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American identity and the challenge of Islam

JENNIFER S. BRYSON

From tree-hugging to tree-bombing

In generally quiet Oregon just after Thanksgiving, a teenager espousing a radical, violent Islamist ideology allegedly tried to blow up innocent civilians—men, women, children—gathered to celebrate Portland’s annual holiday tree lighting ceremony.  How in a city more famous for tree-hugging than tree-bombing could this happen?

Violent Islamist extremism is no longer just an “over there” problem that might travel across oceans to attack here.  In case anyone doubted that this phenomenon is domestic and “home-grown,” one can do so no longer. Adding to this undeniable reality, we have by the end of 2010 seen some Americans’ fear of violent Islamist extremism morph into fear and even outright hatred of Islam and of Muslims themselves.  In just the past few months America nearly became the home to “Burn a Koran Day,” and the national conversation experienced a rapid escalation into very sharp barbs in the public discussions about the proposed Park 51 Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero in New York.

(Re)discovering America

Anthropologist Akbar Ahmed’s latest book, Journey into America: the challenge of Islam, could hardly be more timely. “What does it mean to be American?” This is the question anthropologist Akbar Ahmed and his team of researchers posed to Americans during their visits to over seventy-five American cities in 2008.  In this book Ahmed documents and analyzes their findings.

 

In his research, Ahmed found that America continues to enjoy extraordinary potential. It has the potential to welcome a 19-year-old Somali immigrant into its fabric and opportunities, and for non-Muslims to learn about and welcome their Muslim neighbors.  However, fully realizing this potential will require that Americans, both long-timers and those newly arrived, take time to reflect on our own history, our ideals, and what these mean for our national identity today.

The American mosaic…

Ahmed and his team trekked across America from Plymouth, to the Alamo, and to Pearl Harbor, to a Hopi reservation and to scores of American towns and cities in between.  Their research included Arlington National Cemetery, for a visit to the graves of Muslim soldiers who have died fighting—for our country, and for their country.

At the core of this work are the people he and his team encounter along the way, Americans past and present.  Ahmed tries to understand where American identity comes from, and how Americans today understand their own history.

This is a work that takes pluralism seriously because, Ahmed discovers, Americans take pluralism seriously.  The research team talked with Americans from a vast array of backgrounds.  Those interviewed range from a Jewish university dean, to a retired Catholic Archbishop, Muslim descendants of American slaves, a Zoroastrian novelist, a gay anti-Prop-8 activist, Somali refugees in Missouri, a sheriff in Los Angeles, and LDS church members.

Along the way his team documents and tries to make sense of the views of these Americans regarding what it means to be American.  He even devotes an entire chapter to encounters of between Muslims and the LDS church, highlighting not only shared experiences as religious minorities in America, but also commonalities at a social level (while recognizing differences, some significant, in theology).

…brought to life

A laudable feature of this project is multi-media resources accompanying the book.  Not only is the book available in a Kindle e-edition, but this team has produced a photostream, a blog, a documentary film, and a collection of short videos at a “Journey into America channel” on YouTube.  The availability of these additional resources serves as a reminder that Journey into America is not meant to be a just an academic book.  Rather the book is just one part of a broader effort by Ahmed and his team to encourage, even to prod, Americans to reflect more deeply about the meaning of American identity.  Ahmed makes clear: at this point in our history, Americans fail to do so at their own peril.

Ahmed implores: “[I]t is urgent for Americans to comprehend Islam, not only for the sake of [America’s] ideals (which include religious tolerance) but also for its geopolitical needs and strategy.”  Another aspect of this urgency is the increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in America’s public discussion today.  “Too many Americans,” writes Ahmed, “consider Islam a pestilence, and their dislike of it has become almost an obsession.”

Ahmed makes clear that the challenge Islam presents to America is a challenge not only for non-Muslim Americans but also for Muslim Americans.  During his 2008 trek across the country Ahmed encountered intra-Muslim tensions in some mosques, Muslims leery of his Journey into America Project, and imams “trained in Egypt or Pakistan” who “seem out of tune with their congregation and its cultural context.”  There is work to be done.  Ahmed urges, “Muslims also need to invest time, effort, and resources to a serious study of both their own community and larger American society.”  And he calls on Muslim leaders in America “to face the crisis in their own community rather than recoil in the customary defensive manner.”

This study is not without some levity too, though even Ahmed’s levity has its own gravitas.  Ahmed expresses his concern that public representatives of Islam, even years after 9/11, are mostly from “men of the older generation of immigrants” whose commentaries “do little more than intone ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ and ‘We love America.’” Ahmed knows this is unsatisfactory.  He also expresses his alarm at the cloaking of anti-Muslim sentiment in concerns about “national security.” Neither is the type of rigorous engagement needed to help Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim, begin to understand and encounter each other.  Ahmed concludes, “It is time to encourage [such commentators] to take up American pastimes like sailing and long mountain treks so that they are kept busy and out of public sight….[and] it may help them to become more self-reflective and develop much needed humility.”

The American heartland and the heart of Islam: closer than we think?

In America today, I find myself at times perplexed by the strange situation we face in which politically and theologically liberal groups that differ dramatically from most Muslims in social values have embraced Muslims. At the same time, their conservative counterparts who share many of the moral and social concerns present in the Islamic faith are among the most vocal, and at times vitriolic, anti-Muslim voices in the public square today.

One of the contributions of Journey into America seldom found elsewhere is the attention Ahmed devotes to social values in Muslim communities in the U.S., and the opportunities these values offer to build common ground on issues such as family, marriage, children, and respect for sexual integrity.

In writing about Muslim convert/former fashion model Nicole Queen in Texas, Ahmed notes the striking contrast between the highly sexualized popular online videos of Girls Gone Wild, on the one hand, and Queen’s “self-respect for mind and body” on the other.  Ahmed writes about the concern he and other Muslims have for “unchecked self-indulgence” in American society.  In the video of Ahmed’s Journey into America interview with Hamza Yusuf, Yusuf talks about Girls Gone Wild as a “degraded expression” of the desire “to get out of the madness of the world.”  Yusuf observes that it is “quite hard for me to witness a real degradation of culture.”  Many Americans who are not Muslim share these concerns about “unchecked self-indulgence” and “degradation” in our society, but alliances to address these shared concerns are, at present, rare. (Rare, but not non-existent: The recent volume, The Social Costs of Pornography: A Collection of Papers, includes an essay by Hamza Yusuf, alongside essays by Americans of various other religious backgrounds, about the threat pornography poses to human well-being and cultural integrity, not least of all in our country.)

Spreading the word

I hope Journey into America will be made available in an audio version.  Since it is full of stories, it lends itself to audio.  Moreover, it is on the long side; an audio version may make this work more accessible to those daunted by its length but otherwise interested in this timely subject.

At a time when we see European social cohesion appear to tear at the seams, Journey into America calls on Americans to reflect on a very different identity rooted in our history, and importantly, in the core ideas of our Founders.  Ahmed’s book is not a call to tolerate just anything and everything in the name of tolerance—including tolerating those who seek to destroy tolerance.  Instead he presses into American history and Americans’ minds to find out what Americans themselves understand to be at the heart of being American.  His findings include that “it is important to remember and celebrate the American tradition of religious pluralism, which presupposes the right to choose one’s faith.”

These days more than a few Americans seem to think Islam itself is a threat to America’s identity, even to our very existence.  And yet in Journey into America, we encounter the authentic voice of a Muslim who is not trying to destroy America—holiday trees and all—but rather trying mightily to get Americans to wake up and realize they’ve got something very good going. That “something” may sometimes seem hard to define. Akbar Ahmed’s Journey into America is a timely reminder that America’s identity is worth articulating, preserving, and invigorating.

Jennifer S. Bryson is Director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at The Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. She studied Political Science as an undergraduate at Stanford, medieval European intellectual history for an M.A. in History at Yale, and Greco-Arabic and Islamic studies for a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, also at Yale.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Thomas Riddle November 17, 2011, 11:21 pm

    This essay is thought-provoking and well worth a close reading. It contributes to an important dialogue. While I applaud the emphasis on pluralism and acceptance of diversity with respect to religious minorities, I am frustrated to the extent that this piece–like so much of the public discourse concerning the role of Islam in contemporary America–seems to overlook concerns with which I frankly admit considerable discomfort, but which I am forced to conclude are essential. Pluralism is of course the hallmark of modernity, but I wonder seriously if Islam is a religious tradition compatible with modernity, particularly as regards pluralism. With the world’s other major monotheistic faiths, it is fundamentally absolutist. Even more troubling, despite Koranic verses and attendant oral traditions that might support a more progressive strain of Islamic thought or theology, experience seems to suggest that progressive Islam is doomed to a permanent ideological irrelevance. One doesn’t hear of Christians murdering journalists over depictions of Jesus; honor killings are a predominantly Muslim phenomenon; contemporary terrorism is more diverse than popular depictions allow, but is nonetheless dominated by those who claim to speak for Islam; genital mutilation, although arguably more a cultural phenomenon than a religious one, is nevertheless largely associated with Islam; death by stoning is unheard of outside certain Muslim societies. Need I go on? I am willing to concede that these instances constitute worst-case scenarios and may well not represent the majority of Muslims, especially in the United States; but even here, that community seems oddly mute on such matters, and, even allowing for a seemingly silent majority of peaceful and rational practitioners of Islam, with the sheer accumulation of worrisome trends or circumstances associated with Islam, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, on the whole, this is decidedly not a tradition compatible with modern and Western norms of tolerance and pluralism. In fact, it seems to actively oppose and undermine such ideals. I likewise cannot help but wonder if there is not some element inherent to Islam that gives rise to, or encourages, extremism. I realize, of course, that cultural, political and social contexts are of the utmost importance in analyzing extremism, but it is also hard not to identify Islam itself as a unifying commonality among the most virulent strains of extremism on the world stage today. Given all this, perhaps our society serves its interests best by frankly allowing that, although no reasonable person would support interfering legally with the right of Muslims to worship as they please, nonetheless, Islam has some hard questions to answer–and may rightly deserve our frank cultural disapproval. That is distinct from legal constraint (such as, for instance, Christians face in Saudi Arabia), but the real struggle should be in the marketplace of ideas, in any case. In that arena, in the court of public opinion, perhaps Islam deserves to lose–to have the status of a questionable and suspect ideology judged incompatible with modernity and the fundamentals of American and Western culture.

  • John S. December 1, 2011, 9:01 pm

    The mindless parroting of the phrase “America was founded on religious pluralism” is at the very least, disheartening. America was NOT founded on “religious” pluralism, but in point of fact, Christian pluralism. In other words, various Protestant denominations, and to a much lesser extent Catholicism were tolerated, but non-Christian religions were not.

    This was intentional, conscious and deliberate. America was the result of the full flowering of Western Civilization, which was primarily a construct of the Catholic Church, with a strong Protestant input to it. Toleration of various Protestant sects was built in to the American foundation during the journey from separate colonies to a federation of states, but the founding fathers would be appalled at the concept that they were intending to create a nation that was tolerant of religious beliefs that are fundamentally opposed to those of Christianity in general.

    The Islamic ideal is that of Islam conquering the world, and the establishment of an Islamic theocracy (A global Caliphate). This goal lies in direct opposition to the American ideal, and the way in which Islam has treated non-Muslims over the centuries, and STILL treats non-Muslims in Muslim majority countries makes Islam a danger to the America, and its ideals. This is what Americans find disquieting, and the slow realization that Islam is incompatible with American ideals is what is generating more and more resistance to Islam.

    While there is no doubt that in some areas that traditional values are shared between Christians and Muslims, the end game; the overall goals of the two religions are mutually exclusive. History is replete with examples of this incompatibility, and unless Islam changes itself to be in synch with the ideals of Western Civilization, then the conflict between these two belief systems will only escalate.

  • Topnife March 6, 2012, 7:28 am

    Having spent considerable effort to learn about Islam since 9/11, I find that the better informed I become, the more certain I am that Islam is ideologically incompatible with the principles America espouses: equal rights for all citizens, freedom of thought and belief, equality of opportunity. It is impossible to be simultaneously a good American and a devout Muslim. Certainly there may be those who style themselves as Muslim, yet ignore many of its fundamental doctrines, and decline to engage in its pestilential violence and its intrinsic intolerance. These are not “moderate” Muslims, but are unobservant “lousy” Muslims, and unlikely to become leaders in any reformation of this malignant ideology.