American Islam Could Be a Model

By Eboo Patel

In Hanif Kureishi’s My Son the Fanatic, a secularized Muslim immigrant in England watches in horror as his son drops out of college, throws away his jazz albums, and ends his engagement to the daughter of the town’s police chief be-cause of a newfound commitment to fundamentalist Islam. “Have a beer,” Parvez implores his son at dinner. But Farid is thirsty for the “faith, purity, and connection to the past” that he finds at the feet of a radical Muslim cleric from Pakistan, who takes up residence in Parvez’s house, banishes his wife to the kitchen, and incites a group of young Muslims to stone the town’s prostitutes.

Kureishi’s story—a screenplay made into a 1998 film—is fiction. But just because it did not happen does not mean it has no truth. Indeed, there seems to be something of a pattern emerging in Europe—young Muslims who find a sense of violent purpose in radical Islam. Richard Reid, Muhammad Atta, and the murderer of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh are high-profile examples, and many say they are only the tip of the iceberg.

Is Europe providing a preview to religious dynamics in this country?

I am an American Muslim who lived and studied in Europe between 1998 and 2001. My doctorate at Oxford University was in the sociology of religion with particular attention to the acculturation of Muslims in Western societies. Based on personal experience and academic research, I can assure you that Islam in Europe and Islam in America are strikingly different.

First, Europe and the United States have very different Muslim populations. The Muslims who immigrated to Europe were overwhelmingly poor and uneducated, and came with insular understandings of Islam they brought from rural areas in Turkey, Pakistan, and North Africa. Many immigrated to industrial cities in Europe to work in factories. They lived in segregated squalor and found themselves the target of an angry European working class who feared their jobs were at risk. When the factories closed, the segregation and discrimination continued.

In contrast, due to provisions in the 1965 Immigration Act, the Muslims who came to the United States were by and large middle class, well educated, and prepared to become contributing members of a diverse, post-industrial society. Many are doctors and engineers, live in the suburbs, and work hard to send their children to universities such as Harvard and Stanford.

Second, the Muslim immigration to European countries has a distinct ethnic-national dimension. The Muslim population in Britain is largely South Asian, in Germany it is Turkish, and in France it is North African and Arab. This combination of religious, ethnic, and national difference further encourages Muslims in European countries to isolate themselves from the mainstream of European life.

A mosaic of the Muslim world lives in the United States: Sunni and Shi‘a; Sufi and Salafi; African, South Asian and Arab. Moreover, upward of one-third of American Muslims are African American con-verts, a group not only well assimilated into American life but at the vanguard of important social, political, and cultural movements. The lines between ethnic and national groups within American Islam are breaking down every day. The younger generation is learning that being Muslim means finding shared values with other Muslims who might have different skin colors, languages, and prayer rituals. Discovering shared values amid diversity is good practice for being American, too.

Third, Europe and America are very different contexts for religious minorities. Europe is rabidly secular, with only a fraction of its population claiming itself religious and barely any references to religious matters in public life. Many Europeans look upon religious people as if they were aliens.

Even if there is significant prejudice against Islam in America, the general atmosphere here is much more conducive to religiosity than in Europe.

The United States is the most religious country in the West and our public life is replete with references to God. Even if there is significant prejudice against Islam in America, as recent studies have shown, the general atmosphere is much more conducive to religiosity here than in Europe. Whatever evangelical Christians might think of Islam, they have a visceral respect for prayer and religious custom.

Fourth, America understands itself as a nation of immigrants and is far more accustomed to assimilating newcomers than Europe. The identity of European nations is at least partly based on ethnicity—France for the French, Spain for the Spanish—and strong anti-immigrant movements have taken root in much of the continent. These sentiments further alienate immigrant Muslim populations, fueling anti-social behavior.

The United States has long viewed itself as being defined by political ideals rather than a particular ethnicity. We consider it a matter of national pride to welcome new-comers and are more open to having them shape our national identity than any other country on earth. In fact, the American story is largely about religious groups—various Protestants in the colonial era, Catholics and Jews in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—who were persecuted in Europe and came to make a life in the United States.

The Muslim community in America is young, but increasingly aware of its potential. In his recent book, What’s Right With Islam (HarperSanFrancisco), Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf notes that American Catholicism and American Judaism had a significant influence on their respective global religious communities in the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, American Islam will do the same.

Eboo Patel is the Executive Director  of the Interfaith Youth Core and an Adjunct Professor at Chicago Theological Seminary.

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