Tuesday, August 29, 2006

American Muslims Seek Separate Identity

Americans like to look at Europe's escalating cultural conflict with immigration-inflated Muslim populations and waggle a self-satisfied finger, noting how European welfare state policies have prevented the assimilation of Muslim immigrants, and the formation of Muslim ghettos in every major European city. America is different, the argument goes, and American Muslims are different, too.

But a surprising article in the Washington Post (especially surprising because it is in the Washington Post) suggests that Americans have little reason to be smug, and that American Muslims are not assimilating into American culture as readily as US politicians and immigration proponents would have us believe.

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.' "

Thanks to multiculturalism, there are plenty of people who will tell Ishmahan that she is right. She doesn't have to - nay, she shouldn't - assimilate. After all, aren't all cultures equal? Isn't diversity prized above all else? Isn't Anglo-American culture just racist, decadent and imperialist?

The Washington Post article emphasizes that the increasing Islamic fervor among American Muslims has little militant component (unlike Europe's) and that those Muslims promoting it go to some lenghts to oppose militant Muslims who advocate violence.

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.

Nevertheless, by halting the force of assimilation and setting themselves apart - voluntarily - Muslims are creating a sense of isolation from other Americans that will inevitably lead to alienation and a sense of hostility. As Muslims separate themselves, more and more they will come to regard non-Muslim Americans as "the other," and, eventually, as the enemy. As Muslim communities insulate themselves from the mainstream of American society, they will become fertile ground for Islamists to recruit.

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.

Muslim culture and tradition is so radically different from Western culture that Muslims will always feel out of place in a Western society. So long as their numbers are small, they pose no danger because they are forced to interact with other Americans on a daily basis, compelling at least some measure of assimilation. But when their numbers increase to the point where they can form self-contained communities of their own, the pressure to assimilate weakens, and then fails. Isolation and militancy will grow. The same is true of the Latino communities growing inside the US, served by Spanish-language media and Spanish-speaking government officials. As communities segregate, balkanization grows and the common culture and society fracture. This is the consequence of mass immigration from non-alike nations.


At 1:58 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is funny how the neo-cons have been blaming the lack of assimilation of Muslims into European societies on Europe's extensive welfare state while constrasting Europe's Muslims with our own as an example of how America, unlike Eurabia, is "getting it right."

Unfortunately, they simply cannot confront the fact that there are serious contradictions between Islam and democratic government; nor can they confront the reality of cognitive differences between racial groups. As a result, they advocate for further immigration even as they have our military overseas engaging in a futile effort of building a democracy in the Mideast.

We need more conservative realism and less neo-con and leftist idealism.


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