IIIT organized the first of a series of on-day seminars on American Muslim identity on Saturday, May 7th, 2011. The seminar, entitled “American Muslim Identity: Contexts, Dynamics, challenges & Prospects”, brought together twenty five scholars, intellectuals, experts and community leaders from diverse academic backgrounds, professions and community organizations.
The rationale behind the seminar stems from a realization of the depth – and magnitude – of the current crises that engulf Muslim presence – and participation – in American society and their manifestations in the internal dynamics – and institutions - of the American Muslim community on one hand, and their participation in American politics and culture at large, on the other.
The purpose of the seminar, as an analytic exercise, was three-fold:
The seminar was organized into two major sessions – three hours each – and a shorter concluding one for one hour. After welcoming remarks and introduction of the program and participants, the first session featured two main speakers; Professor Ali Mazrui, Director of the Center for Global Cultural Studies, Binghamton University, SUNY, New York, and Dr. Sulayman Nyang, Professor of African and African American History at Howard University, Washington D.C.
Professor Mazrui presented three crises facing the American Muslim community; the crisis of identity, involving their determining who they are and how to reconcile their multiple allegiances; the crisis of participation, involving how far to be active in community life and public affairs; and the crisis of values that concerns a general code of ethical conduct and policy preferences ranging from Muslim attitudes to abortion to Muslim concerns about homosexuality. Professor Mazrui discussed how 9/11 magnified and intensified these crises producing more civil rights violations for American Muslims and more Islamophobia on campuses, in the media, in politics and in the American society at large.
Professor Sulayman Nyang contrasted American narratives of identity with American Muslim narratives citing examples from the Jewish experience, the early Catholic experience, and the Japanese and German communities. He also pointed to the historical patterns of immigration and their impact on identity formation. Focusing on the convergence and divergence dynamics of identification in the emerging American Muslim community, he discussed four major challenges facing the American Muslims: a) The challenge of maintaining an “Islamic” identity in America and its implications; b) the challenge of building and defending Islamic institutions; c) the challenge of building Muslim economic structures; and d) The challenge of participating in American political life. He concluded by stating that the future of Muslims in America is inextricably linked to the future of religious pluralism in the US. Any radical change in this pattern could threaten not only Muslim Americans but also other religious minorities in the US. Consequently, he called for a strategic focus on interfaith work as a vital component to counteract any tendency that threatens religious pluralism.
Professor Paul Scham, a Jewish American historian and Director of the Center for Israeli Studies at the University of Maryland, examined aspects of the American Jewish experience that presented numerous parallels between the experiences of Jews and Muslims in America. While pointing to the diversity of backgrounds and countries that Jews immigrated from, he emphasized that their sole identification was as Jews. They never thought of themselves as Russians or Austrians or Poles. They were not Jewish Poles or Polish Jews because their immigrant experiences were different from those of Poles, Russians, etc. Jews – he said – were considered and considered themselves as a separate people who had far more in common with Jews anywhere in the world than with Poles who might have lived a mile away. He thought that, in some ways, things are easier now for 2nd and 3rd generation Muslims because during his parents’ generation, there was no such thing as multiculturalism, only the melting pot. He reminded the audience of the Ku Klux Klan and other forms of racism and anti Semitism. He acknowledged, though, that Muslims are openly hated and feared now by more Americans than ever hated Jews, especially after World War II and the Holocaust. America now – he concluded - seems to define as its principal danger something called “Muslim Fundamentalism”, which is not something Jews have ever had to deal with in the US.
The second session focused on the actualities of the American Muslim experience, putting Muslim identity formation within the context of the broader American society and culture. Dynamics such as assimilation, integration, isolation and exclusion were discussed. Professor Ihsan Bagby, from the University of Kentucky shared his research findings of American Mosques and Islamic centers as major institutions for identity formation and emphasized the increasing role of mosques – socially and educationally – in identity formation. Dr. Zahid Bukhari, President of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) presented research findings related to the participation of Muslims in public life in general and their attitudes towards political participation, in particular. He contrasted the increasing interest of Muslims to participate in public life with the intensifying negative attitudes towards Muslims, particularly after 9/11 and the challenges that this situation produces for American Muslims. Dr. Muqtedar Khan – Professor of Political Science at the University of Delaware - focused on the dilemmas and tensions of identity politics within the American Muslim communities as they try to cope with the implications of US foreign policy towards Muslim countries and the implications of American involvement in the region.
In the concluding session, participants called for more deliberative efforts on the part of Muslim organizations and communities to strengthen their institutional responses to the challenges of identity within the American context focusing on areas such as Islamic education, political participation and youth. They called for reinforcing integration dynamics, discouraging isolation tendencies in some communities and strengthening efforts to encounter Islamophobia and the violation of Muslim civil rights. At the intellectual level, they called for more efforts to develop a comprehensive jurisprudence for Muslims as a minority in the US and strengthen institutions that shoulder these responsibilities such as the Fiqh Council of North America and the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT).