On Being An American and a Muslim:
Dilemmas of Politics and Culture
By Ali A. Mazrui
Director, Institute of Global Cultural Studies
Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities
State University of New York at Binghamton, New York, USA
Albert Luthuli Professor-at-Large
University of Jos, Jos, Nigeria
Ibn Khaldun Professor-at-Large
School of Islamic and Social Sciences, Leesburg, Virginia, USA
Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large Emeritus
and Senior Scholar in Africana Studies
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA
Walter Rodney Professor
University of Guyana, Georgetown, Guyana
This study is indebted to the author's previous work, especially to "Between the Crescent and the Star-Spangled Banner: American Muslims and U.S. Foreign Policy", International Affairs (London) Vol. 72, No. 3 July, 1996.
Muslims in the United States face three cultural crises relevant to their roles as citizens - the crisis of identity, the crisis of participation and the crisis of values and code of conduct.
The crisis of identity involves their determining who they are and how to reconcile their multiple allegiances. The crisis of participation involves decisions about how far to be active in community life and public affairs. The third crisis of values concerns a general code of ethical conduct and of policy preferences - ranging from Muslim attitudes to abortion to Muslim concerns about homosexuality. We plan to take each of these three crises in turn, but bearing in mind that in real life they are inter-related and intertwined.
However, let us first begin with cultural symbolism. In origins what does the identity of being an American have in common with the identity of being a Muslim? In genesis, what is the link between Americanity and Islamicity as forms of identity?
In some fundamental sense, Muslims are heirs to the heritage of the Hijrah, while Americans are heirs to the legacy of the Mayflower.
Both the Mayflower and the Hijrah were born out of the concept of asylum. We know that the earliest pilgrim fathers to America were engaged in a quest for asylum. So were millions of later migrants to America. So was the Prophet Muhammad of Islam centuries earlier when he was forced to migrate from the city of Mecca (where he was persecuted) to the city of Medina. The migration was indeed the Hijrah. Asylum was the goal.
The Islamic calendar today does not begin from when the Prophet Muhammad was born C.E. 570. It does not begin from when the Prophet Muhammad became a prophet - 610 C.E. It does not begin from when the Prophet Muhammad died - 632 C.E. It begins from when the Prophet Muhammad first migrated from Mecca in search of asylum - 622 C.E. Asylum inaugurated the Islamic calendar.
But also significant were some of those early Muslims who crossed the sea in search of asylum among Christians. The sea was not of course the Atlantic Ocean. The sea was the same one which Moses had crossed millennia earlier from west to east in search of asylum - the Red Sea which Moses had commanded to part with God's help.
Centuries later early Muslims crossed the Red Sea from east to west, but without the miracle of parting it. The miracle in the seventh century of the Christian era was the tolerance which early persecuted Muslims found among Christians in Ethiopia. Inter-religious asylum had once again triumphed. This was the first arrival of Islam in Africa - its first extension beyond the Arabian peninsula. Islam at that time was only five years old. The refugees to Ethiopia included the Prophet's first cousin, Ja'far al-Tayyar.
Much later, when the Muslim world was powerful, it received Jews on the run from the Roman Empire and later, from the Holy Roman Empire. The first time Jewish scholars were permitted to rise to the pinnacles of scholarly excellence under Muslim jurisdiction.
In Muslim Spain the fate of Jews and Muslims was so intertwined that the two groups were expelled at about the same time on the eve of Columbus' voyages across the Atlantic. On one side of the Atlantic [Spain] Muslims and Jews were being thrown out in 1492 and made to search for asylum elsewhere; on the other side of the Atlantic (the Americas) Christopher Columbus was about to stumble on a new Western hemisphere destined to become one day the ultimate asylum for millions of people. The concept of asylum was on its way towards Americanization. Across the centuries millions migrated to the Americas. To North America it may have begun with the Pilgrim Fathers and the Mayflower. By the twentieth century new immigrants had included Islamic Pilgrim Fathers. Heirs to the heritage of the Hijrah were now also becoming heirs to the meerath of the Mayflower.
Muslims in the United States are now expected to outnumber Jews before the end of the century. The two groups are already numerically neck-and-neck (about 6 million each). However, contemporary Muslim influence on U.S. foreign and domestic programs continues to be only a fraction of the influence exercised by Jewish Americans. This is partly because Jewish identity is consolidated enough to be focussed and probably because Jewish Americans are more strategically placed in the economy, in the media, in institutions of higher learning, and in the political process.
From the point of view of response to public affairs, Muslims in the United States respond to four principal identities in themselves. Muslims respond to the emotional pulls and sentiments of their own national origins (e.g. as Pakistanis, Indonesians, Iranians, Somali, or Egyptians.)
Second, Muslims also act in response to their racial identities, given the race-conscious nature of American society. Among U.S. Muslims the racial factor has historically been particularly immediate among African Americans, who currently constitute about 42% of the Muslim population of the United States.
Third, U.S. Muslims try to influence policy as Muslims per se - such as the activities of the American Muslim Council, which is based in Washington D.C.. The Council has served as a lobby on both the Congress and the Federal Government on issues which have ranged from Bosnia to the Anti-Terrorism Act and its implications for civil liberties.
Fourth, American Muslims may also act, quite simply, as Americans. As concerned or patriotic U.S. citizens, they may take positions on the size of the federal budget, or on how to deal with the trade imbalance with China, or on the future role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In all these four identities (national origins, race, religion, and U.S. citizenship) American Muslims have become more organized and less inhibited in the last quarter of the twentieth century than they ever were before - with the possible exception of the followers of the Nation of Islam who have never been politically inhibited since they first came into being in the 1930s.