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Muslims In America

Posted by CGB on December 7, 2009

The Muslim American Experience

Considering I was probably eleven or twelve at the time, I can’t guarantee what I’m about to state is true, only that it was my experience. But, prior to 9/11 (seemingly the focal point of any discussion on Islam in America) I hadn’t remembered ever having heard (or only very very rarely) about the Muslim American experience. One study I read suggests that it was the intense scrutiny on Muslim American life post-9/11 that led to the realization that there was prejudice, discrimination, and marginalization of Muslim Americans.  In addition, it claims that many of the issues surrounding Muslim-Americans existed prior to 9/11, but to some extent this event gives people an excuse for the rise in prejudice. I thought this was interesting. I think it is hard to doubt that 9/11 added to racism in this country, but this study claims there are limited studies of Muslim-American experience before.

However, in the post-9/11 world, what is the experience of the Muslim American? Author Louise Cainkar describes it in her book Homeland Insecurity, (I have only read an excerpt). Cainkar describes that Muslims and particularly Arab Muslim Americans came under severe scrutiny directly after 9/11, some having even been arrested and detained illegally. She also emphasizes the point that there was no link found between American Muslims and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, she states, even U.S.-born Muslims were seen as suspicious possible terrorists, and this view was encouraged by racial profiling.

Cainkar conducted several research studies and interviews to determine exactly what the American experience was for a Muslim post 9/11. She found that Arab Muslims seemed to be frequently harassed, Muslim women in hijabs were depicted as oppressed, and headscarves were seen as “un-American” (whatever that means). But despite all this, Muslims continued to feel hopeful about their futures in America.

Cainkar wrote that most of the Muslims she studied expressed a desire to educate both themselves and non-Muslims about their religion, hoping to reinforce their own convictions of moderation in the face of extremism, and perhaps to clear up many misunderstanding about what they perceived as a religion fundamentally concerned with peace.

Cainkar’s excerpt on misunderstandings actually reminds me of a mildly disturbing encounter I had with someone once, recently after 9/11. I remember I was talking to someone about traveling, telling them all the places I’d love to go. This person then informed me they were eager to go to Afghanistan. I jumped right in, Yes, I too would love to go to Afghanistan, I said excitedly, remembering a recent essay I had read by an American author recounting her memories of a trip through the Middle East. Of course, I was imagining the history, and just generally the strangeness of the place. I knew it would be a long time before I could ever actually go there, but I had a fascination with somewhere so different from where I lived (i.e. what I refer to as ‘the middle of nowhere important and everywhere ordinary, New York’).

Of course this isn’t what he had in mind when he said he couldn’t wait to go to Afghanistan. I soon found this out, and after a brief and angry argument over the moral ‘rightness’ of killing and the ‘meaning’ of racism we irritably went our separate ways. I was somewhat shocked; as this was a person I had known for some time and generally considered to be reasonable and fair, by this seemingly sudden turn in their personality towards anger and hatred.

Anyway, that was about seven years ago, a recent interview with Gowher Rizvi of the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation, discusses more recent Muslim-American experiences. He finds that though Sept. 11th and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did lead to a negative perception of Muslim Americans, and this problem does remain to a certain extent, generally most non-Muslim Americans have a much better perception of Islam than they did seven or eight years ago.

Rizvi finds, though, that there are still issues with the integration of Muslim Americans into mainstream culture. One difference between Muslims and past immigrant groups that have integrated into the melting pot of America is that for the most part they are portrayed as monolithic, a homogenous single community. This is untrue-especially in America, where the Muslim population comprises refugees and immigrants from all over the world, as well as American citizens.  The diversity of Islam has frequently been ignored, making it difficult to understand its true nature.In addition, past immigrant groups (Irish, Italians, Japanese) have not had to deal with a racial and a religious identity in the way the Muslims have.

Despite these difficulties though, Rizvi finds that compared to European countries, Muslims are much more integrated in the U.S. America is by no means perfect, but in France and Britain there is immiense marginalization and an extreme lack of assimilation. Less access to employment, and discrimination in other opportunities have led to “home-grown” terrorists, something Rizvi feels America has had less of.

However, he notes that America will need to begin adapting better to political pluralism. Government needs to be better able to represent the needs of minority groups. Muslims are very much underrepresented in government. In addition, Rizvi notes that Muslim society is not adequately understood, something he attributes to faults in University and College programs (Note: Marist’s lack of classes and opportunities for any Eastern studies is seriously depressing, and sadly, a majority–with the exception perhaps of maybe five students 😉  don’t seem to notice!)

However, education and better representation seem to be the only viable options for ensuring prejudice and discrimination do not alienate somewhere around 2.5 million members of America’s population (as the census bureau doesn’t collect religious data, this is a rough estimate).


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Early History of Muslims in America

Posted by CGB on September 12, 2009

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Early History of Muslims in America

Posted by CGB on September 11, 2009

Early History: Early evidence of Islam in America
Opinions differ on when the first Muslims came to America (or rather what would eventually become America), some say that as early as the 14th century Senegambia Muslims came from Africa to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. It is believed that they were Moors who had been expelled from Spain. And though it is certain that Muslims have been coming to the U.S. since at least the 16th century, they did not become a prominent presence until African slavery took hold. It is believed that ten to fifteen percent (millions) of African slaves were Muslim. However many of these Muslim roots were lost due to the enforced conversions to Christianity. Despite this, some historians suggest that many slaves continued to practice Islam in secret.
Though the first big wave of Muslims into the United States came in the 1990’s, I want to start off looking at some of the history of the first Muslim people recorded as being in the country. Here are just some bios.
Al-Idrisi – a Portuguese Muslim who wrote the travel guide “The Sea of Tears”, which detailed the voyage of eighty explorers from Lisbon who sailed to the New World in the 12th century. Columbus used this document when “discovering” the New World.
Istafan-In the early 16th century Istanfan traveled as a guide for the Spanish throughout Arizona and New Mexico. Many credit Istafan as being one of the first Muslim Moors in America. It is believed that he died in New Mexico in 1539.
Ayub Sulaiman ibn Diallo- a Bundu prince who was fluent in Arabic, and had a wide range of knowledge of Qur’anic knowledge. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the U.S. where he remained for many years until in 1730 he was ransomed by his father. At this point he went to England and acted as a go between for England and Bundu.
Yorro Mahmud-Sold into slavery in the 1720’s, he struggled to gain his freedom (he even owned land in Georgetown). He finally received his freedom in 1796. There is some discrepancy as to how old he was, but it is possible that at the time he was freed he could have been over ninety years old.
Abdur Rahman- African Muslim taken as a save to America in the 19th century. As a Fula prince, he had many Americans connected to his family who struggled to help him achieve freedom. After his daughter was sold in 1826, Abdur requested the Sultan of Morocco intervene. He contacted the president who arranged his ransom and freedom. After forty years as a slave he was finally able to return to Africa. However, though he and his wife were freed many other members of his family (including his daughter) were left behind. He died shortly after his return.
Bilali Muhammad- He wrote the only existing book of Islamic law from America he also contributed multiple terms to a dialect of English, and passed down his Muslim beliefs to his children and grandchildren.

This covers many of the better known historical Muslim figures of 16th-19th centuries. More info of the 20th and 21st centuries to come. For more information check out these sites (where most of my info came from):

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