On Being An American and a Muslim:
Dilemmas of Politics and Culture
By Ali A. Mazrui
American Islam: Between Identity and Policy
In terms of national origins, Arab Americans have been politically active since before Israel was born. Americans of Arab origin have included Christians (such as the consumer advocate Ralph Nader) as well as the more politicized Muslim Arabs. In the struggle to prevent the partition of Palestine before 1947-8 both Christian and Muslim Arabs lobbied hard in favour of "undivided Palestine". To the present day the Arab American population in the United States is more Christian than Muslim, on balance.
But after Israel was created the "Palestinian cause" in the United States became increasingly identified with Muslims on their own. This coincided with a period of unprecedented Jewish rise in influence in the American political process - in the second half of the twentieth century.
Although the number of Arabs within the U.S. population rose from 1948 (the year of Israel's creation) to 1967 (the year of the Six-Day war), Arab impact on U.S. foreign policy probably declined during that period. This was almost certainly in direct proportion to the impressive expansion of the influence of the pro-Israeli lobby on Capitol Hill and on sections of the Federal Government during those years. Many Arab Americans also chose to keep a low profile out of fear of Zionist extremists and of other zealots of Middle Eastern politics.
What has changed in the last quarter of the twentieth century is that Arab Americans are less inhibited, feel less politically intimidated, and are more sophisticated in skills of utilizing the American political process. However, they are still subject to some of the tensions and divisions of the wider Arab world.
The foreign policy issue on which South Asian Muslims in the United States feel most strongly about is perhaps Kashmir. There is constant lobbying on Capitol Hill for either resolutions to censure India for human rights violations in Kashmir or for legislative action in search of a solution. There is also a constant flow of brochures, pamphlets, news-updating on Kashmir not only targeted at Congress, but also distributed widely to campuses, news media, and other contributors to policy-formation. Now that India and Pakistan have become nuclear powers, there is anxiety that Kashmir might become a nuclear trigger in the years ahead.
While the majority of South Asian Muslims in the United States favour self-determination for Kashmir or union with Pakistan, there is a minority of Muslim citizens of India who would rather see Kashmir remain part of India. It is worth remembering that India today has more than a 100 million Muslims (the fourth largest concentration of Muslims after Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh). Many Muslims of India are ambivalent about Kashmir. Do they want Kashmiris to have self-determination and risk depriving India of its only state with a Muslim majority? Or would they rather have Kashmir remain part of India and strengthen the plight of other Muslims in India? Muslims from India who have become U.S. citizens betray the same ambivalence about Kashmir.
However, those American Muslims who favour the status quo for Kashmir have decided to keep a low profile - especially since most of them are appalled by the human rights violations often perpetrated by the Indian troops in Kashmir. The most vocal American Muslims on Kashmir are those who favour self- determination for the embattled people of that province.
From the point of view of racial identity, the great majority of Muslims in the United States are of course people of color. Their position on apartheid in South Africa before the 1990s was almost unanimous. There was Muslim consensus that the United States should impose and maintain sanctions against the racist regime in Pretoria (as it then was). The American Muslim Council went into a kind of strategic alliance with TransAfrica, led by the African American activist Randall Robinson. TransAfrica was by far the more active U.S. organization against apartheid. But many Muslims supported Robinson. And the American Muslim Council held a major conference in the 1980s on the theme "Islam against Apartheid" with major international speakers, including Muslim activists from South Africa itself.
The United States was persuaded (especially by TransAfrica and its allies) to impose wide-ranging sanctions on the racist regime in South Africa. The sanctions lasted until after Nelson Mandella was released and the African National Congress was legalized in the 1990's. Imam Warith Dean Mohammed, the African American Sunni crusader, played an important role in consolidating the Muslim crusade against apartheid and racism.
The most race-conscious of all those who call themselves Muslims in the United States are, however, the followers of the Nation of Islam, currently led by Minister Louis Farrakhan. Foreign policy was part and parcel of the birth of the movement, for the founder was an immigrant reportedly born in Mecca, who arrived in the United States in 1931. Was Farrad Muhammad an Arab? In pigmentation he was very fair, but he identified himself with the Black people of the city of Detroit.
Farrad Muhammad disappeared without a trace in 1934. His successor as leader of the Nation of Islam was Elijah Muhammad. The foreign policy tests came with the outbreak of World War II. Elijah Muhammad enjoined his followers that as Muslims they had no obligation to fight for the flag of the United States. He was imprisoned from 1942 to 1946 because of that position.
The dilemma between Islam and the flag in the United States continued afterwards. The boxing champion Muhammed Ali, a follower of the Nation of Islam, refused in 1967 to fight for the United States in Vietnam. He was convicted and stripped of his championship in retaliation. He in turn reportedly threw away his Olympic gold medal in protest. It was not until 1971 that the Supreme Court of the United States revoked his conviction and helped to restore his championship title, by protecting his religious freedom and freedom of expression under the American Constitution. At the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta Muhammed Ali was also ceremonially honoured with a replacement of his ostensibly "lost" Olympic medal.
I spent five hours with Minister Louis Farrakhan at his home in Chicago, Illinois, in January 1996. This was of course after the Million Man March of October 1995. Did the Million Man March have foreign policy implications? Minister Farrakhan told us that soon after the march he had received congratulations from Muamar Qaddafy, the Head of State of Libya. Qaddafy was most impressed by the success of the march.
Farrakhan also told us about his plans to tour both the Muslim world and Africa. He started the tour the following month - stirring much debate in the United States when he was reported to have visited Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya, which were regarded with particular hostility by the U.S. government.
When Libyan sources reported that Muammar Qaddafy had offered Louis Farrakhan one billion dollars for his movement, and Farrakhan confirmed this on his return to the United States, there were demands in Congress that Farrakhan be compelled to register as a "foreign agent." Farrakhan retorted that he would be prepared to discuss such a possibility if several members of Congress would similarly register as agents of the state of Israel. In any case, Qaddafy's proposed one billion dollars to the Nation of Islam was for schools, clinics, and social services and not for political lobbying or political activism, Farrakhan insisted. The issue has been bogged down with legal wrangling.
When U.S. Muslims behave as Muslims (heirs of the Hijrah), and when they behave as concerned Americans (heirs of the Mayflower), they have operated under a number of paradoxes. Let us examine those paradoxes affecting codes of conduct.