According to census data and information provided by mosques and community centers, Muslims in America make up .5% of the total population in America. Keeping it conservative, that equals just under 2 million. Some estimates go as far to say that there are 5 million Muslims in America. I tend to stay on the conservative side because I don’t believe that boasting in numbers serves any cause.
Still, 2 million is a lot of people. And there have been multiple and contradictory narratives about American Islam. Who has the right to speak for American Muslims? Who are the real Muslims? Who will define the agenda for American Muslims? Last year, a huge debate exposing the immigrant Black American divide rocked the Muslim American community and we’re still reeling to recover from it. And when I speak of community, I talk about it in the broadest sense. I am not making any claims that Muslim Americans are a monolithic group. I’m not trying to be a downer, but the reality is that Muslim Americans do not vote in a unified way, have various political and economic interests that often conflict with their co-religionists, nor is there a central authoritative religious head that guides us all. Rather, this diverse group of people from various socio-economic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds with different political and social orientations comprises a community because we believe that There is no God but the one True God and that Muhammad is his prophet. Therefore, we share daily patterns of worship, rituals of birth, marriage, and death, etc. Mosques are also diverse, which contributes to a greater sense of community. And there are some national organizations that do work to defend Muslims’ civil liberties, foster community development, and create a forum for interfaith understanding.
I’ve written in the past and have been interviewed about the silencing of Black American Muslim voices in the past decade. Some national Muslim organizations have been critiqued for their failure to include issues of interest to Black American and other indigenous (I sort of cringe to use that word because I do have Native American relatives who might take umbrage with its use) Muslims such as white American and Latino/Hispanic Muslims. However, in many ways I don’t like how the public conversation has developed in the past year. I am troubled when some Black American Muslims use the same rhetoric and language that Islamophobes use to critique mainstream Muslim organizations dominated by first and second generation immigrants or those organizations that have an internationalist outlook. I am also bothered when I read or hear immigrant or second generation Muslims dismiss the tremendous sense of marginalization that some of us Black American Muslims have experienced in their communities.
I know that some of my Arab and South Asian friends are bothered when they are called privileged. This is not an easy pill to swallow because in American identity politics the only privileged people are supposed to be White Americans. However, there are many different types of privileges and some groups are more privileged than others. And in one community, one group can be dominant and marginalize or economically exploit another. The reality is that in America, there is fierce competition over resources. This competition has led to some voices getting silenced in deciding the agenda for American Muslims.
CAIR reports that the ethnicities of mosque participants can be broken down to 33% South Asian, 30% Black American and 25% Arab, 3.4% sub-Saharan African, 2.1 European (Bosnia, Tatar, etc.) 1.6% White American, 1.3% South-East Asian, 1.2% Caribbean, 1.1% Turkish, .7% Iranian, and .6% Latino/Hispanic.
Within mainstream media, the Muslim American experience is about the immigration and assimilation experience. I don’t see much press coverage or interest on converts or the multi-generational Black American Muslim families. You have some sunni communities dating back to the 60s. I don’t want to dismiss the struggles of Asian American, white American, and Latino/Hispanic American Muslims struggles. White American Muslim converts seem to be the darlings of the community, Latino/Hispanic Muslims exotic curiosities, and East Asian or Pacific Islander Muslims occupy some weird zone and most people can barely even believe they are Muslim.
If we Muslims in America believe in democracy and enjoy the privileges of democracy, then we need institutions that allow for more open participation in decision making. At the same time, democracy entails protecting the rights of minorities. I think before we start a discussion about exclusion or inclusion, we need to start to ground our understanding sociological, historical, and political data. I am not claiming I’m doing that in this article. Rather, I used a few statistics to make a point. In the past decade, there has been increasing integration between Black American Muslims and immigrant Muslims. But that integration has led to in some ways to that silencing that I’m talking about. And this had led to a divide in mentalities between Muslims. It is not so much ethnic anymore, but rather, Muslims in America whose primary political interests are foreign policy issues and those Muslims in America who want to focus on domestic issues and establishing Muslim communities in America. I personally don’t see them as exclusive categories. But it is jarring for converts to all of a sudden be forced to adopt some psuedo-marxist third world liberation ideology the minute they take Shahada.
This brings me back to the convert issue. According to the CAIR report, nearly 30 percent of mosque participants are converts. I think it is important to discuss the three major categories of American Muslims: 1. American converts, 2. immigrants, and 3. the children of converts and immigrants. There is a need to develop programs in order to meet the needs of these three categories. The challenging thing for us converts is that when we do convert, we often sever ties with traditional means of networking that assists in social mobility: the church, fraternities and sororities, masonic lodges, networking events and happy hours, etc. The conversion process can alienate converts from different avenues and so they do look to their co-religionists in hope of reconstituting and reconfiguring new networks of social support. Immigrant and second generation Muslims often have their ethnic networks in tact. They just have to navigate the treacherous terrain of assimilating without losing their Islamic identity. Converts, on the other hand, are challenged with becoming Muslim without losing their American identity. At the same time, the way they experience fellowship is through service in the Muslim community. But at the end of the day, they find that few of their “brothers” support them when times are bad.
A lot of converts burn out and become disillusioned after they become Muslim because they have the expectation of full membership in the Ummah. They are not making unfair expectations. These are universal ideals that are in Islamic texts. Plus, you won’t have to search too long in any Islamic bookstore to find a pamphlet on brotherhood in Islam, making promises of charity, trust, mutual respect, and support. And immigrant Muslims have also been inspired by the civil rights and black nationalism, which has some intellectual linkages with Third World liberation. Part of the anger and backlash you see from some American Muslims is that they feel like some of their co-religionists have fell short on their promises. Black American Muslims who were struggling to put themselves through school or raise a family using no riba became distraught when their immigrant co-religionists happily circulate money in their family and ethnic networks, but refuse to build economic ties with converts, let alone consider intermarriage. Immigrant Muslims are now distraught that Black American Muslims have started to say they’d rather vote for a Zionist who will promote universal healthcare rather than march in the streets and divest from Israel. Honestly, I think if you surveyed most Black American Muslims, you will find that they still sympathize with Muslims overseas, but they have developed a political pragmatism. I think Barack Obama’s election and the reaction to it is testament to shifting attitudes about politics. Even for upwardly mobile Black Americans and Black American Muslims, we are deeply aware of our historic legacy and our responsibility to make a positive contribution to our families and neighbors.
I am not trying to force my own narrative down anyone’s throat. Nor am I arguing that we should have just one narrative. Rather, I am saying that we have different interests and each Muslim in America has an obligation to follow his/her calling. If you are moved to join the Peace Corps in the Moroccan Rif, by all means, do your thing. If you want to start an interfaith dialog in your local community, do your thing. Or if your big struggle is putting yourself through school so you can take care of your momma, grandma, and be a positive example for your family, do your thing. For once, American Muslims who see their fates tied to the future of America are beginning to talk. I think we can come together and find common ground, but that takes real dialog. Some have been hurting over the past 5, 10, 15, 30 years as they existed on the margins. And yes, when you have been hurting that long, you are going to have some words that are going to sting. It may even get nasty. But if we are going to deal with the divide, I think we need to listen to how we have hurt each other and work to rectify the pain we have caused each other so that we can move on to the next challenge.