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Muslims on the Americanization Path
Book Review
Amy J. Johnson

Authors: Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and John L. Esposito. Publishers: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Pages: 361.

Taking as its starting point the fact that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States, a religion that will soon replace Judaism, the second largest religion of the country, this volume examines such issues as Islamic identity, anti-discrimination laws, African-American Islam, Islam in the American press, mosque design, economic security, Islamic legal views on Muslims minorities, and female conversion. These issues are all part, as John L. Esposito notes in his ‘introduction’, of a central question faced by Muslims in the United States: ‘Will they remain Muslims in America or become American Muslims? ’ (p. 3); in other words, to what extent will Muslims become integrated into American society, and what are the potential costs of such integration?

The first section of the book addresses what the editors term the ‘American path option’. YvonneYazbeck Haddad examines the diversity within the American Muslim community, arguing that the stereotypes of Islam and hostility to Islam and Muslims in the United States creates a climate where Muslims in the US often feel powerless and alienated. Various solutions have been formulated by different Muslim communities to remedy this situation. Some immigrant leaders urge Muslim immigrants to return to their countries of origin and establish Islamic governments there; some religious leaders urge the establishment of stronger Islamic communities within the US that can take constructive action to address stereotypes of Muslims; and many African American Muslim communities have become active in promoting programmes to address the problems of the inner cities. Haddad also touches on an issue that is addressed in several other articles in the collection – the diversity of Islamic thought and practice in the US and, in particular, the differences between the African-American Muslim communities and immigrant Muslim communities.

Khaled Abu al-Fadl continues the discussion of Muslim minorities in the US by examining how the Islamic law treats Muslim minorities. The author points out that while traditional legal scholarship urges Muslims to reside in Muslim majority areas, it also concedes that Muslims may live in non-Muslim majority lands so long as they are able to fulfill their religious obligations. Muslim minority communities often find themselves facing difficult issues regarding how they should live. Questions such as the advisability of voting, whether state or religious law is binding, whether or not a Muslim should fight to defend non-Muslim states/societies, and whether and to what extent Muslims should participate in the community life of a non-Muslim community are all issues that Muslim minorities have had to deal with. Abu al-Fadl notes that while reformers have been calling for a reinterpretation of Islamic law that would enable the Muslims to deal with such issues, the majority of the ‘ulamā’ continue to emphasize the traditional view and argue that Muslims are required to abide by the teaching of classical Islam.

Yusuf Talal De Lorenzo expands on this issue in the next article. De Lorenzo takes the Fiqh Council of North America as an example of the reformist trend mentioned by Abu al-Fadl. Some North American Muslims have argued that only religious scholars living in North America are qualified to interpret Islamic law for the Muslim minority communities there (because they know and understand the issues Muslim minorities face); the Council was formed in order to respond to the legal question of Muslims in North America.

The final article in this section, written by Mohammad A. Muqtedar Khan, addresses the related issue of identity politics in the United States. Picking up on the theme of diversity within the American Muslim community, Khan argues that division within the Muslim community is often a stumbling block to interaction and cooperation among those of the same faith. Khan’s study concludes that divisions are most evident among Muslim immigrants, who tend to become more involved in political issues in the US than they had been at home; in contrast, Khan sees US-born Muslims as being more open and tolerant and less sectarian. While Khan points out that such divisions have detrimental effects on the Muslim community in the US (lack of large contributions to Muslim organizations, failure to elucidate unified goals and strategies, etc.), he also notes that despite such diversity and conflict, there are several issues on which Muslims in the US have common or similar views, for example, international Muslim politics, the hypocrisy of US foreign policy, and negative media portrayals of Muslims.

The next section takes up the question of the veil and female conversion to Islam. Kathleen Moore’s article on religious discrimination and employment law in the US begins this section. Moore argues that contrary to the commonly held notion that constitutional law has been developed to ensure that minority religious communities are more accepted and tolerated in American society, recent appellate rulings show a disturbing trend towards conservative interpretations of religious freedom. These recent decisions emphasize state interest, often at the expense of religious liberty. Discussing at length a Pennsylvania case involving a school teacher who wore the Hijāb, Moore concludes: ‘American constitutional law as presently constructed is incapable of solving the problem of the observant Muslim who wears the veil in a secular state.’ (p. 9). Esmail Shakeri continues the discussion in the next chapter. Shakeri examines the Canadian debate on the Hijāb, using as a case study a Montreal school board decision to ban the wearing of the Hijāb in schools. For Shakeri, the disturbing issue in the Canadian context went deeper than a conservative interpretation of religious liberty; instead, the crux of the problem was that the debate on the legality of the school board decision was not framed in terms of religious liberty at all. Rather, the discussion was centred on what the Hijāb represented to its opponents.

Carol Amway’s article addresses the broader issue of female conversion to Islam in North America. The author studied American and Canadian female converts and examined their reasons for conversion, their family backgrounds, and the impact of their conversions on themselves and their families. Amway concludes that as a group, these converts do not see a contradiction between Islam and American values; on the contrary, they tend to see similarities in the types of values emphasized by their religion, Islam, and their American culture, for example, family, community, education, and discipline.

The third section addresses the diversity of the African-American Muslim experience. Ernest Allen’s work compares the formative views of the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam. While concluding that the two have theological differences, Allen argues that the organizing principles of both were similar. Both sought to address the question of why African-Americans suffered and both sought to formulate a system of belief and practice that emphasized dual spiritual and material progress, family life, individual responsibility, hard work, and frugality in order to provide mechanisms for ending that suffering. Yusuf Nuruddin continues to address the question of African-American Muslim identity, arguing that this three-fold heritage (African, American, and Muslim) can be both a force for conflict. Replete with extensive endnotes, Nuruddin’s article is an impressive examination of the progression of the African-American and African American Islamic movements (from black nationalism and black separatism to radical Islamic separatism, to assimilation movements, to Farrakhan’s reassertion of the separatist legacy of the Nation of Islam and movement towards more traditional Islam). The author concludes that the tension between racial identity and Islamic universalism must be addressed through organization, combining resources, and pooling talents. Robert Dannin’s piece on the multi-ethnic dilemma of American Muslims complete this section of the work. Taking as his starting point the diversity in local mosques and the diversity in the African-American Muslim reaction to the Gulf War, Dannin, like Nuruddin, concludes that there is considerable conflict between race/ethnicity and Islam within local communities. Dannin points to ‘endless crises of identity’ among African-American Muslims (p. 266) and concludes by arguing that transcending the barriers of race and ethnicity is ‘the greatest challenge facing American Muslims in the next century’ (p. 279).

The final section of the book discusses the difficulties of preserving cultural heritage and adapting to American life. Greg Noakes addresses the persistent problem of negative coverage of Islam and anti-Muslim stereotypes in the American media. Identifying the reasons for such unfavourable press coverage (e.g. sensationalism, advertising revenue, domestic lobbies, ideological bias of the ‘experts’), Noakes agrees that while some problems are difficult to be solved, based as they are in centuries of cultural and political mistrust, others can be effectively remedied. Noakes urges American Muslims both to take constructive action and to recognize that negative coverage of Islam may continue so long as violent acts are carried out in the name of the religion. Elise Goldwasser’s article on the Muslims community in Durham, North Carolina, is a fascinating case study of the relationship between economic position and cultural identity. Goldwasser contrasts the Eritrean community with a broader, more prosperous Muslim community and argues that because Eritrean immigrants in Durham are characterized by low economic status, little marketable skill, and limited English language proficiency, they tend to assimilate more to American culture. In contrast, the more prosperous Muslim community tends to assimilate less to American culture, preserving instead its Islamic identity. Goldwasser contends that in this case, preservation of an Islamic identity is a luxury affordable only to the prosperous. In the final chapter of the book, Omar Khalidi examines the history of immigrant mosque building in the United States. Complete with numerous photographs of different mosque styles, Khalidi’s article wrestles with the issue of the feasibility of applying traditional Middle Eastern/Islamic architectural patterns in American neighbourhoods. After discussing mosque design in several states, Khalidi concludes that traditional architectural designs reinforce a view of Islam as a static, unchangeable religion; he urges mosque designers to build centre of worship that not only fulfill Islamic requirements but also reinterpret traditions to meet the requirement of a new environment.

This volume thus provides the reader with a smorgasbord of food for thought. While a final chapter, typing these issues together and offering concluding remarks, would have been most welcome, the work nonetheless is extremely valuable to those interested in the tensions between religious and cultural identity. The recurring themes of the word (diversity within the Muslim community, intra-faith religious and political tensions, and adaptation to North American societies and vice versa) allow the reader to make connections between articles. While one might not initially see a link between a Canadian school board decision, for instance, and mosque architecture, the authors are able to use case studies such as these effectively to illustrate the broader themes of the volume as a whole.


Courtesy: Islamic Studies, Spring 2001


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