Can Muslims Be Americans?

It’s time to put Donald Trump’s idiocy aside and consider Muslim assimilation in a deeper sense.

Lynne Sprague, left, Jeremy Bermudez, in back in middle, and Andy Coco, right,  who are all part of the Denver LGBTQ community, show their support for the muslim community  at the corners of Broadway and Colfax on June 12, 2016  in Denver, Colorado.
Lynne Sprague, left, Jeremy Bermudez, in back in middle, and Andy Coco, right, who are all part of the Denver LGBTQ community, show their support for the muslim community at the corners of Broadway and Colfax on June 12, 2016 in Denver, Colorado.

Helen H. Richardson/Getty Images

Omar Mateen, the man responsible for the Orlando massacre, was an American born in Queens, New York. Nevertheless, he reportedly told his victims that he was acting in defense of his country, by which he meant Afghanistan. Despite having spent his entire life on American soil, Mateen evidently felt that Afghanistan was his homeland and that the U.S. military intervention in his parents’ native country justified slaughtering dozens of civilians in a gay nightclub in Orlando.

What should we make of the fact Mateen committed his crime not as an American but as an Afghan, and that he’d sworn allegiance to the Islamic State? Perhaps the answer is that we shouldn’t make too much of it. Mateen is hardly representative of second-generation Muslims in America, the vast majority of whom would never dream of committing a terrorist attack. It is also true, however, that Mateen is not the first native-born lone-wolf Muslim terrorist to have claimed the lives of Americans in recent years. Syed Rizwan Farook, one half of the couple behind the killings in San Bernardino, California, was born in Chicago. Nadir Soofi, one of the men behind the May 2015 attack in Garland, Texas, was born in Dallas. Given that Muslims make up no more than 1 percent of the U.S. population, and that young Muslim men have been overrepresented among the perpetrators of terror attacks, it is hardly surprising that many Americans view their Muslim countrymen with fear and anxiety.

Like clockwork, Donald Trump has sought to stoke these fears for his own benefit. Shortly after the Orlando attack on Sunday, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that Muslims in America are unassimilable. “It’s almost, I wouldn’t say it’s nonexistent, but it gets to be pretty close. I’m talking about second and third generation,” he said. “For some reason there’s no real assimilation.”

Trump has been rightly chastised for claiming “there’s no real assimilation” among second- and third-generation Muslims: In 2011, 63 percent of Muslim adults in the U.S. were immigrants, while only 15 percent belonged to the second generation. The rest belonged to the third generation and beyond, with many of these Muslims being converts from other faiths, including blacks with deep roots in the U.S. Virtually all second- and third-generation Muslims speak English, and their participation in civic life is not notably lacking. If we were to stick with a very narrow definition of what assimilation entails, we could safely dismiss Trump’s remarks as bloviation.

But let’s put Trump’s idiocy aside for a moment and consider assimilation in a deeper sense. Peter Skerry, a political scientist at Boston College who has devoted much of the past two decades to the study of Muslim American assimilation, has emphasized the central role of generational conflict in shaping Muslim communities. In “Clash of Generations,” an essay published in the Weekly Standard in the wake of the San Bernardino terror attack, Skerry detailed the different ways Muslim immigrants and their children struggle to find their place.

For most Americans, assimilation is an unambiguous good. For most immigrants, however, it is a mixed blessing at best, as it means surrendering cherished aspects of one’s native culture, and allowing ties to family and friends back home to attenuate. While the collapsing cost of communication and long-distance air travel has allowed immigrants to sustain ties to their homelands to a far greater degree, the demands of upward mobility in American life tend to cut against staying true to the old ways. For immigrants, the tradeoffs involved in assimilation are never easy and many, if not most, never fully reconcile themselves to the fact that they’ve left the old world behind.

As Skerry explains, the experience of second-generation Muslims is quite different than that of their immigrant parents, and in some respects more difficult. “They seldom have either the option or the desire to relocate to their parents’ homelands; for them, home is here, in the United States,” Skerry writes. “But because this is the generation that rides the wave of assimilation, whether it wants to or not, this is also the generation that sometimes tries self-consciously to apply the brakes, even to reverse the process, in order to regain what many feel has been lost.”

What might it mean to apply the brakes? It could mean something as simple as taking pride in one’s ethnic heritage or choosing to marry within the fold. But that is not all it can mean.

Throughout the Muslim world, traditional understandings of Islam, rooted in distinct ethnic cultures, have been challenged by the rise of a more globalized Salafi Islam, financed and promoted by Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf states. It is hard enough for tradition-minded Muslims to make the case for more tolerant—or, in the eyes of their detractors, more compromised—brands of Islam in Muslim-majority societies, where debates over what counts as Islam are fierce and often violent. It is harder still in the United States, where Muslim immigrants find themselves far away from traditional sources of familial and religious authority. To young second-generation Muslims, it’s not at all obvious that one ought to practice Islam as it was practiced in Malaysia or Pakistan. Why wouldn’t you instead choose the more authentic brand of Islam you encounter online, or via second-generation Muslim friends? Salafi Islam owes nothing to the forms of Islam that most Muslim immigrants carry with them. Rather, it is austere, pure, and more than a little transgressive. It resonates in particular with second-generation Muslims who see American society as plagued by racial injustice and who resent their parents for their pusillanimity in the face of this injustice.

This brand of Islamic belief, which fuses religion with deep political anger against the status quo, does not always inspire violence, to be sure. It could lead a young second-generation Muslim to seek out a career in social justice, for instance, or to join a peaceful protest movement. Yet, just as some small number of young leftists joined terrorist groups like the Baader-Meinhof gang or the Weather Underground, a small number of young Muslims who adhere to a politicized, culture-free understanding of Islam eventually choose violence. It is not a coincidence that Salafi Islam has given rise to al-Qaida and ISIS.

All of this is to say that Americans are right to fret about the crimes perpetrated by young men like Omar Mateen: Muslim assimilation in America really is fraught, and it’s undeniably a hard problem to solve. This is one reason why I favor a more selective immigration policy—to help ensure we welcome only those who are best suited to flourish in a society like ours.

But it is also undeniable that when Donald Trump declares Muslims are unassimilable, he almost certainly makes matters worse. Sweeping attacks on Muslims can deepen a sense of grievance that already exists. These rhetorical broadsides encourage Muslims to identify not as black or Asian American, or as Wisconsinites or Bernie Sanders enthusiasts, but as Muslims first and foremost. This sharpens the dividing line between Muslims and non-Muslims, and it can contribute to turning resentment into something worse.

Read more from Slate on the Orlando nightclub shooting.