The Effect of “Islam” on the American Political Landscape

Obama at the Islamic Society of Baltimore in February.

The Effect of “Islam” on the American Political Landscape

On February 3, 2016, Barack Obama finally made his first and only official visit to a mosque in the United States during his two terms as president despite American Muslim leaders repeatedly inviting him to do so.  At the Islamic Society of Baltimore, President Obama could not have been more gracious and inclusive of his Muslim compatriots.  He remarked,

[I]f we’re serious about freedom of religion — and I’m speaking now to my fellow Christians who remain the majority in this country — we have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths. And when any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up.

He ended by saying:

If you’re ever wondering whether you fit in here, let me say it as clearly as I can, as President of the United States: You fit in here — right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.

President Obama’s words stand in stark contrast to those of Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, who has repeatedly questioned the right of Muslims to be in the U.S. and has advocated for a total ban on further Muslim immigration.

Warm and enveloping as Obama’s words were, there was still residual displeasure over the fact that the president had waited practically till the umpteenth moment to acknowledge the American Muslim community and its contributions to the larger society, even though he had previously visited mosques during presidential visits to Turkey, Indonesia and Egypt.  In 2009, shortly after being elected president, Obama gave a highly publicized speech at Cairo University, where he declared that “Islam has always been a part of America’s story,” and “American Muslims have enriched the United States.”  But such statements were not immediately forthcoming in an American mosque.  The disappointment until early this year was almost palpable.  An overwhelming majority of American Muslims had, after all, voted for Obama, warming to his populist, inclusive rhetoric, his background of growing up in Muslim Indonesia, and to his middle name, Hussein. So why the procrastination?  Why the “political timidity,” as a Washington Post article described it, on Obama’s part?

Obama’s predicament was understandable in many ways in the highly charged political climate in America in the aftermath of September 11.  Arguably, no other American public figure has had to grapple with so many minority identities. First and foremost, he surmounted great odds to become the first Black president in the history of the United States.  Born in Hawaii, he was a native son but he had to battle birthers — Trump being one of their more virulent representatives — who accused him of being born in Kenya.  And then there were accusations of being Muslim, the ultimate “put-down” that was meant to cast aspersions on his ability to be a loyal U.S. citizen.  Given this scenario, Obama’s foot-dragging on the issue of a mosque visit seems understandable at a human level as there is only so much demonization an individual can stomach.

Obama’s travails in many ways represent — in a highly concentrated, microscomic form — the predicament of American Muslims today writ large.  On the American public stage, “Islam” and “Muslims” evoke fear, suspicion and visceral hatred for many.  Even supposedly reasonable and smart people can become reduced to ranting bigots when confronted with anything that has to do with Islam, since it has become a code word for terrorism in their twisted understanding.

It is useful to remember that practically all immigrant groups who were not of Anglo-Protestant origin have faced discrimination — often brutal — in past centuries, and survived it to become part of the American mainstream.  In the not-too-distant past, Catholics and Jews were subjected to prejudice based on assumed ontological and cultural differences between them and the Anglo-Protestant majority.   A litany of accusations that should sound depressingly familiar to American Muslims today were leveled at these groups: They followed a regressive religious law; their religiously observant women dressed differently; their worldview was opposed to that of a modern, democratic society.  Both groups were also associated with terror and political nihilism.  Irish Catholics in particular were broadly tarred by the terrorist activities of the Irish Republican Army in Britain and Northern Ireland for most of the 20th century.  Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Jewish American communists who spied for the Soviet Union, were executed for treason in 1953 and were assumed to typify a lack of loyalty on the part of Jewish citizens to the American government.  The militant Jewish Defense League, which the FBI classified as a right-wing extremist group, was a prominent example of a U.S. homegrown terrorist group in the last half of the 20th century.   

To date, there has been only one Catholic president and no Jewish or Muslim one.  Given this historical trajectory, we may well wonder — how does a Black, foreign-seeming, alleged Muslim get elected president of the most powerful country on earth?  In Obama’s spectacular ascendancy, we may discern a powerful lesson for American Muslims today (and indeed for other religious and ethnic minorities):  Obama proves that any qualified American in the 21st century may aspire to the presidency, regardless of race, ethnicity, and yes, increasingly, religion.  American Muslims have benefited to a certain extent during Obama’s two presidential terms, for there is no doubt that during this era, they have gained a new political visibility and clout that are standing them in good stead during the current election year.  When Trump infamously proclaimed that he would halt Muslim immigration to the U.S., he was roundly criticized by public figures spanning the entire political spectrum.  Other political candidates have hastened to distance themselves from such extreme positions.  Such solidarity against rank bigotry is a positive augury for American Muslims for the long term, even though we will continue to see frightening spikes in Islamophobic sentiment for the short term.

There is no doubt that over time, American Muslims will become firmly entrenched in the mosaic that constitutes American society. The bottom line remains: Bigots will come and go, but the American ideal of national belonging remains as capacious and inclusive as the Founding Fathers of this nation had optimistically imagined it.

screenshot-2016-08-19-13-12-48Asma Afsaruddin is author of Contemporary Issues in Islam (2015), from which an excerpt now follows.   

Until September 10, 2001, American Muslims had every good reason to feel confident and optimistic about their collective future in what remains one of the most affluent and pluralist nations in the world.  There was after all tangible and anecdotal evidence of their growing presence and influence in the American public sphere.   Surveys consistently showed that the American Muslim community was among the most highly-educated and prosperous groups in the country (a characteristic that remains true until the present time).   About  59 percent of American Muslims hold college degrees, far above the American average of 27 percent. Most of them are white-collar workers or professionals, with a median family income of greater than $50,000 that is about 20 percent above the national norm. As for their ethnic breakdown, roughly 34 percent are of South Asian descent, 26 percent Arab-Americans, and 20 percent native-born African- Americans, primarily converts.  36% were born in the US and about 85 percent are Sunni, mirroring the Sunni-Shi‘i proportion in the world at large.  A large percentage of American Muslims, up to 88%, are likely to vote and about 9 in 10 American Muslims support progressive policy positions on health care, school funding, the environment, foreign aid and gun control.  They however tend to be more conservative on social and religious issues, such as abortion and the death penalty.

   In pre-2001 America, American Muslims were heartened by perceptible indications of their growing visibility in public and official space.  Since the Bill Clinton era, the White House and other federal branches have regularly made a nod in their direction by holding official iftar dinners to mark the breaking of the fast at sunset during Ramadan.  Mosques continued to dot the landscape of major urban centers in the United States and progressively made inroads into the heartland of smaller towns and more rural communities. Women and men in distinctively Islamic garb might attract curious looks but considered no more threatening than a teenager with purple hair or a nun in a traditional habit.  In the grand mosaic of American society, there was considerable room for diversity and differences that were perceived to be of a non-menacing kind.

    A graphic mainstreaming of Muslim identity occurred with the issuance of a stamp by the US postal service in 2001 commemorating the two Eid festivals observed by Muslims every year.  The stamp contained Arabic writing and proudly proclaimed Muslim festivals to be part and parcel of the American cultural and religious landscape.  The event was much heralded by American Muslims, some of whom had lobbied hard and long to make it a reality.  That was in the summer of 2001 — the last summer, as it turned out, when many American Muslims felt they were living the American dream unqualifiedly and had every right to assume that things would only get better for their progeny.

    By the late morning of September 11, 2001, those perceptions had been severely shaken and essentially up-ended – or so it seemed.  The smoldering smoke from what had been the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center appeared to end the possibility of normalcy from that point on for American Muslims.  For all American Muslims in particular above the age of about seven on September 11, that day will remain indelibly etched in their memory as one that jolted them out of their mostly comfortable and complacent existence into a world that had irreversibly changed for them.  Such a changed world has compelled them to engage deeply and harrowingly with fundamental existential questions concerning their hyphenated identity, their loyalty as citizens, and, above all, their faith that had seemingly been besmirched by the actions of a murderous few.      

    At the writing of this book, more than a dozen years have elapsed since that fateful, grim day and these questions have not evaporated.   American Muslims in various walks of life are faced with both daunting challenges and unprecedented opportunities to make their views and presence felt, as they continue to seek to ensconce themselves within the American landscape.  The most prominent of these challenges are discussed below, along with a reflection on what the future may look like as Muslims continue to entrench themselves within the mainstream of American society.   

Carving out an American Muslim Space and Identity

    Although increased immigration of people from Muslim-majority societies to the United States became noticeable in the twentieth century, Muslims have been part of the American fabric of society for much longer.  About ten percent of African slaves brought to America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are said to have been of Muslim origin.  There were Muslims who served in the military during the American civil war. Already in the nineteenth century we encounter prominent American Muslim converts, such as Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb, who converted to Islam in 1888 and served as the United States Consul to the Philippines.  And Muslim holidays figured — albeit modestly — in the public, political consciousness about 200 years before Bill Clinton: Thomas Jefferson is said to have been the first to hold an iftar dinner in the White House in honor of the then Tunisian envoy to the United States.   These are little-known historical details that however weave the story of Muslims into the very warp and weft of the fabric of American society.

    As already noted, statistics on American Muslims show them to be among the most prosperous and highly-educated segments of the US population.  American Muslims are furthermore not a homogeneous group.  Within the American Muslim population, there is a considerable diversity of ethnic groups represented.  If one walks into a mosque in a large urban center during a congregational prayer, especially on a Friday afternoon or during one of the two major annual festivals (Eid/’Id), one will find a veritable United Nations of members from various backgrounds represented –  South Asian, Arab, Malay and Indonesian, African, African-American, European, Chinese, and others.   A considerable segment of American Muslims is still comprised of first-generation Americans, who remain closely-connected to their countries of origin and whose cultural practices often resemble those of their natal societies.  Despite these considerable cultural variations and high levels of heterogeneity, the large majority of American Muslims are on the whole socially and economically integrated into American society.   Unlike Muslim emigrants to many European nations, many of the Muslim emigrants to the US arrived with advanced university degrees from their countries of origin, possessed fluency in English, and evinced a strong desire to adapt to their country of adoption without giving up their religious observances.  

    Like other ethnic groups who adhere to a minority faith tradition (that is to say other than Protestant Christian), Muslims from various backgrounds strive to carve out a space for themselves within the American mosaic of hybrid identities.  Following in the footsteps of other immigrant groups, they have had to grapple (and continue to do so) with some fundamental existential questions: How does being a Muslim – both in the theological/confessional and cultural sense – intersect with being an American in the national, political, and cultural sense?   How can they uphold and nurture their hyphenated identity without compromising either component of it?  Are there specific values that they can embrace equally as Americans and Muslims? Are there specific American cultural practices that they must in good conscience refrain from adopting?  Answers to these broad questions entail dealing primarily with issues of citizenship and loyalty and of negotiating the secularism of the larger society in a dialectic with one’s personal faith that is subject to often severe public scrutiny.  Such questions have achieved a measure of urgency in the post-September 11 milieu. We now proceed to engage the issue of citizenship  in greater detail and explore its relevance to the formation of a distinctive American Muslim identity in the contemporary period.

Citizenship and Negotiating Religiosity in a Secularized Society

    There is a vocal and powerful extremist minority within the contemporary United States which insists in a polemical vein that one cannot be both American and Muslim at the same time.  This is so, they maintain, because Islam in its fundamental and essential orientation – an orientation perhaps uniquely known to this group — is antithetical to what is broadly conceptualized as “the American way of life.”  The xenophobic bravado of this claim masks the fact that it is a highly unoriginal and banal accusation that has been leveled at practically every immigrant group in the United States that did (does) not come from a Protestant Christian background.  American Catholics labored under a black cloud of suspicion until the election of John F. Kennedy as the president of the nation in [1960].  Following them were American Jews who until roughly the middle of the twentieth century were the perennial other in the majoritarian American psyche. A repertoire of accusations was hurled against these earlier immigrants calculated to cast doubt on their ability as Catholics and Jews per se to become loyal American citizens: that they owed loyalty to a different sovereign (the Pope) or a different code of law (the Halakhah) by virtue of their religious and ethnic designation; their women dressed differently from “normal” women; and they were incapable of separating religion from politics on account of the all-encompassing medieval religious/canon law they subscribe to, making them intrinsically anti-democratic and incapable of adapting to modernity.  These past accusations should sound depressingly familiar because they have been recycled and redirected at Muslims in the contemporary period.

    As history shows us, both minority groups eventually came to be considered part of the American mainstream and the religious differences between them and the still predominant Anglo-Protestant majority are now considered non-threatening.  The right to practice the tenets of their faith, however exotic they may appear to outsiders, is fully protected by the United States constitution.  This trend in general bodes well for American Muslims in the long run. However American Muslims are also currently burdened by the fact that September 11 has cast an extra, weighty layer of suspicion over them as a collectivity.  “Terrorism” is a label that dogs them persistently in the public sphere and home-grown terrorist acts perpetrated by a handful of Muslim Americans have definitely tarnished their image.  But it is overseas acts of militancy carried out in the context of political circumstances — not directly connected to the lives of American Muslims — that have predominantly besmirched their collective standing and credibility as loyal citizens.  American Muslims are asked over and over again to condemn terrorist actions committed in the Middle East and South Asia often in the name of Islam.  While many of them do – repeatedly — when given a chance, their condemnations do not reach a wider audience and are barely reported in the mainstream media.  This creates the false impression that leaders within the American Muslim community (and abroad) have not taken a strong and vocal position against terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam, when in fact they have and plenty of documentation to corroborate this is available for the asking.

    Despite the pervasive talk of “Islamic” or “Islamist” terrorism, hard statistics provide irrefutable evidence that a violent, extremist minority among Muslims is exactly that – a small minority that represents a sliver of the global Muslim population now numbering over a billion.  In his recent book The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists, the sociologist Charles Kurzman documents, for example, that out of the approximately 150,000 people who die daily worldwide, fewer than fifty deaths occur at the hands of Islamist militants, and then mostly in the conflict-ridden areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.   However hard facts do not by themselves readily dissipate impressionistically-formed views. Constant and frequently sensationalist media coverage of acts of militancy committed by individuals from Muslim backgrounds contribute further to the hardening of negative stereotypes about Muslims in general.   As a consequence, violence and disloyalty to the state are persistently associated with American Muslims.  These highly negative perceptions have directly impacted their roles as citizens and their clout as political actors within the variegated American landscape.


This article appears in the Summer/Fall 2016 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.

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