Islamic Studies

The American Muslim Identity

By Dr. Souheil Ghannouchi, Executive Director of MAS

American Muslims: Part of America’s Pluralism

The United States of America is a pluralistic society par excellence. It is a country that does not have a state religion, and Americans do not constitute one race or one ethnicity.

Immigrants have built the USA. Ever since Europeans began settling in what is now the United States by the 16th century, people from different parts of the world have migrated here. They have come from many different religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. Most immigrants came voluntarily; but some were brought by force while others were forced to come.

All groups have faced the challenge of preserving their identity through cultural practices, traditions or religious observances. Although many, initially, elected isolationism to preserve that cultural identity, they were later forced to deal with the challenges of integration into society and developing their new identity. The nature and magnitude of the challenges have been different for the different groups. The outcome of that process has spanned the whole spectrum, from total isolation to complete assimilation. Often, different segments or members of the same group/community have experienced different transitions through the different sectors of this wide-ranged spectrum. American Muslims are not different. Yet, only two-thirds of this Muslim population is from “immigrant” backgrounds — comprising four different generations of immigrants. The other third are mostly native-born African Americans, Hispanics and converts from other ethnic groups.

Muslims also spread throughout the different levels of this broad spectrum of integration into society. Conversely, the current trend is a rapid increase in the percentage of Muslims who were born and raised in this country. These American-born generations constitute more than two-thirds of those Muslims referred to as “immigrant” community. The vast majority of the remaining third, consciously, intentionally and willfully elect to be Americans by choice, choosing America to be their country. Most of these immigrants have lived in the US for quite long times, and many have already attained citizenship.

The vast majority of American Muslims are predominately moderate in their views and attitudes. Their understanding and practice of Islam does not pose any hindrance to their integration into society. Accordingly, the two elements of their identity are perfectly compatible, so much so that they seamlessly intertwine naturally.

Furthermore, the median income and educational levels of American Muslims are above the average for other Americans. This imbues them with a deep sense of commitment to Society and societal stability.

American Muslims have come a long way in integrating into society. They have developed a genuine and cohesive American Muslim identity as well as an integrative way of life. This process of integration promises to be easier and faster than other minorities. When compared with other minorities, Muslims have intrinsic advantages that can facilitate that process. The nature of Islam as a universal religion coupled with the nature of a pluralistic Society of immigrants guided by a Constitution that guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of expression, make the development of an American Muslim identity easier and faster than for most other minorities.

However, this process of integration might slow-down in the short-term due to Islamophobia and the climate of fear that have prevailed since the 9/11 tragedy, as well as the increased direct entanglement of the U.S. with the Muslim world. Yet, if American Muslims approach this situation wisely, they may well turn it into an opportunity to accelerate their integration. Such integration is crucially important in enabling American Muslims to fulfill their important role as a bridge between the U.S. and the Muslim world.

True Islam Mandates Exemplary Citizenship

Being an American does not indicate anything about one’s religion, race, ethnicity, culture, or views. Similarly, being a Muslim does not indicate anything about one’s race, ethnicity, culture, nationality or citizenship. Consequently, there is nothing that prevents the blending or fusion of these two components into one cohesive identity.

There is nothing in Islam that prevents a Muslim from being a good and loyal American citizen. Equally, there is nothing in the requirements for American citizenship that interferes with Muslims practices. It does not restrain them from promoting Islam or fulfilling their duty of encouraging that which is good and preventing that which is evil. Hence, the reference to the term Requirements, is not limited to the legal requirements of citizenship, but also, to the characteristics of a good and loyal citizen. Indeed, one neither needs to compromise any religious duties to be a good citizen, nor to breach any legal or civic duties to be a good Muslim. Actually, civic duties and Muslim religious duties blend harmoniously together. Not only does Islam mandate good citizenship, but also exemplary and active citizenship.

Throughout its history, the U.S. has accommodated all kinds of religions, ethnicities, cultures, and races. Islam and Muslims are no exception, especially since the vast majority of American Muslims are born and raised in America. They do not know any other country or culture except that of the USA.

As for the other Muslim immigrants, they have elected to be Americans by choice. They are grateful for the freedom and the greater opportunities they get in this country. All American Muslims have a stake in this country that they have chosen to be theirs, and in which their children and grandchildren will continue to live. Additionally, the religious obligations of practicing Muslims leave them no option but to work for the well-being of their country and to fulfill all their obligations and contracts that they have willfully undertook to honor when they took the Citizenship Oath, obtained Permanent Residency or filled a Visa Application.

Active Citizens

The nature of the American Society and its Constitution facilitate the integration of any group into society, without forcing them to disavow elements of their original identity.

Indeed, in the America that accommodates all races and sectarian or racial religious groups, integration for Muslims should be easier, because they subscribe to and promote a universal religion. Islam is a religion that throughout its history has accommodated all races, cultures, ethnicities, and nationalities.

If it is possible for Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Jews, Africans, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists to develop an American identity, it should be easier for Muslims to do likewise. Actually, this is absolutely possible because American Muslims include all of those ethnicities and more. Simply stated, Muslims do not constitute one race or nationality; and their religion is neither racial nor sectarian. Furthermore, not only is Islam, with its universal values, compatible with all cultures, but also its high moral standards do encourage the process of integration and contribution to society. Indeed, practicing Muslims restrain themselves from potentially harmful acts and behavior that may be legal, socially condoned or even socially acceptable norms (ex drinking). Therefore, Muslims who follow Islam and might not be part of the solution, would surely not be part of a problem.

Just like everybody else, American Muslims can be any kind of citizens. However, practicing Muslims are expected to be, at the minimum, good citizens; and active Muslims are automatically active citizens. Indeed, fulfilling the mission of Islam requires active Muslims to be civically engaged, reaching out to people and maximizing their interaction with them. This will help to accelerate the development of a genuine and cohesive American Muslim identity. Consequently, to be effective in their mission of Dawa and Islah, active Muslims must fully embrace that American Muslim identity. Indeed, The Qura~n teaches us that prophets were always sent from amongst their own people, using their familiar language to deliver their message effectively and efficiently.

Overcoming the Challenges of Integration

It is important to recognize the main reasons that have delayed or hindered the process of developing an American Muslim identity that would have facilitated integration into society. The major reasons for that lapse are:

  1. The “myth of return” which until recently caused the vast majority of immigrant Muslims to think of themselves as “temporary” immigrants that will one day pack and leave; therefore focusing on preserving their identity,
  2. The sad reality that many Muslims do not adhere to the Islamic obligation of conveying and preaching Islam (dawa) as well as lack of activism, which necessitates and facilitates integration, the development and adoption of an American Muslim identity,
  3. The misconceptions, among some Muslim groups, about the Islamic perspective on the necessity of positive relationship with non-Muslims and the fiqh (understanding) of citizenship,
  4. The blatant and rampant injustices in American foreign policy, especially towards Muslim causes, and the American patronage of corrupt and oppressive regimes in the Muslim world,
  5. The tragic experience of the African Americans, which has generated a great deal of resentment and lingering bitterness,
  6. Most recently, Islamophobia, and the climate of fear that has been fueled by those who have used the tragic events of 9/11 to further their political or career goals.

The myth of return has, for all practical purposes, faded, and the vast majority of Muslims do accept the fact that they are not only here to stay, but are and should be an integral part of Society. Accordingly, MAS is tackling the other obstacles to integration by promoting the proper understanding of Islam, intensifying and diversifying Muslim outreach efforts and civic engagements. We believe that both bigotry and isolation tendencies are natural consequences of ignorance. Hence, it is our firm belief that education facilitates integration.

As for unjust policies, whether domestic or foreign, past or present, our objections to such policies will not prevent us from being proud and loyal citizens of this country. On the contrary, it is the epitome of loyal citizenship to oppose injustices which is the responsibility of every good citizen and all observant Muslim. It is a virtue that is hailed by both Islam and the heritage of this country as well as protected by the Constitution.

Obviously, there are very many good and positive things in this country that should not be dismissed in resentment to those policies. Certainly, there are no countries in the world, even those with majority Muslim populations, that do not have some bad policies and laws. Ironically, in most Muslim countries, people do not enjoy the freedom of religion and expression, as they do here in the United States. Actually, many countries do not allow teaching or propagating Islamic knowledge, Da’wa, which is normally enjoyed in this country. Paradoxically, such prohibition goes against the very important Islamic standpoint regarding the freedom to practice one’s religion.

Most importantly, we have a system in the US where the government is elected and can be petitioned, and that there is a reasonable level of accountability and respect for the will of the people. Therefore, all we need to do is to become involved and engaged, voice our opinions, advocate our positions on issues, and work to promote that which is good and reform or fix that which is wrong. In doing so, we are encouraged by the compatibility of the Constitution with our Islamic values.

Conversely, if we object to a policy, a law, a social norm, a public official, and/or even an amendment to the Constitution, we need to abide by that as long as it in force, without relinquishing our efforts through civic engagement to change it if necessary. In our civic engagement, we will take principled positions that serve American interests, and express them in a relevant discourse to win over public opinion to those positions. We will join hands with those who share our positions. As for our opponents, on a particular issue, and our detractors, we will engage them civically and settle our differences in the court of public opinion, in the ballot box, and through legislation and even litigation in other words, by legal and peaceful means.

Article edited by:
Dr. Abdel-Rahman Mohamed
Karen Courtenay
Hossam AlJabri

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  • Jazzak Allaahu Khayr for posting this.

    I agree with much of it, but I am wondering what is the purpose of and audience for this type of statement?

    Like many statements from Muslim leadership, even from Muslim leadership I greatly admire, in the past several years, it seems determined to rely on slogans and feel good talk and to either deliberately avoid the real difficult issues or pass over them without analysis or rigor.

    Now, this may be entirely appropriate for political statements, many of which are directed more towards non-Muslims even than they are towards Muslims.

    I, personally feel, however, that this poses a problem when we try to move beyond generalities to actual programs in that our broad and vague statements have not given us direction.

    So, I am just wondering, is this an appropriate forum to examine some of the difficulties and/or questions I have with the intellectual analysis in this statement or would such criticisms be unhelpful or better taken up in some other forum?

  • Salam alaykum

    1 – I think its important to recognize that all non-white “ethnic” groups are STILL struggling to truly become “American.” The examples of Japanese American, Indian American, or African American communities are not complete examples. These communities still struggle with preserving their cultures and identities while at the same time trying to figure out how to assimilate.

    Secondly, what does it mean to be American? What does it mean to be assimilated? These terms need to be defined. If we look to someone like Clarence Thomas and Condeleeza Rice as examples of how African Americans have assimilated into American society, then we need to change our perspectives of what Assmiliaiton and American means as Muslims.

    2 – I wonder a little about the assertions that are made early in the article – particularly stated about the above average income and educational status of Muslims in the United States. I strongly suggest that MAS and other organizations should take the lead on studying our communities. I know a few studies have been done (like the one by Pew), but I do not believe that they have a strong sample size (specifically geographically) and they do not seek to find out what our concerns as a community are. (for example. . . pew asked about suicide bombing).

    I think that in the US, the fact of the matter is that organizations, especially those of national prominence, come out of wealthier Muslim communities. Not out of any spite, but out of simply having the perspective of what’s in our own communities, the organizations tend to develop the needs of the US Muslim community as a whole based on the needs of wealthier, more educated Muslims. Other, more poorer communities and their needs, are left out. The community I grew up in is probably one of the wealthiest and most active communities in the US. However, not far away, there are Muslim communities made up of working-class individuals who have concerns that our community has not even had to deal with. Therefore, any study done should deal with understanding different communities w/in our own.

    – NA

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