Explaining the cause and character of one’s religious or national identity is often like constructing a rather large, if not intimidating, jigsaw puzzle. Daunting as the task may initially seem, we can nonetheless organize the puzzle pieces into something reasonably coherent with just a bit of effort. But if answering what it means to “be a Muslim” or “be an American” is simply a matter of putting together the pieces of a puzzle, then addressing the far more nebulous question of what it means to “be an American Muslim” is like composing the overture to an orchestral piece.
What does it mean to have an American Muslim identity? Is there such a thing as an American Islam? If so, what do its adherents represent and what exactly does it mean to “be an American Muslim?” These are questions which, for at least the better part of the last two decades, have come to occupy the minds of American Muslims and non-Muslims alike. As scholar Anne Norton notes in On the Muslim Question, Muslims today have “become the axis where questions of political philosophy and political theology, politics and ethics meet.” For better or worse, Muslims living in the United States are keenly aware that they live in the political limelight, as a unique point of both fascination and fury.
Reacting to the various social and political pressures they now face, American Muslims have worked tirelessly to explain the relationship between their religious and national identities. Many of these efforts have involved insisting on the allegedly natural, longstanding harmony that exists between Islamic norms, on the one hand, and American values, on the other. Indeed, there is no shortage of editorials and public statements from American Muslim leaders and thinkers affirming this belief. As recently as last month, one leading American Muslim figure published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times stating that “Islam is an American religion,” and calling American Muslims “patriots and an integral part of American society since the Revolutionary War.” The author went on to state that American Muslims “represent the diversity that defines this nation at its best[,] and our American values — human dignity, freedom, justice — are Islamic values too. We are American and we are Muslim, and there is no conflict between the two.”
Of all Muslim minority groups in the world, American Muslims are arguably the most socially assimilated, and are noticeably proud of that fact. Unlike French or British Muslims, for example, American Muslims have more seamlessly integrated into the fabric of American society. Partly for this reason, American Muslims have come to think of themselves as admirably different from the rest of the Muslim world. If anything does truly distinguish American Muslims, it is surely this belief in their own extraordinariness.
In line with this belief, American Muslims are increasingly accepting, adopting, and defending social and political causes that are traditionally looked at with moral suspicion by the majority of Muslims worldwide. This ranges from the promotion of non-heteronormative sexual lifestyles to the endorsement of Israeli claims to Palestinian land. Many American Muslims have chosen to break with the consensus of their religious community on these and other matters, in large part to more closely align with the general, mainstream American consensus. These realities make it all the more difficult to navigate what it means to be both a Muslim and an American today.
To better understand these timely and complicated issues, Muftah has put together this collection of five essays from American Muslim scholars and researchers, analyzing various elements of the American Muslim experience. The contributions in this collection will broadly inspect the relationship between so-called “American” and “Islamic” values—paying particular attention to the impact of the former on the latter. To varying degrees, the essays discuss the following questions: What is American Islam? What makes American Islam unique? To what extent has American Islam been influenced by liberal principles, and what are those principles? To what extent have these influences been positive or negative? What social and political forces, if any, influenced the “liberalization” of Islam in America? What are some of the ways in which this phenomenon is arguably evident?
We encourage our readers to contribute to the discussion by posting their reactions and questions on our website, Facebook, and Twitter pages. We encourage those who are interested to submit their own articles, responding to the pieces in this collection, by emailing them to [email protected].
We look forward to continuing the conversation on American Islam.
By Abdullah Al-Arian
By Abbas Barzegar
By Butheina Hamdah
By Hafsa Kanjwal
By Edward Moad