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Muslims in the West >
What kinds of problems do Muslims face in America?

Like many other immigrants of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, Muslims are being challenged to define their place in American society. Given their youth, educational and employment profiles, and growing population, which make them a potential political force, the future for Muslims in America can look very positive. However, this optimism can be strongly tempered by the negative attitudes toward all Muslims, influenced by 9/11 and the fears of terrorism that can be seen across America. Being Muslim, regardless of one's education or profession, seems to carry the taint of terrorism and “foreignness” that brushstrokes all Muslims as “the other.”

Many former American minorities who have now “made it in America” do not empathize with what Muslims are now facing. They fail to identify the discrimination they or their ancestors encountered with Muslims' current situation. There are many reasons for this. The majority of previous religious and ethnic minorities were Judeo-Christian. In America, Islam is still an unknown, considered a foreign religion. Few think of Islam as an Abrahamic religion, part of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Since many Americans are not familiar with Islam as a faith and are not personally acquainted with many Muslims, gaps in our knowledge, in a post-9/11 world, have also been filled with one-sided, often sensationalist media accounts, leading us to fear and ostracize these “strangers.”

Living in a dominant culture that is often ignorant about or hostile to Islam, Muslims can feel marginalized, alienated, and powerless. Some are also marked as “different” because of their dress or attempts to maintain their religious practices. They wonder how to demonstrate that their acts of worship—wearing headscarves, taking off from work at noon on Friday to attend congregational prayers, building Islamic centers or mosques—do not undermine their patriotism or pride in being American. Those who want to succeed in American cultural and political environments wonder if they must give up their identity and function like strangers in their Western society in order to be accepted. This encourages some to resist assimilation because it can lead to becoming so “Westernized” that they lose their distinctive cultural identity and faith. Not only non-Muslims but also Muslims themselves are led to question whether they are Muslims who happen to live in America or American Muslims.

Two broad Muslim responses to Muslim identity in the West continue to coexist: First, some Muslim leaders advocate more isolated religious/cultural communities and imams trained in homeland countries. Like ethnic Catholics and Jews in America, who initially looked to their countries of origin for many of their priests or rabbis, Western Muslims have relied on connections to the Muslim world for religious leadership. However, this kind of support can deter the Americanization of the Muslim experience in the long run. Muslim communities can become dependent on foreign-born and -trained religious leaders who are not always aware of or sensitive to the problems of daily life that American Muslims encounter. So too, Muslim leaders must be able to face the added responsibility of helping the community to confront anti-Muslim sentiment. Thus, training indigenous imams has become a keen goal, generating new interest in developing indigenous seminaries for local religious leaders and scholars.

The second response, “we are American Muslims,” represents the view of the majority of Muslims in America, whose success educationally and professionally has assisted their integration into their new mosaic society. Like other religious and ethnic groups before them, they see themselves as part of the fabric of America and have a strong desire for coexistence with their fellow citizens based on common civic, religious, and social values and interests.

Muslims recognize that making it in their adopted countries requires institution-building and reform. In the last decade there has been a great increase in the number of mosques, Islamic centers, schools, professional and social associations, and advocacy groups to monitor textbooks and the teaching of Islam to assure accuracy and objectivity and educate the media, legislators, and the general public. Western freedoms have enabled Muslim religious leaders, intellectuals, and activists to become major voices for religious, social, and political reform regarding women's roles and rights, religious pluralism and tolerance, religious extremism, becoming an American or European Muslim, and preserving Muslim civil rights and liberties.

Although great headway has been made, many obstacles remain. First, the resources, numbers, and impact of Muslim projects remain relatively small. Even more daunting is that while some non-Muslims in the West welcome the integration and institutionalization of Islam and Muslims, others do not. In Western countries' changing political and legal environments Muslims face workplace discrimination, racial and religious profiling, and overzealous security measures. Islamic institutions—mosques, charities, and NGOs—face harassment, unwarranted scrutiny, and indictment without prompt adjudication. Conservative columnists, hard-line Christian Zionist religious leaders, some of them prominent neoconservative radio and television talk show hosts with large audiences, have regularly used hate speech and dangerous invective aimed not at extremists but at Islam and Muslims in general. The result has been growth of Islamophobia, discrimination toward Muslims based on their religion or race that has led to hate crimes and other acts of violence.

The higher political profile for Muslim public institutions and political action groups has led to accusations that they are fronts for radicals supporting extremist activities abroad. As Muslim professionals try to join governing boards, participate in politics, or apply for professional positions they can be labeled as militants or terrorists. Recalling the witch hunts of the McCarthy era, many Muslims in America see it as professional suicide to have any association with major Muslim leaders or organizations (in contrast to association with major Jewish organizations like the ZOA, AJC, or the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC).

A coterie of neoconservative media (the Weekly Standard and the New York Sun as well as the Washington Times) and interrelated Web sites (Campus Watch, Jihad Watch, and FrontPage) coordinate to repeat unsubstantiated charges and claims, taking quotes out of context to create “facts on the ground.” By recycling the same charges, themes, and articles, they support and enhance each other's accusations to make it look as if masses of people and groups are constantly uncovering new threats. They target not only Muslims but also non-Muslim academics, journalists, and policymakers who speak out against their bigotry and disinformation. All who criticize their actions are painted as unpatriotic, anti-Semitic apologists for Islam, or supporters of suicide bombers. The goal of these anti-Muslim individuals and organizations is to discredit and keep Muslim organizations weak and disenfranchised, and to marginalize Muslim representation in politics, government, and major American organizations.

For the foreseeable future Muslims will face the challenge of retaining their faith and identity while integrating into sometimes hostile American societies. Western countries offer many freedoms not available in much of the Muslim world, but the pluralism the West values so highly is being tested as never before. Muslims are led to wonder: What are the limits of this Western pluralism? Who is included or excluded? Is it staunchly secular or permanently Judeo-Christian? Can Americans fully accept Muslims (as well as Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and others) not as “foreigners” to be tolerated, but as respected fellow citizens and neighbors with equal political and religious rights? In the past, tolerance has too often meant “suffering” the existence of others while regarding them as inferior. Today, a modern form of pluralism and tolerance must be based on mutual understanding and respect.

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