WASHINGTON — 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 House.
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 Muslim audiences.
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 heard:
“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 empower ourselves.
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.