Defining the American Muslim Vision for the 21st Century

A Proposal Introduction
SULAYMAN NYANG, Ph.D, Board Member of MCA

Since the events of 9/11 American Muslims have faced a number of challenges. Some of these challenges have heightened the American national consciousness of many Muslims, others have created a deep sense of fear among the leaders and the led of this community of native-born and immigrants. The diverse nature of the community has accounted for the divergent experiences and interpretations of their individual and communal experiences. Because the community members are drawn from over eighty countries around the world, no categorical statement can be made about the community, its membership, and its behavior in the country. Yet, there are opportunities provided by the challenges of 9/11 for Muslims to take stock of their past achievements and present setbacks. There are seven areas which call for careful analysis and planning if the community and its leaders are going to engage the larger society and to live up to the image President Bush painted of their community at a crucial moment in American history.

According to the President, American society is home to countless American Muslims who are not only loyal to the country but have made contributions to it. They are found in the professions, the military and in other areas of life. Given this portrayal of the Muslim community in America and the greater backlash that could have taken place without presidential intervention, one is forced to argue that defining the American Muslim vision for the next century is not only necessary but critical in Muslim definition and self engagement with his country at a time when being an American Muslim means taking blows from foreign Muslims hostile to one’s country and braving the slings and arrows of hate and prejudice from fellow Americans who have not yet learned to accept fully their Muslim compatriots. In this paper the seven areas to be examined are the following: the definition of the Muslim identity in America; the definition of the role and place of this Muslim minority in a predominantly non-Muslim society where liberal secular democracy defines the terms and contents of citizenship and membership; the definition of Muslim life and culture in a pluralistic universe where neither state nor society is monopolized by any single group; the definition of Muslim opinions on and attitudes towards political life and governance; the definition of the Muslim sense of individualism and communalism; the definition of Muslim understanding of media and the need to respond effectively to its custodians and to develop strategies of constructive engagement with them; and finally, the definition of American Muslim solidarity withother Muslims beyond the borders of the United States of America. Each of these areas of discourse will be dealt with in light of our knowledge of the past achievements of the community and the present realities facing us.

Defining the Muslim Identity in the United States of America: In order for the leaders and the led in the Muslim community to face up to the challenges of 9/11 successfully, there must be a serious discussion on the philosophical and theological definition of the role and place of the human being in American and world history. American Muslims must make it categorically clear that their American identity is not diluted by their Islam and that the first amendment right in the U.S. constitution grants them the opportunity to participate in the public square without any fear of legal discrimination or victimization. This important task now begs for attention and Muslims leaders must convene a national conference to explore all the dimensions to this issue. Invited to such a conference would be scholars as well as activists who are now trying to secure a foothold for American Muslims in the public square. The participants to such a conference should be drawn from all the national organizations that are interested in addressing the question of Muslim identity in America. It is important to communicate to all prospective attendees that their vision of the American Muslim presence in America is inextricably linked to that of their fellow Muslims who are working for the same cause through the medium of other organizations. Three developments in the United States, France and Britain have brought the issue to greater public attention. Because the number of Muslims claiming to have been violated directly or indirectly has increased dramatically, it has become necessary for Muslim leaders to join the debate concerning civil liberties and national security. David Cole’s Enemy Aliens. Double Standard and Constitutional Freedoms in the War against Terrorism provides one important analysis of the moral and legal crisis triggered by the events of 9/11.

Muslim leaders and scholars should reflect on the statement of Stephen Rohde, President of the American Civil Liberties Union in southern California. His paraphrasing of Rev. Martin Niemoller’s words to analogize the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany and the present state of Muslims in Western societies. In order for the Muslim leadership to be taken seriously by their friends and foes, they must put together a document or documents defining their vision of themselves in the American experience. Recent events in France have also created the climate for debate and interest articulation. The debate over the use of religious symbols in secular France is reverberating in the firmaments of Western political debates. By engaging the French intellectuals creatively and responsibly, Muslims stand a good chance of making important points about justice, fair play, good governance and equal treatment of majorities and minorities in modern democratic societies. Similarly, the recent statement from a British cabinet minister suggesting that Muslim youths ought to be properly trained in order to become well-assimilated citizens of the United Kingdom, once more reopens the issue that Muslims cannot be assimilated in Western democratic societies. Again, it is evident that the divergence of views regarding who the Muslims are and how do they fit in the cultural mosaic of these countries makes it necessary for a thorough study of the historical development of the Muslim identity in these countries.

In our special case in the US, it is important that we compare and contrast our present situation and those of the catholic and Jews in their separate negotiations for public space in nineteenth century America. The role and place of the Muslim in American society needs to be revisited, especially after the events of 9/11 have brought to the surface many issues that were never seriously addressed by the leaders and the led in the community. Because of the new phenomenon of Islamophobia, Muslims must now engage American society at both the political and intellectual levels. Politically, Muslims must now assert themselves as partners in the American political process. After taking note of the fact that American society is not a modern day replica of the Medinite state of prophetic times, nor a mirror image of the authoritarian systems they left behind in their countries of origins, American Muslims, native-born or immigrant, must now develop new attitudes and new strategies if they wish to fare well in this political system. American society is not a state captured by one sect or denomination; it is not a society where a Muslim is necessarily discriminated because of his faith, nor it is a place where Islamic values are outlawed as was the case in Soviet Russia. Because of this new situation in both political engineering and political philosophy about man and society, it is imperative that Muslim communities around the United States develop methods, means, and rules of engagement for their self-development and preservation. Intellectually, American Muslims have both the opportunity and the challenge to participate in all intellectual discourses that address the condition of Man in U.S. society.

Here Muslim voices should be heard whenever the issues of justice are raised. Muslims should let their fellow countrymen and women know where they stand with respect to matters affecting the young, the old and the helpless. The American intellectual landscape has many thinkers and advocates of new ideas. Unless Muslims engage men and women of the different schools of thought and share with them their own Islamic perspectives, they will continue to operate on the margins of society and their views would be readily dismiss as those of the oysters that are too self-enclosed to think out of the box and too fearful of their “polluted environment” to venture outside. An important source of consolation and encouragement to American Muslims would be a careful study and understanding of American political and social history. For example, a reading of Micheal Durey’s Transatlantic Radicals and the Early American Republic (Lawrenceville, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1997) would tell them that the British, Scottish and Irish radicals who immigrated did so because of their dissatisfaction with political tyranny in their part of the world. Although many of those early immigrants to America were driven by both economic and political considerations, there is evidence in Durey’s book to suggest that these immigrants, especially their journalists, played an important role in carving a niche for them in the American intellectual landscape. It is for this and other related reasons that Durey suggests in his conclusion, the radical exiles of the 1790’s “comprised one of the most significant intellectual migrations to the United States between the arrival of the Puritan ministers in the seventeenth century and the Jewish exodus from Germany in the 1930s.” The Europeans called radicals by Durey were fleeing from monarchial tyrannies; Muslims who came to America since the Second World War are here because of their allergic reactions to authoritarian rule of Baathists, Nasserites or monarchies. American Muslims leaders and thinkers must revisit the intellectual history of America to note for themselves how political turmoil abroad has often led to the migration of men and women from other countries. In our particular case, there is now need for understanding how American Muslims can contribute to the debate on Islamic reform and democratization in political tyrants are overthrown not by locals by builders of the New World Order.

The definition of Muslim life and culture is another dimension to be addressed. Muslim leaders can neither make meaningful contributions to American political and cultural discourses nor communicate effectively with their non-Muslim counterparts from the rest of America if they cannot define their vision or visions of the Muslim presence within the larger framework of American society. American Muslims cannot give the impression to other Americans that they are just like everyone else and that there are no fundamental differences between their worldview and those of other Americans. Like the Catholic theologians and intellectuals who engage the American constitution and the historical experience of their homeland, Muslims too must respond creatively and responsibly to the founding fathers’ Declaration of Independence and the founding Constitution. From the Catholic side, thinkers such as Father John Courtney Murray have written profusely on the Catholic experience in America. Thanks to his writings many Catholic have come to appreciate the manner in which American history and the political engineering of the successive generations of leaders since the founding of the Republic, have helped guide the nation on the path of pluralism and religious freedom. It was thinkers like him who laid to rest among many Catholics the idea that the Church should have the right to employ state power in the curtailment and containment of heretic behavior in society. This traditional Catholic view parallels some of the theological and political thoughts of Muslims who dismiss democracies like America as cesspool of sin and corruption and pit their vision of an Islamic state against the American democratic process. In discussing the Muslim vision in America it is dangerous and unwise for Muslim leaders and the led to adopt a fatalistic view of life by behaving like the Amish communities around the country. American society certainly has both social and constitutional space for those citizens who wish to disengage from the larger societies.

However, it should immediately be pointed out that those who opt out of the system and remain peaceful and marginal face no threat from the state. Those who refuse to engage the society politically through activism and lobbying and pursue a course of action which could probably lead to violent confrontation with the system, are doomed to die as failures. Islamic history and the examples of the Prophet in Arabia negate such a vision and strategy of life. American Muslims, therefore, must develop new attitudes and new understandings of their unique condition in the West today. All the historical indications show that we live in a new world situation. Science and technology have conspired to bring humanity closer and closer together. The growing power of Man has not only fostered greater involvement with this dunya but it has also blurred the Quranic/biblical demarcation line between things of this world and the things of the hereafter. What I mean to say here is that the material affluence of Americans in particular and Westerners in general has created a sense of forgetfulness. Some scholars have suggested that the triumph of science and technology have now convinced a growing body of men and women that materialism (or what I call dunyaism) is the only reality. In order for the Muslims to convey properly their vision and worldview to the rest of American society, they must make it categorically clear that they subscribe to the belief that there is a realm of being beyond the ken of human understanding. This belief in a metaphysical order is still a part of the mental furniture of the modern American.

Muslims should make this known to all Americans, especially to those Christians and Jews who are still faithful defenders of the belief in a Divine Creator and a life after death, that they too have this furniture in their mental estate.. Muslims will only become a respected religious minority when they build institutional structures that reinforce their beliefs and at the same time lay the foundations for an Islamically-inspired culture to take root in this soil. This is to say, in order for American Muslims to be a meaningful part of America without necessarily compromising their belief in Allah and the mission of the Prophet they must come to the recognition that within the constitutional framework of this country they can practice their din without hindrance. Yet, in order not to be captured in the web of un-Islamic actors in the larger society, they must have families, masajids, community organizations, financial institutions and health-care facilities to address their communal needs from the cradle to the grave. This does not mean that American Muslims should strive for institutional autarchy. Rather, they should develop a meaningful balance between social engineering on the part of Muslim faith-based institutions and political engineering on the part of state leaders in all areas of life. With this vision and attitude, American Muslims should be able to build strong and lasting communities while meaningfully and effectively share their Islamic values with other Americans from diverse religious traditions. Another area of discourse that begs for attention among Muslims is the question of Muslim involvement in the political process. Mohammad Nimer, Yvonne Haddad, Louay Safi, Muqtedar Khan and myself among many others have raised the issue in scholarly circles. What is now needed is for the leaders of the national organizations to organize a major conference where each would present its vision of Muslim political life in America. As far the record goes, there is some consensus that political activism is theological defensible and morally justifiable.

Although there are still some Muslim individuals and groups who are allergic to American political discourse,. these elements are clearly a minority in the community. Yet, in order for the leaders and the led in the Muslim community to claim the moral high ground, they must develop strong intellectual and moral arguments similar to what father Murray did for the Catholics of his generation sixty years ago. Here the collaboration between town and gown within the Muslim community could provide the opportunity for both intellectual development and institution-building. Intellectual development for the sake of giving a firm ground for the rank and file Muslims to stand on; and institutionally, to make life easy for the average Muslims who is too absorbed in the daily cares of his family to reflect seriously on these matters. A project ostensibly designed to create and fund a Muslim center for the study of American public policy is needed. Efforts are being made by some Muslims in some parts of the country. We should find out about such bodies and try to create a forum for the exchange of ideas between them. Public policy think tanks are very much a part of the political landscape. No group of significance in this country is without a think-tank whose primary function is to monitor the trends of events in Washington and to develop a body of knowledge that could serve as the basis for an alternative policy. Such intellectual vehicles have been harnessed by some groups to advance their causes.

The Muslims have created lobbying entities such as the American Muslim Council, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, the Council American-Islamic Relations, and the American Muslim Alliance. Although each of these groups has made some contributions to the aggregating and articulating of Muslim interest in the country, their limited resources and their upstart status among the PACS in the city of Washington have conspired to minimize their effectiveness. The events of the 2000 elections have given thinking Muslims much food for thought. Congressman Findley’s book, Silent No More, certainly tells the story of the American Muslim struggle for political acceptance. It also serves as an ugly reminder to Muslims that their failure to organize and engage the system makes it possible for their opponents and rivalries to bring to an end their supporters and sympathizers in Congress. This Paul Findley destiny should be taken as a serious challenge to Muslims and others who benefited from his services while in Congress. Many others have suffered the same faith since. This is a political challenge to the leaders and the led in the American Muslim community. Another area of discourse is the definition of a Muslim sense of individualism and communalism. Here too the Islamic jurists and scholars in the United States must engage the philosophy of individualism as developed by American thinkers since the founding fathers.

As I stated earlier, Catholic and Jewish thinkers have grappled with this issue over the last two centuries. As the most recent participant in this discourse it is important for Muslims to revisit their theological traditions and political histories and see the points of convergence and divergences between the formulations of the past and the demands and needs of our times. There are numerous Quranic, hadithic and fiqhi writings that look into the dignity of Man. Attempts should be made to bring together a group of Islamic jurists and political scientists with grounding in Islamic thought to do a historical and comparative analysis of the points of convergence and divergence. Similarly, a careful study of the Islamic worldview with respect to the nature of the ummah and the manner in which such a community could maintain solidarity without necessarily undermining other identities of Muslims, this discourse must be premised on the notion that self-definition in the liberal democracies is ideally not tribal or racial. At the highest level of abstraction and idealism, the French leaders would like us to believe that their constitution and political tradition have no room for group rights. Rather, men and women citizens of France are treated as individuals and their rights are protected accordingly. In the United States, the first amendment addressed the right of the individual to enjoy the freedom of conscience. Here, the argument goes, Man is protected from the tyranny of the state as well as society.

This is to say, in the United States the government cannot force you to accept a particular religion and the dominant communities in the society cannot use the state to empower and enthrone their system of thought. Under this political dispensation, the individual citizen is granted freedom of conscience and simultaneously he is able to form coalitions with other individuals in pursuit of their collective secular and religious ideals. This aspect of American life and culture attracted the attention of De Tocqueville who describes America as a national of joiners. This commitment to social action and to volunteerism has proven to be a major pillar of American life and culture. American Muslims must find their place on this social landscape. Another area of discourse deals with Muslim understanding of media and the need to respond effectively to its custodians. American Muslims must not only engage the media but their scholars and intellectuals must study media coverage of Islam and Muslims in the United States. and to develop strategies of constructive engagement with them. The body of literature dealing with Islam and Muslims in the media is growing on a daily basis.

A careful review of the entries on Islam and Muslims in the Bell & Howell Index, shows that whatever was previously published has been multiplied by the newspaper, magazine and scholarly literature since September 11, 2001.Those Muslims who are serious about their future in this society are now challenged by the trend of events to do what other religious and secular minorities have done over the last century or more. In order for American Muslims to participate fully in the society and to receive honorable and unbiased attention in the media, there must be a changed of attitudes toward the media and a new strategy of engagement. From the writings of Jack Shaheen, the late Edward Said, Ghareeb and others, it has become clear to Muslims that their negative image in the American and Western media is the result of shortsighted and reactive approach that must be changed

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