As I was reading American Islam, I was reminded of an incident that occurred last November in Washington, D.C., and got a lot of play in the American Muslim community. Jerry Klein, a popular radio host at WMAL-AM 630, suggested during one of his shows that Muslims in the United States should be forced to wear “identifying markers,” specifically “a crescent moon arm band, or … a crescent moon tattoo.” As one would expect, his phone lines were immediately jammed with listeners. Only they were not calling to excoriate Klein, but to agree wholeheartedly with him. One caller argued that American Muslims should not only be tattooed “in the middle of their foreheads,” but that they should then be “rounded up and shipped out of the country.” A Maryland caller concurred. “You have to set up encampments like they did during World War II,” he said, “like with the Japanese and Germans.”
Of course, what the callers did not realize was that Klein was joking. To his credit, he was horrified by his listeners’ reactions, and said so on air. But perhaps Klein should not have been so surprised. According to recent polls, 39 percent of Americans want Muslims living in the United States to carry “special identification,” and nearly half think their civil liberties should be curtailed in the name of national security. Roughly a third of those polled are convinced that the sympathies of America’s Muslim community lies with al-Qaida, while a full 60 percent say they do not know any Muslims.
As a Muslim, I am obviously disturbed by these figures. But what I find particularly remarkable about these polls is that if the person being polled actually knows a Muslim, they are less likely to have negative perceptions of Islam. (By the way, I think that Barrett’s estimate of how many Muslims currently live in America is low; more realistic, I suspect, are estimates of 6 million to 10 million.) It follows, then, that the best way to educate Americans about Islam is to introduce them to living, breathing American Muslims. That is precisely what makes Barrett’s book such an engaging and important read. To my mind, this intimate group portrait of American Muslims is far more revealing than any of the half-dozen or so academic tomes that have been written on the subject over the last few years.
You are right to point out that the American Muslim community has, for the most part, managed to avoid many of the problems of identity and integration that plague Muslim communities in Europe. Barrett, like many social scientists, argues that this is partly due to economic factors. After all, the majority of European Muslims come from impoverished immigrant families, while the majority of Muslims in the United States are either middle-class converts or educated immigrants. Sixty percent of Muslims in the United States own their own homes. Believe it or not, the median income for a Muslim household in America is greater than it is for a non-Muslim household.
But as I read the individual profiles in American Islam, it became clear to me that it is more than mere economic factors that have allowed Muslims to so thoroughly assimilate into American society. (Maybe it is this assimilation that explains why so many Americans think they have never met a Muslim. Perhaps they assume all Muslims look and dress like Osama Bin Laden.)
Although Barrett does not press the point, I truly believe the ease with which Muslims have assimilated into American culture has less to do with economics than it does with America’s long and storied history of assimilating different cultures and ethnicities under a single shared political and cultural ideal—an ideal we can label simply as Americanism. The Muslims who settled in Europe formed insulated ethnic enclaves cut off from the rest of European society. But American Muslims have seamlessly integrated into almost every level of American society. Indeed, they represent the most powerful argument against the prevailing “Clash of Civilizations” mentality that pits Islam against the West.
Finally, as a Muslim who lives in the United States and who has spent a great deal of time among Muslims in Europe, I can tell you that, more than anything else, it is the core American belief that faith has a role to play in the public realm that has allowed American Muslims to so seamlessly reconcile their faiths, cultures, and traditions with the realities of American life. Say what you will, this is not, nor has it ever been, a “secular” country. It is, in fact, the most religiously diverse and religiously tolerant nation in the world. In no other country—and certainly no Islamic country—can Muslims pursue their faith and practice in whatever way they see fit than in the United States. It is, in short, America itself that has made American Muslims so much more resistant to the pull of jihadism than their European counterparts.
This brings me to your excellent question regarding one of the central themes of Barrett’s book. Is the Muslim encounter with the United States creating a new, American brand of Islam, much the way this country gave rise to new forms of Judaism and Catholicism? The short answer is yes. Just look at the Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, Calif., established by Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, an American convert and one of the world’s most respected authorities on Islamic law. Tired of Muslims in the United States being forced to import their imams from countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia—countries whose values and traditions are far removed from ours—Sheikh Hamza has created America’s first Muslim seminary, to train American imams who can relate to the unique cultural and religious needs of American Muslims. But that’s just part of the story. America also gives Muslims the freedom to explore issues like Islamic feminism (as demonstrated in Barrett’s wonderful profile of my friend Asra Nomani, a journalist and author), Islamic pluralism, Islamic democracy, and even Islamic homosexuality, all of which has allowed Islam in America to flower into an independent and uniquely American faith.
The real question, which you touch upon, is how the U.S. government, whose image in the Muslim world is at an all-time low, can tap into the American Muslim community and take advantage of what you rightly note may be America’s greatest weapon against jihadism. I mean, if what you say is true—if the American Muslim community is the “first line of defense against jihadist attack” —then why have they seemingly been sidelined by the US government in this “great ideological battle for civilization”?