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ASHINGTON - Muslims in America. American Muslims. The difference between
these two labels may seem a matter of semantics, but making the transition
from the first to the second represents a profound, if somewhat silent,
revolution that many of us in the Muslim community have been undergoing in
the two years since Sept. 11.
On its face, this shift would seem to threaten the very core of Muslim
identity and empowerment. After all, in the decade before the events of
Sept. 11, Islam was one of the fastest-growing religions in North America.
Mosques and Islamic schools were going up in every major city. Groups like
the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the American Muslim Alliance
established chapters in nearly every area with a Muslim population.
Muslim leaders, once a frustrated and marginal group, found themselves being
courted by politicians, the news media and foreign governments seeking their
support and influence. Indeed, many Muslims believe it was their votes that
made the difference in Florida, making them primarily responsible for
placing President Bush in the White House.
At the time, the word that best summed up the Muslim sense of self was
"fateh" - a conqueror. Many religious and community leaders were convinced
that Islam would not only manifest itself in its truest form in this
country, but would also make America - already a great power - into a great
society. Some even proclaimed that one day America would be an Islamic
On Sept. 11, of course, that dream evaporated. Today, the civil rights
environment has declined drastically with the passage of the USA Patriot Act
and other antiterrorism measures. Both sources of Islam's growth -
immigration and conversion - are now in jeopardy, and we continue to face
hostility and prejudice in many corners of society. There is no more talk of
making America an Islamic state. Any reminder of this pre-9/11 vision
generates sheepish giggles and snorts from Muslim audiences.
Yet adjusting to the new political and social realities of life in the
United States these past two years has also had unexpected and positive
effects for many Muslims. We have been compelled to transform ourselves to
connect more intimately with American mainstream society.
Today, many Muslims realize that it is not their Islamic identity but their
American citizenship that is fragile. Before Sept. 11, Muslims in America
focused primarily on changing United States policy toward Palestine, Kashmir
and Iraq. Since Sept. 11, the attempt to reconstitute our identity as
American Muslims is making domestic relations - and civil rights and
interfaith relations - more important.
Much of this is playing out at the local level. In Miami, for example,
efforts are underway by a group of progressive Muslims to endow chairs in
Islamic studies at American universities. In the Muslim community in Duluth,
Minn., fund-raising has begun to support social services, including housing
and health care initiatives for the poor. In Indianapolis, Muslim residents
are opening soup kitchens. And think of the familiar advertising campaign by
the Council on American-Islamic Relations in which Muslims announce, "We are
American and we are Muslims." It is not without design that "American" is
Even more vital, many Muslims in this country have come to acutely
understand the vulnerabilities of minorities and the importance of democracy
and civil rights. Because we took our American citizenship for granted, we
did not acknowledge its value and virtues. But now that it is imperiled, the
overwhelming desire of many Muslims is that America remain true to its
democratic and secular values.
This summer I addressed the National Imams' Conference in Washington and
spent a week in the Sierras with 400 American Muslims. I had extended
conversations with participants. Both leaders and ordinary Muslims seem to
be possessed with a strong desire for change and self-transformation. These
were some of the frequent sentiments that I heard:
"America is our home, we will not become foreigners in our own homeland."
"Islam is about invitation and peace, not conflict." "We have to take back
Islam and also win back the hearts and minds of Americans."
It is unfortunate that American Muslim identity is being reconstructed under
duress. But it can still be a meaningful and transcendent experience. The
aftermath of Sept. 11 may have shattered some dreams, but it has also forced
us to reconnect with reality and empower ourselves.
There is still much progress to be made. We need to continue to demonstrate
that Muslims in this country constitute an ethical and philanthropic
community that cares about humanitarian causes, about America and Americans
and stands for justice and rights as embodied in the Constitution. Just like
other ethnic groups before us, we have to pay our dues to this nation before
we demand that they change themselves and the world for us.
But Americans, too, must play a role. They cannot allow events overseas to
foster anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobia at home. They must recognize
the insecurities and fears of their Muslim neighbors and extend a hand of
friendship and support. The choices we face are tough, but Muslims must
realize that the interests of our sons and daughters, who are American, must
come before the interests of our brothers and sisters, whether they are
Palestinian, Kashmiri or Iraqi. Only then will Muslims in America become
Muqtedar Khan, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is author of
``American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom.''
"Bob Jacobson" <schu...@yahoo.com> wrote in message
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