Muslims in America: Identity and Participation
By Dr. Aminah McCloud
The dilemmas that confront American Muslim citizens regarding
political participation -- identity, the if an how of participation, and
the ability to influence American political and social life successfully,
are not new dilemmas for religious or ethnic communities. Struggles over
the meanings of secularism, libertarianism and the implications for
morality, values and public conduct are also old American history.
Various religious communities' approaches to political participation give
us a few facets to explore. For example, the Amish and to a certain
degree the Mennonites and Quakers seek to opt out of the political arena.
this enables them to keep their distinctive religious and ethnic
identities and perhaps even more sharply defines those identities.
Unfortunately, the choice of non-participation subjects these communities
to the vagaries resulting from the political and social choices of the
At the other end of the continuum sit the Christian Right and the
Jewish communities. Though their impetuses for participation in the
political arena arise from different spaces, both communities use their
religious understandings as guidance in the arena. For the Christian
Right, the United States is a Christian nation with an unparalleled
Constitution that while permitting and protecting religious liberty and
the rights of the individual have lost its way. Members of the various
communities under the umbrella of the Christian Right assert that it is
our efforts to uphold liberty and freedom that propel society toward a
secularism that values only the material world and is without a moral
consciousness. Members of this community seek to ignore the racial,
ethnic and religious divides of the nation and assert a political
platform that stands on Christian moral principles. The decade of the
90's has been a decade of success for this community. They have brought
their platform to the attention of the nation and made their issues --
the issues to which Americans must respond.
The Jewish community, seeks to protect itself from a seemingly
endless legacy of ethnic/religious persecution. This community marshals
it energies and considerable wealth to protect Jewish interests at home
and abroad. Toward these ends, the Jewish community has elected officials
at all levels of government, established an overwhelmingly successful
series of political lobbies and large, vigilant watchdog organizations.
Unlike other minority communities such Amish, Mennonite, Mormon or Quaker communities, American Muslim citizens are not homogenous regarding race or national origins. Unlike Jews, Muslims do not have a legacy of ethnic/religious persecution that could force some cohesion of needs and unity of action at the political level. Certainly unlike the Christian Right, Muslims are not representatives of any aspect of majority religion. Media malattention to Islam and Muslims, American governmental inaction in the
face of genocide against Muslims overseas, and increasing antipathy for
Islam and Muslims at home as a result dictate the need for political
Inside of each American Muslim community -- African American and
immigrant, there is a divergence of opinion on political participation
whether the concern is domestic or foreign. The best recent example began
with the Gulf War and the dilemma is best described in an article by
Robert Dannin, "Understanding the Multi-Ethnic Dilemma of African-
American Muslims." in 1990, the Muslim World League and the World Supreme Council of Masajid sought to "create worldwide consensus in favor of the Saudi-American military coalition against Iraq." In the U.S., these
organizations offered material assistance to a convention of both African
American and immigrant imams. In the African American Muslim community,
the only obvious supporters of the offensive were the communities under
Imam Warithudeen Muhammad. Most other Sunni Muslims, representing the
majority, as well as the Nation of Islam, was opposed. both groups used
their news organs to publicize their opinions and tried to influence the
general public stance. While many immigrant organizations were also
publicly opposed to the war, there was little cooperation with African
The African American Muslim community is visibly and substantially
divided "over issues of national allegiance, ethnic identity, and
religious orthodoxy." The immigrant American Muslim community is more
obliquely though just as substantially divided over ethnic identity,
national origins and multiple allegiances. For both communities however,
there must be a reconciling or at least an appropriate interpretation of
Islamic legal sources in order to understand the limits or extent of
their political participation. But this is not the end of the complexity.
Many African American Muslims are not familiar with the various
discourses on political participation in non-Muslim lands in the four
accepted schools of legal thought. In this matter Professor Jackson's
article is both timely and critical. He presents the divergences and
convergences of the scholars regarding the political possibilities for
Muslims living as minorities in non-Muslim lands. That there is more than
one opinion is news for many. Whether this information will be used by
leaders of communities or if it will be used at all is something only
time will reveal. Nonetheless, the claims against political participation
using assertions that this what Islamic law demands are considerably
weakened. Interestingly, the only legal school that is against any manner
of political participation is also against Muslims living under
non-Muslim rule and demands that they move to Muslim lands.
Equally, many immigrant Muslims are unfamiliar with the range of
legal opinions on political participation. More interesting though is the
fact that many of the immigrant Muslims who oppose political
participation come from countries where the legal school sanctions their
immigration. Professor Mazrui addresses aspects of this issue. For some
immigrants, American citizenship has not compromised allegiance to country
of origin and if there is to be any political participation it should be
focused on foreign policy. Unable to influence the politics of the Muslim
homeland from within, has led many immigrants to form help organizations
here in the U.S. The relative freedoms in the U.S. have provided the
space for distant action.
African American Muslims though active in the various causes focused
on Muslims in the Muslim world have not been able until recent incidents
of domestic discrimination to interest immigrants in domestic issues --
poverty in the inner cities, social reform, school reform, etc. Older Muslim organizations such as The Islamic Society of North America and The American Muslim Council have only very recently been forced to turn their attention to recording and challenging situations of prejudice in the workplace and the public space. The Council on American-Islamic Relations is the first organization specifically founded as a watchdog group to monitor the media and assist Muslims in asserting their rights as citizens to live and work without harassment.
I think that one question both articles lead the reader to is -- what exactly do we mean by political participation. Obviously all American citizens pay taxes, which support public schools, support military excursions, and support a particular worldview that embraces all of the wonders and limitations of a largely Protestant Christian secular society. All immigrants must pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States to become citizens. This uncontested support is political. All citizens participate whether they do so enthusiastically or not in obeying the laws of the land. Is this what we mean by "political participation?" Both of these scholars assert that the major issues in the American Muslim community are those which reflect on the dilemmas of identity.
The Muslim community is just beginning the deliberations that many religious communities have had in previous decades. It is beginning discussions with issues of identity. Whether the religious affiliation or the national identity is the primary identity is of course the first question. For African Americans, the American experience, political or social is one filled with deceptions, hatreds and challenges. For immigrant Muslim Americans, the American experience has largely been a dream fulfilled but with moral compromise. Members of both groups have the same set of Islamic values and understandings of moral conduct in the public space. Both have the understanding that politics in America is not an issue of morals and values rather it is a system that responds to money and clout. Muslims observe the political clout of other minority communities such as the Jews and tend to hold this community as the model but without the needed knowledge and reflection on the social conditions that permit this situation.
Professor Mazrui contends that the Muslim community is a "Tale of Two Islams." The immigrant community has material resources but no experience while the African American community has a wealth of experience but little in the way of material resources. The former group is "Islamized but not fully Americanized" while the latter community is a "fully Americanized but not always fully Islamized." I would say that neither community is fully anything. Colonialism and slavery compromise the Islam brought by the immigrant community and persistent discriminations dilute the Americanism represented by African Americans. Both groups, like other diasporic communities do have to live in a kind of limbo with multiple allegiances and identities. But before the community can coalesce into a block of significant votes or a significant voice there is another set of concerns with which it will have to engage.
Muslims put God, community, family and other interpersonal relationships at the top of the list. A web of obligations in Islam supports this worldview. Muslims have to look further than single issues, be more demanding of those in politics for explanations of positions, and most importantly decide for themselves what is important. Following the agenda of others is not the way politics is done in the United States. Political power emerges from collective action. For Muslims this means coming together about what matters to Muslims. There are religious offices in Washington and Muslims, in order to do more than survive, must begin to vigilantly monitor the government's policy-making process just as the Protestant churches, Jews and Catholics for them.
Some Muslims will continue to debate the legitimacy of political participation forever. For those who see the necessity of this participation, a better way to expend energy is in strategies for effective advocacy. While the end product of effective advocacy may depend on favorable circumstances, leadership and increase outside antipathy toward the community, the movement toward thinking about strategies is a must. American history is one of grassroots movements than mobilize the masses. There are enough social issues to coalesce a movement around. Muslims should see themselves as capable of providing a clear voice in the face of chaos. Other religious communities have used a variety of techniques such as television and radio ministries to generate millions of letters. Muslims must build and create viable relationships with social organizations and become visible members of the larger social community. Muslims must envision themselves as having the potential to shape public opinion on issues.
The community must generate skilled national leaders who can gain and keep access to the government. Good leaders have strategic minds. They can develop attainable goals that are clearly articulated. They need to understand the nature of coalitions and the art of compromise. Islam obligates Muslims in civic responsibility and this very fact should be the starting point.