On Being An American and a Muslim:
Dilemmas of Politics and Culture
By Ali A. Mazrui
American Islam: Immigrant and Home-Grown
In places like Britain, France and Germany both Islam as a civilization and local Muslims as residents are widely regarded as foreign even when the Euro-Muslims are citizens of the European countries. In the United States, on the other hand, half the Muslim population will soon consist of descendants of families who have been Americans for hundreds of years. 42% of Muslims in the United States are already African Americans. This creates a different situation from that of Europe.
In Europe both Islam and Muslims may be regarded as foreign; but in the United States such an equation is increasingly difficult. Islam may be new, but its followers include millions who have been part of American history for two or three hundred years. African-American Muslim population is expanding significantly.
But even the immigrant half of the Muslim population of the United States is operating in a country of immigrants any how - unlike the immigrant Muslims of France, Britain and Germany.
In the United States it has been possible for an immigrant with a heavy foreign accent to become the most outstanding non-presidential American statesman of the second half of the 20th century - Henry Kissinger, the brilliant Jewish Secretary of State.
So even the immigrant Muslims in the USA are, in that special American sense, less foreign than the Muslim immigrants in Europe. But there is no doubt of the reality that the United States faces a TALE OF TWO ISLAMS.
We define "indigenous" in the United States in this article as people who have been American for at least two centuries. We might therefore conclude that indigenous American Muslims are mainly African Americans, with a small percentage of white Americans.
We regard immigrant Americans in this essay as those who have been part of American society for less than a century. Immigrant American Muslims are mainly from Asia, the Middle East and Africa in recent times. Some are from Muslim Europe.
While indigenous American Muslims are highly sensitive to issues of domestic policy in the United States, immigrant American Muslims are more sensitive to the foreign policy of the United States.
The problem of low income families among indigenous Muslims may be above the national average - this is to say, there are too many poor families. On the other hand, the proportion of families in the professional class among immigrant Muslims (teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers and others) may be above the national average.
Indigenous Muslims (especially African Americans) tend to rebel against the mythology of the American dream as a pursuit of personal advancement in conditions of economic freedom. Immigrant Muslims, on the other hand, seem to be disproportionately persuaded that there is more opportunity than oppression in capitalism.
Indigenous American Muslims are new to Islam but old to America (though Islam did once arrive in the Americas with enslaved Africans in chains). Today African American Muslims are fully Americanized but not always fully Islamized. Warath Dean Mohammed is among those who is both fully American and fully Muslim.
With immigrant Muslims the situation is the reverse. They are old to Islam but new to America. They are often substantially Islamized but not yet fully Americanized.
Indigenous American Muslims are overwhelmingly unilingual - speaking only English (standard or dialect or both) though they often learn some modest Arabic for purposes of Islamic ritual. Immigrant Muslims are often bilingual and even trilingual. At home they may even speak more than one European language. Lebanese Americans may speak French, Arabic as well as English.
Indigenous American Muslims are weak economically, but as African Americans they have considerable potential political leverage. After all, the population of African Americans generally is much larger than the population of the Jews of the whole world added together. And yet at the moment the influence of African Americans on US foreign policy is only a fraction of the influence of Jewish Americans. Will the difference in leverage narrow in the 21st century? Will African-American influence reflect the political importance of Islam among American Blacks?
If indigenous Americans are currently economically weak but potentially strong politically, the immigrant Muslims may be in the reverse predicament. They may be politically weak but with considerable potential for economic and professional leverage.
The population of indigenous Muslims may expand as a result of the new Republican attacks on welfare, medicaid, and on the safety nets which had once been provided for the Black poor. More poor Blacks may turn to Islam. On the other hand, the population of immigrant Muslims may decline as a result of more strict laws against immigration from all parts of the world. Muslim immigration may also suffer from how the new anti-terrorist legislation is actually implemented on the ground. Individual immigration officers might be encouraged to be particularly harsh to visa candidates from the Muslim world.
But when all is said and done, the two sets of Muslims in the United States (indigenous and immigrant) are in the process of being forged into the largest Muslim nation in the special hemisphere of Christopher Columbus, the Americas. In 1492 the Islamic presence in Spain was ended. In 1492 Christopher Columbus opened up the Americas for the West. Five hundred years later an Islamic presence was trying to establish itself in the lands which Columbus helped to open up for Spain and the West. Was history indulging her ironic sense of humour all over again? The heirs of the Hijrah became simultaneously heirs to the Mayflower.
In foreign policy the four identities of U.S. Muslims play their part. The issue of national origins, the membership of a racial group, the power of religious affiliation, and the moral concerns of U.S. Muslims as ordinary Americans - such a confluence of identities is part of the politics of pluralism, part of policy-formation in a liberal democratic order.
But in the final analysis the cultural dimension of the American Muslim experience is not simply this crisis of identity. It is also the simultaneous and interrelated crises of participation and code of conduct. It still remains a drama in three Acts. First Act: Am I an American Muslim or a Muslim American? Which comes first - and under what circumstances? Second Act: Do I accept to be a participant in the American constitutional process? Third Act: Is my code of conduct as a Muslim compatible with my code of conduct as an American? The heritage of the Hijrah and the legacy of the Mayflower are in search of a moral synthesis.