Islamic World.”
According to this pattern of interpretation, the growing Muslim minority in Europe and North America has been perceived all too easily as an outpost of this so-called “Islamic World” within the Western realm. Especially since the attacks of 9/11, but also before, media coverage on Muslims in the West has been dominated by issues like security, terrorism and the question of Western identity versus Islamic identity. As a result, the complexity of Muslim life in the West has been reduced merely to its problematic aspects, such as its presumed link to the Outside.’ Contrary to this, a less territorialized and a more dynamic concept of ‘civilization’ would allow a fresh perspective on the Muslim community in the West. On the one hand, we could see how the Muslim community is shaped and constantly transformed by its share in both Western and Islamic civilizations, and, on the other, it would highlight the contribution of American Muslims in creating a “transcultural space” between the United States and the Islamic World.
In this article, I argue that the notion of ‘diaspora’ provides a useful tool to describe and analyze the political discourse of Muslim Americans. It permits us to show how American Muslims are constantly redefining their identity as a community in the United States and, at the same time, how they are readjusting the balance of their twofold affiliations to American society and the Islamic World. Focusing on immigrant Muslims and their descendants, I will describe the process of how this group opened itself up to the receiving society of the United States from the 1970s onward. In so doing, this part of the Muslim community developed a more differentiated perception of American society and elaborated an Islamic language of interaction and participation with regard to its American environment. Conversely, the strong relationship between the immigrant American Muslim community and the Islamic World, particularly to their countries of origin, remained undiminished. What Muslim Americans should continue to work on, according to my conclusion, is an Islamic language that articulates the distinct American experience to a global Muslim audience.
In order to sketch the emergence of an American Muslim discourse of political participation, I will analyze mainstream publications of Muslim organizations, such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Muslim Students Association (MSA) and the American Muslim Council (AMC). This particular choice of sources implies the exclusion of two important groups from the focus of this study. First, the mentioned organizations and their periodicals serve mainly as a forum for immigrant and post-migrant Muslims, as well as for converts. In other words, it does not cover large parts of the black Muslim community, particularly those following Warith Deen Muhammad or Louis Farrakhan. In fact, the history of their discourse bears certain similarities to the discourse of immigrant Muslims in terms of their spiritual and moral solidarity with the Islamic World and Africa, but instead of a comparable process of immigration and acculturation, it shares the historical legacy of the broader African-American community. Second, the material does not cover Muslim groups that consciously avoid or even detest interaction with the American society, such as Hizbut al-Tahrir or Jamaat-at-Tabligh.
The classical understanding of diaspora was mainly defined by two prerequisites: the forceful dispersal of a people from its homeland and its enduring affiliation with this homeland either by collective memories, emotions, imaginations or material exchange. Until the late 1960s, the concept was almost exclusively applied to the historical cases of the Jews, Greeks, and Armenians. Since then, new forms of diaspora came into existence with new waves of migration, new technologies of communication and the abandonment of strict assimilation policies by many nation-states. All this enhanced fresh academic interest in the phenomenon of diaspora and broadened the use of this term.
The theoretical approach of many political science studies on diaspora issues—as can be seen in the writings of Gabriel Sheffer—is characterized by the following peculiar features. (1) The theoretical methodology is inductive. Generalized types and classifications are derived by looking at empirical phenomena in a synchronie and diachronic perspective. (2) This construction of types and classifications is useful for direct comparison, but at the same time—it tends to reify its objects, thus losing sight of the flexible and changing forms of identities and interactions. (3) Since the “bonds to the homeland” are seen as the defining prerequisites of diasporas, the complexity of the interaction between the diaspora communities and their host societies is reduced to the concerns of the homeland. (4) By taking the modern state system as the basic framework of the analysis, Sheffer reduces the phenomenon of diasporas to what he calls “ethno-national” groups. With this heuristic decision, he only accepts as diasporas those ethnonational groups that aim to build a nation-state in their homeland, such as the Palestinians, the Kurds, or the Zionists before 1948, on the one hand, or those groups that support or critically relate to an existing nation-state in their homeland, such as Zionist Jews after 1948, Armenians after 1991, and Greeks, on the other. Muslim Americans or Arab Americans do not fit into this scheme. The exception is only for those who adhere to pan-nationalistic ideologies. From Sheffer’s perspective, religion—merely understood as faith—appears to be secondary:
Although the religious element may be emphasized in their identity, practically and on a daily basis these Diasporas maintain their ethnonational identity, hence they confront problems and dilemmas similar to those faced by less religious or more secular Diasporas. The argument is that religion only buttresses the affiliation of members in these entities. Furthermore, there is no doubt that their main connections are with their countries of origin rather than with an abstract Muslim World or a Muslim Diaspora.
Contrary to this, the use and meaning of the notion ‘diaspora’ has been taken into a different direction in the field of cultural and postcolonial studies. Authors like Paul Gilroy, Homi Bhabha, and James Clifford emphasize the hybrid, procedural, and multi-focal character of identities.10 seen from this perspective, diasporas irritate conventional concepts such as ‘nation,’ ‘state’ and, most importantly, of course, the ‘nation-state’ by sustaining ties that crisscross the boundaries of these entities. As James Clifford aptly summarizes, “Diaspora discourse articulates [ … ] forms of community consciousness and solidarity that maintain identifications outside the national time/space in order to live inside, with a difference.”
Global communication by mass media makes information and pictures from all over the world available everywhere. Thereby, new forms of empathy and “moral co-responsibility” emerge that do not necessarily match with the concept of the nation. In other words, not all “imagined communities” induced by global communication are “national” communities in the sense that they demand sovereignty. Concordantly, not all political bonds between the diaspora and its homeland(s) are tied to the project of founding or supporting a nation-state. From the perspective of American Muslims, for instance, issues like Palestine, Kashmir and Iraq are all on the agenda. Only the emphasis may shift from one cause to another according to the general circumstances and the processes of conflict and deliberation within the community. Simultaneously, all the aforementioned political issues have a particular meaning within the American context. Wearing a kufiyah in the United States, for whatever personal reason, is likely to be understood as a statement on American domestic and foreign politics as well.
So, by definition, diaspora politics revolves around political issues elsewhere but, by necessity, it also raises questions of equality and difference more precisely, civil rights and cultural recognition at home.
In this article, I use the notion diaspora in order to distinguish and analyze three basic dimensions that build a fundamental framework for the political discourse of Muslim Americans. The first dimension is the communication on matters of common concern for the Muslim American community, the second is the communication on and the interaction with the larger American society, and the third is—correspondingly—the communication on and the interaction with what is called the “Islamic World” or the Ummah outside the United States.
Even though these three dimensions can be analyzed separately, they are, in fact, closely intertwined. Any change in one of these three dimensions will have inevitable effects on the other two. Revolutionary events in the homeland, for instance, may mobilize or rather divide the diaspora community; discrimination and stereotyping in the host society may lead to new organizational efforts; and a strengthened self-confidence of the diaspora community may enable a new approach towards the homeland and the host society. Awareness of this three dimensional situation is also expressed in some Muslim American publications. Ali Mazrui, for example, wrote in Islamic Horizons in 1996:
Like other North Americans, Muslims who are Canadians or American citizens have a variety of identities: ethnic, religious, occupational, regional and others. But in their capacity as North American Muslims, they operate within a dual identity which is not always at ease with itself. They operate both as North Americans and as Muslims.
The 1970s: Politics of Identity and the Myth of Return
The 1960s and 70s are commonly regarded as watershed decades in the history of Muslims in the United States. The first Muslims came to America either as travelers or were brought in as slaves from Africa a few centuries earlier. Yet lasting Muslim communities did not emerge until mass immigration started in the late 19th century, mainly from two regions: the Arab East and South Asia, particularly Pakistan. Well before WWII, Muslims found their place in the ethnic mosaic of American society. During this early stage, they combined features of Americanization with a strong attachment to the ethnic and local identities they had brought with them from their former; homelands. Their publications were overwhelmingly printed in their languages of origin. Arabic newspapers, for instance, flourished in America in the period between the two world wars. This certainly helped to maintain the cultural bonds with the Arab World. Yet, it also impeded communication among Muslims of different backgrounds in the American diaspora. The community’s ethnic and linguistic diversity impeded all efforts to build common institutions. Mainly for this reason, the efforts of Abdullah Agram (Igram) in building the Federation of Islamic Associations (FIA) showed little success in the years following its foundation in 1952.
From the 1950s and 60s onward, a new generation of well-educated Muslims came to America in order to pursue their studies. They added to the existing communities of widely assimilated earlier immigrants, as well as to the increasing body of African-American Muslims. Mutual understanding between these groups, however, was anything but easy. Three particular aspects of these Muslim newcomers had a decisive impact on the emergence of new Muslim organizations and a new discourse during the 1970s. First of all, most of them had not come to stay, but rather had planned to return home after having finishing their studies at American universities. Although many of them changed their plans later on, their homeward orientation shaped their discourse in the first decade. Secondly, they embraced English as the common language of interaction and publication right from the beginning. This decision made it much easier to create common organizations and platforms beyond ethnic lines. In addition, it facilitated the opening towards the American environment during the 1980s. Thirdly, the students brought with them a bunch of new identities and ideologies such as the idea of Arabism Curuba), secular Arab nationalism, third-world socialism, and Islamic revivalism. Particularly, Muslim activists among them have been inspired by the thought and practice of revivalist groups such as the Jamaat Islamiyya in Pakistan or the Egyptian Muslim Brothers. This brought a new fervor of activism to the diaspora, but it also created new forms of ideological cleavage within the community.
Founded in 1963, the Muslim Student Association turned out to be one of the most important organizations for Muslims in the U.S. and, in addition to this, gave birth to several other national organizations, such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Furthermore, MSA activists created new Muslim periodicals. In October 1972, MSA members from Pakistan, Iran and the Arab world started a four-page newsletter entitled MSA News. Over the years, the size and quality of MSA News improved considerably. After changing its name to Islamic Horizons in 1976, it became an organ of ISNA. Today, it is distributed mainly by subscription. Only a small number of outdated issues are available on the internet.
The key issue during the first years of MSA News and Islamic Horizons was the preservation of an Islamic identity. There were several reasons why this was perceived as being threatened. Most important was the spatial disconnectedness of the students from their Muslim homelands during the period of their residence in a non-Muslim country. From this perspective, the problem seemed merely how to bridge the time between departure and return.
This implied, first, that the Islamic identity that was brought from the original home countries was indeed authentic. Second, it generally assumed that living in an American environment would inevitably lead to cultural assimilation and moral decay. Maysoon Kahf, for instance, at that time chairperson of the MSA Women’s Committee, wrote an open letter to her Muslim sisters in 1976 to warn them of the “life-or-death-situation” they were facing:
There are too many anti-Islam forces at work against us: valueless schools, material rather than spiritual rewards, TV and movie violence and sex, and above all, all around us is the god of America—the Human Individual—the self-important person who makes rules according to his own judgment, the one who doesn’t want to be bothered by an old parent or young child.
In articles like this, the legal distinction between the “abode of Islam” and the “abode of disbelief” (darul-lslam I darul-kufr) implicitly played an important role, even though the authors did not claim to be fuqaha’ or argue on a legal basis. The description of the social environment as a “kafir society” corresponded to the inward-looking and identity-concerned orientation of the Muslim community in the U.S. and, at the same time, reflected its rather undifferentiated perception of American society. During the whole decade, there were very few articles focusing on the host country, and those few hardly had anything positive to say about the United States.
Further in her article, Maysoon Kahf moved on to the second point of her grave concerns, namely, the lack of unity within the Muslim community due to “national differences.” She complained that Arabs would only talk to Arabs, Pakistanis to Pakistanis and so on. For Kahf and others, the perception of the Islamic World was based on a paradoxical experience. Seen from a non-Islamic environment, the countries where Islam still shaped the dominant way of life looked like a rather homogenous entity called darul-Islam. At the same time, the cultural, linguistic and confessional diversity of the Islamic world was and still is much more tangible in the diaspora, where people from very different cultures and regions share the same neighborhoods and join the same organizations. Because of these organizations and the adaptation of English as a common language, the Muslim community was better integrated in the 1970s than during the 1950s, but this better integration also made the community’s diversity more obvious.
Political solidarity with the Islamic World was an overwhelmingly important issue in Muslim publications during the 1970s. While there was very little coverage on the United States (as I have already pointed out), plenty of articles, letters-to-the-editor and resolutions focused on political problems in the Islamic World, despite the actual diversity of the respective conflicts. The first resolution of the MSA’s tenth Annual Convention in 1972, for instance, took the following stance:
We, the Muslims attending the 10th Annual Convention, reaffirm our support for all genuine liberation movements and struggles of Muslims in Palestine, Chad, Eritrea, Comoro Islands, Philippines, Thailand, Iran and other Muslim inhabited countries. Although we are not with them in person, our hearts are together and we ask Allah for their guidance and success.
This shows the two basic dilemmas Muslim students in North America encountered regarding their political ambitions. On the one side, the reasons and circumstances of the conflicts were extremely diverse. On the other, concrete options for political action were scarce, especially in light of the weak organizational conditions of the community. In addition to this, the rise of the Islamic movements in the Islamic world during the 1970s changed the Muslim diaspora’s perception of their homelands. What was seen before as a haven of truly Islamic identity, in contrast to the Christian American environment, appeared to be torn between anti-Islamic regimes and Islamic movements. Even though the MSA leadership agreed with the general goals of the Islamic movement, they didn’t want to see their own organization as a direct part of it. Against the growing number of those who called for deeper involvement, Tariq Quraishi argued in 1978 that the specific situation of the diaspora would require an approach different from organizations in Egypt or Pakistan. He laid out the self-view of the organization as follows:
The MSA doesn’t aspire to be a political party; it doesn’t want to be another Ikhwan or Jamaat or, for that matter, their extension. We are, however, concerned about the happenings in the Muslim countries and wouldn’t hesitate, if possible, to support the Islamic movements in their struggle against today’s Jahelia. The Muslim countries, because of our geographical situation, are not our field of operation. The MSA is not to be appraised in the context of Egypt, or say Pakistan. Our immediate concern is the future of Muslims as a cultural entity in North America. [My emphasis]
In the long run, Quraishi continued, the Muslim Students’ Association could have an impact on the homelands by educating Islamic activists and preparing them for their future return. Generally speaking, the religious and political discourse within the MSA during the 1970s was overwhelmingly shaped by the socialization most activists went through in their respective home countries before they came to America. Accordingly, their strategic goals were directed at changing the situation back home and not in the U.S. Therefore, they accepted the delay of concrete action to the time after their projected return. A key notion in this connection were the words da’wab, meaning “call to Islam,” and da’i, describing an activist in the ideological framework of the Islamic movement. In accordance to what was said above, these two notions were used to describe Islamic activism in the respective home countries at some point after a future homecoming. They were hardly ever applied with regard to American society. This is also the case in the aforementioned article of Tariq Quraishi, as can be seen in the following paragraph:
A united Muslim community in North America could be used as leverage for the best interests of the Muslim ummah across the world. [… ] The MSA in its da’wab program should give attention to the students from the Muslim World. These students are an invaluable resource for their countries and their proper Islamic training on conceptual and practical levels will not only help in arresting their cultural assimilation in North America but will also go a long way in furthering the cause of Islam in the Muslim world.
Our considered opinion is that the manning of governmental positions by Islamists, in many cases, can reverse the trend of secularization. Their presence in influential positions in the long run should prove to be useful in engendering and preserving the Islamic trends.
The 1980s: Taking Root and Opening Up
During the 1980s, the political discourse of the Muslim diaspora changed in all three of its dimensions, i.e., with regard to the community itself and its relation to both the American environment and Muslim homelands. A growing number of former students planned to stay in North America and some even criticized the homeland orientation of their fellow Muslims as being merely a “myth of return.” The construction of durable institutions like mosques and Sunday schools became a new priority. This, on the other hand, required a new form of engagement with the American environment. In this regard, mainstream Muslim organizations such as ISNA and MSA, but also Warith Deen Muhammad’s American Muslim Mission (AMM), distanced themselves from the separatist mentality of Jamaat at-Tabligh, the Salafi/Wahabis and the Nation of Islam.
As a result, the American environment was no longer perceived as being bad and threatening in all its aspects. Criticism in Muslim publications became more differentiated and more targeted. Yet, at the same time, the degree of involvement and opening remained a highly controversial issue within the community. The Islamic world, on the other hand, was no longer seen as a place of unquestioned Islamic identity. Some authors even echoed criticism of the Islamic movements and accused their former home countries of having fallen back to a stage of pre-Islamic ignorance or jahiliyya because of the prevalent Westernization, political dictatorship and the general loss of Islamic morality.
As a consequence, the distinction between darul-Islam and darul-kufr lost its importance in the discourse of Muslim Americans. Of course, the concept was neither formally rejected, nor did it disappear completely. Apparently, the binary distinction just lost its descriptive value in situations where Muslims reconsidered their personal plans and changed their political attitudes. Of course, there were still plenty of articles being published describing the assumed moral and spiritual threat from the American environment and the need to withstand assimilation. Yet, the authors named the respective threats more precisely and many of them pointed out that American society was not totally evil. Tariq Quraishi, for instance, stated in August 1983 that oppression in the way it is opposed by Islam was “apparently non-existent” in the United States apart from the “latent discrimination against the minorities.” Also, U.S. capitalism was not exactly Islamic but, according to Quraishi, it had been at least “humanized” in the United States. In contrast to this, the author continued, the Muslim world would “fall short of the noble ideals of Islam.” Another author, Uzma Yunus, even went so far as to question whether the Islamic World could serve as a point of reference at all, since it was “blindly influenced by Western culture or jahiliyah.” With regard to Muslims in America, she argued, nothing but the families and Muslim communities could help their young generation develop an Islamic identity.
The context in which the darul-Islam / darul-kufr distinction still played a role during the 1980s was merely in legal (fiqh) debates on the status of Muslims in the West. In 1986, for instance, Muzammil H. Siddiqi, an India-born U.S. citizen and scholar, took up the old question of whether permanent residence of Muslims outside the Islamic world was in accordance with the legal rulings of the shari’a. He argued that only two reasons would justify their presence in the West; one was extreme necessity (idtirar) due to war, famine, epidemics etc., and the other was their work as Islamic activists or da’iyah with the “purpose to invite people to Allah, to show them Islamic life and ways, and to make it possible for them to establish Islam in their individual and collective lives.” In line with this argument, Siddiqi called upon his audience not to submit the intentions of their migration to material interests, but only to the will of God.
By this, Siddiqi subordinated the distinction between the two abodes to the dominant topic of the 1980s, namely da’wah. The notion da’wah is often equated with the Christian concept of “mission.” Muslims, however, emphasize that their goal is not to proselytize but rather to make God’s word known and to inform about Islam. As I mentioned earlier, the notion da’wah had already appeared in articles during the 1970s, but its main thrust was directed at the Islamic World. It was meant to help students preserve their Islamic identity during their studies abroad and assist them in gaining an allegedly purified understanding of Islam. Later on, the students would return to their homelands and work there as da’iyah in the framework of the Islamic movements. Ten years later, however, the focus in the discourse on da’wah had shifted almost entirely from the homelands to the American context. One important protagonist of this new understanding was Ilyas Ba-Yunus, who became elected president of the ISNA in 1983. In his first address to this organization, he reminded his fellow Muslims that da’wah was not only a religious duty but also an essential question for the “survival” of the Muslim community “in this continent.” Yet, apart from the efforts of some individuals, he continued critically, all da’wah activities had so far remained “unorganized and internally discordant.”
In the following years, the notion of da’wah became a widely accepted symbol for a fresh and outward-looking approach of the Muslim community towards American society. Of course, the positive connotation of the word da’wah made it almost impossible for conservative Muslims who had hitherto shunned interaction with their non-Muslim environment to argue against it. Those, on the other hand, who called for more social or even political activities in the United States started to criticize the inward-looking attitude of the former and the still prevailing “myth-of-return.” Karima Omar, for example, reminded her readers that Muhammad and his first companions were seemingly in a much more “hopeless” situation when they started to spread Islam in an entirely polytheistic society. Similar to the arguments of ISNA president Ba-Yunus, she made the point that God had obviously brought Muslims to the United States in order to pursue the higher goal of Islamizing North America—an idea which also blurred the formerly unquestioned distinction between darul-Islam and darul-kufr or, rather, darul-harb. She wrote:
We cannot continue to throw out the baby of Da’wab with the bathwater of our disaffection towards this government and society. For clearly we have been placed here with a purpose—not just to survive, to work or seek an education—we could do that anywhere. […] If we plan to leave tommorrow, we still have today to work, to do our share in remodeling [sic] what has been called a ‘Dar Ul Harb’—a ‘home of hostility’ into a ‘Dar Ul Islam’—a home in which all Muslims can seek shelter. For wherever we are, our Home is Islam.
During the 1980s and up until today, there was and still is a broad consensus among authors that da’wah activity must aim at energizing and organizing their own community first. Yet, young activists and recent converts particularly wanted to step ahead and reach out to non-Muslim Americans by applying new methodologies. In the debates, almost everybody referred to the notion of da’wah, but the implied connotations differed considerably. “Da’wah is Activism,” for instance, was the blunt headline of an article by Yusuf Ahmed in 1985, in which he argued that Muslims must not confine themselves merely to the “L&L method” (lectures and leaflets). With reference to the Qur’an (Surat Al ‘Imran, 110) he called upon his fellow Muslims to take a broader approach of “promoting what is good and preventing what is evil.” Similar to the social activities of the churches, Muslims should “strive to feed the poor, house the needy, fight oppression and injustice [… ] hoping to bring about God-consciousness.” In the final part of his article, Yusuf Ahmed enumerated a number of organizations and fields in which Muslims should be engaged, such as the American Red Cross, the Parent-Teacher-Association, etc. He even mentioned involvement in local politics, but like most other contributors to the journal at that time, he remained hesitant to call for Muslim participation in national party politics.
In general, the ideas of participation in American society discussed during this phase clearly remained pre-political. Voting, party membership or running for office remained non-issues during the 1980s. Yet, in contrast to the 1970s, when integration into American society and social participation had been equated with assimilation and loss of identity, interaction with non-Muslim Americans now seemed a natural prerequisite for the spread of knowledge on Islam. Simultaneously, the political environment of the Muslim community changed dramatically—at home and abroad. First, the Islamic revolution in Iran raised new hope, but it was quickly followed by the negative repercussions of the hostage crisis on American public opinion. Further encouragement to break the silence came from the former member of congress, Paul Findley, in his book They Dare to Speak Out, published in 1985. However, in order to engage in any kind of da’wah activity, it was necessary, for obvious reasons, to develop a more differentiated perception of the dangers as well as an appreciation of the rights and opportunities provided by American society. Some pointed out that the interaction with the majority society could not be based on a total rejection of it or any other form of moral hubris.
A female member of the Muslim Students’ Association, for instance, formulated her understanding of social activism as follows:
We must […] make a greater effort to make our views known, but always in such a way as to stress the fact that we do indeed care about the community at large [i.e., American society] and that we want to become an important part of it.
For those who were willing to engage with American society, it was no longer a question of choosing between Islamic identity and unavoidable assimilation by interaction. In this context, the notion da’wah embodied the hope of becoming an ‘equal’ part of American society and, at the same time, to be recognized as a distinct and ‘different’ entity. In addition to this, some writers argued that engagement in American charitable organizations would make new organizational experiences available for the Muslim community. Then ISNA-president Ilyas Ba-Yunus even went a step further by trying to make clear that it would not be possible to defend the community against the bad influences of capitalism, secularism and “societal alienation” just by withdrawing into one’s own community. The social evils had to be confronted directly:
[T]hose of us who are still thinking in rather defensive terms—saving our heritage, our families and our future generations—must understand that we cannot effectively save ourselves unless we try to change the environment around us.
The 1990s: Empowerment and the Shaping of a New Universalism
During the 1980s, on the whole, mainstream Muslims perceived Islam as being one specific part of the American religious mosaic, but simultaneously as still being apart from American culture. From this perspective, Islam as well as Islamic identity had to be defended against alien and threatening influences. However, American Muslims had dropped their old idea of retreat into Islamic neighborhoods and centers and embarked instead on a new outgoing strategy. For this purpose they saw da’wah as an appropriate concept to gain recognition as both an equal part of and a distinct entity within American society. During the 1990s, the discourse of mainstream Islam in America took what I would call a “universalistic turn.” Of course, Muslims have always claimed that Islam has a universalistic message and da’wah is its proper expression. It was not until the late 1980s, however, that Muslims began to examine the basic norms of the American constitution and relate them to Islamic teachings. As a consequence, the concept of ‘values’ moved to the center of the political discourse of mainstream Islam, thus contesting the importance of the notion da’wah.
The first author who related the American constitution to Islamic values in the journal Islamic Horizons was Anwer Beg in July 1986. On the occasion of Independence Day, Beg declared that “the values of life spelled out in the Declaration are, happily enough, Islamic values mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah.” Muslims would cherish these values not only because they were guaranteed by the constitution, but because there was an Islamic tradition of respect for these values for fourteen hundred years. In a later article, the same author warned his fellow Muslims not to reject values as un-Islamic simply because they were promoted by the West. Certainly not every Western value could be regarded as Islamic, but nevertheless there were many commonalities between Islam and the West, especially in the sphere where original Christian values still survived.
A particularly outspoken protagonist of this kind of argumentation was and still is the American convert Dr. Robert Dickson Crane. Crane, who promotes his views in a great number of articles, letters-to-the-editor and books, argues that “the truly Islamic civilization, shorn of its local cultural baggage, and the truly traditionalist civilization of America, shorn of all its modern secular baggage, were essentially the same.” Crane calls the American constitution “functionally Islamic” in the sense that the Founding Fathers acted according to Islamic values, yet without being aware of this fact. This understanding, he points out, would also solve the false contradiction between American and Islamic identity, since “to be the best Muslim is to be a good American, and to be the best American is to be Islamic.” The “Islamization of America,” according to Crane, would mean guiding the U.S. back to its religious roots rather than making people change their creed. From this perspective, Crane criticizes the inward-looking and particularistic approach of American Muslim organizations that only pursue their own group interests, rather than the interests of the American nation. The same would also apply to American foreign policy, which had been guided for too long by material interests rather than moral values. Hence, with the help of American Muslims, the United States should reformulate a “coherent mission” for the rest of the world and “promote peace through justice.”
Generally, one can distinguish two lines of argumentation during the 1990s. Although parallel, each was given a different emphasis at different times and under different circumstances. One uses the concepts of moral values and a universalistic understanding of the notion of ‘civilization’ to argue that the American polity is indeed acceptable to Muslims and that Muslims should become a vibrant part of it by contributing to it. Sulayman S. Nyang formulated this position in the Newsletter of the American Muslim Council in 1995 as follows:
It should be recognized that no serious dialogue between Muslims and the members of the larger American society can prove successful unless and until the Muslims replicate publicly and faithfully what they articulate theologically as Islam’s contribution to American civilization.
Most authors are unclear in denning these possible contributions. Interfaith relations, race relations, social and personal values and spiritual development are mentioned most often in this context. Yet, they all use the notion of ‘civilization’ explicitly in order to transcend religious and national boundaries rather than to enforce them. According to this understanding, Islam also has a message for non-Muslims in the same way American civilization has such a message for non-Americans.
In contrast to this, the other line of argument is defensive and reactive. Since the 1970s, articles in Muslims magazines have described the community as being a target of media misrepresentation and political discrimination. Yet, for most of the time, this was neither a dominant topic nor did it lead to concerted action. Since the 1990s, however, particularly in the aftermath of the Oklahoma bombing of 1995 and the following Omnibus Counterterrorism Laws, a sense of urgency grew among American Muslims. The idea of “political lobbying” and “public relations campaigns” received a more positive connotation as a means of improving the image of Islam in the American public sphere. Some authors connected this directly to the notion of da’tvah, thus giving it a more political and instrumentalist meaning. Ejaz Akram, for instance, argued that da’wah, in the “modern sense of institutional organization for social and political outreach,” was an “obligation” for all Muslims. Therefore a “Muslim lobbying ethic” should be articulated on the basis of the “Islamic principles of justice and fairness.”
Overall, Muslim political involvement in the United States became a dominant topic in Muslim American periodicals during the 1990s. This political awakening of mainstream Islam was fed by both of the previously mentioned strategies: the universalistic desire to contribute Islamic values and norms to a wider notion of American civilization as well as to improve the situation of the Muslim community in the U.S. with lobbying and public relations work. A first step into the arena of national politics was taken by the Islamic Society of North America by declaring itself a Political Action Committee in 1987. In the respective issue of Islamic Horizons, the editors referred to organizations such as AIPAC or the Arab-American Anti-Defamation Committee (ADC) as role models. Simultaneously, the authors had to admit that neither the agenda nor the strategy were clear so far. Also, the question whether the new PAC would simply act in competition with other PACs or constitute a new means to “promote what is good and prevent what is evil” was still unresolved.
Nevertheless, the notion of “empowerment” became the political battle cry of American Muslims in the following years. Practical campaigns aimed foremost at voter registration and at building a higher political awareness. They were fed by the hope that Muslims could form a block of “swing voters” in highly embattled American states, thus gaining crucial influence.
In light of the diversity of the Muslim community, however, it turned out to be almost impossible to establish unity when it came to defining concrete political aims or strategies. Yet, here again, general lines of argumentation can be distinguished. Naturally, the two great American parties drew most attention, even though some authors advocated voting for splinter groups because no real Islamic alternative was available. Proponents of the pro-Republican view laid their emphasis mainly on questions of morality, such as family values, anti-pornography and anti-homosexuality campaigns, and abortion. Economic and fiscal problems have hardly ever been discussed in detail, but conservative Muslims tended to add “hard work” and “free enterprise” to the above mentioned moral values. Some authors even proposed a closer cooperation with the Christian Coalition based on these values. Any such statement usually drew swift responses from readers, who pointed out that the Christian Coalition was inherently “anti-Muslim” and that conservative politics would always come at the cost of the poor and the disadvantaged. In accordance with this latter argument, Muslim supporters of the Democratic Party pointed to the social responsibilities of Muslims with regard to the poor, the working class and the special experiences of the black Muslim community.
Not all of those who had been calling for the political empowerment of the Muslim community believed that participation in one of the two big American parties and the search for official recognition of Islam by the American establishment would lead to positive results. Although there are important differences between Republican and Democrats regarding questions of values and social policies, the differences between the two political camps regarding civil liberties and U.S. Middle East policies turned out to be minor. For this reason, some writers and activists preferred a grassroots approach, which favored political pressure from the streets in coalition with other religious or social forces over direct lobbying at the centers of power.
In 1996, these strategies almost coincided. The February issue of AMC Report covered a meeting with Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, at length. Farrakhan had just made a strong impression on mainstream Muslim organizations with his Million Man March, despite the fact that most Sunni Muslims had traditionally been suspicious of the rather heterodox views held by this organization. In his interview with AMC Report, Farrakhan proposed building a “third political force” for minorities. In sharp contrast, the following March issue was dedicated to the first official White House Celebration of Eid al-Fitr hosted by Hillary Clinton. It was cheered by all sides as a major success on the road to the public recognition of Islam in America.
Despite the growing involvement of American Muslims in the political process in the United States in the 1990s, they neither became oblivious to their diaspora situation nor did they give up their commitment to the Islamic World outside the United States. As in the decades prior to the 1990s, Islamic periodicals were still full of articles on Muslims outside the U.S.
Some publications remained limited to religious topics, but most dealt with the political situation, particularly of suppressed peoples such as the Palestinians, the Bosnians, or the people in Kashmir, Chechnya or elsewhere. However, since American Muslims and their organizations had given up their “myth-of-return” in favor of a tamkin al-din (establishing Islam) policy, they lost their channel of direct influence on their homelands by returning Islamic activists (da’iyah) who had been trained in the diaspora. This development had two subsequent consequences: influence on the Muslim world had to be sought indirectly by influence on U.S. foreign policies and, at the same time, the focus on foreign policy questions in favor of far-away countries lost its unquestioned priority over domestic issues.
This lopsided concern for foreign policy issues has never been fully appreciated, particularly by converts and members of the black Muslim community. Victor Ghalib Begg, for instance, argued in the AMC Report issue of April 1996 that Muslims had to gain moral prestige by participating in domestic issues, first, before they could try to influence American foreign policies:
International issues are among the many concerns with which the American Muslim community is faced today. However, our concern for many foreign policy matters tends to overshadow our involvement in domestic matters. If we, as a religious community in America, do not encourage good, moral conduct and discourage negative social behavior, then we will never acquire the moral authority needed to influence America’s direction in the socio-political global arena.
There was, and probably still is, a broad consensus among mainstream Muslims and their organizations in the United States that Muslims should use their presence as well as their political rights in the world’s mightiest state in favor of their Muslim brethren worldwide. Thus, political participation should neither be for its own sake nor merely for the narrow interests of the American Muslim community. According to Syed Abeeb Ashruf, for instance, Muslims in the United States have the “dual role” of being concerned for the well-being of the Ummah, as well as of the American nation. In other words, they have to ensure that America is truly promoting democracy in the Muslim world and, at the same time, they have to save the political system of the United States from the negative influences of “special interest or pressure groups” such as “oil companies or political groups working for foreign governments.” Ali A. Mazrui argued similarly, emphasizing that Muslim participation would not only be vital for the community itself, “but also for the sake of the wider ummah worldwide, and for the sake of enriching the pluralism and global representativeness [sic] of American civilization.”
Consequently, political participation of Muslims in the United States can be described as a triangle between their community and its two homelands: the United States and the ummah. All three sides are in constant interaction and are constantly re-shaping each other. Or, in the words of Seyyed Hossein Nasr:
Let us hope that with His help they can create a vibrant and authentic Islamic community and a genuine Islamic American culture, which in the present day situation, can also exercise a profound influence upon the rest of the Islamic world.
Post 9/11: Whither the Muslim Diaspora in the United States?
The attacks of September 11, 2001 have been experienced as a historical break by many Muslims and non-Muslims alike, particularly in the United States. Concerning the American Muslim community, one can argue whether September 11th marked a rupture or merely the acceleration of already on-going developments. In the subsequent “War on Terror,” American Muslims have been demarcated as “enemies-within” in an unprecedented way. They have become the targets of hate crimes, scarcely documented suspicions, and biased media representations. Their community centers have been raided, their civil rights restricted, and their charitable organizations labeled “terrorist.” At the same time, however, Muslims are increasingly pulled towards the the mainstream of American “civil religion.” In the aftermath of the attacks, Muslims took part in the ceremonies of commemoration for the victims of the terrorist attacks. Many helped to set up new projects of inter-religious dialogue. Both of these trends, i.e., discrimination and integration had already been underway well before September 11th, 2001, but they accelerated and intensified in a breathtaking way.
The long-term effects on the discourse of Muslim Americans concerning their community’s identity and its relations to both the broader American society and the Muslim world remain to be seen. Yet, it is already clear that the diasporic situation of Muslim Americans did not end and will not end in the foreseeable future. On the contrary, it is the main task of American Muslims to rethink and readjust.
Dr. Hassan Hathout (Islamic Center of Los Angeles), for instance, analyzed the situation of Islam in America in an Arabic essay tided al-Islam yuhawir Amrika. In this text he falls back into well-known argumentative patterns. First, he presents his readers with a number of ready-made apologetic answers to counter common anti-Islamic clichés that might come up in a dialogue like polygamy, the meaning of jihad, and Islam’s assumed opposition to democracy. Then he goes on to explain why the Muslim community should give priority to building Islamic schools rather than mosques, in order to save Muslims from the corrupting influences of American society. Finally, with respect to American domestic politics, he depicts Islam in the United States as embattled by various enemies such as Zionism, the Christian right and the military-industrial complex (al-murakkab al-sina’i al-askari). Yet, despite this, he quotes the optimistic outlook of a friend who said with reference to the assumed Muslim voting block that “Islam in America was a giant who hopefully will wake up.”
This understandable mixture of apology, disillusionment and self-delusion stands in contrast to the more sober analysis Ingrid Mattson, newly-elected president of ISNA, gives in her contribution to the book Taking Back Islam. She describes the dilemma of American Muslims as follows:
September 11 exacerbated a double-bind American Muslims have been feeling for some time. So often, it seems, we have to apologize for reprehensible actions committed by Muslims in the name of Islam. [ … ] And so often we have to tell other Muslims throughout the world that America is not as bad as it appears [… ].
The problem of this communicative strategy is obvious. It defends America and its foreign policies with regards to the Muslim world, but Muslims in America have very little influence on the making of these policies. On the other hand, it apologizes for terrorist actions of which American Muslims do not approve and cannot prevent. Thus, any new controversial step of the American administration as well as any new terrorist act associated with Islam will call for new explanations and new apologies. Yet, maybe this strategy means communicating the wrong messages to the wrong audiences … Instead of denouncing terrorism by addressing the American public, for instance, American Muslims should direct their message directly to Osama Bin Laden and his supporters. They could point out why they think he is misusing the name of Islam. Even though it seems unlikely that this message will have any effect on al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations, it would certainly have an effect on American public opinion. At the same time, however, American Muslims should turn to the American public and explain their vision for America’s future. How can Muslims contribute to making the United States a more democratic, more peaceful, and a better-respected country at home and abroad? Even though this, again, is unlikely to change America soon, it might win the American Muslim the respect of their brethren abroad. After all, it seems paradoxical for a message directed at one particular audience to have a greater impact on another, but such is politics in the fateful triangle of the diaspora.