Geneive Abdo, Foreign Policy Fellow, The Century Foundation, and author, Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America since 9/11; Eboo Patel, Executive Director, Interfaith Youth Core, and author, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation; Sayyid Syeed, National Director, Interfaith and Community Alliance, Islamic Society of North America; Ayah Ibrahim, Intern, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and former President, Muslims Student Association, College of William and Mary.
The phenomenon of Muslims in the United States is not new. Muslims have been a part of American society since the first ships of enslaved Africans were brought to the American shores. What has changed, however, is the American non-Muslim public's awareness of them. In a program organized by the Division of United States Studies, activists and scholars explored the challenges that face American Muslims as they seek to define their communities within the context of U.S. society after 9/11.
The Muslim population in the United States is much more complicated than the one portrayed by the mainstream media. During her research for Mecca and Main Street, Geneive Abdo found that about fifty percent of the Muslim-American population attends a mosque weekly, about sixty percent have earned college degrees, and twenty-three percent hold professional or technical jobs. Abdo focused her research on the "mosque goers": those American Muslims who go to the mosque at least once a week.
She found the mosque goers to be primarily the younger, native-born generation of Muslim Americans. Since 9/11, many have sought a greater understanding of their faith and have placed a greater emphasis on the role of Islam in their lives. Younger Muslims are attempting to wrestle with the question of what it means to live as part of a minority Muslim population in what they view as a secular nation. This contrasts with the older generation of Muslim Americans, who do not feel as great a need to explore their religion. Within religious Muslim-American organizations, such as the Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, California, Abdo found Muslims seeking to "intellectualize their faith" and articulate it to the public at large. Among the younger generation are female Muslim leaders, such as Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, whom Abdo calls "neo-traditionalists" – women who maintain Islamic traditions such as the wearing of headscarves but follow professional careers and hold leadership roles alongside men. Much of the younger generation of Muslim Americans, Abdo explained, believes that Islam, properly interpreted, sanctions equality and pluralism.
The attacks of 9/11 encouraged Eboo Patel to explore the question, in Acts of Faith, of what factors lead a person of faith to promote diversity or to seek to destroy it. The American doctrine of separation of church and state, Patel said, has allowed robust religiosity to develop in the United States, and today this country is both the most religiously diverse nation in the world and the most religiously devout nation in the West. Despite this religiosity, practitioners of different religions, who may be fighting elsewhere in the world, are likely to live next door to each other in peace. This phenomenon is possible, Patel asserted, because religiosity in the United States is rooted in its civic tradition. It has allowed people to maintain their religious identity while being exposed to other religions. "You come out of a particular identity but you are open to the world," he commented.
Patel came to believe that the type of exposure to diversity that is experienced by a young person will determine how he chooses to express his religion. He noted that Martin Luther King Jr., for example, studied the non-violent political activism of Mahatma Gandhi during his college years, and later incorporated those techniques into the civil rights movement of the1950s and 1960s. Dr. King's experience contrasts with that of Eric Rudolph, the bomber of the1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, who had a number of fights with African Americans in his youth and went on to join anti-pluralism groups such as neo-Nazis. Encounters with diversity that are inclusive rather than exclusive, Patel concluded, promote a religious identity that is tolerant of diversity.
Sayyid Syeed and Ayah Ibrahim shared their post 9/11 experiences as members of Muslim-American advocacy organizations. Syeed, one of the founders and former secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, experienced much support after 9/11 from the once-hostile Plainfield, Indiana, community in which the Society's headquarters are housed. This is because ISNA had strived to cultivate a relationship with its neighbors from the time it established its headquarters there in 1982. Following 9/11, Syeed instructed Islamic centers affiliated with ISNA "to be mosques without walls," further promoting an environment of interfaith interaction and respect. While Muslims have experienced discrimination in the United States since 9/11, Syeed noted that Ramadan has become part of the American culture and that 2007 saw non-Muslim clerics fasting alongside Muslims during Ramadan as a sign of respect and solidarity.
Ayah Ibrahim, former president of the Muslim Student Association of the College of William and Mary, said that she appreciated her country more than ever when she encountered support from non-Muslim groups after 9/11. She was galvanized, however, by the "Islamophobia," expressed in racial profiling and hate crimes, that she encountered in U.S. society, and so has worked to raise more awareness of the Muslim-American community. She spoke of the duality of the recent Muslim-American experience. On the one hand, her mosque was vandalized; on the other hand, local church groups reacted by coming to the mosque's support. Muslim-Americans have gotten important encouragement from Japanese-American organizations, well aware of the way Japanese-Americans were themselves marginalized and discriminated against during World War II. Without minimizing the difficulties of the Muslim-American experience following 9/11, the panelists agreed that Muslim advocacy groups have been able to build greater understanding between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in the United States, which leaves them with a distinct hope for the future.
Drafted by Acacia Reed
Philippa Strum, Director, Division of United States Studies 202-691-4129