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.

Interfaith work and Philanthropy – a faith-based revolution or a pragmatic innovation?

“ We did not hear the term “Abrahamic faiths,” until about ten years ago. This term is not only a great leap forward in terms of interfaith work, but also a radical shift in how people are looking at each other’s faith,” said William Enright, the Director of Lake Institute for Faith and Giving, Indianapolis. He said this when we were discussing the state of interfaith work in the U.S and the implications on philanthropy, a few weeks ago, when I was at the Lilly School of Philanthropy, IUPUI. While the interfaith movement has a long history in this country and has seen many ups and downs, I will briefly discuss how religious diversity in the U.S is impacting it. I will briefly look at the opportunities it presents in the field of philanthropy.

Source: Case Western Reserve University.
Source: Case Western Reserve University.

My first significant exposure to the interfaith movement in Washington D.C was when I attended a Jum’ah (Friday)prayer conducted in an Episcopal church in downtown D.C, about two years ago. Ever since, each time I visit the city on a Friday, this is where I attend Friday prayers. While the notion of praying in a church may seem anathema to many Muslims across the world, this seems like the most normal thing in the U.S, where space constraints and financial restrictions are forcing small Muslim congregations to creatively reach out to other faith based groups and create spaces where they can pray, conduct meetings etc. This is not the only instance where prayers are held in a Church. I personally know of two other venues in the greater D.C area where this is the norm. What this points out is also the growing recognition and accommodation of Muslims by Christian and Jewish groups, who see the need to accommodate Muslims and their needs. This is also a good illustration of the concept of “Abrahamic faiths,” that Mr.Enright pointed out. While not new radically new as a concept (the notion of Abrahamic faiths is centuries old) but its usage and acceptance is rather new.

In “America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity”, Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University professor of Religion takes a close, hard look at the changing religious landscape in the U.S, and analyzes its impact on the American population. Using in-depth interviews with religious leaders, lay-men and also people from the “new religions” in the American landscape i.e., Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, the book provides a compelling argument for greater inter-faith dialogue and also a call for Christians to be more pro-active in learning and accommodating these religious groups. The key argument in the book is that the increasing religious diversity is presenting challenges to the American social fabric and we must pay close attention to this issue. There is a call for greater interaction and also work between religious groups, though a stronger focus has been put on Christian groups to do more, in terms of inter-faith work.

He calls for reflective pluralism, one in which there is adequate thinking and consideration given to what one believes in, and where one’s beliefs are coming from. He points out rightly, that for exclusivists to ignore all other religions and to continue to live in a bubble will be hard in the future, as the country becomes increasingly diverse.

Shoulder to Shoulder and Interfaith Youth Core

Two organizations that seem to be at the cutting edge of interfaith work in the U.S are Shoulder to Shoulder, an interfaith alliance of over 20 national organizations, across the country from Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other faithbased groups that have come together to defend each other’s rights. This is exemplified in their stance against Islamophobia, and other racially motivated campaigns by radical groups in the country. Their mission is: “Sharing ideas for starting community initiatives to address anti-Muslim sentiment by maintaining an archive of past events. Offering resources materials in a comprehensive online library that includes worship materials, educational curricula, videos, and more.”


Interfaith Youth Core is another group that is redefining how interfaith work is being carried out. It is reaching out to Millennials across college campuses to form a coalition of groups that educate each other and also organize along faith lines to transform the religious context of the country. Eboo Patel, the founder of the group exemplifies this struggle, and he illustrates that in his autobiographical book Acts of Faith.


Challenges: One exclusive path or many ways to reach truth?

Exceptionalism is one of the biggest challenges facing America in the realm of interfaith dialogue. While some denominations tend to be exclusive, others take a more ecumenical perspective when it comes to reaching ultimate reality, or religious truth. Wuthnow points this out by saying : ““ Among the thorniest questions that religious diversity poses for all the major religious traditions is whether or not they can sustain their historic claims to being uniquely true or at least better than other traditions in relating people to the sacred. Much of the reason for believers taking an active part in particular denominations or congregations has been the conviction that God could be found best in one theological location rather than in the other”.

What this calls for, then, is not only willingness to dialogue and to be open to ideas, but also to be secure enough in one’s faith that this first step becomes possible. Most often, insecurity and lack of initiative hampers most efforts. A theme that Wuthnow brings up more than once is that of the majority community accommodating the minorities. This is not only a pragmatic position, but one that resonates with the ethos of building a civil society. And if the interfaith projects mentioned above are any indication, this seems to be happening, as we speak.

There is reason to be positive, though more efforts need to be made in this direction, Wuthnow adds. One of the most eclectic experiences I have had in Washington D.C (when I lived there) was attending Jum’ah at a church in downtown, walking out a few blocks and eating Matzo Ball soup at a Jewish restaurant. It was my little pilgrimage to honor all three faiths, though arguably the Matzo Ball soup is only culturally a Jewish delicacy. The diehard fundamentalists may cringe at this thought, but this is the reality of Islam in the U.S and also reflects the pragmatism that followers of each religion demonstrate. This, I believe will define the future of interfaith work in the U.S.