Conference Brings Together Muslim Community and Scholars

Muslims in the United States: Demography, Beliefs, Institutions

Jun 24, 2003

Islam has an estimated five to six million adherents in the United States and its ranks are growing rapidly, through both immigration and conversion. The problem of how to eliminate the barriers to the full participation of Muslims in American society and politics is particularly important for the future of American democracy. On June 18, 2003, the Division of United States Studies brought together scholars and activists to discuss elements of the problem such as the compatibility of Islam and pluralistic democracy, the development of Muslim civil society and political participation, and the effects of inter-group tensions on political integration.

American Muslims are understudied. As Zahid Bukhari, director of Project MAPS: Muslims in American Public Square noted, even the most basic information about American Muslims – the size of the population– is the subject of a politically charged debate, with estimates ranging from under 2 million to as many as 8 million. The many existing surveys indicate however, that Muslims in the United States are diverse - in addition to indigenous Muslims of various ethnicities, immigrant Muslims come from at least 80 countries; they are affluent, politically knowledgeable, religious, and activist. Fifty-eight percent of this country’s Muslims are college graduates, compared with the national percentage of 25 percent. Fifty percent live in families with incomes of over $50,000, and 44 percent describe their occupation as professional/technical, medical or managerial. A majority of Muslims believe that Muslims should participate in the political process.

Kathleen Moore, a professor in the Law and Society Program at the University of California-Santa Barbara noted two models of effective political engagement among American Muslims since 9/11: “open houses,” in which Muslims invite non-Muslims into mosques, and constructive engagement of the law enforcement and intelligence communities. She noted that the “politics of integration” of American Muslims is a complex process, influenced both by the agency of Muslims themselves and the varied responses they meet from the American public. Moore questioned the traditional criteria of voting and party membership as the sole indicators of Muslim political participation, arguing that use of local public services and involvement in local NGOs and political entities such as school boards provide a more complete picture.

Sherman Jackson, a professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan, focused on the identity formation of African-American Muslims, and in particular, how their community (as well as the larger African-American community) has perceived the Islam brought to this country by immigrants. From the early twentieth century, African-American Muslims saw Islam in the U.S. as the logical development of black religiosity and as a form of protest against white supremacy. American Islam was an indigenous phenomenon that “belonged” to them. When the immigration laws changed in 1965, however, permitting large-scale Muslim immigration, “real” Islam began to be viewed by non-Muslims as the property of foreigners. A negative “Black Orientalism” developed among non-Muslim African Americans, who viewed African-American Muslims as “self-hating ‘wannabes’ who had moved from the back of the bus to the back of the camel.” He cautioned that American Muslims of all backgrounds must work to prevent this ideology from causing a rupture between immigrant and indigenous Islam.

Aminah McCloud of the Department of Religious Studies, DePaul University, traced the African-American Muslim community’s complex intellectual heritage, which has been shaped by the black experience in America, including slavery and discrimination, and more recently by juxtaposition with immigrant Islam. There have been African-American Muslims since African slaves were first brought to these shores, she noted, which makes the recent sense of loss of ownership of Islam all the more acute.

Agha Saeed of the Department of African American Studies, University of California-Berkeley, provided a “cartography of American Muslim politics,” sketching out the major political issues facing American Muslims. Historically, non-Muslim Americans have treated American Muslims with indifference, occasionally with efforts at mutual accommodation (Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign speech was a notable example, with its nod toward this country’s debt to both Moses and Mohammed), conflict and, most recently, by labeling Islam as evil. Although before 9/11 American Muslims were primarily interested in events abroad, the reaction to the attacks contributed to their growing interest in the American process and in domestic issues (such as the erosion of their civil rights and the election of Muslim candidates). According to Saeed, they have been forced to learn the history of the struggles of other Americans for equal rights and have focused on civil rights leaders such as Malcolm X. In this sense, 9/11 impacted American Muslims positively, in that it helped mobilize their strategic and intellectual resources. They must continue to grapple with intellectual challenges such as democracy and human rights in their home countries, gender equality, religious tolerance, social justice, and modernization and Westernization.

In the conference’s luncheon address, renowned American Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr discussed the relationship of American Islamic intellectual activity to the rest of the Islamic world. Nasr noted that American Muslim scholars’ access to resources, engagement in current events worldwide, and freedom of intellectual inquiry enables them to contribute significantly to Muslim scholarship. In the absence of the kinds of political pressures that exist in the Islamic world, American Muslim scholars must use their freedom to take intellectual risks. Asserting that it is impossible to be a true intellectual without involving oneself in pressing policy issues, Nasr challenged American Muslim scholars to craft rational, intellectually rigorous responses to key issues such as the relationship of Islam to modern science, the environmental crisis, religious diversity, and attacks from the Christian right. “Science is not just science; it is a religion for many people,” he pointed out, enjoining American Muslim thinkers to develop approaches to uses of technology in the areas of abortion, euthanasia, cloning, biotechnology, and robotics. They would face obstacles in this pursuit, he noted, including doubt in the Muslim world about American Muslim scholars’ authenticity and the detrimental influences of unqualified self-proclaimed “Muslim thinkers,” but he remained optimistic about the potential for tremendous intellectual contributions.

One sign of American Muslims’ growing presence in the United States has been the rapid growth of Muslim civil society, characterized by a dramatic increase in the number of mosques, social and political organizations, and Islamic schools. Ihsan Bagby, co-author of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ study The Mosque in America, described American mosques as still in a formative stage. Mosques elsewhere in the world are simply places to pray. They are viewed as the property of God rather than a group of people, so Muslims do not “belong” to a particular mosque. In response to the distinctive American environment, including the influence of other religious institutions and the role of African-American Islam, mosques in this country are coming to function more as congregations, with members demanding power, but they do not yet think of themselves as such and the congregations’ financial contributions are still limited. Mosque leadership, including but not limited to imams, is gradually professionalizing, although only 1/3 of the roughly 2,000 U.S. mosques have a paid full-time imam.

Mohamed Nimer research director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations described how Muslim-American social organizations, originally born out of the Islamic requirement for alms-giving, have become functionally specialized as their numbers have grown, and how Muslims’ recent political crises have led to a growing network of political organizations. Nimer faulted the organizations for not having reached their logical grassroots constituencies, in spite of the fact that the elections of the last decade of the twentieth century demonstrated Muslims’ eagerness to become engaged in the political process. Both Bagby and Nimer discussed the rift between the institutions of African-American Muslims and those of immigrant Muslims. Zakiyyah Muhammad, principal of an Islamic primary/secondary school in California, noted that the same schism exists in the Islamic school system. “The landscape of Islamic education,” she commented, “resembles that of the U.S. before Brown vs. Board of Education: separate but unequal.” She added that only about 4 percent of U.S. Muslim children attend Islamic schools; the remainder are in public or non-Muslim private schools.

Muslims in the United States have a complicated relationship with American society, but they also are in a unique position vis-à-vis the rest of the Muslim world. Osman Bakar, from the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, followed up on Nasr’s luncheon address by noting the profound influence of “the most western wing of Islam”--American Muslim scholars such as Nasr--on intellectual activity in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia – “the most eastern wing of Islam.” English is increasingly important in the Islamic scholarly world, and both the language itself and the large number of students from Muslim countries studying in the United States and other English-speaking countries make the ideas of U.S. scholars accessible abroad.



The condition of Muslim women in the United States may hold particular lessons for Muslim women abroad, as Amina Wadud, of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University noted, though not strictly positive ones. In fact, though American Muslim women benefit from the relative liberalization of shariah law in this country, they also suffer disadvantages: in the U.S., Islamic law mechanisms that ensure women’s support if a marriage fails are not enforced, but Islamic women are reluctant to utilize the more gender-inclusive American legal system. Although there have always been both men and women in Islam, men have been and remain the predominant articulators of Islam; Muslim women, both in the U.S. and abroad, are still identified in terms of their relationships to men. While the discipline of Muslim women’s studies has emerged in the U.S., it remains in its infancy, and Muslim women’s organizations concentrate on local social welfare concerns rather than empowerment. She urged the creation of a national umbrella Muslim women’s organization.

Shifting perspectives, Scott Keeter presented the Pew Forum’s findings on how the American non-Muslim public views both Muslim Americans and Islam worldwide. The good news, he reported, is that Americans “responded to the [9/11] terrorist attacks with surprising equanimity, for the most part making important and subtle distinctions in its evaluations of Muslims.” His research yielded cautionary notes as well, however; for example, the public felt less favorably about Islam in general and Muslims in the world than they did about their American-Muslim neighbors.

Conference attendees came from a wide variety of organizations, locations, and backgrounds and included representatives from the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, State, Justice, and Agriculture, the House Judiciary Committee, USAID; officials from several embassies; many Muslim or Middle East-related organizations and other nonprofit organizations; media outlets; and several universities. Keeter reported that while younger people and those with higher levels of education have more positive attitudes toward Muslims, 65 percent of Americans still say they have little knowledge of Islam. Conference participants expressed hope that conferences such as this one might help change that situation.


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