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Numbers are a curious thing. As an old adage has it: “There are three types of lies—lies, damn lies, and statistics.” When it comes to Islam in America, the intermingling of numbers and lies, coupled with general confusion, could not be more glaring. 

The Pew Research Center holds that there are about 3.5 million Muslims living in the United States. While some might argue the actual number is twice that, there is no denying the fact that American Muslims take up much more real estate in the geopolitical arena than their actual numbers warrant. Indeed, American Muslims are a point of curiosity and fascination for many. But why is this, and what effect has it had on the community itself?

Internationally, American Muslims have long been a shiny coin in the propaganda chest of many governments in the Muslim world. Whether it is the United Arab Emirates’ strategic patronage of religious clerics and interfaith summits, or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attendance and attempt to speak at Muhammad Ali’s funeral, the courting of American Muslims resembles a medieval rivalry of clashing princes. Of course, the American government is also deeply involved in this coin chase, with Beltway think-tanks like the Brookings Institution regularly leveraging American Muslim expertise as part of a broad public diplomacy campaign.

The “shiny coin” of American Islam, it seems, is quite valuable—but there are two very different sides to it. On the first side, the “damn lie” of American Muslims as a fifth column—undercover terrorists ready to rain hell on innocents—has hypnotized almost all residents of Trumpland. On the other side, the Democratic Party and multicultural enthusiasts have rushed to befriend Muslims (and secure their vote), all while supporting Islamophobic policies. (I hear a faint blue echo of the racist war on drugs while courting the black vote here, but I digress).

This two-faced coin of American Islam has birthed a rather odd situation that has made American Muslims central characters in the unfolding drama of U.S. national consciousness. It has spurred an identity crisis among U.S. Muslims that is visible on the world stage. In fact, the American Muslim community has been gradually building up to this identity crisis for generations.

While it is indeed true that American Muslims are the most diverse and complex of any Muslim minority population in the world, it is also the case that American Muslims are themselves divided along the same fault lines that define the United States. Just as there are arguably two “Americas” divided by race, class, and competing visions of global leadership, there are also two American “Islams” split by rivalrous claims of political theology, American identity, and Muslim mission. Understanding this divide, and the historical and contemporary contours behind it, might help both insiders and outsiders better navigate the complexities of this curiously positioned religious community.

In the Shadow of Empire

In many ways, today’s American Muslim politics are reverberations of dynamics that have been in place since the height of the Cold War. A turning point in this history came with Congress’s very astute decision to open American doors to immigration from the Middle East and South Asia through the Immigration Reform Act of 1965. The policy play was aimed at attracting emerging talent and leadership from developing economies that might otherwise align with the Soviet Union or with the pervasive socialist leanings of third-world socio-political movements. To undermine the socialist “wave,” it was politically useful to court people of color from all over the world, many of them Muslim, and have them participate in the “American dream” (which now manifests itself as White Flight, modern conservatism, and suburban utopianism). For better or worse, this had a lasting and profound effect on the American Muslim community.

When Elijah Muhammad and Malcom X’s Nation of Islam first emerged to question the moral and political “DNA” of the American project, a number of newly arrived Muslim immigrants were the first to denounce the organization and its members as “imposters.” In doing so, they aligned themselves with the national and state-level security establishment that sought to quell black protest and allied social justice movements at any cost. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, with sincere or malicious intent, this stream of new American Muslims truly believed (and many still do believe) that, “What is Right with Islam, Is What is Right with America.” It can certainly be said that, for decades following the influx of these newly arrived immigrants, an important and large segment of American Muslims have laid their theological commitments at the altar of American exceptionalism. 

At the same time, however, some of these recently arrived immigrants were committed to a global struggle of political liberation and anti-colonial independence. For them, transnational solidarity with the oppressed, a vision of religiously informed social and political transformation, and a commitment to genuine intersectional politics were the order of the day. Since black American Muslims were already at the forefront of this conversation, this group of immigrants sought common cause with this community. Together, they fostered a dynamic international cross-pollination of ideas and politics aimed at tackling issues of historical oppression, capitalist exploitation, and disenfranchisement of the global south. But as I helped document in the After Malcolm Archive (which provides digital access to original materials from black Muslim movements in the 1970s), African American Muslim leaders went even further than this and worked rigorously across racial and religious lines with like-minded cultural and political revolutionaries both at home and abroad. Perhaps one of the best examples of this solidarity is the Western Sunrise newspaper, showing the late and beloved Imam al-Hajj Ahmad Tawfiq of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood (MIB) in discussions with an indigenous American Indian organizer.

Contemporary American Muslim social justice advocates and organizers (like Linda Sarsour, for example) have doubtlessly been influenced by this history. They embody and exemplify an Islam that transcends and challenges the myths and realities of the American empire, allowing all American Muslims to be at once both part of their real and imagined communities here and abroad.

Broadly, these two groups—those who believe in America’s “exceptionalism” on the one hand, and those who seek to challenge it on the other—are what make up the American Muslim community today. Of course, there are nuances within the complex web of this community—and I have charted some of them before—but at the core of the American Muslim project is an insurmountable conflict over political theology. The key question is, how do we square the circle of Islam and America in the contemporary geopolitical moment? Can the principles and goals of the community be achieved by working within the American political system and the romantic union between private sector neoliberalism and civil society engagement? Those who say yes argue that “progress” (through continual engagement, dialogue, political recognition) is being made—no matter how slow and, often times, with little thought to the cost. For American Muslims on the other side of the divide, the path ahead is a bit more bumpy. For them, the goal is to help repair America’s shortcomings at home and abroad through mass mobilization and social justice activism, through which establishment and respectability politics are eschewed in favor of international solidarity, strategic opposition, and an organic culture of civil disobedience. American Muslims, it seems, face a clear choice between two paths of realizing their role in the American story.

Whatever the approach, the question of how American Muslims should respond to international issues is at the core of these debates. While most American Muslims have firmly refused to tether their social and political fate to international affairs, recent events in the real world (as well as in the ego-driven thunderdome of Muslim Twitterverse) have made it clear that, for the foreseeable future, this refusal will largely remain unrealistic. This is perhaps most evident when it comes to the question of Palestine, and the often raucous debates that surround it within the American Muslim community.

A Clear Fork in the Road

Against the will and better judgement of just about everyone in the world, President Donald Trump recently moved the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, helping, in part, to catalyze the non-violent and courageous Great March of Return in Gaza. As Israeli snipers tore down unarmed Palestinian protesters, medics, and journalists, American Muslims and allied communities began to weigh-in. Against this backdrop, the latest of many frail scabs covering the American Muslim community’s deep wounds was torn wide open. It revealed the extent to which American Muslims will never be able to escape the geopolitical matrix of identity, religion, and American empire.

One of the forces that blew this issue wide open is a recent, if not shockingly unique, story and video documentary in The Atlantic by the aspiring American Muslim writer and media personality, Wajahat Ali. Entitled “A Muslim Among Israeli Settlers,” the project was in some ways an extension of the Muslim-Zionist dialogue work that Ali and others have engaged in through the controversial Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI).

The script of Ali’s story is a familiar one. A liberal protagonist and lovable family man defies the strictures of his inherited culture and religious tradition to set out and find the universally human quality in the enemy he was taught to hate. Throughout his journey in the heavily fortified suburban garrisons of occupied Palestine, the protagonist laments the horrors of extremism on all sides, equivocating about occupation, violence, and zealotry and mildly condemning them as symptoms of arrogance and manipulated religion. He prays for everyone and wishes for a better future for his children. Like so many other American Muslim voices before him that somehow found their way into national media, Ali played this role perfectly.

The fallout in the American Muslim community was quick, deep, and broad. Ali’s deepening engagement with, and humanizing of, the most aggressive Zionist religious-political spectrum earned him ostracization from mainstream American Muslim organizations. In response to his Atlantic article, the Islamic Society of North American (ISNA) revoked Ali’s invitation to speak at its annual convention in August 2018. For the largest and most representative Muslim institution in the United States, this was a big step. Ali has been one of ISNA’s leading speakers for years and the organization takes great measure to carefully balance rivalries and differences, even hosting debates about issues such as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and MLI. In fact, ISNA itself has been at the forefront of interfaith engagement, including with organizations that are pro-Israel. But as Rutgers Professor Sylvia Chan-Malik succinctly pointed out in her critical analysis of Ali’s article, words are powerful tools to humanize and demonize. While sticks and stones may actually break bones, words can hurt too. In Ali’s case, his words have done quite a bit of damage.

For those peering in, or just coming to the conversation, what they will hear won’t be pretty. There is plenty of vitriolic and anathematizing name-calling, and even accusations that Ali and his colleagues are engaged in a shameless strategy of self-promotion—indulging in an insatiable hunger for fame and career success. These are rather shallow and pedestrian criticisms. Like all anger, however, they are outbursts of pain based on genuine hurt. For a community that sees itself and its allies across the world as literally besieged by seemingly insurmountable media and military machines, visiting illegal Israeli settlements for the sake of dialogue and understanding was simply a step too far—especially by someone who once fought hard against Islamophobia.

As Ahmed Rehab, director of the Chicago chapter of The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said, the issue is much larger than Wajahat, MLI, or anyone’s particular personality. It is an ethical question about respecting Palestinian voices and letting them lead the conversation about their community and homeland. As reflected in a response piece published during the month of Ramadan, Ali’s own understandably defensive, but poorly calculated, dismissal and dangerous misrepresentation of this pain and anger was like pouring salt in the wound. Read by many as bald arrogance, his intransigence about the truth resembled the wild punches of a boxer in trouble. 

Everyone can and should sympathize with that at least. (After all, Mike Tyson bit a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear off, and they’re friends again). The damage from this discord might take some time to heal, but it is a useful example to demonstrate the ways American Muslims are caught in a chaotic global game of tug-of-war.

At the same time, I often wonder whether the fractious politics of American Islam are truly a reflection of this community’s unique geopolitical position in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Are its dramatic and pseudo-celebrity rivalries nothing more than a tempest in a teapot? After all, most Muslims know little about ISNA and even less about MLI.

While American Muslims themselves, much less those just learning about them, may have difficulty navigating their ethical and political commitments, there is one thing we can say for sure: the fork in the road is well-lit and clearly marked just as it is for all Americans at this moment. It is a choice between the imaginary America of dreams, myths, and career politicians, or that of rolled-up sleeves, tears, and the terribly hard work of speaking truth to power. The path forward is not too hard to see, though it may require a bit of strength to take.

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