In a 2005 essay in the Boston Review, the late historian Howard Zinn traced the notion of American exceptionalism from the earliest European settlements in North America to the presidency of George W. Bush. The American invasion and occupation of Iraq, Zinn argued, represented the fulfillment of a longstanding belief that “the United States alone has the right, whether by divine sanction or moral obligation, to bring civilization, or democracy, or liberty to the rest of the world, by violence if necessary.” That same year, an article entitled “Making Muslims part of the solution” appeared in the Wall Street Journal, asserting that not only had Muslims properly assimilated into the broader American society, but that they had begun “to actively participate in the struggle against religious extremism” that was a key feature of the Global War on Terror. Citing a prominent American Muslim leader’s journey from latent radical to vocal advocate for the Bush agenda, the author boasted that American Muslims had come to recognize “the opportunities the liberal US political system offers them” to contest their marginalization.
Nearly a decade later, the same American Muslim leader co-authored an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Let Islamic reform start in America.” Together with his co-writer, he situated American Muslims as leading agents in a global Islamic revival due to the fact that “they have the freedom and the intellectual capacity to create positive change for Islamic reform.” After denouncing the repressive practices and abuses committed by foreign authoritarian rulers and militant groups in the name of Islam, the authors concluded that “Islam liberated us from the shackles of religious tyranny, and we will struggle to liberate ourselves by declaring our independence from the tyrants and clerics who have usurped authority and religion in claiming sovereignty over Muslims world-wide.”
If the language of the piece evokes a broader discourse of exceptionalism that has characterized American attitudes toward the rest of the world, that is the end result of a process several decades in the making. Debates surrounding the evolution of Muslim communities in the United States have long featured in general discussions about the integration of religious and ethnic minorities. In the aftermath of 9/11, however, such questions became fraught with greater political stakes and global implications. In light of some of these recent developments, it is worth exploring the extent to which American Muslims have incorporated notions of American exceptionalism into their communal identity, and in turn, developed a distinct notion of American Muslim exceptionalism.
Recent years have seen a surge in the number of scholars documenting the history of Islam in America. These historians have produced rich studies that have shed new light on the experiences of West African Muslims brought to the Americas as slaves, the establishment of Islamic institutions by a wave of immigrant workers during the early twentieth century, and the broader continuities and changes that, by the end of the century, had characterized the Muslim community’s evolution as a hyphenated American identity in its own right. By underscoring the complexity and diversity of the Muslim experience, these valuable works have demonstrated, among other things, that American Islam precludes a solitary, linear narrative. Rather, as scholar Sherman Jackson has shown, the contemporary American Muslim community reflects multiple genealogies that are alternately in congruence and in conflict with one another.
While Islam in America dates back to the colonial era in which, by some accounts, ten to fifteen percent of slaves brought from West Africa were Muslim, the contemporary Black Muslim community originated primarily in the indigenized movements of Islamic consciousness that emerged during the early twentieth century, such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam. The most recent wave of Muslim migrants, who arrived predominantly from the Middle East and South Asia following the relaxation of U.S. immigration laws in 1965, experienced similar challenges to earlier waves of migration that were motivated by political unrest and economic need. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, these experiences had seemingly converged following the large-scale adoption of Sunni orthodoxy by Black Muslims and the gradual assimilation and indigenization of immigrant Muslims and their descendants.
As American Muslims increasingly amalgamate their experiences and incorporate them into the larger corpus of American history, they face the challenge of avoiding triumphalist narratives that lend themselves to exceptionalist readings. In his critique of such narratives, historian Eric Foner posits that Americans have largely constructed a linear view of their history, one of overcoming odds and upholding ideals. America’s westward expansion, for instance, has been presented as the basis for the country’s democratic principles and self-reliant individualism.
In the case of American Muslims, the selective appropriation of history occurs in similar fashion. The narrow reading of the past goes beyond the ostensible purpose of demonstrating belonging. Rather, it can operate to construct a narrative of historical inclusion that weaves Muslims into the overarching story of American exceptionalism. Muslims can trace their roots to many of the most definitive moments of American history. They participated in the American Revolution, contributed to the nation’s industrialization, and gave their lives in two world wars. They serve as living proof of America as a melting pot, bolstering its economic and cultural greatness. Recent polling has affirmed that they have assimilated far more successfully than Muslim immigrants in Europe, leading one commentator to note in the conservative outlet The National Interest that in the United States Muslims “vote and participate in the democratic system and believe that through hard work anyone can succeed, the bedrock of American political philosophy.”
It is worth noting that the adoption of the language of exceptionalism has occurred largely against the backdrop of contentious public debates and efforts by political elites to erase Muslims from American history, peg them as suspicious foreigners, and exclude them from spaces of political contestation. It was in the face of such pressures that in 2007, Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, chose to take his oath of office on a copy of the Qur’an once owned by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s Qur’an has had a mythic aura attached to it ever since, sparking wider discussions of the pluralistic worldview of the nation’s founders, and in particular their acceptance of Islam as a faith to be practiced freely in the United States.
Insofar as it lends historical continuity to the current struggle against Islamophobia as a political and cultural force, embracing the narrative of American exceptionalism can be both powerful and appropriate. Nonetheless, doing so without recognizing the historical expressions of anti-Muslim sentiments, as seen through a more critical reading of that same history, can be problematic. While framers of the U.S. Constitution expressed hostility to the possibility of integrating any religious tradition into the American political system, they singled out Islam as particularly incompatible with American ideals. And as historian Karine Walther recently demonstrated, U.S. foreign policy throughout the nineteenth century was driven by feelings of Christian supremacy toward Muslim societies to a far greater degree than previously thought.
Similarly, the civil rights movement offers a powerful historical antecedent for current struggles against systematic discrimination. But as some scholars have cautioned, adopting a triumphalist reading of that history serves to negate its most instructive lessons. In 2016, philosopher and critic Cornel West noted that the sanitized version of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life had become so popularized that “much of America did not know the radical King.” In the eyes of West and other critics, King’s true legacy defied the broader narrative of American exceptionalism:
King indeed had a dream. But it was not the American dream. King’s dream was rooted in the American Dream—it was what the quest for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness looked like for people enslaved and Jim Crowed, terrorized, traumatized, and stigmatized by American laws and American citizens. The litmus test for realizing King’s dream was neither a black face in the White House nor a black presence on Wall Street. Rather, the fulfillment of his dream was for all poor and working people to live lives of decency and dignity.
Those words became particularly instructive following the death of the most iconic symbol of Islam in America just a few months later. As Americans mourned Muhammad Ali’s death and celebrated a life of great courage and sacrifice, his legacy became dutifully integrated into the narrative of an America that had overcome its historic struggles with racial injustice. When the nation’s political elites lined up to pay their respects to Ali, who at one time could lay claim to the title of most hated man in America, they appropriated the personal indignities he endured and reframed them as part of the story of American progress. Reflecting on Ali’s achievements, Barack Obama observed that “his victory helped us get used to the America we recognize today.”
Commenting on Ali’s death, Bill Clinton wrote, “we watched him grow from the brash self-confidence of youth and success into a manhood full of religious and political convictions that led him to make tough choices and live with the consequences.” Of course, anyone aware of Ali’s denunciation of racism at home and imperialism abroad and the toll it took on his life knew that the nation did more than “watch” his journey. Even Donald Trump, who would ride a wave of anti-Muslim bigotry to the White House later that fall, offered a note of condolences for “a truly great champion and a wonderful guy.”
Owing to the prevailing political climate, American Muslims reflecting on Ali’s legacy emphasized his ability to “normalize” Islam in the United States and, through his lived example, demonstrate the compatibility of his faith with his love for his nation. As Muslims continue to be systematically targeted in the age of the War on Terror, it would seem fitting to produce an unassailable icon who stood as the community’s peace ambassador, not only to the rest of the country, but to a “troubled” Muslim world as well. There are, however, limits to such a narrative, especially in its inability to confront persistent structural abuses that are often rendered invisible in part due to the dominant mythology surrounding a “good Muslim hero.” There was perhaps no more painful reminder of this than when U.S. border agents detained Muhammad Ali’s own son and questioned him about his Muslim faith less than a year after the entire country had come together to celebrate his father’s life.
Constructing American Islam
In confronting the rising challenges of marginalization and discrimination, it is imperative not to idealize a past to which the roots of many current structural injustices can be traced. Writing about the tendency for Black Americans “to labor under the false universal that enshrines the values and aspirations of the dominant culture,” Sherman Jackson has warned that:
Embracing America should not be equated with embracing the American state’s or the dominant culture’s false universals. To pretend that there is only one American history and social reality and thus only one normal or acceptable response to these is to reinforce the invisibility of American whiteness as a socially constructed mode of being whose “normalness” reclines fundamentally on the use (and at times abuse) of power.
However, Jackson proceeds to draw a distinction between the black experience in America, which produced such adherence through “power and control,” and that of the colonial experience in African and Asian contexts, in which the gift of a civilizing education to colonial subjects elicited an appreciation for the virtue of Western achievements. In suggesting this, Jackson appears to lend credence to the perception that immigrants to the United States (Muslim or otherwise) more readily embrace its universal system of values. This contention misses the point of colonialism as little more than an exercise in power and control in its own right. In fact, the waves of migration from these formerly colonized lands to the United States, particularly during the past half century, represent the height of mass consternation with the failures of post-colonial projects and the endurance of neo-imperial predation. Thus, the adoption of American exceptionalism was by no means a historical inevitability, and certainly not one that predates the most recent wave of Muslim migration.
Today, roughly three-quarters of Muslims in the United States are either immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. Coupled with their largely privileged socio-economic status and their vocal claims to spiritual authority (given their proximity to an “authentic Islam”), it is this segment of the community that has most forcefully advanced the notion of American Muslims as a distinct political community over the span of the last two decades. That program centers on the premise that Muslims in the United States have coalesced around a particular understanding of their faith, one that is simultaneously rooted in an authentic and universal set of Islamic beliefs and practices, and also informed by its integration of core American values. In this way, American Islam was “liberated” from the cultural and political baggage of Islam as it continues to be lived in its historic homelands, while embracing America’s melting pot ideal to erode the community’s internal ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic divisions. This notion of “a moral geography of the American Medina,” as anthropologist Zareena Grewal has termed it, formed the basis of the foundational institutions of a community that recognized the need to anchor its spiritual and national identities in its immediate environs.
Since 9/11, there has been no shortage of descriptive analyses of how American Muslims are distinct from their co-religionists the world over. American mosques are noteworthy for accommodating reinterpretations of traditional ritual practices. American Muslims have found innovative ways to address questions of maintaining a halal diet or finding love while staying true to their religious values. They have carved out spaces within popular culture to express their identity, embracing musical genres ranging from hip hop to country. They have devised new ways of fulfilling their commitment to charity and community service. American Muslim athletes, artists, scientists, business leaders, and intellectuals have consistently spoken of their unique position as representatives of an American minority community that enjoys tremendous opportunities to succeed in their respective fields. Islamic scholars in the United States have affirmed that the American Muslim community should develop its own religious rulings on questions of Islamic practice that do not arise in more traditional contexts and have devised several institutional bodies toward that end.
In these and a myriad of other ways, the American Muslim experience is indeed distinct from any other, including that of Muslim minorities in other Western societies. Even while recognizing the lingering racial, ethnic, cultural and class divisions that have yet to yield a homogenized community, the ideal of a unified community of Muslims exists more visibly in the United States than anywhere else. The question remains, however, how have American Muslims constructed a model of communal identity worthy not only of celebration but emulation as well? In other words, how does a unique experience become an exceptional one?
The answer to this question lies in a critical examination of the extension of American Muslim communal engagement from the cultural and socioeconomic spheres into the realm of formal politics. On a number of metrics, from rates of post-secondary education to average income levels, American Muslims have performed on par with or better than the rest of the country. Nevertheless, the community’s relatively integrated socioeconomic position exists in stark contrast to its perpetual exclusion from national politics, a notable disparity with few analogues in U.S. history.
This disenfranchisement bore persistent attempts to advance discriminatory policies targeting Muslims. As far back as the 1980s, U.S. government officials considered proposals for the roundup and internment of people from eight Muslim-majority countries residing in the United States. By the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration was detaining Muslim immigrants indefinitely without charge. Despite strong constitutional challenges to these practices, in the aftermath of 9/11 American Muslims could do little to prevent the dramatic expansion of policies that securitized the community and subjected it to a host of abusive practices. These included unlawful detentions, surveillance of community leaders, infiltration of mosques, entrapment of youth, criminalization of speech, and cracking down on Islamic charities.
Such invasive practices would inhibit any minority religious community from fulfilling its basic spiritual and communal functions. Rather than mobilize around calls for the restoration of American Muslim rights, however, community leaders aimed to leverage their privileged socioeconomic status to gain entrance into the domain of elite politics. This has resulted in a piecemeal approach to questions of civil rights, the professionalization of activism, and the adoption of exceptionalist arguments in the development of American Muslim identity politics.
Disciplining American Muslims
As the Bush administration outlined its policy objectives largely within the rubric of combatting terrorism—and its “Islamic” variant in particular—American Muslims understood the cost of entry into politics to be the re-appropriation of their religious identity in conjunction with current national security priorities. The disciplining of American Muslim community leadership occurred largely through subjecting Muslim leaders to the cyclical demands of commendation and condemnation. Those Muslims who stressed the docile nature of their faith tradition, denounced religious extremism, and posed no serious objections to the underlying logic of U.S. counterterrorism policies (both foreign and domestic) were granted access to formal political spaces. Those who did not were marginalized. Scholar Mahmood Mamdani captured this binary in his 2005 study dissecting the construction of the “good Muslim, bad Muslim” categories that governed the post-Cold War order and placed American Muslims on the frontlines of an impending clash between the Western and Islamic worlds.
The consequence of defining Islam largely in opposition to Islamophobia is that it necessarily impels Muslims to adopt ethical commitments grounded in a desire for formal acceptance. In sharp contrast to the immediate post-9/11 era of mass scrutiny of Muslims, roughly a decade later the Obama administration had successfully expanded what was initially a state-led project to include community institutions, chiefly through Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs. American Muslim leaders were enlisted to share the burden of policing their communities and, in the process, were effectively narrowing spaces for the expression of critical views. Programs such as the Safe Spaces Initiative, which was devised by one leading American Muslim organization, signaled a major shift of priorities and resources from protecting communities from continued infringements on their civil rights to promoting state counter-radicalization programs. The same group even proceeded to honor a local law enforcement official who had carried out a mapping program of Muslim communities in Los Angeles. Later, LA was one of three cities chosen to host a CVE pilot program in part due to the strength of local “faith-based partnerships and collaboration.” Similarly, for its role in “curbing violent extremism,” hosting political officials, and maintaining strong ties with authorities, a Northern Virginia mosque received the FBI’s community leadership award and was anointed “the model mosque of America.”
After having long ignored the concerns voiced by American Muslims, Obama elicited the participation of a wide range of community organizations at a White House summit on CVE in 2015. Of particular concern is that this new level of engagement has done nothing to stem the tide of the abuses listed above, as many of these programs’ advocates insisted. A recent investigative series by The Intercept showcased continued civil rights violations by federal authorities against American Muslims throughout the Obama era. Seemingly immune to American Muslim public diplomacy efforts, Republican politicians in forty-nine states were observed to have “openly attacked Muslims with words and proposed legislation since 2015” according to another report. An earlier finding by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed that the FBI used “community outreach forums” to spy on Muslim community members.
Nevertheless, over time, this disciplining effect worked to instill in the broader community a belief that American Islam is an ideal type worthy of dissemination. In the view of one commentator, writing for the Middle East Policy Council, Muslims in the United States have seamlessly adapted notions of American exceptionalism to fit the demands of their communal identity:
American Muslim exceptionalists believe that God brought Muslims to America, the world’s richest and most powerful country, for a purpose. They recognize that they constitute one of the most educated, advanced and wealthy Muslim societies in the world. They hoped that in a land where both freedom of religion and freedom of thought are protected, an authentic Islamic revival and reform movement could emerge that would not only prove that Islamic principles were truly divine, but also find a path for the Muslim world to negotiate the challenges of modernity.
This belief has manifested in various ways. In the face of rising anti-American sentiment around the world, under the previous two administrations, the U.S. State Department sponsored global tours for American Muslims to share their experience as a successful minority faith community in the United States with Muslim populations across Asia, Africa, and Europe. As political scientist Hisham Aidi has shown, these diplomatic missions, which sometimes relied on Muslim hip hop artists to combat widespread critiques of American foreign policy, were modeled after the jazz diplomacy undertaken against communism during the height of the Cold War.
Fast on the heels of the 2015 White House summit on CVE, whose talking points stressed that combatting radicalism constituted a global mission, American Muslim leaders took up the challenge of creating counter-radicalization programs for export to the Muslim world. Participating in the “Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies” in Abu Dhabi, a delegation of American Muslims collected a first prize award in a competition to develop online tools to counter extremist messaging by ISIS. The winning idea was a social media site that promoted positive Muslim role models in the hopes that young Muslims around the world would avoid the lure of militant jihadism by finding inspiration in the story of a Muslim NFL player, for example.
Even in expressing sympathy for the anti-authoritarian mass protests that swept the Middle East and North Africa beginning in late 2010, the American Muslim community frequently framed its support through the logic of U.S. interventionism. Throughout the Arab uprisings, a number of American Muslim organizations called upon American officials to lend formal assistance to pro-democracy initiatives in Tunisia and Egypt, and in the case of Libya and Syria, supported calls for direct military intervention. As a community that has traditionally faced considerable backlash for its advocacy on behalf of issues of concern within the Middle East, reorienting its policy promotion toward U.S. strategic objectives signals a natural progression of an increasingly assimilated American Muslim polity. But to do so while uncritically reproducing the language of American democracy promotion (which has been at the heart of its exceptionalist mission) risks reducing American Muslims to the status of transplanted native informant.
American Muslim Exceptionalism
As a minority community representing less than two percent of the population, American Muslims rarely figure into the national political debate. Their presence, if it is acknowledged at all, tends to center around efforts by political figures to stoke fear of homegrown terrorism. In fact, a recent study revealed that incidents of anti-Muslim violence are more closely linked to U.S. electoral cycles than to actual incidents of terrorism committed by Muslims. Aiming to counter this trend during the 2016 presidential election, the Democratic National Convention (DNC) gave center stage to Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen soldier who took Trump to task for his campaign’s use of hateful rhetoric. During his speech, Khan introduced his family as “patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to our country.” Having arrived as immigrants, he continued that “we believed in American democracy, that with hard work and goodness of this country, we could share in and contribute to its blessings.” Waving his copy of the U.S. Constitution, Khan challenged Trump to heed its ideals, before offering his endorsement of Hillary Clinton.
Naturally, Khan’s speech elicited the wrath of Trump and his campaign machine, which issued racist replies and crude denunciations. Within the community, however, the Khan moment signaled the crystallization of American Muslim exceptionalism. Upon a national stage, both literally and figuratively, this moment showcased a faith community that had seamlessly woven itself into the fabric of an idealized national identity. In its uncritical adoption of militarism as a measure of patriotism, it eroded the space for internal political critique. In its veneration of the founding national myth, it obscured a history of systemic abuses against marginalized populations. Watching the flow of emotional celebrations across the community prompted one observer to call it “the moment American Muslims have been waiting for.”
While the rise of Trump undoubtedly served to accelerate this process, the pressure to demonstrate belonging within an atmosphere of intolerance had been a longstanding feature of the American Muslim experience. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the “American Medina” narrative confronted that challenge by constructing a more powerful ideal upon which to project an entire community’s spiritual aspirations. But insofar as it fails to account for the ethical limits and the exclusionism inherent to the exceptionalist mythology, the American Muslim version will continue to face trials that token representation alone cannot overcome. In his DNC speech in 2016, Bill Clinton addressed America’s Muslims saying, “if you’re Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together. We want you.” In an environment in which even the supposed political allies of the American Muslim community can continually reduce its status to that of a securitized minority and subject it to the language of conditional citizenship, it is little wonder that a recent study revealed that American Muslims have internalized Islamophobic discourses to an alarming degree.
Moreover, the community leaderships’ abandonment of a more critical outlook in favor of the acceptance that comes with expedient politics is likely to have the added consequence of alienating American Muslims as a community from allies in other communities. In contrast to the Movement for Black Lives, for instance, American Muslim institutions have avoided framing their critiques of government policies as a consequence of structural inequality embedded in state institutions and practices. In fact, American Muslim leaders have remained largely silent on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) struggle, and the largest community organization only broke its silence to condemn protests in Baltimore following the 2015 killing of Freddie Grey by police. Nor have they been particularly engaged in opposing the unprecedented levels of deportation of undocumented Latino immigrants, a policy that has served as the precedent for calls for the mass deportation of Muslims.
To be sure, American Muslim organizations remain actively engaged on many issues of material concern to their community, including discriminatory practices emanating from the Trump administration such as the infamous Muslim ban. But in advancing an agenda that reflects a narrow understanding of politics and is insufficiently critical of structural issues, American Muslims have been left woefully unprepared for the deeper challenges that preceded the rise of a white supremacist president and for which a belief in exceptionalism offers no relief.