Politics

Religious Protection

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In September, the world watched the ringleader of the July 7 London terrorist attack, his voice inflected with a West Yorkshire accent, preach jihad in English. Al Jazeera aired the communiqu? of 30-year-old Mohammad Sidique Khan, which Khan recorded to explain why he helped murder over 50 of his fellow Britons on a bus and in the Underground. "Until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment, and torture of my people, we will not stop this fight," Khan declared. "We are at war. I am a soldier. And now, you, too, will taste the reality of this situation." When Khan spoke of "my people," he wasn't talking about his British countrymen. Rather, he was referring to the members of a global Islamic community, which he, like Osama bin Laden, believes is under siege by the rapacious Western world. The tape was all the more shocking because Khan was known in his Leeds hometown for mentoring neighborhood children at Hillside Primary School, which caters to a large number of immigrants. In a nightmare scenario for Great Britain--and for the West more generally--the man who helped foreign-born children assimilate into the fabric of British society had also resolved to rip it apart.

The significance of the London bombing is impossible to overstate. Although debate still rages over the degree to which Al Qaeda's increasingly disassociated leadership orchestrated the attack, the fact remains that the broader jihadist movement was able to draw upon radicalized Muslim citizens of a Western country, who then acted with relative autonomy. By contrast, the September 11 attacks required the insertion into the United States of foreign operatives, traveling on visas, whom bin Laden and his lieutenants directed and funded. If Al Qaeda can increasingly rely on "self-activated" terrorists like the London bombers, the implications for the West, and for Muslim citizens of Western countries, are profound and foreboding. "The fact that these young men were British-born Muslims creates a degree of a different kind of anxiety within the [U.S. Muslim] community," Edina Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council told Agence France-Presse. "If this could happen in the U.K., it is our worst nightmare that it could happen here."

Around the same time that Khan's video aired, a potential harbinger of Lekovic's nightmare surfaced. On September 11, 2005, the fourth anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington, ABC News broadcast a videotaped threat by an Al Qaeda jihadist known as Azzam the American. With his head turbaned and his face veiled, Azzam, like Khan, spoke in English. He vowed that, unless Westerners "rid yourself of your current leaders and governments and their anti-Islam, anti-Muslim policies," there would be a terrible reckoning: "Yesterday, London and Madrid. Tomorrow, Los Angeles and Melbourne, God willing." Azzam's message is not the only recent incident raising the specter of domestically produced jihadist violence. Shortly before its broadcast, the Justice Department indicted three American citizens and a Pakistani immigrant for hatching a plot in a California prison to attack nearby U.S. military, Israeli, and Jewish community targets. "We have a tendency to think of terrorism as something that is foreign," U.S. Attorney Debra W. Yang told reporters. "This is a stark reminder that it can be homegrown."

But the British and American cases are not the same. It's true that extremist messages exist in American Muslim communities, and there have been a few instances of American Muslims becoming terrorists. Those extremely rare cases, however, are far better explained by individual pathology than by rising Islamic militancy due to group disaffection. Europe's growing Muslim culture of alienation, marginalization, and jihad isn't taking root here. As a result, one senior administration official contends, "Al Qaeda finds greater support among European Muslim communities than in the U.S."--meaning that the self-activated jihadists that Europe is witnessing are less likely to appear in America. In part, the United States is protected because it offers better social and economic opportunities to its Muslim citizens, while Europe's inability to accommodate its growing Muslim underclass led to rioting that spread from the Paris suburbs across France. But economics alone can't explain the more fluid integration of Muslims into American life. That, in large part, is a function of America's ability to accommodate Islam itself.

French political theorist Olivier Roy argues that jihadism stems from a violent identity crisis felt acutely among Muslims in the West. But, ironically, that search for identity is far less of a crisis for Muslims in the United States--the supposed oppressor of Muslims, in bin Laden's telling--because of a fundamentally American attribute: the mutually reinforcing creeds of pluralism and religiosity. "When I go out to Bush Country," says Eboo Patel of Chicago's Interfaith Youth Core, "it is true that, for some people, the way I pray is peculiar. But they don't think I'm hallucinating when I say, 'It's prayer time.'" In other words, if the United States is looking for a way to win the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide, it ought to first look at what it has accomplished at home.

Haitham "Danny" Bundakji had no idea who Azzam the American was until the California Muslim community leader's phone started to ring late last year. Reporters had tracked Bundakji to a hotel room in Jerusalem, where he was staying during a trip to the Holy Land. Suddenly, he was being asked to explain the psyche of a terrorist. His confusion quickly gave way to a horrible realization: Not only did Bundakji know this man called Azzam, he had ministered to him, even witnessing his conversion to Islam in the mid-'90s. "I'm so regretful," Bundakji says from his Orange County home, "that I didn't get to him first." But some believe that Bundakji, in some measure, did get to Azzam first. The questions put to him in Jerusalem were a prelude to a more incendiary accusation: that Bundakji was at least partially responsible for the creation of an American jihadist. The broader implication is that American Muslim leaders might well be incubating new terrorists, in the manner of London's notorious Finsbury Park Mosque or Maaseik, a tiny Flemish town Belgian investigators believe has become a hotbed of jihadism.

Azzam the American was born Adam Gadahn in 1978. He spent his childhood on a goat ranch in Riverside County, raised by non-Muslim parents who were far more influenced by the 1960s than by the Koran. By the mid-'90s, Gadahn was a pudgy, long-haired, occasional community college student who found Islam after an adolescent foray into the local death-metal music scene. Bundakji, the vice chairman of the Islamic Society of Orange County, witnessed his conversion and hired him as a mosque security guard. The two initially enjoyed a warm relationship. "But then a change took place," Bundakji recalls. Gadahn started spending more and more time with a group of Pakistani nationals who were "fundamentalists" and who were "criticizing us all the time, especially my affiliation with the interfaith community." A flyer circulated around the center giving Bundakji a noxious nickname: Danny the Jew.

Bundakji subsequently banned the fundamentalists from his mosque. Gadahn was infuriated. "Adam came charging into my office," Bundakji remembers. "I've never experienced someone who got physical, but he slapped me across my face. I didn't respond. He was very angry, saying we're not true Muslims [at the mosque]." Gadahn returned to pray only once more. According to his aunt, Nancy Pearlman, he traveled to Pakistan in 1998, only sporadically contacting his family thereafter. He had become nothing more than a bad memory for Bundakji until the reporters began calling last year, after the Justice Department announced its interest in the man now known as Azzam the American.

Although the FBI is seeking information on Gadahn--who is still at large--it has never shown any interest in Bundakji. Yet he recently found his mosque in a report that reflects persistent fears among Americans that extremist tendencies lurk within their Muslim neighbors. Earlier this year, Freedom House released a study titled "Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Invade American Mosques," documenting the appearance of Saudi-funded literature in the libraries and textbooks of over a dozen major American mosques--including Bundakji's. The report attracted considerable attention--its findings were presented to a Senate panel last month--in large part because there haven't been many studies of what is taught in American mosques. And what Freedom House found was striking: The Saudi texts instruct Muslims to maintain a "wall of resentment" between believers and their Christian, Jewish, and even Shia compatriots. One booklet, distributed by the Saudi Embassy in Washington, warns ominously that embracing non-Muslims brings the specter of apostasy: "He who casts doubts about their infidelity leaves no doubt about his own infidelity."

Freedom House's report doesn't draw any explicit conclusions about Muslim extremism in the United States, and it emphasizes that it doesn't seek to stigmatize law-abiding Muslim citizens. But, according to Nina Shea, the report's director, imams in the mosques where the Saudi literature appears bear at least some blame for its presence, and she clearly fears its effect. "These mosque leaders have a responsibility to screen this literature and to set their congregants on the right path," Shea says. "The imam was saying, 'Gee, this kid [Gadahn] became radicalized from a study group in my mosque, then he calls me Danny the Jew.' I agree with the mosque leadership. We're not saying they're bad. They were turned on by the radicals in the mosque. But they should get rid of this stuff and replace it with materials teaching pluralism and toleration."

For Bundakji, who was physically assaulted by a future member of Al Qaeda, the idea that he might be in some measure responsible for the creation of a terrorist is perverse. "For many years, I've condemned terrorism and I say why it's against Islam," he says, as most American imams do. Indeed, at least one researcher doesn't think the Freedom House report illustrates trends within American Muslim communities. "I don't know what the Freedom House thing proves," says Peter Skerry, a Boston College political scientist currently studying American Muslims for a forthcoming book. "You can find evidence for lots of things. I grew up in Boston in the Catholic Church, and I'm sure that among the books in the parish library were any number of things that were offensive to people." Gulam Bakali of the Islamic Association of North Texas, one of the mosques cited in the report, challenged Freedom House's inferences at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month. "Our mosque has neither been 'filled' or 'invaded' by the literature alluded to in the referenced report," Bakali told the panel. "Our library functions as a central storage and collection area for literature in the Southwest U.S. for academic research."

There's no doubt that, as Patel puts it, "extreme messages are out there." Earlier this year, for example, Ali Al Timimi, who lectured at the Dar Al Arqam Mosque in the Washington suburb of Falls Church, Virginia, was sentenced to life in prison for urging a group of congregants after September 11 to travel to Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces alongside the Taliban. Though hard evidence is difficult to come by, extremist-linked organizations, especially from Saudi Arabia, have poured money into U.S. mosques and Islamic cultural centers for years. Ever more virulent jihadist messages are accessible to any American Muslim with an Internet connection. Yet, from Skerry's perspective, the appropriate--if elusive--metric isn't the prevalence of such messages, but "the level of tolerance Muslims at a given mosque have, even at this point in time, for extremist statements." And Skerry's research indicates that there isn't much. "You don't see much--though you do see some--evidence of a kind of second- and third-generation Muslim Americans especially 'reclaiming' Islam, becoming preoccupied with issues in the Mideast, and criticizing America," he says. (The little evidence that Skerry does see, he explains, is the occasional diatribe by college students against American imperialism or Israel policy--the sort that left-wing students of any ethnic or religious background typically make. "I wouldn't ignore it, but I also wouldn't make too much of it," he says.)

Indeed, given the availability of extremist messages to American Muslims--who live in the country that's supposedly the premier enemy of Islam--it's startling how few American Muslim extremists there actually are. The Justice Department's record on counterterrorism post-September 11 suggests little appetite among American Muslims for the jihadist agenda. Though, in June, President Bush boasted of investigating more than 400 terrorism suspects and winning convictions of "more than half of those charged," an analysis by The Washington Post found that only 39 of the convictions could be considered at all terrorism-related, and only 14 of those prosecuted had links to Al Qaeda.

Some of the most publicized cases have been of questionable merit--or involve non-Americans. A much-touted arrest and trial of a Detroit "cell" featured so much prosecutorial misconduct that a grand jury may indict the U.S. attorney on the case. Uzair Paracha, convicted last week in New York of trying to help an Al Qaeda operative enter the country, isn't American, but Pakistani. Also last week, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, of Virginia, was convicted of conspiring to kill Bush. Yet the prosecution's case rested entirely on a confession--which Abu Ali claims was coerced--delivered during his 20 months in a Saudi prison, and he was charged only after a judge ordered the government to disclose its involvement in his extralegal overseas detention. And, even if Abu Ali is indeed a jihadist, a senior Bush administration official cautions that such cases hardly indicate "a trend" among a given American Muslim population.

What's more, despite intimations that Islamic preaching in the United States is breeding terrorism, evidence suggests that the few Americans who picked up jihadism in the United States were primed for violence by psychological disturbance or past criminal activity--not the call of an imam. Far from being brainwashed by anything at the Islamic Society of Orange County, Gadahn apparently harbored significant personal demons. Jon Konrath, a friendly acquaintance of Gadahn's from his metal years, considered him somewhat disgruntled. "He was into the 'sick' sort of horror-slasher death metal, like Cannibal Corpse," Konrath remembers. "So he was anti-social in the sort of Evil Dead-fan way, but nothing specific about America." In 1995, Gadahn posted an account online of his conversion to Islam that drips with self-loathing: "I eschewed personal cleanliness and let my room reach an unbelievable state of disarray. … I am sorry even as I write this." Jose Padilla--whom the government termed the "dirty bomber" during his three years of extralegal detention (only to bring far less serious charges against him and four foreign Muslims last week)--was a violent gang member in his youth, and, like Gadahn, his adopted faith apparently provided him not comfort but an excuse to channel his old tendencies in a new direction. John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" captured in Afghanistan shortly after the 2001 invasion, was an overprivileged teenager whose romantic view of militants led him to a bin Laden training camp. And, while it remains unclear whether the recent allegations against the California Muslim prison converts are substantial, convicted felons are, by definition, far outside the social mainstream.

Indeed, counterterrorism experts are taking notice of the relative absence of American Muslims in the global jihadist movement. In a September talk, former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke observed, "Al Qaeda's usual strategy is … to rely on indigenous populations, and maybe bring in a few operatives, but that indigenous population may not be here in the numbers necessary." (Considering that September 11 was executed by only 19 men, that's quite a statement about millions of American Muslims.) Some in the Bush administration concur. "An Al Qaeda-like attack--well-coordinated, in sequence, causing significant casualties--is less likely to come from a native American Muslim population," says the senior official. "Countervailing factors make it less likely for sleeper cells to germinate among the native American Muslim population." Those factors, according to the official, are fundamental: "It's the American dream. American Muslims are living that dream." Even that may be an understatement. For a variety of reasons, the United States has successfully created the model for a Western Muslim identity.

The most obvious reasons for that success are social and economic. As the riots in France highlighted, Muslims in Europe face severe levels of unemployment, few professional prospects, and social isolation. When Eboo Patel studied at Oxford University in the late '90s, his American youth had left him thoroughly unprepared for what Muslims like himself had to endure in Britain. The economic options for his co-religionists were largely limited to working at "the fish and chips store, where racist insults were thrown at them by drunks on Friday nights." It was an alien experience: "In America, my dad would go off to a corporate office for his job, and my mom was in advertising." Patel's shock is as illuminating as it should be unsurprising. Since Muslims began coming to the United States in appreciable numbers after the immigration reforms of 1965--around the same time that an African American Muslim community began to flourish--they have found a socially and economically hospitable environment.

It's difficult to document trends among American Muslims, since census data do not track religion. Yet, in 2003, John R. Logan, a sociologist now affiliated with Brown University's American Communities Project, used ancestry and place-of-birth information to conduct perhaps the most comprehensive demographic study to date of the American Muslim population. (Accordingly, Logan couldn't track African American Muslims, believed to comprise one-third of all American Muslims.) That population increased by about 85 percent since 1990 and now totals nearly 3 million Americans, though some Muslim organizations claim the figure is too low. Even accepting the blurred edges of his report, Logan found several surprising facts about the American Muslim population: Unlike other recent immigrant groups, and distinctly unlike Muslims in Europe, American Muslims are solidly middle-class and solidly integrated with their non-Muslim neighbors.

American Muslims tend to live in a few population centers, along the coasts and around Midwestern and Southern cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Houston. But, inside those metropolitan areas, enclaves--homogenous population clusters historically favored by recent immigrant groups--are surprisingly few. The ten metropolitan regions with the greatest concentration of Muslims tend to be ethnically integrated. With Detroit as the only exception, in both 1990 and 2000, every neighborhood with notable concentrations of Muslims was at least 60 percent white and only around 5 percent Muslim.

Within those neighborhoods, American Muslims display healthy indications of upward social mobility. The median household income of American Muslims in 2000 was over $52,000, nearly the $53,000 reported by the median white household. Even the poorest households among American Muslim groups, North Africans, earned $40,000 on average in 2000--$6,000 more than blacks. The typical American Muslim in 2000 possessed 14 years of education (more than whites, Latinos, blacks, and Asians); and American Muslims of Middle Eastern descent, who possess the lowest levels of education, still record higher levels of education than whites, blacks, and Latinos. American Muslims are presently living in census tracts where nearly 60 percent of residents own their homes and over 35 percent of residents have college educations. "Overall," writes Logan, "the Muslim-origin population is characterized by high education and income with low unemployment."

An important contribution to Muslims' comfort with the United States comes not only from the diversity of the neighborhoods they live in, but from the diversity of the Muslims themselves within those neighborhoods. While Middle Easterners still constitute a plurality of foreign-origin American Muslims--at 49 percent of the American Muslim population--South Asians represent nearly 23 percent of the total American Muslim population, North Africans nearly 15 percent, and Iranians 13 percent. For Patel, the high levels of internal diversity within Muslim communities coupled with high levels of integration and have allowed American Muslims to avoid the theological and ethnic rigidities that often characterize Muslim discourse in the Middle East and South Asia. "There are no Muslim 'apostates' here," he says. "That's a huge thing."

The contrast with Europe couldn't be sharper. There, Muslim populations are heavily ghettoized, as becomes quickly apparent during a walk through Brussels or Amsterdam. Muslim immigration to Europe, like Mexican immigration to the American Southwest, is motivated chiefly by the pursuit of jobs--often any job, which frequently means menial employment with little prospect for advancement. A recent State Department study found that, in the most Muslim-populous European countries--Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands--the vast majority of Muslims have no access to higher education. Unemployment is disproportionately high: British Pakistani men have almost a 15 percent jobless rate, compared with 5 percent for white men; some French Muslim ghettos record 40 percent unemployment, compared with a national 10 percent. Muslim populations in Europe tend to be as homogenous as American Muslim communities are diverse: In the United Kingdom, most Muslims are South Asian; French and Spanish Muslims are overwhelmingly North African; German Muslims are predominantly Turkish. (Only in the Netherlands is there regional Muslim diversity, with relatively equal numbers of Turks and Moroccans.) Not surprisingly, most respondents told the State Department that they identify more as Muslim than with their European country of residence.

These parlous social and economic conditions persist after several generations of Muslim immigration to Europe and may assist those seeking to foment extremism: Mohammad Sidique Khan, for one, came from a working-class and socially stagnant background--making it significant that economic and social opportunities for American Muslims are vastly greater than those available to their European counterparts. But prosperity, or the lack thereof, can't fully explain receptivity to jihad: Indeed, Marc Sageman, a CIA case officer turned forensic psychiatrist, meticulously documented how most Al Qaeda adherents from Muslim countries come from privileged backgrounds in his groundbreaking book, Understanding Terror Networks. Clearly, the United States is doing something right beyond providing its Muslim citizens with jobs and good neighborhoods. And that something is the uniquely American interplay of religiosity and pluralism.

Most Americans would be horrified by the notion that they live in a country that abides by Islamic law. But some American Muslim leaders contend that U.S. society is harmonious with Koranic injunctions without even trying. "America is positively, unabashedly religious," enthuses Feisal Abdul Rauf, a New York-based imam. In his important 2004 book, titled What's Right With Islam, Abdul Rauf contends that space for religiosity is essentially inseparable from American liberalism, codified in both the U.S. political system and the broader U.S. social compact: "Fully in keeping with the principles of the Abrahamic ethic, American religious pluralism was not merely a historical or political fact; it became, in the mind of the American, the primordial condition of things, a self-evident and essential aspect of the American way of life and therefore in itself an aspect of the American creed." Drawing on hundreds of years of Islamic writings, Abdul Rauf makes the case that, by upholding the five conditions understood by Muslim legal scholars to constitute the good society--life, mental well-being, religion, property, and family--"the American political structure is Shariah compliant."

By contrast, strident secularism and a monocultural definition of integration have characterized cosmopolitan Europe for decades. Europe's weighty history of fratricidal wars, religious conflict, and colonialism have contributed tremendously to its deepening secularism, as has the historical conflict that European rationalism and liberalism experienced with the continent's religious institutions. As a result, European governing classes frequently view public expressions of religion, no matter how subtle or individualized, as subversive political statements. Both France and Turkey have made wearing a headscarf to a public school a punishable offense, to the consternation and confusion of their Muslim populations. One Parisian Muslim interviewed by The New York Times during the riots explained his frustration: "They say integrate, but I don't understand: I'm already French. What more do they want? They want me to drink alcohol?" That sentiment ensures that Ayman Al Zawahiri, bin Laden's lieutenant and chief ideologue, has at least some audience when he tells British Muslims that "British freedom is, in fact, the freedom to be hostile to Islam." For Mohammad Sidique Khan, that message was murderously compelling.

But it doesn't appear compelling to American Muslims. And that's largely because U.S. freedom, even after September 11, is the freedom to be inviting to Islam. For American Muslims, the opportunity for a publicly visible--and, more importantly, normative--expression of religion removes a tremendous source of frustration that exists in both European and Middle Eastern countries. Indeed, according to a recent poll, 96 percent of American Muslims consider Islam an important factor in their daily lives--something that, in a real success for the American social fabric, appears to be a nonissue to their non-Muslim neighbors. "Where's the heart of ISNA?" Patel asks, referring to the Islamic Society of North America. "Plainfield, Indiana! That place hasn't been bombed. It's not in the heart of cosmopolitan America. It's in rural Indiana!"

America's blend of liberalism and religiosity, in other words, has created perhaps the most potent weapon against Al Qaeda conceivable: a resolution to the identity crisis of Western Muslim life that bin Laden preys upon. When Abdul Rauf came to the United States from Egypt 40 years ago, Muslims were a curious unfamiliarity to most Americans, and the impact on his mental health was real. "Myself, I suffered for eight years from an identity crisis--not knowing who I was," he recalls. Back then, "when Muhammad Ali became a Muslim, he was seen as rejecting America." Yet, as Abdul Rauf explored both his faith and his new country, he recognized that reconciliation was not just possible, it was natural. His project now, like that of many other U.S. Muslim organizations, is straightforward: "We're looking to expedite the creation of an American Muslim identity in order to resolve the issues between the U.S. and the Muslim world." What Abdul Rauf means is a public identity seamlessly blending Islam and Americanism and reinforcing both. For Patel, this is the most important front in the war on terrorism. "The battlefield is identity, and the players are young people," he says. "When I first tell people about the Interfaith Youth Core, people say, 'Aw, what a sweet organization.' But there's another guy running a youth organization, and his name is Osama bin Laden."

America has a durable prophylactic to American Muslim radicalization. But the protections of American liberalism and American religiosity are not impenetrable. Obviously, Al Qaeda could once again place operatives in the U.S. homeland. But, more substantially, the greatest danger to the present U.S.-Muslim compact is the increasing suspicion of American Muslims. This suspicion has been fanned by opportunistic politicians like Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney--a 2008 presidential hopeful who, in a September speech, suggested widespread surveillance of U.S. mosques--and by hysterical pop culture offerings like "Sleeper Cell," a Showtime TV thriller premiering this week about a Muslim enemy within. An October 2004 Zogby poll found that a plurality of American Muslims believe "constitutional issues"--a proxy for the Patriot Act and immigration enforcement--are the most important challenge facing their community, with "bias/racism" coming a very close second. (The third, tellingly, was "becoming mainstream.") Post-September 11 suspicion of American Muslims may have been inevitable, but it's also "remarkably insulting and a moral disappointment," says Khaled Abou El Fadl, a law professor at UCLA and a prominent liberal voice among American Muslims. Abou El Fadl is an excellent case in point: He has endured death threats for his supposed Islamic heterodoxies and has helped the FBI create profiles of terrorist cells. But even an unapologetically American and pious Muslim like himself is unable to escape innuendo about his membership in a fifth column: He was termed a "stealth Islamist" by a 2004 Middle East Quarterly article. For some, "it's not enough to prove once or twice your loyalties as an American," he wearily recounts. "There's this constant placement under the microscope that often produces a very distorted image. Someone with a hardly working knowledge of Arabic picks up a few buzzwords in a speech or a text, and then it's, 'Aha! I've got you!'"

Abdul Rauf is as blunt. "If I read something like [Harvard Professor Samuel] Huntington, who posits a clash between the West and Islam, it's very easy for a certain number of individuals to start internalizing that identity." Indeed, at least some already are. Zogby found an astonishingly high proportion--a plurality of 38 percent--of American Muslims believe that Washington is waging a war on Islam, not terrorism. U.S. foreign policy can't be held hostage to threats of domestic terrorism, but policymakers ignore such dissatisfaction at their peril. Indeed, this resentment is especially dangerous given that Logan found that, despite current high levels of integration among American Muslims, segregationist trends are beginning to emerge. "[Muslim] groups are clustering more over time and becoming more separated from whites," he writes. Coupled with the marginal disillusionment observed by Skerry among second- and third-generation American Muslims, the current lack of sensitivity to Islamic concerns could prove disastrous for U.S. national security and American liberalism.

Patel is more optimistic. Given the deportations, the Patriot Act, and the general suspicion that has followed American Muslims in the wake of September 11, it's hard to believe that a Shia Iraqi in Dearborn or a Sunni Pakistani in Brooklyn gained anything from the aftermath of the attacks. But Patel sees a silver lining. "The way most religious communities begin in America is by playing the insulation game, and Muslims were doing the same thing," he says. "But 9/11 killed that. Now, Muslims have to embrace a Muslim-American identity. And it came as a relief to American Muslim leaders." As Patel sees it, before the attacks, Muslims in the United States weren't vocal about either side of their identity in public, content to arouse as little attention as possible. "Now we have to say we're fully part of the American project, declaring ourselves American citizens. … If you notice, with ISNA, their last several conventions have been about how Muslims can contribute to the broader theme of America; 9/11 allowed these elements integration with no apology." In essence, Patel's post-September 11 vision is about Muslims making a virtue out of a climate of fear.

There's nothing predetermined about the contours of an emerging, public American Muslim identity. But, to the great credit and for the mutual benefit of both American Muslims and the United States itself, there exist powerful structural forces, rooted deeply in both U.S. and Islamic history, that portend well. In the wake of the London bombings and the French riots, a great irony of the post-September 11 world is that one of the most urgent requirements of European stability is the emulation of the United States: a place where liberalism and religiosity support a viable and beneficial Western Muslim identity. And perhaps the greatest post-September 11 irony of all is that the comfort many American Muslims feel American life provides for them is best embodied by none other than the hated George W. Bush, for whom basic comfort with deeply held religious beliefs is perhaps the most reliable guide to a person's character. With these ironies in the background, Abdul Rauf promises, "An American Muslim identity is going to happen. No doubt." To which American Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists should say: inshallah.

 

By Spencer Ackerman

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