M. A. Muqtedar Khan
Dr. Khan is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware.
When scholars and commentators reflect on the diversity of American Muslims, they often divide them into simple categories such as indigenous and immigrant, mosqued and unmosqued. While these categories do not tell the complete story, they are helpful in understanding certain elements of the emerging Muslim community's identities, politics and cultures. This work employs the distinction between political Islam and political Muslim to provide some insight into the new American Muslim politics. In the past, I have employed the distinction between Muslim isolationists and Muslim democrats as a useful way of understanding the politics and political values of divergent currents within the community. The isolationists felt alienated from the American political context, were focused on the anti-Muslim dimensions of American foreign policy and were afraid that their religious identity would be subsumed into American culture. They were afraid of being assimilated. The Muslim democrats, on the other hand, appreciated the opportunities and upward mobility available to them and embraced American political culture, hoping to affect it through engagement.
The reform of immigration law in the late 1960s brought new immigrants to America from the Muslim world. Many were students and professionals looking to pursue higher education; some intended to return, but others chose to settle. Many of these immigrants were affiliated with political Islam in South Asia (Jamaat-e-Islami) and the Arab world (the Muslim Brotherhood). These immigrants helped carve out a mosque-centered community focused on preserving religious identity and engaging in politics shaped by the political sensitivities of their homelands. Many of them remained active members of political Islamic movements in their countries of origin while pushing their political priorities through the emerging Muslim diaspora.
Many of the institutions established by the American Muslim community in this period were influenced by ideas and individuals associated with political Islam. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) was a joint venture of former members of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood. The rather rapid Americanization of ISNA — its movement away from the values of political Islam — led to a split and the emergence of the Islamic Circle of North America, composed primarily of Jamaatis from South Asia. The Arabs established the Muslim American Society (MAS) as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, like their South Asian counterparts, left ISNA in search of a closer spiritual relationship with political Islam. The institution that most closely represented political Islam in America was the now defunct American Muslim Council (AMC).
While these institutional efforts were influenced by the ideas of political Islam, their goals were not the same. None was working to establish an Islamic state in the United States. The individuals involved had been socialized into the Islamic dawa (service) by their respective experiences, but here they were struggling to find a political purpose that would unite the diverse community. Given their meager resources, in both cash and human capital, they all eventually became similar in function and purpose: preserving identity, facilitating the practice of faith, providing charity to Muslim countries and struggling against the negative images of Islam in Western culture.
The rise of Islamophobia in the United States and the consistently hostile discourse in the public sphere have started eroding the influence of political Islam on the culture and politics of American Muslims. American institutions are either distancing themselves from political Islamic movements in the Muslim world or are underplaying their connections. In social media, especially Facebook, those who in the past were proud of their affiliation to political Islam now preface their comments and posts with "while I don't support the Muslim Brotherhood..." or "while I don't support Morsi...." This is partly because of the bad rap political Islam is getting with the rise of Jihadism in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and the anger at the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The trend began after the aggressive response from U.S. federal agencies to the attacks of September 11, 2001. American Muslim organizations distanced themselves from their source movements and stopped accepting funds from Arab governments and private donors. This trend essentially weakened the grip of political Islam on key Muslim organizations; it also opened space for new Muslim voices that were less institutional and less coordinated.
New ideas like the maqasid al-shariah (objectives of Islamic law) approach to Islamic reform and the rethinking of the role of divine texts in Islamic heritage continue to sustain the idea that, like America, American Muslims too are exceptional. One of the goals of American Muslim organizations like the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) and the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS) was to advance a new vision of Islam that would both reform and revive Muslim societies. In the 1980s and 1990s, the big idea was the "Islamization of Knowledge," the quest for an Islamic social science that would revitalize Muslim thinking. This idea has since been replaced by the idea of maqasid al-shariah. It involves a return to fundamental objectives and then rearticulating specific rulings, to ensure that the law is consistent with the contemporary context. IIIT has been the bedrock supporting these initiatives. Another one of its ideas, which has not had the impact that was anticipated, is fiqh al-aqalliyat (minority jurisprudence). It was intended to develop new Islamic legal thinking for Muslims who lived as minorities in non-Muslim societies.1
The decline of the control and influence of political Islamic movements in the United States has created an opportunity for political Muslims to emerge and introduce a new kind of politics. The biggest beneficiary of this trend is the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a Los Angeles-based organization that seeks to protect and advance the interests of the United States and its Muslims. MPAC exemplifies what constitutes Muslim politics without Islamism. Another organization emblematic of Muslim politics in the United States is the transformed Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). While MPAC is a unique case, since its vision of Muslim politics was independent of the political circumstances that have shaped Muslim organizations in the West today, ISNA represents internal reform and reconstitution. The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), entirely funded by American Muslims, is seeking to emulate American think tanks that shape and often help formulate U.S. policies.
Many political organizations created and funded by American Muslims act as foreign lobbies or are more interested in politics overseas, using the United States as a place to house and raise funds. Examples would include the Friends of Pakistan, USA, the Indian American Muslim Council and the Kashmir American Council.
The Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), now the largest conglomerate of Muslim organizations, is difficult to pigeonhole. The national organization is one of the few remaining extensions of political Islam in the United States with significant clout. One of its longtime employees and perhaps the earliest staff member, Mohamed Nimer, in a tell-all article spoke of the connections between various American Muslim organizations, including CAIR, and the Muslim Brotherhood.2 Thus, while national CAIR is clearly part of political Islam, its several well-funded regional affiliates are legally independent entities that do not fall into the same category. Recently, CAIR Philadelphia further muddied the possibilities of categorization by appointing an individual of Jewish heritage as its executive director, probably a major first step towards the secularization of Islamic politics in the United States. Jacob Bender might be the first "political Muslim" of Jewish faith.3
In its early days, MPAC was an outlier. Sustained more by the ideas and local reputation of its visionary founders, it struggled to make an impact at the national level. It was obvious that MPAC was advancing a vision of Muslim politics in America that was different from that of ISNA, CAIR and the American Muslim Council (AMC), which were all extensions of Islamic politics in the United States. A critique of U.S. foreign policy — perceived as biased against Islam and Muslims — and American values as perhaps incompatible with Islam undergirded the foundations of the other three organizations. MPAC was more in tune with American values. While critical of foreign policy, it projected itself as comfortable with its American Muslim identity and attempting to have a positive impact on a system its leaders believed allowed everyone to participate without built-in systemic biases. This is the key difference between what I call Islamist politics and Muslim politics.
MPAC tries to focus on four areas: combatting Islamophobia in the United States; countering efforts by some U.S. agencies that sometimes violate the constitutional rights of Muslims; working with the U.S. government to limit radicalism among Muslim youth; and helping to shape a foreign policy that defends U.S. national interests without demonizing Islam and Muslims. MPAC has consistently found a place at the table in policy conversations in U.S. halls of power and is easily one of the most influential Muslim organizations. Unfortunately, its limited success in finding support outside the Los Angeles area is a testament to the lingering influence of Islamist politics and the limited success of the new Muslim politics in the United States.
American Muslims who care about both what is happening in America and what is happening among Muslims in the rest of the world and who want to make a positive difference in American policies are attracted to MPAC. Unlike Islamist ideology that views history and world politics as a zero-sum game — if it is bad for the West and non-Muslims, it must be good for Islam and Muslims — those who support MPAC imagine a world that is good for all. Muslim politics as exemplified by MPAC is about doing good for Americans, whether Muslim or not, and about doing good for Muslims, whether they are Americans or not. Islamist politics is parochial, solely about doing good for Muslims; it sees them at odds with America. In my judgment, the leadership behind the establishment of MPAC, especially the late Maher Hathout and Salam Marayati, embrace American and American Muslim exceptionalism, though perhaps in moderation. They value the politics and culture of the United States, especially its commitment to democracy, pluralism and the rule of law. Clearly, they also think that American Muslims can do well both here and abroad.4
The largest Muslim organization in North America is ISNA. Immigrants who were clearly associated with political Islam established it as the Muslim Student Association in the 1960s. One merely has to browse through the early editions of their magazine, Islamic Horizons, to spot its Islamist connections. One issue had Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, on its cover (March/April 1999), and one of the books an ISNA affiliate published in the United States was an English translation of Milestones, Syed Qutb's most controversial and anti-Western polemic.5 ISNA was also the recipient of substantial financial support from Muslims abroad. This practice was only discontinued after the U.S. Treasury Department began to look very negatively at Muslim organizations with financial links abroad. Additionally, ISNA could not control all the beneficiaries of its donors' generosity. In the post-9/11 political climate, which had become hostile to Muslim institutions, this was a wise and safe decision. Financial donations from overseas always come with strings attached. They impose ideological preferences and demand dissemination of their ideas and loyalty to foreign interests, political as well as theological. The cutting of the financial umbilical cord meant freedom. Once ISNA became free of foreign money and began to raise funds at home, its orientation changed and it has continued to evolve.
In the years since 9/11, ISNA has experienced significant changes in its approach. It is finally becoming an Islamic institution focused on facilitating the integration of Muslims into America, advancing interfaith dialogue and helping construct an American Muslim identity that combines the best of the Islamic faith and the best of American political values and culture. One event that helped change ISNA's view and perceptions of ISNA was the election of Ingrid Mattson as president in 2006. The incessant pressure from federal investigative agencies created an environment that led ISNA for the first time to think of institutional survival through indigenization. The rise of Muslim extremism and the challenge of combatting Islamophobia also forced ISNA and other Muslim organizations to start articulating Islamic values and Muslim aspirations in the language of American political culture.6
Before 9/11, ISNA emphasized pan-Islamic visions and underscored the differences between American and Muslim culture. Since then, ISNA has led American Muslim institutions in focusing on what they have in common and what makes America a special place. ISNA continues to bring American Muslims together and endeavors to produce a community bound by common ties. But it has also done an exemplary job of outreach: interfaith initiatives with Christians and Jews and anti-radicalism initiatives with the federal government and its agencies. Under the last president, Imam Magid, ISNA has worked closely with law-enforcement agencies and has even won an award from the FBI.7 In many ways, ISNA in its recent avatar has become a hub where Muslims from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities and religious outlooks come together to forge a common American Muslim identity. It is also a place where Americans of different faith backgrounds can come together and embrace their fellow Americans who are Muslim. ISNA's leadership has always had great expectations of American Muslims, but only recently is it dawning on them that American Muslims are special because America is. They may not have fully bought into the idea of American exceptionalism, but they are well on their way.
THE NEW GENERATION
Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU)
ISPU is a Michigan-based think tank started by concerned American Muslim professionals after the attacks on September 11, 2011. Along with another institution, Muslim Advocates, ISPU is truly a 9/11 baby. Its founders were galvanized by rising anti-Muslim sentiment, as well as a strong desire to engage the system and bring the American Muslim point of view into American policy debates. While institutions like the American Muslim Council had pursued this goal, ISPU was the first Muslim institution to be equally concerned about domestic and foreign policies that may impact Muslims directly.
ISPU has produced policy briefs and reports, not only on foreign-policy issues but also on education, health care, gun control and civil rights. Unlike Muslim institutions started and funded by immigrant Muslims, ISPU is an initiative of the next generation, for whom there is no "back home." They have grown up in this country and know that their present and future are tied to its well-being. Hence they are just as moved by declining educational standards and health-care issues as they are by rising discrimination against Muslims. Unlike other Muslim organizations, some of which still raise funds abroad and are focused on the politics and fortunes of Muslim countries, ISPU raises funds in the United States, not just from Muslim donors but also by competing for grants from mainstream sources. It has won several grants, one from PEW Research and another from Tides Foundation, for example.
Unlike CAIR and ISNA, which are seen as Muslim institutions in the United States, ISPU is perceived as an American institution that studies Muslims and brings their voice to the dialogue on national issues. While CAIR has recently hired a Jewish executive director for one of its chapters, ISPU has from the beginning had many non-Muslim experts as fellows whose views and research it has showcased; examples include James Hanley and Graham Fuller. Lately, ISPU is beginning to specialize in studying the Muslim community itself, as it is growing rapidly and becoming more complex and diverse. Muslim institutions need to understand the changes and challenges the community faces in order to serve it better. ISPU hopes to capture this niche and is reinvesting resources in this direction.
ISPU underscores two important changes in the ideological orientation of the American Muslim community: embracing the American system and making the United States its primary concern. While many Muslim organizations work to bring about positive change overseas, ISPU and similar organizations are focused on change in the United States. Several such Muslim organizations have emerged on the national scene post 9/11, the most prominent being Muslim Advocates,8 the Muslim American Citizens Coalition and Public Affairs Council (MACCPAC9) and American Muslim Health Professionals (AMHP).10 On the local level, several efforts have emerged, such as Circle of Hands (COH),11 Delaware Council on Muslim and Global Affairs, Critical Connections12 and the Muslim Alliance of Indiana.13
AMERICAN MUSLIM PERSPECTIVES
The U.S. Muslim community is divided into two groups: African American Muslims, and immigrant Muslims and their integrated children. While the political positions within each group are neither uniform nor consistent, there are identifiable common views on politics.14
The African American Muslim community is strongly influenced by racial identity and the context of racism and black marginalization. Many of the traditional struggles of the African American community to escape the structural discrimination of American society remain their bedrock. Many of them find that, when they convert to Islam, they move from one periphery to another, from the margins of American society to the margins of American Muslim society. It is safe to suggest that many black intellectuals recognize that the idea of American exceptionalism excludes black Americans and indeed treats blacks as the "other."15 Malcolm X captured the sentiment quite elegantly: "We're not Americans, we're Africans who happen to be in America. We were kidnapped and brought here against our will from Africa. We didn't land on Plymouth Rock — that rock landed on us."16
African American Muslims, from Malcolm X to Sherman Jackson, reject the idea that America is a nation of superior virtues that are worthy of emulation. Imagine the horror if American-style racism were to become global. Even today, with President Obama having both African and Muslim heritage, black suffering remains intense, and Muslim marginalization has actually increased. Needless to say, the idea of American exceptionalism, Herman Cain's defense of it not withstanding, does not appeal much to the Black Muslim.17
Immigrant Muslim politics is composed essentially of two trends.18 Muslims who appreciate the freedom and opportunities they enjoy in the United States are more inclined to embrace the idea of American exceptionalism. Those Muslims who cannot see beyond America's flawed and bellicose foreign policy in the Muslim world hold a very negative view of U.S. society and values. They believe that all talk about American values is a hypocritical discursive cover for racism, imperialism and Islamophobia. The foreign-policy divide continues to have an enduring impact on Muslim perceptions of the United States.19
Here is a sample of Muslim grievances against the United States. American leaders talk of freedom as the most important of all political values and often present the United States as its champion, but when it comes to the Palestinian issue, American support for Israel, no matter what, is the primary barrier to the freedom of Palestinians. Generations of Palestinians have suffered tyranny, occupation and daily humiliation because of U.S. support for Israel and its occupation of Palestine. Many Muslims who hear American presidents talk about freedom snigger with disgust. The United States ignores Israel's illegal nuclear arsenal but punishes Iran for pursuing a nuclear program that it is entitled to as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If the United States were opposed to nuclear weapons in principle, then it should send inspectors and sanction Israel. The United States for decades supported brutal dictators in the Muslim world, and even after the beginning of the Arab Spring it picked and chose where to support democracy and where to support monarchy. It is impossible to make the case that U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world is guided by moral principles. For those who focus on U.S. foreign policy alone, American exceptionalism sounds hollow and silly.
American Muslims who focus more on America's domestic society have an entirely different view of the country. They are dismayed by U.S. foreign policy and often lambast U.S. governments for their imperialism abroad. However, they have a nuanced view, and an understanding that some measures are necessary, while others are driven by special interests. They also recognize the role of media and the misrepresentation of Islam and Muslims in U.S. policies in the Muslim world. Above all, they acknowledge that many bad U.S. policies in the region were influenced by undemocratic regimes. For example, aggressive U.S. opposition to Islamic movements was in part shaped by the intelligence fed to it by Muslim dictators.
These Muslims, however, are enamored with American democracy, its freedoms and the tremendous opportunities, both economic and cultural, that it has provided to Muslims and people of other nationalities and faiths from all over the world. They recognize that America is indeed based on an experiment with freedom of religion, expression and thought. They like the fact that in America religious values can play a role in the public sphere without resulting in theocracy or religious tyranny. Muslims intuitively reject the idea of secularism, understanding it as the French do — barring religion from politics — but they like what they see in America. The idea of religious pluralism is for these Muslims a positive alternative to the extremes of secularism and theocracy. These Muslims themselves tend to be very successful and recognize that their ethnicity, religion or original nationality did not undermine their ability to enjoy the opportunities available in America. For them, the U.S. model is in many ways consistent with Islamic values; they actually wish to export it to the Muslim world. In spite of their reservations about U.S. foreign policy, they genuinely believe in American exceptionalism.
These American Muslims are not indifferent to foreign-policy issues, of course. Some argue that America can be a force for the good in the Muslim world. They imagine an America free from the overriding "security" needs of Israel becoming a force for justice and human rights in the Muslim world. They have occasionally gotten a glimpse of such an America, as when the United States intervened on behalf of the Muslims of Bosnia in 1999, and again in 2011, when it helped the rebels in Libya and supported the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia.
In the post-9/11 era, several of the decisions of Presidents Bush and Obama — the invasion of Iraq, the use of torture, kidnapping and profiling overseas, the abuses at Guantanamo and now the use of drones — have dismayed even the most ardent Muslim fans of America. Additionally, the rise of Islamophobia, the consistent Muslim bashing by Republican presidential candidates in the 2012 primaries, the reports of racial and religious profiling, the systematic violation of Muslim civil rights by law-enforcement agencies (specially the New York Police Department) and the campaign to ban the sharia have also dented the belief in American exceptionalism.
In the post-9/11 era, the American Muslim community has been on the defensive, facing allegations of radicalism, intrusive scrutiny by the government, harassment by several law-enforcement agencies, rising Islamophobia and a culture of hostility. The community seems to be endlessly reacting to some new challenge. Prior to 9/11, the community was more proactive, in many ways crafting a new vision for itself. American Muslims were in the process of developing a public philosophy of "American Muslim exceptionalism," the idea that they were different and special.
American Muslim exceptionalists believe that God brought Muslims to America, the world's richest and most powerful country, for a purpose. They recognize that they constitute one of the most educated, advanced and wealthy Muslim societies in the world. They hoped that in a land where both freedom of religion and freedom of thought are protected, an authentic Islamic revival and reform movement could emerge that would not only prove that Islamic principles were truly divine, but also find a path for the Muslim world to negotiate the challenges of modernity.20
The American Muslim community, for this group of intellectuals, has special characteristics and opportunities. It is global, with influential linkages to the Muslim world. It consists of people who are highly motivated, educated and concerned about their Islamic identity and the future of Islam in the modern world. America's immigration filters had shaped the community such that there was a built-in predilection towards reform, openness and intellectual development. The Muslim presence in America was perceived as a historic opportunity, but the aftermath of September 11, 2001, has greatly dented this dream. Nevertheless it persists.
1 For more information on IIIT and AMSS, see http://www.iiit.org. For more on Maqasid al-Shariah, see Jasser Auda, Maqasid Al-Shariah as Philosophy of Islamic Law: A Systems Approach (IIIT, 2008). See also Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Maqasid al-Shariah Made Simple (IIIT, 2008). On minority jurisprudence, see Tauseef Ahmad Parray, "The Legal Methodology of ‘Fiqh al-Aqalliyyat' and its Critics: An Analytical Study," Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 32, no. 1 (2012): 88-107.
2 See Mohammed Nimer, "The Americanization of Islamism," American Interest (July/August 2011). Also see Mohamed Nimer, "The Muslim Brotherhood in America: Citizens with Foreign Attachments?" Middle East Policy (Winter, 2010).
4 These perceptions are based on an extensive interview and conversation with Maher Hathout in 2009 and on several occasions with Salam Marayati between 2004-10. I also launched and edited for two years Muslim Public Affairs (2005-06) for MPAC.
5 See Syed Qutb, Milestones (ATP, 1990). In the interest of disclosure I must add that my review of this book is available on the Internet.
6 The themes of ISNA's annual conventions and its magazine Islamic Horizons chronicle this shift in discourse, but articles like this that both manifest and instruct the new change are significant. See Asiafa Qureshi-Landes, "Shared Knowledge Nurtures Peace: Why the Muslims' Failure to Explain Sharia Matters and How to Correct It," Islamic Horizons (May/June): 22-27. An interesting essay by Mattson reveals how this process of Americanization using Islamic metaphors may have come about. See Ingrid Mattson, "How Muslims Use Islamic Paradigms to Define America," in Yvonne Haddad, Jane Smith and John L. Esposito, eds., Religion and Immigration: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Experiences in the United States (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003),199-217.
7 See Jaweed Kaleem, "Mohamed Magid: A Portrait of an American Imam," Huffington Post, June 30, 2011.
9 See http://www.maccpac.org.
10 See http://amhp.us.
11 See http://hummayunismail.vpweb.com.
13 See http://www.indianamuslims.org.
14 My summary of these perspectives is based on several conversations and seminars that I have attended with American Muslim leaders and groups in the past 15 years.
15 For an understanding of the black Muslim experience in America, see Charles Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994) and Richard Brent Turner, Islam in the African-American Experience (Indiana University Press, 2003).
17 For a sophisticated reflection on the condition of African Americans by a black American Muslim scholar, see Sherman Jackson, Islam and the Black American: Looking toward the Third Resurrection (Oxford University Press, 2005).
18 I have discussed the contours of these two types of politics and identities in the American Muslim community in "Living on Borderlines: Islam beyond Clash and Dialogue," in Zahid H. Bukhari, Sulayman S. Nayang, et al, eds., Muslims' Place in the American Public Square: Hope, Fears, and Aspirations (AltaMira Press, 2004), 84.
20 See, for example, my book, American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom (Amana Publications, 2002). Also see M. A. Muqtedar Khan, ed., Debating Moderate Islam: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West (University of Utah Press, 2007).