sainey-fayeBy Sainey Faye

The debate on Islam and the article on “Jihad And Jihadism” is very interesting and educative. The author, Dr. Drammeh is correct in his assertion of the Muslim contribution to education and Europe’s civilization; otherwise known as the Renaissance and Industrial revolution.

Muslim Spain, and earlier Greek and Rome both had a jump start from both Arabs and African Muslims in their civilizations; especially in science, math, theology, literature etc. Muslim scholars were a lightening rod in Scriptural translations and other educational materials.

To add a few bututs to the discussion, read below a few excerpts by our own scholar – Dr. Sulayman Nyang on Islam In America. It is also interesting that whilst Islam had been in America for centuries, Americans have little understanding of it. Some researchers have now found that even Columbus who sailed from Muslim ruled Spain, had two Muslim captains – Martin Alonzo Pinzon and his brother, Vincent Yanez Pinzon. The former in charge of the “Pinta” and the younger in charge of the “Nina”. The also help build the “Santa Maria” and they hailed from the “Marinid dynasty of Morocco, and descendants of the Sultan Abu Zayan Muhammad 3rd , who ruled (1362-1366). Morocco ruled Spain for a while and Muslims built learning centers in Seville, Cordoba, etc, which later transferred to other western European cities; and helped nurture many universities which are now famous in Europe and America. The Muslim African explorers, especially the Mandinkas of West Africa – Mali and elsewhere, are said to figure out prominently in their role in propagating Islam in North and South America, and Ivan Sertima wrote about it.That’s another topic which we will touch upon in the future.Islam has been around for long now, and it is still not understood by many around the world, and studies on it are helping a lot.

For a long time, many towns and places in America and Canada have Islamic names like, Medina in New York, Mecca In Indiana, Medina In Ohio, Medina In Idaho, Medina In Texas, Medina In Tennessee, Medina In North Dakota, Mahomet In Illinois, Islamorada Florida, etc.

Nyang’s paper on Islam in America.

The following article appeared on pages one through thirteen of Volume 1, Issue 2 of Studies in Contemporary Islam.

The Muslim Community in the United States: Some Issues

Sulayman S. Nyang*
Muslims in the United States now number at least five million. The demographic complex of Muslims is very diverse. It includes (alphabetically) Algerians, Afghans, and Albanians, Bengalis, Burmans, Ethiopians, Indians, Indonesians, Malians, Palestinians, Pakistanis, Yemenis, and Zambians. In view of the growing Muslim presence in America, and in view of the diversity of the Muslims’ national origins and cultural backgrounds, scholars, journalists, and TV news magazines are beginning to pay greater attention to these new citizens of the United States. This increased attention has in turn led to, among other things, an increased attention being paid to the study of the common elements in the migration patterns of Muslims and other faith communities in the country.

This paper examines the Muslim patterns of migration and settlement in America, comparing these with similar Jewish patterns. Starting with the assumption that the experiences of the American Muslim community are similar to those of other faith communities that settled in the United States earlier, and building on the sociological insight that each of the previous religious communities immigrating from the Old World carried with it most, if not all, of the cultural and religious differences that had caused it to become fragmented, the paper argues that one way of indicating that Jewish and Muslim American experiences have points of convergence and divergence is to identify such points within each of the two communities. Another objective of the paper is to show how Muslim leaders and their followers are dealing with differences within their faith community. A third objective is to examine the nature of the challenges facing Muslim organizations and leadership in those parts of the country that have a sizable Muslim presence.

A. The Myth of Return and the Coagulation of the American Muslim Identity

One of the most pressing issues confronting the American Muslim community is that of the question of identity, which arises for many of the immigrant Muslims who still suffer from the myth-of-return syndrome. Scholars who have looked at immigrants around the world both in contemporary and historical terms have come to the conclusion that this phenomenon has existed since the earliest migrations of humans.[1] The classic example of the migrating agent who knew, on a conscious level, that he was not going to return to his original homeland is that of the Patriarch Abraham, whose life story is central to the three Abrahamic religions. Christian and Muslim immigrants know, from Biblical and Qur’anic accounts, about the decision of Abraham not to return, but that has not deterred recent Muslim and Christian Arab immigrants in the United States and Canada from entertaining the myth of return. Muhammad Anwar, a British scholar of Pakistani origins, captured the spirit of the Pakistani immigrants’ life in Britain in the title of his book, Pakistanis in Britain: The Myth of Return. How does this psychological and psychocultural state affect the Muslims, and how does it affect the self-definition of the American Muslim community?

[2] The data are still sparse; I do not know of any systematic survey that has been conducted, Gallup or Harris style, on this subject. But the growing evidence available in the Muslim press and in Muslim oral exchanges at conferences and symposia does enable one to make some observations on the matter. There is, indeed, a growing realization among Muslims that the myth of return is a psychological wedge separating the second-generation immigrants from the native-born American Muslims. Those immigrants who still entertain the possibility that they are one day going to strike it rich and will then head home delay the necessary cultural and political adjustment of their families in the local communities, and also prevent the inclusion of their interests in the larger American basket of needs and special interests. The inability to resolve this issue spells disaster to an embryonic community, one whose younger generation is trying to secure a foothold in the American landscape and many of whose first-generation immigrants have made significant strides toward greater Americanization.

[3] The myth of return affects the relationship not only between the first-generation immigrants and their children and grandchildren, but also between the immigrant community and the native-born Americans. In a paper presented at a conference, I have argued that “pride and prejudice” have developed among American Muslims because the myth of return allows the first-generation immigrant to hold on to the old ways of his homeland and to make little or no effort to adjust properly and meaningfully in his adopted homeland.[4] This points to a fundamental difference between the Jewish immigrants and the other groups who came to the shores of the United States. As the literature on Jewish immigration clearly shows, the Jews fleeing persecution and pogroms in Western and Eastern Europe had nowhere else to go; America was their final destination.

[5]The American Muslim community’s myth of return has created many problems of adjustment and assimilation for many recent immigrants from the Muslim world. While these problems are not peculiar to these immigrants, there are reasons to believe that greater Muslim participation in the American experiment would depend largely on the elimination of this myth. The first problem is attitudinal. Those immigrants who dream of returning home are the least likely to change their nationality, and their children are likely to be subjected to tremendous pressure to keep the cultural robes of distinctiveness. By not making any serious effort to be part and parcel of the larger society, these men and women have created a cultural ghetto for themselves and their children. From within these cultural barricades, they make occasional forays into the larger society to fulfill certain needs. A sense of inadequacy in making contacts with people outside their cultural and religious boundaries militates against their making such encounters-even when those in the mainstream are their kith and kin. The myth of return thus poses a formidable challenge to Muslim political activists who are interested in voter registration.[6] Before you can convince someone to vote or to join a political party, you must get him or her to understand the notion of civic responsibility and to appreciate the benefits of citizenship. But the entertaining of the myth of return has, besides negative political consequences, certain cultural consequences.

The first such consequence is erosion of the second-generation American Muslims’ confidence in their new homeland. The constant harangues by parents about the virtues and merits of the Mother Country and their incessant use of electronic props to reinforce feelings of nostalgia for it have often combined to create alienation among second-generation immigrants. In a pioneering study he made almost three decades ago, Professor Abdo El-Kholy observed this phenomenon among Arab-American Muslims.[7] The problem has not disappeared, and the electronic revolution has not made the job of Muslim promoters of assimilation any easier.

The second cultural consequence of the myth of return is the lack of attention paid to the socialization process of children. By hoping to leave eventually for their original homelands, Muslim immigrants do not, for example, attend Parent Teacher Association meetings, and, for this and other related reasons, they are woefully ignorant of the state of affairs in the schools their children attend.[8] These Muslim parents-unlike those Muslims, whether native-born or immigrant, who are cognizant of the dangers facing their children in the public school system-see the public school system, or even the private parochial schools, as convenient childcare facilities where their children can pass time and socialize while they win bread for their households and save money for their eventual return home.

The third cultural consequence of the myth of return is the development of a defensive attitude toward the media and the larger society. Instead of using the democratic means for changing stereotypes about them, as was done by other, assimilated groups, such men and women spend much time lamenting how they are being misrepresented, when they could have used such time-tested mechanisms to improve the situation as writing to their members of Congress and meeting with the politicians of their towns, cities, and districts. Instead of forming coalitions with existing groups and pressing for their issues, these men and women resort to political quietism.[9]

For community builders and leaders, the myth of return has another negative consequence. At a time when Muslims are trying to register their presence in the Public Square of American society, some members of their community continue to create conditions that are likely to be detrimental to the integration of their group in the larger society. How is this behavior manifested in the American Public Square? The decision by many of these individuals to adjust to their cultural realities prevents them from mingling and mixing with their coreligionists and others in society, who are both ignorant of their cultural backgrounds and their languages. Unwilling to widen the circle of brotherhood and fellowship in such a way as to include in it the native-born American Muslims, such men and women deify their cultural and linguistic boundaries by deliberately shutting out others through their constant use of ethnic languages. This negative consequence of the myth of return is beginning to receive attention in certain Muslim circles. This author, too, has sounded the alarm in many lectures and speeches given at Muslim community centers in America.

Drawing upon his research on the earlier immigration of other religious groups to the United States, he has pointed to the example of the German-American Catholics and the consequences of their linguistic chauvinism for the Catholic Church in America.[10] Learning from the record of past religious immigrants, many Muslim community leaders have joined the cause to tear down the barricades. This task is not easily accomplished, for many of these immigrants have created around themselves a security net through elaborate mechanisms of cultural separation. A simple principle to keep in mind is that whenever two Muslims from different parts of the world meet at a masjid (mosque) in the United States or Canada and neither knows Arabic, English should be used as the medium of conversation between them. This principle applies to all interactions that take place between those Muslims who speak a common language and those who do not. Muslims are, it seems, beginning to see the logic of accommodation and to understand the disruptive nature of cultural segregation.

B. American Muslims and the American Racial Dilemma

Muslims became more visible in American society after the success of the Civil Rights Movement in bringing about significant changes in American political, social, and economic life. Unlike the Jews and Catholics, who had joined the Civil Rights Movement and the Labor Movement in the battle for social justice in the decades before and after the Second World War, American Muslims came to the limelight after Vietnam and the protest against the Vietnam War. Even though the American Muslims joined the mainstream in the 1970s and 1980s-that is, after the days of Jim Crowism were over-they cannot deny the continued existence of racism in American society. If there is any religious community whose ethos and ethnic make-up qualify it to contribute to interracial reconciliation and cooperation, it is the Muslim community. No doubt, the Jewish community and the Catholic Church have diverse ethnic memberships, but the Muslims are increasingly challenging these sister religions in the area of moral accountability in the context of American race relations. This is particularly true in the context of the developing relationships between the African-American community and the three Abrahamic religions. It is to this and other, related issues that we now turn.

A principal virtue of Islam that the earliest propagator of this religion sought to present before the American people was Islam’s allergy to racism. A white American advocate of Islam made this claim a long time ago in his Islam in America (1893). Writing toward the end of the last century, Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb, the founding father of the American Muslim press and the first known native-born American Muslim, presented the non-racist message of Islam at a time when certain segments of American society were offering both theological and scientific justification for racism.[11] Although the historical record shows that Webb had little or no effect on his contemporaries, the fact that he saw in Islam a solution to what the Scandinavian social scientist Gunnar Myrdal called the “American Dilemma” has spotlighted the subject for our generation. Living at the turn of the century and the millennium, and writing from the vantage point of an American Muslim immigrant whose research on the American Muslim community has deepened his understanding of the Webbian legacy, I am struck by the existence, within the Muslim community, of “pride and prejudice,” manifestations of which are linked to several factors that deserve our analytical attention.[12]

The first factor has to do with the Muslims’ adjustment to the American realities. Coming to a society that prides itself on individual freedom and equality, and condemned to wear the badge of racial consciousness, the immigrant, whether he or she is a Muslim or not, struggles to adjust to the racial climate of his or her adopted society.[13] No matter how he or she defines his or her racial and ethnic identity, he or she must come to terms with the psychology and sociology of the host culture. The average Muslim immigrant, as I have stated elsewhere, is looked upon by his fellow Americans as a member of a racial group and is further classified culturally and religiously as a member of several cultural and religious groups in America: If he is not mindful of the nonracial nature of Islam in its ideal form, the American Muslim, by virtue of his early conditioning in a racially-conscious society, could easily trap himself in a world of racial consciousness that cuts him off from other Muslims in different racial groups. This is a major challenge to the emerging Muslim ummah. It should be pointed out that other American religions are still grappling with this racial problem.[14]

Because of the racial, ethnic, and linguistic heterogeneity of the Muslim communities of America, one persistent challenge Muslims will face in this country is that of building bridges between the variegated islands of Muslims scattered around the country.

What makes the race issue explosive and potentially divisive for the American Muslim community is the emerging class differences between the immigrant Muslim families and the Muslim segment of the Black underclass that has seized upon Islam as a moral, psychological, and spiritual life jacket in the stormy sea of American racism. This racial and ethnic divide, which is obvious to most Muslims and has received comments in the Muslim press, did not exist prior to the transformation of the Nation of Islam of the late Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the popularization of the Sunni Islam of Malcolm X (Alhajj Malik Shabazz) among many African-Americans.[15]

Before the elevation of Imam W. D. Mohammed to the supreme position within the old Nation of Islam, most American Muslim immigrants and most Black Christians saw the Nation of Islam as a peculiar religious group whose teachings were neither orthodox Christianity nor orthodox Islam. In the American imagination of the fifties and sixties, these “Black Muslims,” as C. Eric Lincoln called them in his classic study, was an American invention. Both Lincoln and his Nigerian counterpart, Essen Udom, described the Nation of Islam as a Black Nationalist Movement with a theology that centers on some form of Black racism.[16]

However, since 25 February 1975, the date of death of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the American Muslim community has witnessed a major increase in its numbers. Not only has Imam W. D. Mohammed brought hundreds of thousands of his father’s followers into the fold of Sunni Islam, but many other groups, independent of Nation of Islam, have also surfaced and developed within the African-American community. Movements such as the Darul Islam, the Islamic Party of North America, the Islamic Brotherhood, Inc., and the Hanafi and Sufi groups that have taken hold in certain segments of the Black community in America, are now taken into account by scholars and journalists when they talk about Islam in Afro-America.[17]

The numbers of Muslims thus increasing within the Black communities of America, the American Muslims in general and the immigrant Muslims in particular are challenged to address simultaneously the two issues of race and class. In order for the emerging Muslim community to remain united and cohesive, both its leaders and followers must identify and understand the pitfalls of interracial and interethnic strife within the American Muslim community. At the elite level, certain measures have been taken to address the problem. It is, however, too early to predict whether these efforts will prove effective or not. One recent development that may hold a key to the future is the reorganization of the top leadership of the American Muslim Council (AMC). This development has implications for both immigrant-native-born American relations and Jewish-Muslim relations. Some recent changes at the AMC have implications for the relationship between the two main branches of the American Muslim community. One of them has to do with the selection of two prominent American Blacks to serve as the Council’s president and executive director. Their appointment has created goodwill among African-American Muslims. Only time will tell whether such developments will lead to greater cooperation and collaboration between the two main branches of the American Muslim community. But, even without looking into a crystal ball, we can say that the future of race relations within the Muslim community and outside it will be decided by the closeness not only of inter-Muslim relations but also of the Muslim interaction with the larger society and by the demonstration effect of American Muslim life in the United States. Until and unless immigrant Muslims abandon the myth of return and participate increasingly in the political and other spheres of life, the obstacles to greater Muslim visibility and greater Muslim impact on the moral structures of American life will remain. The leaders of one organization or another may create a healthy and favorable climate for mutual understanding and cooperation among Muslim elites, but as long as the Muslim members of the American underclass remain isolated and uncared for, the American Muslims will not be in any different position than that of the other religious groups in the country.[18]

The principal challenge for the American Muslims in the new century will be whether the teachings of Islam will influence the moral sensitivities of the American people. Related to, but different from, the issue of inter-Muslim relations and the impact of the compound problem of race and class on Muslim community life in America, is that of Jewish-Muslim relations, seen in light of the phenomenon of growing Black leadership in the Muslim community. As stated above, the rise of new Black leadership in the American Muslim Council has implications for the Jewish community. As known to observers of the American religious scene, the Jewish community is engaged in some form of interreligious dialogue with a small number of Muslim groups and communities around the United.[19]

The American Muslim Council tries to build bridges to the Christian and Jewish communities from the vantage point of political activism on Capitol Hill. This has led to several conflicts between the old leadership of the AMC and some Jewish leaders operating out of Washington, D.C. What muddied the waters was a Wall Street Journal article written by Steve Emerson.[20] This American Jewish writer some time ago charged that the Clinton administration was in bed with Hamas sympathizers who were working from within the AMC. His allegations were directed against the old AMC leadership, especially the former Executive Director of the AMC, Abdulrahman al-Amoudi. Although few Americans give credence to such accusations penned by Steve Emerson, the allegations in question did considerable damage to any existing bridges of cooperation between the AMC and the Jewish community.

The appointment of an African-American as the new executive director of the American Muslim Council and the election of another to the presidency of the organization could open up new opportunities for Jewish-Muslim relations and Black-Jewish relations. Since, for many Black Americans, Black-Jewish relations are Jewish-Muslim relations in another form, it is imperative that Black American Muslims are present at the table whenever Jews and Blacks are engaged in any serious dialogue. Events over the last twenty years point to some progress made in this arena of human relations between certain African-American Muslims and the local Jewish communities across the country. The chief promoter of Black-Jewish and Jewish-Muslim dialogue has been Imam W. D. Mohammed. Many conferences and meetings between this Muslim leader and members of Jewish communities have taken place since he assumed leadership of the large Black community after his father’s death. His example has been followed by several local leaders, and the Muslim Journal and its predecessor publications have all documented his attempts to build bridges between Jews and African-American Muslims.

In light of the above, it is evident that some progress has indeed been made in the area of Jewish-Muslim relations, even though many rough edges still exist. But while noting the gains made in intercommunal relations, we must not forget the divisive potential of certain issues. For example, whereas Imam W. D. Mohammed is perceived in many Jewish circles as the voice of moderation and cooperation among the successors of the late Honorable Elijah Muhammad, his rival and former associate, Minister Louis Farrakhan, has become the boite noire of the Jewish community.[21] The animosity between the Farrakhan supporters and the members of the Jewish community is widely known. Suggestions of dialogue between Jews and Muslims are often rejected by two types of Muslims-those whom I have described elsewhere as “oysters,”[22] and those who are politically sensitive to the Arab-Israeli problem in the Middle East. The first group dismisses any call for dialogue because it holds conservative views about Jews and about their role as custodians of divine scriptures. The second group subscribes to the ideological perspective that no Jewish-Muslim dialogue can take place because the Palestinians are suffering under Israeli occupation. Minister Louis Farrakhan appeals to some of these elements. For this and related reasons, the American Jewish community has continued to view and treat him with suspicion.

C. American Muslims and the Sectarian Divide

All religious groups in history have suffered from the slings and arrows of sectarianism. Sectarianism has deep roots in the human psyche. Sociologists of religion have written treatises, trying to demonstrate how and why human motivations have, since ancient times, played themselves out in the context of religious schism. Here we will not engage in any detailed philosophical and sociological discussion of the psychological causes of the phenomenon among the American Muslims. Rather, we are interested in the impact of sectarianism on the adjustment and assimilation of Muslims in the United States. When we look at Muslim communities across America, we find that the divisions carried over from the Old World are replicated in the communities through human intrigue and machination. The old Shi’ite-Sunnite division has accompanied the South Asians, Iranians, and Arabs inhabiting both the East Coast and the West Coast. It is true that the intensity of sectarianism in the Old World has diminished considerably in the United States-and there are several reasons for that. First, the sense of individualism in America has instilled, in both the American Sunnite and the American Shi’ite, a greater sense of self-importance. While living in Iran or Pakistan.

Ends

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