October 3, 1965
Congress had just passed the Immigration Act that reversed the U.S.’s official policy of promoting the sociopolitical dominance of Americans of northwest European descent. As he stepped forth to sign this bill, President Lyndon B. Johnson wryly lamented, “For over four decades the immigration policy of the United States has been twisted and has been distorted by the harsh injustice of the National Origins Quota System.”
By contrast, this new bill was going to “correct a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation.” Among the major beneficiaries of the new policy, of course, would be immigrants from the Muslim world, whose numbers would swell from around 200,000 in 1970 to more than 1.5 million in 2000, some 73 percent of these being Muslims. Yet, to say that the bill would finally set things aright was a bit of an overstatement. For Will Herberg’s 1955 classic, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, had already begun the process of hardening the parameters of American religious identity. On the heels of Herberg’s effort, the country would grow increasingly comfortable with the notion that to be a ‘real’ American was to be a Protestant, a Catholic or a Jew. Others might be recognized and tolerated, but there was no mistaking who would set the (unspoken) terms on which America would accommodate religious “others.”
Johnson’s indictment of the 1924 National Origins Quota System was bold and commendable. Yet, a longer historical trajectory would have revealed that the “enduring wrong” he lamented was much more enduring and ultimately much more difficult to reverse, especially in its impact on America’s Muslims. For Muslims had come ashore at least as early as the 18th century. Yet, their presence, like their possibilities for organic growth, would be immediately arrested and expunged from the American collective memory. This was not based on anything Muslims had actually done, certainly not domestically. There were no acts of terrorism, no suspected sleeper cells or rocked-out converts with bombs in their sneakers; there were no women dressed in burqas, no invocations of sharia and no second-grade pupils whose names pushed their teachers’ phonics skills to the brink. In fact, the Muslim nation of Morocco was among the first in the world to recognize the fledgling breakaway from the British crown. No, America’s exclusion of her Muslims was based solely and sadly on the singular fact of who they happened to be: black slaves. On March 26, 1790, the U.S. House of Representatives ratified America’s first immigration policy, which limited citizenship to “free white person[s].” Some three-quarters of a century later, in 1866, blacks became citizens by birth, and in 1870 “persons of African nativity or African descent” won the right to naturalize. By this time, however, the U.S. ban on importing slaves (1808) alongside the ravages of slavery itself had all but wiped America’s Muslim population out. In his book, African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles, Allan Austin estimates that between 5 percent and 10 percent of all Africans brought to America as slaves from Senegal and the Bight of Benin alone were Muslims. Yet, as Sylviane Diouf notes in her study, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, it would be wellnigh impossible for Muslims to pass their religion on to their children and absolutely impossible to pass it to their grandchildren.
Against all odds, by the late 19th century, a few American whites would convert to Islam (e.g., the diplomat Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb). But this never went beyond a few scattered and exceptional individuals. The communal presence of Islam succumbed to the dislocations visited on America’s slaves. And it would not be until the early decades of the 20th century that this presence would begin to re-emerge in the form of American-born black converts primarily to Sunnism (but also Shiism) and other proto- and quasi- Islamic movements such as the early Nation of Islam. Of course, given what had developed into the stigma of Islam as alien other, these groups would remain marginal even as compared with their black Christian counterparts. Little wonder it is that Herberg would unceremoniously omit Islam from the panoply of bona fide American religions.
For virtually the first two centuries of its history, then, America engaged in a series of spontaneous and mutually reinforcing acts of erasing Muslims – among the earliest “immigrants” to this country! – from every positive space they might possibly occupy in the nation’s collective psyche. As a result, not only would Muslim numbers remain prohibitively small, by the late 20th century, Muslims would bear the historically bogus stigma of being “newcomers,” which made it easy to cast them as the ultimate religious outsiders. Even second- (and now third-) generation Muslims who were born in this country would confront the frustration of an inscrutably hollow ring attending their assertions that they are Americans. Meanwhile, non-Muslims would be left to confront their feelings about this “new people” without the aid of the kind of historical consciousness that helped them come to terms with anti-black bigotry. Add 9/11 to this mix, and we end up in a vicious vortex of mutual distrust, resentment, fear and misunderstanding. Muslims complain that they want to be – no, are– Americans, but non-Muslims just won’t accept them as such. Non-Muslims complain that they really want Muslims to be Americans, but Muslims just won’t “Americanize.”
One can imagine, however, how different things might have been had Muslims not been excluded from the beginning. Not only might their non-Muslim compatriots be less inclined to fear any “de-Americanization” (“Islamicization” or “shariatization”) of America, more than 200 years of communal presence as Americans would probably have changed the logical consistency of the proposition itself. Muslims, in other words, including practicing Muslims, would be no more (if no less) suspected of trying to impose a strange, alien order on America than serious Jews, Catholics or Blackamerican Christians would be of trying to Israelize, Catholicize or Africanize America. Of course, many would argue that America is justified in relaxing such fears in the case of Judaism and Christianity (at least in their dominant forms) because these religions recognize and agree to play by America’s unwritten rule. As Stephen Carter argues in God’s Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics, to normalize one’s religion in America is to domesticate it before the American state and the dominant culture, such that it can only applaud these and never seriously challenge them. Muslims, so the argument goes, are justifiably feared because they appear to be unwilling to accept these terms. One might consider, however, that even movements as fiercely anti-assimilationist as Afrocentrism or the early Nation of Islam or even certain forms of black Christianity, with their explicit claims to roots and commitments outside America and their critical posture toward the dominant culture in America, remain in their deepest impulses and obsessions, fundamentally “American.” In fact, Mormons, who dissented to the tune of their own “9-11” (Mountain Meadows) and who were once resented as intensely as are Muslims today, have come to be characterized by no less than the likes of George Will as “quintessentially American”! And this despite Mormons’ continued insistence on substantive differences that separate them from the rest of us. Clearly, in this light, something other than Muslim refusal to domesticate must be propping up the presumed dichotomy between Islam and America.
And it may put us on our way to finding out just what that something is, if we note that America’s original exclusion of Muslims was not – at least not primarily – based on religion. Just over a year after it ratified the “free white person[s]” criterion, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted the First Amendment. That wondrous addendum read, among other things: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, it was not the religion of America’s black slaves that rendered them ineligible for inclusion; it was their race. In fact, when in 1788 Anti- Federalists raised concerns over the ban on religious tests (Article VI, sec. 3 of The Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791), on grounds that, “a Papist may occupy that chair [of president], and Mahometans may take it,” their objections were duly noted but even more duly set aside. It would take almost another century, however, to set aside the ban on non-white citizenship. Thus, legally speaking, as far back as 1791, a Muslim could be president! A black – or any other non-white, for that matter – could not.
Of course, much – very much – has changed since 1791, including the astoundingly heroic and redemptive act of sending a black man to the White House! While many would attribute this progress to America’s ideals alone, the fact is that we do not enjoy anything near a monopoly on lofty political rhetoric. “Liberté, equalité, fraternité” is every bit as seductive as anything America ever produced. But from Dred Scott to Plessy v. Ferguson, from Korematsu to Bakke, it has been not our highfalutin rhetoric but the sustained, dogged and often bitter sociopolitical contests among a religiously, ethnically, historically and racially diverse American people that have given flesh and muscle to the bare bones of our constitutional skeleton. Imagine, in other words, the meaning of the 14th Amendment absent the struggles of blacks in America. Or, imagine the meaning of the First Amendment or separation between church and state absent the history of Jews and Catholics in this country.
And yet, it is precisely the role, function and contribution of the religiously, ethnically, historically and racially diverse American demos that has come under the most serious threat since the attacks of 9/11. For this crime has provided an astoundingly convenient smokescreen for forces in America who have always been leery and weary of American diversity. Their origins, contrary to what many would have of us think, are not in 9/11 but strike much deeper roots in American history. Randolph Bourne (no relation to Jason!) warned us about them way back near the beginning of the 20th century, with his biting critique of the socalled melting-pot theory (Whose pot is it, after all? And who controls the flame?). At the beginning of the 21st century, Paul Krugman described them in a New York Times editorial entitled, Feel the Hate: “For all their flag-waving, [these people] hate America. They want a controlled, monolithic society; they fear and loathe our nation’s freedom, diversity and complexity.” Uncomfortable with the messiness of our daily contestations and the fact that their privileged status cannot be guaranteed but must be continually ground out like everybody else’s, these people want to return America to her European roots, where she ceases to be a negotiated entity and finds her identity in an inalterable historical fact that places them front and center. These are the Euromericans (not to be confused with Euro-Americans or simply white people). And they pose a greater threat to America than any bearded or burqa-donning Muslim ever could. For even as card-carrying, West-hating terrorists, the most the latter would be able to do to America is hurt her. And even down on one knee, with a black eye and a busted lip, America will fight back. Euromericans, on the other hand, threaten to destroy our country from within by denying that there is anything to fight back against – except ourselves! Indeed, their aim is to convince us that we are – a diverse and negotiated society – what we should not be, and then to go on to force us not to be it!
Few observers are as attuned to the Euromerican mindset as are Europeans and Euro-Americans themselves. Hannah Arendt, for example, the German-born Jewish-American political philosopher, once noted that America was actually not a nation state, as existed in Europe. For America was held together not by a common ancestry and history but by the sheer tenacity by which Americans held on to a constitution! Alasdair MacIntyre, an Irish Catholic Euro-American, clarifies the matter even further: “[T]he American idea can never be just what the Founding Fathers said it was or what any particular later native generation has made of its variety and contradictions: It waits also on what the immigrant has to say about it.” In fact, insists MacIntyre, America exists in a constant state of becoming, “always not yet.” As such, “anyone and everyone may be summoned to take part in its completion.” This is all reminiscent, of course, of the insights of the great French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, who noted way back near the beginning of the 19th century that he did not detect in America, “a trace of what we [Europeans] generally consider faiths such as customs, ancient traditions and the power of memories.”
Of course, for Arendt, MacIntyre and even de Tocqueville, this is what made America great. This is a far cry, however, from the view of Europeans in or more tightly tied to the legacy of Europe. Freud, for example, once disparagingly referred to America as, “a mistake, a giant mistake.” Hitler, on the other hand, dissed America as a “half-Judaized, half-negrified society.” Speaking of America’s religious heritage, the great British statesman Edmund Burke noted that in Europe, “religion meant war and oppression; in America, it turned out to be the very source of freedom…!” In essence, all of this points to the fact that, contrary to the vision of the Euromericans, America is not and was never meant to be a mere extension of the states of Europe, where a single racial, cultural and even religious prototype is assumed to be indigenous. There are no American TV programs like Germany’s Deutsche sind weiß, Neger können keine Deutschen sein (Germans are White; Negroes Cannot Be German). Nor can we imagine (at least for the time being) an American ban on minarets or headscarves. For rather than some slavish or romantic imitation of Europe, America emerged in conscious opposition to Europe! As the noted German writer Josef Joffe put it, America “was of Europe, but it left Europe … And it was to be the ‘Un-Europe’….”
Compare this, however, to the view of the late Samuel P. Huntington, who declared in his book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, that “we” Americans are “Anglo-Protestants”! Of course, Huntington assures us that Jews, Catholics, Muslims, blacks, Hispanics and others need neither worry nor take offense. For “Anglo-Protestant” refers not to the preeminence of any particular people but simply to “our” culture as Americans. But even leaving aside for the moment the difference between those Americans for whom “our” culture comes naturally and those for whom it feels awkward or oppressive, should any American (speaking of the “we-ness” of it all) be made to feel less American – not less “cool,” accepted or socially esteemed – for anything other than his or her failure or refusal to recognize the political authority of the Constitution? Is it the role of government to put any of us on “cultural welfare” to the end of ensuring that our particular cultural preferences and sensitivities are publicly recognized and paid homage to? Is this not a step in the very direction of the Europe that America was supposed to have consciously and deliberately left behind?
Don’t get me wrong. Culture matters to me too. I don’t like being mooned by cool cats dangling their pants somewhere between their buttocks and their knees; I’m not crazy about biryani; country-western often scares me, depending on how late and in which part of the country I’m driving; “grunge” gives me the creeps; opera bores me; and were I a fashion-cop, I’d have a good mind to ticket many a Muslim woman for her choice of Islamic dress. But the instrumentality for dealing with at least most of this is not the political authority wielded by the state but the cultural authority that we as groups and individuals all mutually vie for independent of and under the protection of the state. We change these things, in other words, or at least modify the popularity they enjoy, by producing cultural alternatives that we succeed in gaining recognition for as being “more respectable,” “cooler,” “more chic,” “classier,” or “more God-pleasing,” as the case may be. And in our effort to do so, we must all accept the possibility of failure, instead of trying to set up some single, universal, “American cultural orthodoxy” and then turning to the state to bludgeon everyone into conformity in the name of national identity or, worse yet, national security.
Again, don’t get me wrong. There is, I think, some allusive cultural essence that we all experience as “American,” even if we can’t always precisely define it as such. But this essence is not exact, static or simple. As a lived reality, it has more in common with jazz – that quintessentially American music form – than it does with any classical European masterpiece. There is always room, if not an open invitation, for innovation, experimentation, variation and an element of “constructive cacophony.” This, in fact, is the source of the “not-yetness” of which MacIntyre spoke and the reason why anyone can become a part of the American saga. And this – not the cultural heresy or antediluvian pipedreams of supposedly “sharia-wielding, West-hating, Islamofascist Muslims” – is what infuses any truly American collective life with an inevitable degree of sociocultural indeterminacy. This is the collective life that we chose for ourselves. And it may be time for us all to recommit to figuring out how best collectively to live it.
To do so, however, there is another side to this equation that must be taken into account, one that suggests that Euromericans aren’t the only ones discomfited by this American “thang.” While centuries of European history stiffened the ethos and vision of Europeans on the continent, the early, Old-World sojourners to the new “Un- Europe” dumped, as Joffe put it, “two-thousand years of history in the Atlantic.” By contrast, Muslims who came to America post-1965, still smarting from the dislocations of the colonial experience, tended to equate the preservation of a “back-home” vision and ethos with the preservation of a normative Muslim identity, especially as their numbers reached critical mass and they felt themselves able to recreate the ways of their fathers on American soil. This would vary in intensity, of course, depending most often on the level of religious commitment. But there would be no point in denying the impact of this “back-home” orientation on the evolution of Islam in post-1965 America. Even Blackamerican converts would come under its influence, which would add to their already active protest spirit and reinforce in them the notion that “Islam” and “the West” are binary opposites.
What is strange and often overlooked in all of this, however, is that it ultimately unites Muslim “back-homers” and Euromericans in a kindred spirit of sorts. Both recognize an American cultural orthodoxy that is fixed, simple and historically dictated (We/they were here first!). And both essentially recognize the proprietary claims of the Euromericans over this orthodoxy. This ultimately animates in Muslims a rejectionist impulse toward “American culture,” as the culture of the Other and a contradiction of true Islam. At the same time, it essentializes “Islamic culture,” routinely reducing it to a fixed number of Eastern cultural artifacts, as opposed to a cultural alphabet capable of numerous legitimate amalgamations, including American ones. This sets the stage for a peculiarly Muslim strain of W.E.B. Du- Bois’ “double-consciousness,” according to which young Muslims struggle both to be and not to be American, usually on rather essentialist and one-dimensional notions of what “American” and “Islam” means. In the end, some choose the former, some the latter and many just get stuck in between. Much of this is indebted to the fact that post-’65 Muslim immigrants did not look to America as the “Un-Muslim world” in the same way that the early Europeans looked to it as the “Un-Europe.” The question, as such, of how much history they should dump in the Atlantic was never seriously asked and still awaits principled answers to this day. Of course, Muslim children and grandchildren born in this country come to this question from perspectives quite different (or maybe not so different) from those of their parents. In the end, however, even if the first generation did not consciously dream of America as the “Un-Muslim world,” the fallout from 9/11 looms over them all as a virtual American nightmare. Once again, Muslims end up excluded from any positive place they might possibly occupy in the American collective consciousness. This time, however, there is shared, if lopsided, culpability, and one wonders if Muslims and non-Muslims will own up to their respective contributions, or if history will effectively repeat itself and the anxieties of the majority will end up locking both sides into a reactionary retrenchment.
We should be clear, meanwhile, about the ratio and nature of this shared culpability. Unlike the situation back in the 18th century, America’s 21st century Muslims – black, white, Arab, Latino, South Asian, Southeast Asian and beyond – are citizens. What they are excluded from is thus not the right to participate in the political process but from what Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter once referred to as the “cohesive sentiment” that binds Americans as a people, the loss of which he feared would kill that cooperative spirit that was necessary to the country’s success. Thus, in the famous Minersville School District v. Gobitis case, he insisted that Americans did not have a constitutional right to refuse to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Eventually, the Supreme Court reversed Justice Frankfurter’s opinion, and Jehovah’s Witnesses children were allowed to go the way of conscience. One wonders, however, how Muslims might fare under such circumstances. Would the government look upon Muslim- Americans who refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance as a security threat? Would they be viewed with suspicion if not contempt by the rest of society, as we saw in the case of basketball star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (which happened, incidentally, before 9/11)? Are Muslims, among all Americans, unique in not enjoying constitutional and sociopolitical prerogatives enjoyed by everybody else? And how does the nation suggest that Muslims respond to this kind of alienation?
Again, we must be careful and discriminating. There is no constitutional right to be socially liked or accepted. And if Muslims want to insist on playing out their cultural preferences in B sharp minor while the national lick is being put down in E flat major, they should neither expect to be liked nor socio-culturally welcomed. If Muslims want to be liked, they will have to be culturally aware, ambidextrous and innovative enough to figure out, first of all, if it’s worth it to hold onto those Eastern quarter-tones and if so, how to get these to spice up an E flat major shtick, sort of like what Ray Charles does with Don Gibson’s I Can’t Stop Loving You, or as black Salafis have done with the culture of hip-hop in Philadelphia. But even if Muslims refuse or fail to rise to this challenge, their constitutional right to fail culturally or consciously to choose not to be liked should be protected. The government should protect them from all forms of unlawful discrimination, just as it does with any other group that chooses sociocultural unpopularity as the price for religious or even cultural integrity – e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Amish, Hasidic Jews or black-clad Gothics. The government should not run around making policies that target or even disproportionately affect Muslims as a group just because Muslims behave in otherwise lawful ways or declare a commitment to values the majority finds objectionable. For in doing so, not only does the government telegraph the message that Muslims are by nature a security risk, it justifies the tendency on the part of non-Muslims to equate patriotism with anti-Muslim sentiment. In the end, instead of forcing anti- Muslim groups to face their Islamophobia and the sociopolitical cost of open bigotry, the government essentially puts them on cultural-cum-psychological welfare and then forces Muslims to foot the bill.
Take, for example the whole sharia scare. Would we honestly expect any serious Jew, for example, to absolve his or herself of any and all commitment to all Halakhic law as the price for being sociopolitically accepted as a bona fide American? If Jews (or any other religious community) just want to be or are required to be like everybody else, what is the point of a First Amendment? Of course, non-Jews might object to any number of Jewish laws. But much of this would not affect them anyway, and the Jewish community might succeed in reinterpreting or packaging these features in terms that blend fairly decently into the American cultural landscape. Again, however, even if they don’t, it is they and not non-Jews who will pay the price of sociocultural unpopularity. And, it seems to me, this is the very essence of what it means to live in a free society. But when presidential hopefuls such as Newt Gingrich propose in the name of “American values” “a federal law that says sharia law cannot be recognized by any court in the United States,” does this not unfairly shut this entire operation down and impute unmistakably nefarious intentions to all practicing Muslims? And when state legislatures attempt to achieve the same thing by outlawing “foreign laws,” does this not unfairly promote and privilege the Euromerican vision by saying, in effect, that the only freedom non-Euromericans enjoy is the freedom to be like Euromericans? After all, whose “American values” are we speaking of here anyway? And by what logic do we deem the religious law of Blackamerican, white American, Hispanic-American, Native American, Jewish-American or Mormon- American coverts to Islam or even nativeborn Arab or Indo-Pakistani-American Muslims to be foreign law? Is Catholic canon law foreign law? Is Halakhah? How about English common law?
But these arguments about American values and foreign law actually tell us more than appears on the surface. For it does not take much to rub off their thin varnish and uncover the fact that, unlike, say, communists of a former era, Muslims are assumed to be “un-American” less for what they actually believe than for who they are perceived to be, as one Euromerican critic put it, “brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and maintaining different standards of hygiene.” Translation: foreigners! Again, as I said earlier, whether they like it or not, Muslim sociocultural acceptance and popularity will be as much a matter of how much cultural intelligence and ingenuity they can muster as it will be of Euromericans coming to terms with their sociocultural nativism. But for all the cultural imagination Muslims might be able to deploy in fine-tuning their cultural repertoire to an American pitch, one fact about many, if not most, of them will remain: brown skin. And one has to wonder how long Euromericans will be able to sound alarms over “sharia,” “terrorism” or “Muslim extremism” as a means of disguising their deep, disquieting discomfit with the presence of all this olive, brown – and highly educated! – Muslim skin.
On some level, I guess the answer here is fairly simple: as long as the government will listen! After all, only the government can translate the Euromerican vision into reality, and it is basically the fact that politicians and office-holders continue to listen that seems to sustain the Euromerican project. But why does the government listen? Among other things – including the presence of Euromericans in government – it clearly believes that there is an inherent association between Islam and wanton killing, that Muslims are religiously duty-bound to speak the language of violence and that Muslim-Americans must, circumstances permitting, prosecute the jihad against America. This is neat and convenient. And there are Muslims whose words and deeds make it even neater and more convenient. But if the ultimate aim of government policy is to spare the country the ravages of Muslim extremism, doesn’t it behoove us to consider what these policies themselves, along with the atmosphere they spawn, might actually contribute to the radicalization of young Muslim-Americans? Might it not be, after all, that beyond the issue of foreign policy, it is not America but Euromerica that is both the animator and target of Muslim radicalization?
Let me share here a personal experience that might shed some light on this point. A few years ago, I was invited by the Muslim Students’ Association of a Midwestern university to give a lecture. Afterward, they invited me out to dinner where I stumbled into a conversation with a young Pakistani- American medical student. Clearly a practicing Muslim, this young man had a huge beard but spoke with absolutely no accent. He kept complaining, however, about how he could not see himself as “an American” and about how he was Pakistani. Of course, I had heard all of this before, but being a little tired after the lecture, my patience was in short supply. So I decided to let him have it. I fired back at him, “You are not Pakistani; you are not socialized as a Pakistani; you could not eat the food, speak the language or deal with cultural idiosyncrasies or responsibilities of being a Pakistani in Pakistan. You are an American, and you should simply accept that.” He strongly protested, however, that as a Muslim, he simply could not see himself as a bona fide American.
Now, this young man knew that I was an American, and he respected me as an American Muslim, as he did countless other black and white Muslim-Americans. In fact, his real problem was not with reconciling Islam with America; it was with reconciling his self with America. But why couldn’t he be an authentic American? Because he was not white, and because he was not willing to be assimilated into some jive-time, subaltern, “honorary” whiteness. I explained to him that this was not necessary, that, unlike Europe, America had not one but at least two authentic prototypes: one white, the other black. As such, America admitted the possibility of authentic American identities that lay beyond and are not beholden to the dominant group. None of this, however, seemed to be of any avail. And we ended our conversation that night in what I took to be a rather entertaining (and exhausting) waste of time.
The next day, however, as I was being escorted to the airport, this same young man quite deliberately made his way to me and handed me an envelope. I stuffed it in my jacket-pocket, and when I got to the airport, I opened it up and found a handwritten note. This is partly what it read: I wanted to thank you for talking with me…[T]hese past few months I had a lot of radicalness [sic] in me. Honestly, its not because I love to fight or something, but I am truly lost. I see no clear path to success and then just think of taking out the aggressor of the Muslims. I mean, my brother, my brother, you hit a homerun in describing us second generation Muslims. We don’t know where to go, what to do, how to do it and are getting so lost that all we see is jihad. And this isn’t just me. I know so many people like this … SO MANY [sic]. And you really shook me down, just by being direct, straight to the point and putting me on the spot… [T]he youth need your approach… They need to be questioned and shook, [sic] so they snap back into reality….
The point of this is that it was neither Islam nor any of its articulations of jihad that motivated or dissuaded this young man regarding his wayward inclinations to “taking out the aggressor of the Muslims.” Our conversation had nothing to do with jihad and everything to do with the deep alienation that he and countless other young Muslim-Americans felt and how they might be brought to see themselves as bona fide Americans. Once he became convinced that he could do this without contradicting Islam and without undo sycophancy to the dominant group, his problem was solved – poof! And this was because it was not so much Islam as it was the evercreeping pervasiveness of the Euromerican vision and its impact on our national discourse and the policies of our government that had informed his uneasiness about being an American in the first place. In many ways, this Euromerican alienation of Muslims takes us back to the beginning and the “free white person[s]” criterion. Then, however, it was the government doing the explicitly racial business of a population not sufficiently reconciled with its own ideals and racial insecurities. Now it is the government doing the largely cultural business of a similar population whose cultural insecurities resonate racially in a country whose major fault-line has always sat atop a racial divide that both giveth to and taketh away from our richness as a nation.
It was the great American thinker W.E.B. DuBois who stated that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line. I think DuBois was right; but color rarely stands alone and is routinely, if often erroneously, taken to be a signature of larger cultural, ideological, religious or political commitments. If the 20th century has taught us anything as Americans, perhaps it should be that even when the open significance of color recedes, our underlying commitments remain and continue to divide us, often bringing color back in through the side door. Indeed, this too may be a part of who we are as Americans. But here at the beginning of the 21st century, I suspect that there is an even greater lesson to be learned: It is not the diversity of our commitments but our seemingly inexorable drive to universalize them that threatens to undo us. Coming out of the European past, we thought that religion was the only real claimant to universal truth that we needed to fear being imposed on each other. We know now, however – or at least we should know – that universalized culture, political ideology or moral values of any substance can have an equally devastating effect. In this light, the problem of the 21st century, I predict, will be the problem of the false universal, the assumption that the shape in which we would like to translate our commitments into a blueprint for society at large is natural, efficacious, transcendent and obviously right to everyone except the stupid, the primitive or the morally depraved. As Americans, we have long recognized the necessity of separating religion from government. What we have not recognized is that any universal, including the most secular ones, e.g., culture, can be equally threatening. Euromericans may not be explicitly telling Muslims that they cannot be Muslim-Americans. But what they are telling them should put the fear of Hell into us all, Muslim and non-Muslim Americans alike. For if dissenting from the dominant culture can be construed as a conspiracy against the American state, we are all subject to being brought up on charges of treason that either convert us into flaming radicals or reduce us to cowering sheep. §
by Sherman Jackson