American Muslims: Integration and Disenfranchisement

Feb 06

[This is an abridged version of a paper presented at “Changing Societies and Transatlantic Relations,” co-hosted by the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Transatlantic Relations and the Robert Schuman Foundation and held in Washington, D.C. October 27-28, 2005]

The paper was published in: “Changing Identities–Evolving Values Is There Still a Transatlantic Community?” Esther Brimmer, ed. Center for Transatlantic Relations, John Hopkins University. The book is available from:

The full paper can be downloaded from:


For over a thousand years now, the discourse primarily in Europe and subsequently in America has been to view Muslims as outsiders and Islam as the “other.” Despite 700 years of civilizing presence in Andalusia or Spain, and despite Islamic Spain being “multi-cultural” even before the word “multi-cultural” was invented, and despite an exemplary convivencia of Muslims, Christians, and Jews managing to not only get along with each other but to actually benefit from the presence of each other and despite Muslim contributions playing a significant part in creating a civilization in Europe that matched the heights of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance, Islam and Muslims remain in Europe and America embedded in stereotypical assumptions and misguided pronouncements regarding beliefs, attitudes and customs.

Contemporary reality suggests that Islam and Muslims can no longer be viewed as “outsiders.” A substantial Muslim presence in the West combined with the unstoppable forces of globalization, require a new paradigm of engagement – we can no longer speak about “Islam versus the West” but rather use a new frame of reference such as “Islam in the West.” Islam is no longer a “foreign” presence in the West. It is integral to the West just as any other religion.

Rather than be viewed as cultural outsiders, the Muslim presence needs to be embraced as culturally enriching and economically benefiting. Samuel Huntington’s premise of an intrinsic clash between Islam and West and Islam’s so called “bloody boundaries” are errant readings of the realities.

Muslims from the very dawn Islam have adapted to live in harmony in large multi-cultural societies. Muslim minorities living in harmony whether in the West or East are in theological congruence with the Qur’an, “To God belongs the East and the West. Wherever you turn there is the presence of God (2:115).” Moreover, the Quran makes it explicit for Muslims that honoring their treaties and covenants is righteous in the sights of God (9:4). For example as a citizen of America, a Muslim implicitly and explicitly has entered into a covenant to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution and abide by its laws.

Muslims living as minorities have also endeavored to develop Islamic jurisprudence that applies to minority living, fiqh al-aqalliyyat. Fiqh Council of North America, one of the pre-eminent Islamic jurisprudence body in America opined, “The needs of Muslims living in a non-Muslim country, as well as their conditions and circumstances, may differ from other countries where Muslims live as a majority. In this case, the rules of Shariah that are not decisive can be adjusted in a way that suits them and never puts hardship on them. … Globalization has played an important role in bridging the gap between people and has facilitated the means of communication. However, the daily conditions of Muslims differ from one country to another. That is why Muslims in non-Muslim countries need this kind of fiqh (jurisprudence).”

Muslim minority experiences span the gamut from being just rulers to oppressive tyrants, from being celebrated citizens to being despised, ridiculed and hounded. With this rich backdrop in history and carrying this cultural baggage Muslims presence in the West today presents challenges and opportunities hitherto unimaginable even a few decades ago.


The American Muslim community has seen remarkable growth – from one congregation in the mid-1920s to more than 2,000 organizations of all functional types by the end of the twentieth century. American Muslims today are experiencing life as part of an increasingly globalized system. All indications suggest a growing momentum among Muslims in favor of integration into America’s civic and political life.

Mainstream Muslims consider core American values to be consistent with normative Islam. Chief among these are the norms of hard work, entrepreneurship and liberty; civilian control of the military; the clear institutionalization of political power; a diffused process of making public decisions; and a functioning civil society that gives voice to competing interests within a country.

The American Muslim community is unique in its diversity. Thirty-six percent of American Muslims were born in the United States, while 64 percent were born in 80 different countries around the world. No other country has such a rich diversity of Muslims. The American Muslim community is thus a microcosm of the Muslim world. It includes all religious schools of thought, intellectual trends, political ideologies and Islamic movements.

The three major ethnic groups in the Muslim community are South Asians (32 percent), Arabs (26 percent) and African Americans (20 percent). Muslims from various African countries constitute seven percent of the community.

The American Muslim Poll by Project MAPS shows that the American Muslim community is younger, better educated, and better off financially than average Americans. Three-fourths (74 percent) of adult American Muslims are less than 50 years old. The percentage of Muslim college graduates is more than double the national percentage (58 percent versus 25 percent). Half of American Muslims (50 percent) have an annual family income of more than $50,000, and 44 percent describe their occupation as professional/technical, medical or managerial.

CAIR poll 2006 shows that eighty-four percent of American Muslim voters said Muslims should strongly emphasize shared values with Christians and Jews. Eighty-two percent said terrorist attacks harm American Muslims. Seventy seven percent said Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews do. Sixty-nine percent believe a just resolution to the Palestinian cause would improve America’s standing in the Muslim world. Sixty-six percent support working toward normalization of relations with Iran. Fifty-five percent are afraid that the War on Terror has become a war on Islam. Only twelve percent believe the war in Iraq was a worthwhile effort, and ten percent support the use of the military to spread democracy in other countries.

Despite such integrative attitudes, the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. creates tensions and hinders quicker integration of Muslims.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Poll in 2004:

  • Almost 4 in 10 Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam, about the same number that have a favorable view.
  • A plurality of Americans (46 percent) believes that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers

ABC News March, 2005 Poll:

  • Four months Sept. 11, 2001, 14 percent believed mainstream Islam encourages violence; today it’s 34 percent.
  • Today 43 percent think Islam does not teach respect for the beliefs of non-Muslims — up sharply from 22 percent.
  • People who feel they do understand Islam are much more likely to view it positively. Among Americans who feel they do understand the religion, 59 percent call it peaceful and 46 percent think it teaches respect for the beliefs of others.

CAIR 2004 Civil Rights Report:

  • Reports of harassment, violence and discriminatory treatment increased nearly 70 percent over 2002 (the year after the 9/11 terror attacks). This represents a three-fold increase since the reporting year preceding the terrorist attacks.

CAIR 2004 Poll:

  • More than one-fourth of survey respondents agreed with stereotypes such as “Muslims teach their children to hate” and “Muslims value life less than other people.”
  • When asked what comes to mind when they hear “Muslim,” 32 percent of respondents made negative comments. Only two percent had a positive response.

Cornell University Study:

  • In all, about 44 percent said they believe that some curtailment of civil liberties is necessary for Muslim Americans.
  • Twenty-six percent said they think that mosques should be closely monitored by U.S. law enforcement agencies.
  • Twenty-nine percent agreed that undercover law enforcement agents should infiltrate Muslim civic and volunteer organizations, in order to keep tabs on their activities and fund raising.
  • Sixty-five percent of self-described highly religious people queried said they view Islam as encouraging violence more than other religions do; in comparison, 42 percent of the respondents who said they were not highly religious saw Islam as encouraging violence.

Muslims in America have enjoyed an uninterrupted presence for over a century now. Yet they remain conspicuous by their absence in many spheres of American public life. Despite being about 2 percent of the population, Muslim representation in policy making part of the U.S. government is negligible even when such policies directly affect Muslims here or abroad. American Muslims are by and large absent from representation in major policy making circles of the three national branches of the U.S. government.


Political scientist David Easton posits integration to be a feedback look with political and social inputs creating specific policy outputs that in turn shape the inputs. The inputs and outcomes can be measured in terms of political activity, social activism, policy responses, civil and citizenship rights and cultural acceptance.

For most Americans and thus for most American-Muslims, identity, which is often quite nebulous rests on a dynamic tension between ethnic identity, religious identity and citizenship or American identity. The tension between these three “circles” of influence is often very creative leading to interesting and evolving alliances and common cause actions.

Muslims in America, like their counterparts abroad, are today faced with the challenge of trying to reconcile their understanding of Islam with the tidal wave of democratization, gender equality, minority rights, religious tolerance, free thought, and social justice. Normative Islam provides basic principles that can embrace each of these ideas in positive ways. However, Muslim societies in the past have often mired in the malaise of dogma and a failure to contextualize teachings of the Quran and the Prophetic traditions. Around the 14th century Muslim clerics declared that the “gates of ijtihad” were closed. Scholars and jurists from then on gave up the exercise of independent inquiry and started to rely only on the textual meanings of the Quran, and teaching of Prophet Muhammad. Islam closed ranks and decline began.

Today more and more Muslims are reviving critical inquiry (ijtihad) into both the Quran and the Sunnah (the traditions of Prophet Muhammad). New Muslim thinkers are provoking debate and counter arguments, often leading to renewed understanding of Islam’s congruence with modernity. More and more Muslims in America are thus being better able balance between the demands of their faith and the challenges of modernity.

Other forms of Muslim integration are evidenced by increased numbers of “open houses” organized by Islamic centers.

Rather than be cowed by the anti-Muslim rhetoric that permeates American society, the American-Muslim community has taken unprecedented steps to combat this negativity. It remains to be seen whether the American-Muslim community, especially after 9-11, are to move the community from being the target of suspicion and profiling to becoming accepted and even celebrated. The steps towards integration have met with rare successes on some fronts and elsewhere have been thwarted by others. However, one trend is clear, that the American-Muslim community is beginning to institutionalize their efforts to integrate hoping that such integration leads to greater acceptance.


European-Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan in his book Western Muslims: Isolation or Integration? notes that Western Muslims are likely to play a decisive role in the evolution of Islam worldwide. By reflecting on their faith, their principles and their identity within industrialized, secularized societies Western Muslims can lead Muslims worldwide in reconciling their relationship with the modern world.

Ramadan goes on to assert that if Muslims believe the message of Islam to be truly universal then one has to be able to find solutions appropriate for every time and society. Muslims must accept their responsibilities and put forward viable alternatives for interaction.

The cultural environment, inevitably touch the hearts and minds of those who live in Europe or the United States. The answer lies not in cultural isolation but more in learning to manage this impact than in denying or rejecting it. The indications are that more and more Western Muslims have understood the meaning of these factors and are looking for new approaches. These initiatives are still few and isolated, but there is a good chance that with time the movement will grow and make it possible to reform our way of dealing with questions of culture and entertainment.

Among the greatest asset the Muslim community posses in the West is its breathtaking diversity. Visit any Islamic center for a Friday prayers and one can spot people from a dozen nations speaking a dozen of different languages all learning to get along with each other. At a time when racial tensions remain quite high in West, the Muslim experience can lead to better harmonizing the greater society.


Governments in Europe or America have not moved to take advantage of this large Muslim presence. This can be partly attributed to a lack of meaningful contact between Muslims and policy makers in the West. As posited in this paper, Muslims in America are well integrated economically, but this integration has not lead to acceptance of Muslims as important partners in shaping public policy.

The freedom offered in the West has to be appropriately harnessed by Muslims. Muslims must use this freedom to explore new ideas and effectively respond to the vigorous challenges to their deeply held beliefs. While speaking out against perceived affront to their religion they must uphold the right of others to offend even as they seek innovative ways to uphold their right to defend. This, of course, entails an unequivocal commitment to the rule of law.

Dialogue and civic engagement can prevent any such tipping points. Those who seek positive change must focus their diplomatic energies at inducing informed changes in perceptions and policies.

Today’s Muslim youth in the West have grown up being preached ideas of plurality, equality and freedom. When such ideas are not applied towards their own empowerment it can lead to disillusionment and in the worst cases irrational violence. If the aspiration of today’s Muslim youth are to be harnessed properly it can lead to immense symbiosis between the West and the Muslim world promoting a new era of enlightenment and irreversibly steering the world away from an apocalyptic clash of civilizations.

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