American Muslims – A Racial, Ethnic or Religious group?

Are American Muslims a racial,ethnic or religious group? While this may seem like a rhetorical question, the very definition of who a ‘Muslim’ is in the U.S. has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last four decades. In other words, the transformation of American Muslims as a category from a racial group – in the 1960s to an ethnic group since the 1980s’ – comprising of Arabs, Asians and African Americans has made them more ‘foreign’ than they really are. While terms such as ‘Black Muslims,’ were popular in the 1960s, to refer to the most salient group of the era – The Nation of Islam, the term denotes just one of the many groups that are present in the U.S. today. This is also a reflection of the change in demographics, economic and political power of American Muslims; but more than anything else, this is a transformation of an entire group identity, with very significant consequences for the followers of Islam. The transformation of the category ‘Muslim’ from a racial to a religious and then subsequently ‘national’ group is under examination here. American Muslims

Who are American Muslims? Are Muslims indigenous or ‘immigrants’ in America? With a population estimated to be between three to seven million people, representing literally the entire world, the American Muslim population is anything but homogenous. It may even be surprising for some Muslims in the Arab world or Asia to know that many groups such as The Nation of Islam, Moorish Science Temple are considered to be ‘Muslim.’ An orthodox Sunni or Shii Muslim would balk at the idea of such a group, with ‘heretical’ ideas being considered part of the ‘Ummah’, but this is precisely the case. The reasons for this are both historic and cultural. Leaders such as Elijah Muhammad, used Islamic symbolism and their own understanding of indigenous roots of spirituality to forge an ‘Islam’ that their followers could comprehend. The fact that their teachings were in contradiction with Orthodox Islam did not matter much.

While some scholars claim that Islam has been present in North America since the time of Columbus, it is more reasonable to place the history of Islam in the ‘encounters and exchanges’ between America and the rest of the Muslim world, as Kambiz Ghaneabassiri points out in his book A History of Islam in America. Ghaneabassiri’s argument is that the encounters between the West and Islam shaped the other and these two should not be seen as mutually exclusive categories. These encounters, he places in Antebellum America. There has been a long process of give and take between Islam and other religious and cultural traditions, similar to the transformation of Islam in Indonesia and India.  Ghaneabassiri points out that between 1890 and 1924, over 10-15 percent of the immigrants who came to the U.S. were Muslim and they contributed to various sectors of society, including entrepreneurship, labor force and trade. The conflation of race, religion and progress in this period formed a crucial part of the narrative of immigrants in America. These early migrants sought to integrate in the American social fabric through an ethnic, rather than a religious mode of self-identification, he adds.

Muslims became salient as a group in America in the 1960s’ with The Nation of Islam. Until then, arguably, Muslims were largely unknown, though they were recognized as a community, by the founding fathers. Muslims were associated with the ‘Ottoman empire’ or were popularly known as the ‘Turks’. Denise Spellberg, in her book Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an points out that despite holding some negative views of Islam, as was common in that era, Jefferson had the vision and foresight to defend the rights of Muslims to their faith. In ensuring that all religions would have freedom in the newly formed country, the founding fathers showed not only extraordinary vision, but also courage. This was because Islam was vilified as a religion in much of popular literature. Most Muslims in America until the nineteenth century were former slaves from West Africa, who had preserved their religion. There were a few immigrants from Arab countries and Asia too. But it was only after the immigration act of 1965 that Muslims started to arrive in the country in large numbers and gained salience, as a community.


Emergence of ethnic identity

Post 1965 was a phase when Muslims emerged as an ethnic group, rather than a racial one. Speaking of the importance of ethnic origins, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer point out in their book Beyond the Melting Pot: “ Ethnic groups owing to their distinctive historical experiences, their cultures and skills, the times of their arrival and the economic situation they met, developed distinctive economic, social and cultural patterns. As the old culture fell away- and it did rapidly enough- a new one, shaped by the distinctive experiences of life in America, was formed and a new identity was created. Italian-Americans may share precious little with Italians in Italy, but in America they were a distinctive group that maintained itself, was identifiable and gave something to those who identified with it, just as it also gave burdens to those who did not identify with that group.” They analyzed the Irish, Blacks and Puerto Ricans in their book and their insights are valid, to a large extent, for the examination of American Muslims, as well.

Most academic and scholarly works point towards the rough division of American Muslims as being about one third of each group: Arab, Asian and African American. While this is somewhat accurate, what this classification does not capture is the complexity in opinion and diversity of thought within the group that we collectively called ‘Muslims.’ The emergence of political consciousness of the newly arrived immigrants coincided with the civil rights movement and subsequent growth of social and political organizations. Many of the national organizations that we see today, including Islamic Society of North America, Muslim Students Association, CAIR etc. were formed in this phase. Interestingly, most of them are founded by recent immigrants and there are tensions between African American groups and Arab and South Asian groups, though they do not manifest themselves very often. The immigrants are generally more educated and considered ‘elite’ while the African Americans are not so well off. The narrative of immigrants is the narrative of America, as the historian Oscar Handlin remarks.The defining factor that brings all these diverse groups is religion and the rituals that make participation in the religion meaningful. Islam has been considered an ‘orthopraxy’, i.e., a religion rooted in practice rather than an ‘orthodoxy.’ This insight may be helpful in analyzing and understanding the diversity of Islam in America.

Post 9/11 and American Muslim exceptionalism

September 11, 2001 created a different discourse in the American Muslim community- that of an ‘Exceptional American’ Muslim identity. Patriotism towards the country became paramount and any association with the Arab or Asian diasporic moral imagination was played down, points out Zareena Grewal, in her book Islam is a Foreign Country. This discourse was made popular by the policy advisers, spiritual and religious leaders as well as national organizations in the country, such as Progressive Muslim Union among others, Grewal points out. This ‘exceptionalising’ narrative continues in some ways, even today and is often loaded with suspicion and self-hatred of groups that are seen as ‘Fresh off the Boat (FOBS) and culturally not ‘American’ yet. This group sought to place the collective guilt of the Muslim community on social conservatism and gender inequalities pervasive in Mosques around the U.S. With provocative and attention grabbing campaigns such as ‘gender-jihad,’ this group sought to address these issues. The in-fighting and lack of a clear vision and strategy to pursue their goals led to the organization’s demise.

While we may look at the U.S., as a ‘melting pot’ or alternately, as a conglomeration of people with different ethnic origins, the discourse of American Muslims and Islam in America is steeped in ethnicity. While this is a natural consequence of changing demographics, I believe this has also had a somewhat negative impact on the group identity, especially post September 11, 2001, when all Muslims were lumped together in a single category. The development of this eclectic group of people, who are the most racially diverse group in the country is sociologically relevant. We need to move simplistic notions of race or ethnicities if we are to better appreciate and understand the dynamics that shape this group of people that is part of the global Muslim community, rooted in its own local traditions.

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