The present discussion entails the concepts of identification and representation relative to the American Muslim community in the United States. This discussion is one of the few that most Americans will read where Muslims are representing themselves. What is unique about these two present essays is that they are highlights of issues pertinent to the Muslim community in the United States from the perspective of two American Muslims: Professors Ali Mazrui, and Sherman Jackson.
What is unusual about this enterprise is that Muslims in America are denied the opportunity to participate in discussions about Muslims and Islam in the public sphere. More often than not in the public sphere (which includes the literary industry, the entertainment industry, the media and the political theatre), American Muslims are often represented by non-Muslims, rather than representing themselves. For example, Americans learn about Islam not from Muslims but from non-Muslims, who are either hostile to Muslims (Judith Miller, Steven Emerson, or Bernard Lewis), or those who are more sympathetic to Muslims (Yvonne Haddad or John Esposito).
These two essays provide a window to issues of importance to the Muslim community not often found in other academic or public policy journals. When one hears the words "American Muslim" or "Islam" what usually comes to mind? Perhaps one thinks of monotheism, eschatology, prophecy, scripture, prayer, fasting, meditation, or law. After all, these are the most important issues that make up the Weltanschauung of a Muslim.
However, as American Muslims begin new century as natives of the United States, they are going through a process of self-identification and representation that will affect American public policy and political participation. However, before we discuss the effect that Muslims may have on public policy, we need to take a step back and discuss Muslim identification and participation in the public sphere.
What does it mean to be American? Is it merely a geographical description? Does being American mean loyalty and patriotism to a modern and secular republic? Does it mean adherence to a modern and secular political ideology? What does it really mean to pledge allegiance to the American flag? These questions are important for all people who immigrate to the United States. However, these questions are equally important to indigenous Americans as well. For the purpose of these essays, these questions are quite relevant to immigrant and indigenous Muslims.
The present American Muslim community is a montage of ethnic, racial, and ideological potpourri. The Muslim community is significantly different than it was 20 years ago. Today it is almost impossible to make any generalizations about the Muslim community, except that most Muslims belief in one God. Today, members of the American Muslim community come from all walks of life. Whether they are immigrants, indigenous Americans, or converts, all are brothers and sisters in this unique theistic experience.
Along ethnic lines, Muslims consist of Chinese, Malaysians, Indonesians, Indians, Bosnia's, Arab, Persian, Turkish, African, Hispanic, European, and of course American. Professionally speaking you will find Muslims that are teachers, administrators, business persons, entrepreneurs, physicians, scholars, lawyers, factory workers, nurses and homemakers. All of them making their own contribution to America's future. This dynamic community is unified by a common faith: the belief in God who is the cornerstone and foundation of the Islamic worldview.
Notwithstanding the theological unity among Muslims, there are differences in many areas, including but not limited to, historical sectarian divides, gender relationships, the viability of the madhabs or legal schools of thought, the parameters of the shari`a in American life, and of course participation in the political process.
The last two foregoing issues form the subject of these two papers. In the realm of politics, the rise of the Christian right in American politics has caused a great deal of interest and discussion among American Muslims. Spirituality is of great importance for a Muslim. Any attempt to impede or limit the relationship between human beings and its Creator is of concern to Muslims. At the same time, however, Muslims are not comfortable with one dominant monolithic religious expression whether it is Christianity or Judaism. This presents a dilemma when it comes to the electoral process. For example, a political party or personality who advocates a platform where God and religion are openly appreciated in American society may at the same time advocate tougher immigration restrictions against immigrants from Muslim countries or advocate a foreign policy hostile to Muslim countries. On the other n, a party that is more open to Muslim participation may promote social values that deeply trouble the Muslim consciousness.
What about the role of law? The role of jurisprudence has been the core of the intellectual heritage of Islamic civilization. For centuries, legal scholars played the most significant role in the life of Muslim societies. The method of prayer, etiquette, marriage, commerce, crimes and punishment are all subsumed under Islamic jurisprudence or shari`a. The role of the shari`a in the life of the Muslim is as significant as the role of the church in Catholicism. How do Muslims implement the shari`a in American society? Or a better question would be, how much of the shari`a can Muslims implement and follow here in America? Can Muslims participate in the American political process from the standpoint of the shari`a? If so, how? What about the role of culture, race, and ethnicity? Can one truly balance being religiously Muslim, and culturally American or Indian or African? What about the experience of American Muslims indigenous to America?
Professor Ali Mazrui, a noted, world-renowned scholar looks at the role of Muslims in the context of their American experience. From Professor Mazrui's analysis, American Muslims face three cultural crisis:
As far as identity is concerned, Professor Mazrui identifies four ways that Muslims typically respond to public affairs in various identities.
- the crisis of racial, ethnic, and religious identity;
- the crisis of political participation, and
- the crisis of ethics.
- in terms of their national origins (e.g. as Indians, Egyptians, or Malaysians); or
- in terms of racial identities (e.g. black or white); or
- as Muslims per se in terms of a religious identity; or
- as Americans in terms of upholding the U.S. Constitution and laws as well as adhering to American cultural symbols.
American Muslims' response to public policy in terms of national origins is seen when those of Asian ancestry see the plight of Kashmiris as their rallying cry. At the same time, those of Arab ancestry see the Arab-Israeli conflict as a unifying factor.
American Muslims' focus on racial identity is best seen with the rise of the Nation of Islam and the subsequent separation from the Nation by Warith Deen Muhammed and his constituents.
As far as the crisis of participation is concerned, Professor Mazrui dispels any notion of withdrawal from the political process. For him it is simply a matter of common sense, politically necessary, and maslaha (legally advantageous) for Muslims to participate in American politics. From his perspective, failure to participate in American politics is tantamount to "political castration."
After dispelling the argument against participation, Professor Mazrui then focuses on how Muslims should use the "secret ballot." Which political party should Muslims support? Should they join the Democrats because they are more inclusive of minorities? Or, should they join the Republican Party because it advocates family values and is in step with most Muslims in the realm of social public policy debates such as abortion, sexual relations, and the death penalty? While much of state and federal government is divided into two party systems, and while many Americans vote according to party lines, voting along party lines may not be the best alternative for Muslims. In effect, Professor Mazrui advocates us to be issue and candidate oriented voters.
The next issue of concern for American Muslims is the area of morality and ethical behavior. Here we have a paradox for the American Muslim. While secularism in one sense is good for Muslims, a society devoid of God and religion can be spiritually suffocating. The benefit of American secularism is that American Muslims' right to practice Islam is protected, preserved and even enhanced. On the other hand, libertarianism with its relativistic vision of life is quite disturbing and unhealthy for Muslims.
Continuing some aspect of the foregoing discussion, Professor Sherman Jackson's essay explores two specific issues:
- whether Muslims' focus on politics is justified, and
- whether it is legitimate for Muslims to participate in American politics according to the principles of Islamic jurisprudence or shari`a.
Professor Jackson's essay is neither dogmatic, nor doctrinal. Instead, it is a didactic exercise in Islamic jurisprudence. For example, in the discussion of Muslims living in non-Muslim lands, the traditional juristic method of Qiyas or reasoning by analogy is brilliantly illustrated according to the four madhabs, with particular attention paid to the Maliki school.
The strength in Professor Jackson's essay is that it dispels the puritanical impulse that Islamic law is a robotic, mindless adherence to rigid rules of the Qur'an and Hadith. Instead he demonstrates to the reader that Islamic law is not only premised on the Qur'an and Hadith, but that Qiyas (reasoning by analogy) and Ijma (scholarly consensus) have always played a significant role in the history of Islamic jurisprudence.
However, like Professor Mazrui, Professor Jackson discusses the issue of double consciousness in the role of the both the immigrant Muslim community and the indigenous Muslim community (mostly African Americans, as well as white converts to Islam). For Jackson, double consciousness entails the dilemma described earlier of being American with all of its modern-secular, materialistic and historical ramifications, while at the same time being Muslim by promoting justice, leading a God-conscious life, and having accountability in the Hereafter.
In addition, Professor Jackson cautions Muslims not to place their energy and effort solely in the legislative sphere. Rather, he advocates political participation as a supplement to other areas of American society, including economics and finance, entertainment, academia, literature, poetry, and music, etc.
For America, the twenty-first century poses both uncertainty and great potential. It will be a century where American society consists of a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds. It will be a society where a woman or a minority may become the chief executive. The American Muslim community will undoubtedly play a role in America in the next century. To what extent and in which aspects of American life Muslims will make notable contributions is unclear at this time. Given the interest Muslims currently have regarding civil rights and foreign policy, there is little doubt that the political theatre is a key arena to look for. While the two authors afford the reader sound conclusions as to the role of Muslims in America, they raise issues not only relevant to American Muslims, but also to any American that is interested in religion in public policy, cultural studies, identity politics, migration of cultures, and public policy.
By Azam Nizamuddin