Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
Select Page
American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion

American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion

One of the nightmares of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the mullah who ruled Iran with an iron fist for a decade, was ha he called “the Americanization of Islam.”

Khomeini feared that the infiltration of such an American ideas as the rule of law, democracy, the rights of the individual, alternative life-styles and, above all, the separation of religion and state, into Muslim communities would undermine commitment to the faith. For the old curmudgeon, the slogan “Death to America!” was as important as any testimony of faith.

Paul M. Barrett, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, however, shows that millions of Muslims live in the United States, the homeland of “The Great Satan”, without abandoning their faith. In a sense, Muslims enjoy far ore religious freedom in the United States than they do in the Islamic Republic built by Khomeini. (In the US, all versions of Islam are free to practice and propagate. In the Islamic Republic in Iran, however, only the Khomeinist version has full freedom.)

No one knows for sure how many Muslims there are in the United States, and Barrett offers no conclusive figures. Estimates, however, put the number at anything between three to six million. It is unfortunate that Barrett did not pay more attention to the need for establishing a credible figure to help end an old controversy on the subject.

Barrett starts by dispelling a number of common misconceptions with regard to American Muslims. For example, he shows that, contrary to common assumptions, black Americans do not form a majority of Muslims in the US. (They are only 20 per cent, mostly recent converts to Islam.) The largest bloc of Muslims in the US, some 34 per cent, belongs to Indians and Pakistanis, recent immigrants who started arriving in large numbers only after the 1970s. Turks, Iranians and “others” account for the remainder.

According to Barrett, some 85 per cent of American Muslims are Sunnis, with the Shiites accounting for the remaining 15 per cent. What is not clear, however, is whether Barrett includes the Nation of Islam, a mostly Afro-American movement, in the Sunni column.

Barrett offers a number of surprising facts. For examples, almost 60 per cent of American Muslims hold college or university degrees, more than twice the number for average Americans. Most American Muslims work in service industries, especially in managerial positions, and earn 20 per cent more than the average American.

Thanks to continued massive immigration, especially from India and Pakistan, and because of larger families, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the US. It also attracts the largest number of converts, in competition not only against Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Baha’ism, but also against such fashionable sects such as The Church of Scientology. Barrett also reminds his readers that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world.

Barrett’s book has no clear structure and could be read as a series of independent reportages. He devotes a god part of the book to the portraits of seven Muslims, supposed to represent the diversity of the American Muslims. He gives each of the seven a label: “scholar”, “activist”, and “feminist” for example.

Of the seven, only one, Osama Siblani, is a Shiite. Of Lebanese origin, Siblani immigrated to the US from Lebanon in 1976 and settled in Dearborn, Michigan, the stronghold of Arab-Americans since the middle of the last century. Siblani, who publishes the newspaper Arab American, the largest Arab [publication in the US, emerges as a complex figure. On the one hand, he is a great admirer of the so-called “American dream” while, on the other, his paper blames the US for much that goes wrong in the Muslim world and elsewhere. A passionate supporter of the Hezballah, a branch of the Khomeinist movement, Siblani is critical of Lebanese politicians and parties that resist its attempt to seize power in Beirut.

One of the colorful figures presented by Barrett is Siraj Wahhaj, an African-American Muslim who promotes many of the themes, such as self-reliance and hard work, originally developed by Malcolm X. Wahhaj believes that the US will one day adopt the Shariaa as its basic law to save itself from alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography and prostitution.

It is hard to see in what way the seven individuals portrayed here represent Muslims in the United States. In fact, speaking of a single Muslim community in the US, or anywhere else for that matter, could be misleading. Islam is a faith that is adhered to and practiced individually. There are no formal church structures as in Christianity, and certainly no priesthood and papacy.

The fact is worth stressing for at least two reasons.

The first concerns integration. The so-called “American melting pot” cannot integrate people as communities. It integrates people from countless backgrounds and cultures only as individuals. To lump millions of people from dozens of different cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds together because of their assumed common faith is an exercise in artificial communiatrianism.

There is a second reason why putting the emphasis on the community aspect of Islam in America is wrong. This is because American Muslims have different cultural aspirations and political sensibilities. In the year 2000, for example, American Muslims of Arab and Iranian origin voted overwhelmingly for George W Bush while Muslims of Afro-American background chose Al Gore. In 2004, most Arab-Americans , along with Afro-American Muslims, voted against Bush while Muslims of Indo-Pakistani and Iranian origin, remained loyal to Bush.

Barrett devotes a good part of the book to his thoughts about what should be done to improve relations between American Muslims and the broader American reality.

Sadly, his analysis is often shaky while he offers few serious suggestions. Barrett’s claim that Muslim students from the Middle East, bring radicalism to America is certainly hard to sustain. There is evidence that things work the other way round. It is in US universities that Muslim students from the Middle Eats become radicalized.

Two examples would suffice to illustrate the point.

First, all nine members of the leadership of the Iranian Trotskyite party that helped the mullahs overthrow the Shah in 1979 were graduates of US universities while five members of the first ministerial Cabinet set up by Khomeini were naturalized American citizens of Iranian origin.

Second, between 1970 and 2002 the US was the single most important source of funding for radical Islamist movements outside the Middle East. It was also in Dallas, Texas, that in 1985 the various branches of Hezbollah managed to hold their first and only international gathering outside Iran.

Today, the bulk of the anti-American material that is used in the Muslim world is produced in the United States itself, mostly by non-Muslims.

Barrette’s most surprising recommendation is that the US should modify its foreign policy and enforce some measure of censorship in order not to hurt Muslim “sensibilities.” The truth, however, is that millions of Muslims immigrated to the US precisely because they wanted to live in a society based on freedom of belief and expression.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

More Posts