Islam in America: Demographics and Politics
After the classical liturgical opening. The Prophet [p] said
المؤمن القوي خير وأحب إلى الله من المؤمن الضعيف وفي كلٍّ خير، احرص على ما ينفعك واستعن بالله ولا تعجز، فإن أصابك شيء فلا تقل: لو أني فعلت كذا لكان كذا، ولكن قل: قدر الله وما شاء فعل، فإن لو تفتح عمل الشيطان
(A strong person of faith is better than a weak one, and there is good in both. Pursue what is of benefit to you, seek God's support, and do not feel helpless. And if you face adversity, say not "Had I done such and such, something different would have happened." Instead, say: "God has ordained this, and His will is done," because obsessing over counterfactuals starts the devil's work).
This is to say that we should look forward and not obsess over the past. But it does not mean that we should not consider our past mistakes. Instead, we must study the past objectively, with the purpose of learning from past mistakes and doing our best going forward.
This political season has put the issues of religious identity politics centerstage, especially as they pertain to Islam. This is not surprising for two main reasons:
- First, nationalism and religion have often played similar roles, and were often indistinguishable, not only during the age of empires and military conquests, but also in contemporary periods. In America, specifically, religious pluralism was forced on the early colonies because none of the competing religious groups could enforce their preferred religion on others, and an alternative social contract was necessary. However, remnants of the early Puritans' and Congregationalists' confounding of good citizenship with membership of their particular religious group has remained strong under the tolerant surface.
- Second, Muslims have been particularly active in using religion politically variously as a substitute or motivation for nationalism, and this trend has been especially strong in the countries form which most of today's American Muslims have migrated.
- Except on reactive identity-political-preservation instincts, there is really no "Muslim American vote." From 2000 through 2008, Muslims have tried to organize a voting block based on the secret evidence act and later profiling threats, and politicians are likely to play that angle in either direction, but that does not make for a natural constituency. American Muslims are as socioeconomically diverse as most other American groups, and their natural tendency may be socially conservative but economically liberal -- which makes them difficult to coalesce as a voting block.
- Different subgroups also have completely different agenda items of primary interest: social issues for the African Americans, and different foreign policy issues for different subgroups. Infamously, immigrants from India tended to be Democrat and immigrants from Pakistan tended to be Republican, and most Arab immigrants have been obsessed with the issue of Palestine (and various Arab countries more recently).
- Our organizations and discourse continue to scare America -- rightly so. First, we have the obsession with numbers and conversion, because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of outreach or da`wa, which continues to be understood as proselytizing by most immigrant Muslims and many of their offspring. Second, the community continues to harbor fundamentalist views on Shari`a, mainly due to lack of proper knowledge of Islamic history and culture -- Muslim immigrants are mostly professionals who have never received a liberal arts education, and mistake fundamentalist sacred history for history! The fact that this fundamentalist paradigm has failed miserably everywhere does not seem to deter the Islamist worldview -- on the contrary, it has fueled greater extremism in some corners.
- Our investments as a community have been minimal and misguided. Positive trends in a Zogby report notwithstanding, most of our philanthropic funds have gone to real estate and other sterile forms that nonetheless serve as sources of identity-political pride. Our investments in our communities, both in terms of time and financial resources, have been minimal, and they have been driven by insincerity and cynical pursuit of short-term acceptance.
- Genuinely caring about the affairs of our immediate communities and adopted nation state. We should vote for what is beneficial to all of society, on which we're allowed to disagree with others, but we must abandon the narrow religious justifications for voting that were popularized in the 1990s. The Prophet [p] said that a neighbor is almost a family member who merits a share in inheritance. To be good Muslims is to care deeply about the welfare of all our neighbors.
- Whenever we resent being subjects of double-standard treatment, we should use the opportunity to recognize how we ourselves are among the worst users of double standards -- including against members of our own communities with different socioeconomic backgrounds, or, in some cases, outright racism!
- In our interactions with law enforcement, both to protect our societies from extreme elements in our communities and to protect ourselves from overzealous law officers, we should use the opportunity to think longer-term about integration and acceptance of our status as small minorities -- they way early Puritans in the Colonies had to accept the rise of other religious groups, such as Baptists and Methodists, and the way Jews and other religious groups integrated better in American society during the mid 20th Century. Rather than seeing other minority groups as a threat, we should see them as our natural allies and trailblazers. We need not agree with any of those groups on all issues, and, indeed, we will learn that even those small minorities don't agree on everything. Part of understanding our place in a pluralistic society is truly to acknowledge and appreciate diversity -- not only for now, not until they know better, because we have a lot more to learn from them than they can learn from us, and we can only contribute positively when we are truly part of the American mosaic. Hopefully, this can happen soon, and the fear- or identity-politically-driven idea of a Muslim voting block will no longer be necessary.