American Muslims: In search of a Third Discourse
Before September 11, American Muslims were on top of the world. The charisma of Islam was invincible and no one, white, black, Hispanic, Jew, Hindu or Catholic could resist its call. Islam was winning converts from all groups and all genders. Mosques were coming up in every major city in North America and so were Islamic schools and Islamic political action committees. American Muslim leaders, until recently a frustrated and marginal group suddenly found themselves rubbing shoulders with Presidents.
Islam was the fastest growing religion in America, in Europe, in Australia with 1.4 billion adherents worldwide and there were now six million Muslims in America. It was American Muslim votes that made the difference in Florida and were primarily responsible for placing George Bush Jr. in the White House. It was just a matter of time when there would be 25 million Muslims in America, The White House and the Congress would be in the pockets of Muslim lobbies, the Jewish lobby would be finally overcome and Israel would be at the mercy of an American administration governing under the influence of Muslim PACS. Islam would not only manifest itself in its truest form in America, but would also further empower America making this great power a great society. In November 2000, after the arrival of American Muslims as a political force, it was difficult to separate reality from fantasy.
I remember telling my wife; maybe I will be our Henry Kissinger, the first Muslim to become the Secretary of State. Then came Bin Laden and his bloody men and along with the World Trade Center, American Muslim dreams and aspirations came crashing down.
Things seemed to have changed overnight. The community does not dream of new victories anymore. Defending and preserving the existing achievements and assets such as the nearly 2000 mosques, the various Islamic schools, charities and access to media and government itself seems like an uphill task. The two sources of Islam’s growth, immigration and conversion now are both arrested. Ashcroft’s crusade has put an effective stop to the flow of Muslims into this country and the strong association between Islam and extremist political violence in the media sustained by Al Qaeda and Palestinian suicide bombers has done unimaginable harm to Islam’s image in America.
Not only has the community lost developmental momentum but most of its hard earned good will has dissipated and now it faces hostility and prejudice as never before.
The most important aspect of the institutional development of American Muslims in the past thirty years was an implicit faith in American freedoms. Muslims were never worried about their civil rights in America. So they invested in institutions which would either preserve the Islamic identity of the next generation – mosques and Islamic schools, or advance the interests of Muslims overseas – such as the various charities and organizations dedicated to the Palestinian, Pakistani, Kashmiri and other “backhome” causes.
The attack on civil rights that has come in the form of various programs and legislations such as the USA Patriot Act, which effectively nullifies Amendments 4, 5, 6, and 8 directly and indirectly amendments 1 and 9 has caught the community off guard. American Muslims were never prepared to fight a major civil rights battle and they have not yet begun retooling in earnest.
Before September 11, American Muslims were a foreign policy community and now suddenly they are forced to become a domestic policy community, and they are confused and unprepared.
The shattering of the American Muslim dream and the crisis of civil rights has the community in total disarray. They are afraid, confused and extremely insecure about their future. While the American Muslim leaders are extremely politicized and deeply wedded to foreign issues most American Muslims are more concerned with the here and the now. All they care about is their salaries, the immigration applications of their families, the size of their homes, the universities which offer the abbreviated seven year medical program, and the possibility of ensuring that their kids marry within the community.
Sure these ordinary, simple minded, often as materialist as any American, Muslims once in a while feel guilty and write a check for some cause back home, but very few of them are as deeply motivated and committed to the so called Islamic causes as one might think after listening to American Muslim leaders.
If there are indeed six million Muslims in America and if they all spend just a hundred dollars a year on foreign causes, American Muslim organizations would have over half a billion dollars to spend. But most Muslim organizations, except those who channel the Zakaath (obligatory Islamic charity), have very little resources and often have trouble even paying their employees. The American Muslim Council, for all its swagger and posturing has just a couple of thousand paying members; less than 0.05%. This is essentially because most Muslim do not really care about these foreign causes. They care more about mosques and Islamic schools and the future of their children.
Because most American Muslims are focused inward, they are caught in the cold war between the American Government and the American Muslim organizations. The former suspecting and accusing the latter of links with terrorist organizations and the latter accusing the former of seeking to use September 11 to marginalize them and roll back Islamic gains in America.
Most American Muslims have very little use for the radicalism of militants that belong to Al Qaeda or the Taliban. That is primarily the reason why they are here and not back home. They do not support terrorism or the extremism that is now threatening America. But they also cannot support the assault on their civil rights launched by this administration. Increasingly they are nervous about the anti-Islam rhetoric coming from the Christian Right and its growing influence on the White House.
In a sense, American Muslims are caught between the rock and the hard places. They are against terrorism and they are against the war on Islam. They are not with Bin Laden, they were never with him, but they are finding it increasingly hard to be with Bush and his campaigns at home and abroad. Intuitively they are seeking a third way – one that will save Islam from extremism and America from the decline in its civil rights standards, but unfortunately their leaders have failed to articulate the third way.
The community needs to find a new way of thinking about its future in America. They have to transcend the Islam vs. the West (Israel) paradigm which still shapes their leaders’ politics. They need to listen more to the intellectuals and scholars who are seeking to chart a new path for the community.
American Muslims need new leadership, more intellectual and less political only then will they be able to find a third way out of their current dilemmas.