Muslims in America. American Muslims. The difference between these two
labels may seem a matter of semantics, but making the transition from
the first to the second represents a profound, if somewhat silent,
revolution that many of us in the Muslim community have been undergoing
in the two years since Sept. 11.
On its face, this shift would seem to threaten the very core of
Muslim identity and empowerment. After all, in the decade before the
events of Sept. 11, Islam was one of the fastest-growing religions in
North America. Mosques and Islamic schools were going up in every major
city. Groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the
American Muslim Alliance established chapters in nearly every area with
a Muslim population.
Muslim leaders, once a frustrated and marginal group, found
themselves being courted by politicians, the news media and foreign
governments seeking their support and influence. Indeed, many Muslims
believe it was their votes that made the difference in Florida, making
them primarily responsible for placing President Bush in the White
At the time, the word that best summed up the Muslim sense of self
was "fateh" a conqueror. Many religious and community leaders were
convinced that Islam would not only manifest itself in its truest form
in this country, but would also make America already a great power
into a great society. Some even proclaimed that one day America would be
an Islamic state.
On Sept. 11, of course, that dream evaporated. Today, the civil
rights environment has declined drastically with the passage of the USA
Patriot Act and other antiterrorism measures. Both sources of Islam's
growth immigration and conversion are now in jeopardy, and we
continue to face hostility and prejudice in many corners of society.
There is no more talk of making America an Islamic state. Any reminder
of this pre-9/11 vision generates sheepish giggles and snorts from
Yet adjusting to the new political and social realities of life in
the United States these past two years has also had unexpected and
positive effects for many Muslims. We have been compelled to transform
ourselves to connect more intimately with American mainstream society.
Today, many Muslims realize that it is not their Islamic identity but
their American citizenship that is fragile. Before Sept. 11, Muslims in
America focused primarily on changing United States policy toward
Palestine, Kashmir and Iraq. Since Sept. 11, the attempt to reconstitute
our identity as American Muslims is making domestic relations and
civil rights and interfaith relations more important.
Much of this is playing out at the local level. In Miami, for
example, efforts are underway by a group of progressive Muslims to endow
chairs in Islamic studies at American universities. In the Muslim
community in Duluth, Minn., fund-raising has begun to support social
services, including housing and health care initiatives for the poor. In
Indianapolis, Muslim residents are opening soup kitchens. And think of
the familiar advertising campaign by the Council on American-Islamic
Relations in which Muslims announce, "We are American and we are
Muslims." It is not without design that "American" is stated first.
Even more vital, many Muslims in this country have come to acutely
understand the vulnerabilities of minorities and the importance of
democracy and civil rights. Because we took our American citizenship for
granted, we did not acknowledge its value and virtues. But now that it
is imperiled, the overwhelming desire of many Muslims is that America
remain true to its democratic and secular values.
This summer I addressed the National Imams' Conference in Washington
and spent a week in the Sierras with 400 American Muslims. I had
extended conversations with participants. Both leaders and ordinary
Muslims seem to be possessed with a strong desire for change and
self-transformation. These were some of the frequent sentiments that I
"America is our home, we will not become foreigners in our own
homeland." "Islam is about invitation and peace, not conflict." "We have
to take back Islam and also win back the hearts and minds of Americans."
It is unfortunate that American Muslim identity is being
reconstructed under duress. But it can still be a meaningful and
transcendent experience. The aftermath of Sept. 11 may have shattered
some dreams, but it has also forced us to reconnect with reality and
There is still much progress to be made. We need to continue to
demonstrate that Muslims in this country constitute an ethical and
philanthropic community that cares about humanitarian causes, about
America and Americans and stands for justice and rights as embodied in
the Constitution. Just like other ethnic groups before us, we have to
pay our dues to this nation before we demand that they change themselves
and the world for us.
But Americans, too, must play a role. They cannot allow events
overseas to foster anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobia at home. They
must recognize the insecurities and fears of their Muslim neighbors and
extend a hand of friendship and support. The choices we face are tough,
but Muslims must realize that the interests of our sons and daughters,
who are American, must come before the interests of our brothers and
sisters, whether they are Palestinian, Kashmiri or Iraqi. Only then will
Muslims in America become American Muslims.
Muqtedar Khan, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is
author of ``American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom.''
Bridging Faith and Freedom