Can Muslims be assimilated in America? Part 1 of 2

Despite the repeated alarmist cries about homegrown jihadist cells, and warnings that Islam is a “very evil and wicked religion,” (thank you, Franklin Graham) the evidence is that, by and large, Muslims are assimilating into American society and will continue to do so, if given the chance by mainstream Americans.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Islam is as wrong a model of reality as Christianity or Judaism or any other religion you care to name. But one need only look around to see that, despite the violence, prejudice, misogyny, and ignorance contained in the Torah and the Bible, most Christians and Jews have assimilated (even if in a conflicted fashion) into a modern, post-Enlightenment, tolerant and democratic society.

Of course there are bumps in the road: the Republican Party is currently in the heat of an internecine war between old-school business interests and evangelical/fundamentalist Teabaggers who are panicking over the fact that middle-class white Christians won’t be able to call all the shots for much longer. Conservative factions have built flood walls against impending liberal progress: anti-gay state constitutional measures; specious medical regulations aimed at shutting down abortion clinics; opposing domestic reforms on pretense of deficit control; voter ID laws that combat nonexistent fraud and serve only to disenfranchise the poor and minorities; etc. Ultimately, I think all these rearguard actions will be overcome, but it will be an ugly and tedious process.

I digress, but only slightly. My point is that, if history is any indicator, religious conservatism, even in the mainstream, will be tempered by constitutional democracy. And the tiny trickle of Muslim immigration will be absorbed into the vast ocean of American culture in the same way that Africans, Jews, Catholics, Irish and Hispanics have been and are being absorbed. Despite 9/11, despite the Boston Marathon bombing, despite the occasional hapless moron duped by g-men into going along with a fake terrorist plot, the vast majority of Muslims appear to be content, if not completely happy, to be part of America and away from the poverty, corruption and sectarian chaos that plagues much of the Muslim world.

Two books I’ve read recently argue that Muslims in America can and will assimilate, but that Western, nativist paranoia and Orwellian post-9/11 government programs aren’t making it any easier.

What Is an American Muslim? Embracing Faith and Citizanship (available in hardcover and for Kindle), by Sudanese-born Emory University professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, is a call to action urging American Muslims to become engaged in civic life, and to be comforted by the examples of other minority populations (like Africans, Jews and Catholics) that have had their struggles but ultimately found a place within the American cultural and political landscape. An-Na’im chooses “American Muslim” over “Muslim American,” simultaneously avoiding divisive hyphenated-Americanism and emphasizing that there is no one way to be an American.

He also emphasizes that there is no one way to be a Muslim. Muslim culture is every bit as diverse as Christian or Western culture. The distinctions between Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and so on, are generally lost on non-Muslims, but this, along with ethnic distinctions like Arab, Persian, African-American, Albanian, etc. debunks the notion that Islam is a monolith bent on world domination. Muslims can be just as alien to one another as they are to non-Muslims. As An-Na’im puts it, “the significance of being a Muslim is unlikely to be the same for all Muslims in all situations or regarding all issues.”

Nonetheless, this mishmash of Islamic traditions is leading to a new kind of Islam, one tempered by the security of living in a stable democracy and made necessary by the near impossibility of keeping relatively small communities isolated. Egyptians pray with Libyans, second- and third-generation African-American Muslims are in dialogue with “white” immigrant Muslims, etc. Many Muslims are becoming Muslim in the same way that Jews are Jews and Catholics are Catholics: they recognize their cultural tradition, but are not hidebound by the proscriptions of the Quran or the prescriptions of Sharia.

Speaking of which, An-Na’im spends a significant portion of his book discussing how American Muslims can reconcile the traditions of Sharia with American law. I am not well-versed in Sharia, so I am not in a position to fully judge his argument.

He asserts that “that two aspects of the First Amendment (disestablishment of religion and free exercise of religion) are in face required by–not merely tolerated or accepted by–Islam and Sharia.” He points out that Sharia (which is, in fact, a variety of competing traditions and not a universally-accepted set of principles) is open to interpretation at the individual and group level, but is never intended to be binding on those who do not accept its authority. This is in short contrast to the Taliban style of Sharia that so infamously dominated Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Indeed, An-Na’im insists that “the idea of an Islamic state that enforces Sharia as the positive law of the state is, from an Islamic point of view, both conceptually untenable and practically counterproductive… Once Sharia norms are enshrined in law they cease to be the religious law of Islam and become the political will of that state. Moreover, given the wide diversity of opinion among Muslim scholars and schools of thought, enacting any of those norms as state law will mean having to select among competing views that are equally legitimate. Since that selection will be made by whoever happens to be in control of the state, the outcome will be political, rather than religious.” The Quran famously says there should be no compulsion of religion, so forcing it on others via the courts should not be considered legitimate.

An-Na’im concedes that separation of church and state is not the same as separation of religion and politics. All citizens and elected officials are necessarily guided and motivated by whatever moral system they embrace. And it is here that he calls on Muslim Americans to remember that they are Americans and therefore have a right and a duty to participate in the political system and in public discourse. Muslims should vote, should debate the issues of the day, participate in their local school board–even run for office.

An-Na’im’s take is a refreshing and reassuring one, but certainly one at odds with the mainstream perception. It’s also at odds, I think, with the reality of Islam-in-theory vs. Islam-as-practiced. Even the new, supposedly democratic governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, midwifed by American neoconservatism, contain language that enthrones Islam as the official religion and primary source of law. It will never happen, but it’s interesting to ask if Muslim Americans would continue to embrace religious tolerance and separate of church and state if they became a plurality voting bloc?

[Continued in Part 2]

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