On America’s Muslim problem: I

Not something you see today.

Following President Obama’s famed Cairo speech, there were those who were excited, those who were nettled and those who were simply unimpressed. Among the nettled were some American conservatives — of the Wingnut, moderate and innovative sorts — who objected to the the speech’s content and tone on a number of grounds. Most notable were those around it form a part of an “apology tour” or that it was too harsh on the Israelis. Another objection was that Obama took too conciliatory a tone with American Muslims, especially his remark that Islam has “always been a part of America’s story.” Those came from the right but they spoke to something much bigger.

David Frum, for instance, called those lines “really absurd” and characterized it as a part of the speech’s “persistent misrepresentation of history.” Max Boot, in a Commentary blog post, wrote that the line “twisted history”. Frum did not explain how Islam (or Muslims) have not been a part of the “American story” — he dismisses the idea in one line — though his assumption likely comes from old narratives on American history and identity. Or ideology. Boot’s quarrel was more with an example used in Obama’s speech, related to the often quoted 1798 Treaty of Tripoli, than the line itself; Obama’s use of the Treaty was actually somewhat off, a good example of a historical document being distorted for political purposes. There were innumerable examples the President could have used; out of all context, though, that particular Treaty is especially useful. Again, so long as it is out of context. That is the poverty of the Obama administration’s trumped up outreach to Muslims: Months after the Cairo sermon, one cannot imagine Barack Obama addressing American Muslims at, say, the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C. The lack of perspective and courage in much of the President’s outreach to the Muslim world and Muslim community in the United States produces such errors and others. The President shares that with men like Frum and Boot and Douthat, too. America and American Muslims need a stronger focus and broader perspective on American Islam. Men who stand before the public should see the bigger picture; such thought may be a tragedy of hope.

In efforts to highlight points of contrast between “western” and “Islamic” civilization or to paint the Islamist menace as pervasive and irreconcilable, conservatives (and some liberals) have frequently put artificial boundaries the space-time relationship between Muslims and Islam and America. Conservatives frequently express paranoia about Muslims and Islam in America (and Europe) but with little interest or attention to the long history of Islam in the New World. Frequently associating American Islam with immigrants or black radicals (think imported preachers with scraggly beards and the Nation of Islam) rather than with the many thousands (if not more) of Muslims brought to the United States as slaves, who sometimes kept their religion for generations. Many American Muslims, regardless of their politics, look at that early history with pride — for immigrants their story is a gateway to their new identity in America; for others it turns their conversion into a reversion, settling problems imposed by socialized dogmas. A recent book on American Muslims, attempting to capture their diversity and challenges after 9/11 makes scarce reference to pre-twentieth century Islam in America. Many immigrant Muslims are ignorant of it altogether. Wider awareness of that history among all Americans might help in a far broader process of assimilation into the American pattern of identity.

The contrary claim, though, that Islam has not been a part of the American story from at least the founding does not hold up to close (or even mild) scrutiny. Articles and books have been written on the subject. In a history of Arab Americans, otherwise dominated by Levantine tendencies, there are the stories of the North African fighters who arrived in the American colonies to assist in the American struggle against Britain. Some of their graves (and descendants) can still be seen in South Carolina and elsewhere (see Orfalea, Gregory, The Arab Americans: A History, Olive Branch, 2006, pg. 45). Muslims fought — and died — in every American war from the Revolution to the present. There are biographies of some Muslim slaves written by their sympathizers after they escaped the moil; there were others who wrote down Qur’anic suras before dying in bondage. These were remarkable Americans. Roots, Alex Haley’s American story is not without the memory of Islam, either. In most histories of the United States they are ignored; now more than ever, it is critical that the long history of Islam in America be understood in the broader context of the American project, not just the “post-9/11 world” or the post-World War II era.

A recent and amazing Library of Congress report by James H. Hutson starts at that by looking at attitudes towards Muslims and Islam among American Founding Fathers and in the commons. Its findings, based on primary documents, are as extraordinary as they are diverse. Early Americans carried differing views on Islam: one Southern preacher believed the “religion of Mahomet originated in arms, breathes nothing but arms, is propagated by arms” while but Ezra Stiles called Muslim morality “far superior to the Christian.” The report has it that: “it is clear that the Founding Fathers thought about the relationship of Islam to the new nation and were prepared to make a place for it in the republic.” It concludes more interestingly: “The Founders of this nation explicitly included Islam in their vision of the future of the republic. Freedom of religion, as they conceived it, encompassed it.” The Founders believed, Huston writes, that Muslims  “would make law-abiding, productive citizens.” In Hutson’s view, “the Founders would have incorporated it [Islam] into the fabric of American life.” The daft might read that as Hutson having men in wigs and stockings buddying up with some caricature of an Islamist. One can dispute that conclusion, but the report’s greater implication is to cast a long shadow of a doubt on the idea that Islam or Muslims are “new” to America or have not been a part of the American story. That it has been forgotten and neglected speaks to a broader and deeper need for an appreciation of the need for a national narrative that incorporates Muslims in the same way it incorporates Jews, Christians and others. And it is really absurd.

One sees that there is piece of a generation of young American Muslims coming up from their roots, angry and lonely, tearing the soil with them — the generation of 9/11. All minorities must at all times trust but verify, to protect their rights and their property and their principles; but these young have done none of that, colluding against their country and, ultimately, against their faith. The failure of society was to let bigotry and paranoia run so rampant as to produce a lust for violence among an increasingly important minority. It was to allow ignorant forces to control public conversation about the Muslim community; both those advocating disguised discrimination and criminal political correctness. The failure of American Muslims was to not keep their gates guarded when fanatical and delusional websites and preachers and “missionaries” reinforced those pressures alienating their sons, right behind their backs and beneath their noses. These boys were not “self-radicalized” — villages raise sons and here the village failed to do its part. For that there is no excuse.

The buzz going round saying that “Muslim” and “American” are incompatible, mutually antagonistic and perverse in their intercourse has infected both Muslims and non-Muslims in America, many of whom have gone beyond reach with their convictions. These are narratives of American (the “real” Americans, as they might have it) and Islamist bigots; what is needed now is a historical narrative that most reasonable people are fully capable of grasping, but which has been rendered mute by old Europocentric biases and post-9/11 backlash politics. Building this understanding in elite and popular circles in the United States is a long-term responsibility of the American polity after 9/11, and it goes hand-in-hand with efforts against domestic terrorism and radicalization. It requires that historians do their jobs well and that men of letters and politics advance a semblance of character. For that one might hope.

4 thoughts on “On America’s Muslim problem: I

  1. “These boys were not “self-radicalized” — villages raise sons and here the village failed to do its part. For that there is no excuse.”

    Villages? Do such creatures even exist in our highly individualized, post-modern society?

    In my opinion, the blame doesn’t lie on the shoulders of the non-existent American Muslim kibbutz; it lies on the shoulders of the atomistic culture which has made the creation of such a unit virtually impossible.

    “One sees that there is piece of a generation of young American Muslims coming up from their roots, angry and lonely, tearing the soil with them — the generation of 9/11.”

    While some of the members of generation 9/11 are tragically “tearing the soil” in their attempts to re-discover their true origins (I wouldn’t necessarily describe the process in terms of uprootment) there are many others who are peacefully renouncing their country of birth and turning towards their parent’s countries of origin in search of a substantive identity based on something more than a failing economy…

    What are your thoughts on those individuals?

    • Thanks for your important comments and questions, Ahmed. I’m excited that you brought this up. These are questions I have thought about dealing with on this blog but have not had the opportunity to fully develop them. I will respond in a stream of consciousness:

      In my opinion, the blame doesn’t lie on the shoulders of the non-existent American Muslim kibbutz; it lies on the shoulders of the atomistic culture which has made the creation of such a unit virtually impossible.

      I agree that modern society has produced a highly atomized environment in which traditional communal structures and consciousnesses are weak. I am less convinced that the “American Muslim kibbutz” is “non-existent”. I qualify that by saying that there is no generalized American Muslim community: instead there are multiple communities, most of them small and most of them closely-knit. From there I do not think it is possible to say that there are no social units binding Muslims in this country; rather there are broad social forces making the maintenance of those units difficult, but far from impossible. People slip through the cracks and we see the results.

      What Americans need now, and this extends beyond the Muslim issue, is transcendent civic unity. That is the basis of the American project and it is increasingly weakened by various forces, some technological others intellectual and others cultural or related to international politics. Some react to this by rejecting the civic compacts of American society and resorting Christianist or New Age or racist impulses; some go off in other directions entirely. So long as these are not violent and do not threaten the basic organization of society and its civil institutions these are understandable, though not desirable, coping mechanisms. I think there ought to be more transcendent forces in American life, though I think those ought to be related to understanding and appreciating the commonalities (i.e. “patriotic” and human elements) rather than ones that divide (such as religion). Muslims have a responsibility to solidify their position where they are for the sake of their offspring and country. And atomization does not absolve individuals or families especially from the responsibility to their children.

      While some of the members of generation 9/11 are tragically “tearing the soil” in their attempts to re-discover their true origins (I wouldn’t necessarily describe the process in terms of uprootment) there are many others who are peacefully renouncing their country of birth and turning towards their parent’s countries of origin in search of a substantive identity based on something more than a failing economy…

      What are your thoughts on those individuals?

      Two points here: (1) I would use the term uprootment, because they represent a breach from the norm. And I see this as a problem for society in general. This is a failure to assimilate into the self one’s own responsibilities and heritage — and there is more than religion is blood ties to both of those. For the American-born Muslim, who is the descendent of immigrants or slaves (e.g. not passerbys or temporary stayers; those with citizenship by the literal accident of birth or the like) one’s “true” roots have to forged and understood from where the individual stands and in the context of his environment. One also has to recognize that an immigrant society has a responsibility to assimilate new comers and new comers have a responsibility assimilate their new home, producing integration. My opinion is that those who feel their society isn’t giving them enough should search themselves and their environment for their dual meaning before looking elsewhere. And I think most people do that. That they do is imperative to the national interest and the survival and flourishing of the Muslim community in North America.

      (2) Again, I see the dilemma of people looking, peaceful, for something more substantive than a failing economy as a grave one and one that does not require denouncing their country of birth. If something is broken, fix it. It is easy, nowadays especially, take flight and go someplace else for money or for a sense of ethno-religious comfort. That is the weakness of our modern “globalized” world and it represents a challenge for transcendent bonds because it allows those who would traditionally amend troubled systems to simply run away.

      Again, though, I think most American Muslims (especially the “9/11 generation”) understand their responsibility in building a more civil and inclusive polity for future generations. I think Islam has a lot to with that; my observation is that among urban/suburban American Muslims there is a greater sense of community than among other ethno-religious groups. Among minority religions that surpass even the similarly small and historically marginalized Jewish communities. Part of that is because of recent arrival and small numbers, but I think much of it also has to do with the strength of spiritual convictions among them relative to many Christian communities. The American Muslim communities are not post-modern in the same way that some other sub-populations are.

      All that said, there is a need for a strengthening of the American polity and a broadening of its popular conception. There are American Muslims working to that end. Too often that is the form of interfaith, where I think it needs to be civic and cultural. In any case, the dominant trend is for American Muslims to try and meet that challenge, post-modernity and all.

      Of course there is nothing wrong with identifying with one’s ethnic heritage, as millions of people in diaspora communities do. It’s even healthy. But to put that above one’s civic, patriotic and spiritual duties, loyalties and rights is mistaken.

  2. In most histories of the United States they are ignored; now more than ever, it is critical that the long history of Islam in America be understood in the broader context of the American project, not just the “post-9/11 world” or the post-World War II era.

    Agreed. The questions then become, how many people will take up such an endeavor, how will they do it and how much of an impact will it have? The popular perception, because of the predominantly Christian make up of this country, is and has been that Islam and “the West” are essentially of two different origins and thus not compatable. Personally, I think it’ll take more than simply showing the contributions of Arab Americans in US history, which is certianly important. It’ll likely also have to take a broader context that aims to show Islam as an extension of the Judeo-Christian tradition (which many scholars and religious authorities have already done) and thus perfectly compatable with modern US society as well. I say that because the perception of Islam as “un-Western” (for lack of a better term) dates much further back than the establishment of the US colonies and thus transcends the history of the United States altogether.

    These boys were not “self-radicalized” — villages raise sons and here the village failed to do its part. For that there is no excuse.

    Well, I’m not sure how much blame can really be put on the “village.” One has to remember that Muslim Americans are, for the most part, highly integrated into American society currently. No doubt quite a few of them work with fellow Muslims and perform outreach, charity, etc. within Muslim communities, but I wonder how concentrated Muslim communities are in this country because the vast majority of Americans seem to maintain a more loose knit social network these days, as compared to the tightly knit communities of old (Which no doubt still exist in many regions, but seem to exist much less in this day and age than even 40 years ago).

    It requires that historians do their jobs well and that men of letters and politics advance a semblance of character.

    I wouldn’t hold my breath on the second one, politics in this country resembles a play ground kickball game and I doubt it’ll change anytime soon.

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