Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tracing America’s Muslim connection

Kambiz GhaneaBassiri’s fascinating book traces the history of Muslims in the United States and their different waves of immigration and conversion across five centuries, through colonial and antebellum America, through world wars and civil rights struggles, to the contemporary eraKAMBIZ GhaneaBassiri is an associate professor of religion and humanities at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Born in Tehran, Iran, Dr. GhaneaBassiri was educated at Claremont McKenna College and Harvard University. He is the author of “Competing Visions of Islam in the United States: A Study of Los Angeles” (Praeger, 1997), and “A History of Islam in America: From the New World to the New World Order” (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Congratulations on the publication of your new book “A History of Islam in America”. What inspired you to write it?
I had found that discussions of Islam in America, both within the academy and outside, primarily focused on questions of assimilation. There was a general assumption that Muslims are outsiders to American society. Historically, however, Muslims have had a very long presence in America dating back to colonial times. No one, however, had carefully examined how Muslims have participated in American society, how they have built American Muslim communities and institutions.
I wanted to examine this history to show how the phenomenon of American Islam demands of us to rethink the politicized dichotomy between Islam and the West, which has come to shape the way the relationship between Islam and modernity is imagined.

What has drawn Muslims from around the world to live in the United States?
The answer to that question varies depending on the time period. In colonial and antebellum times, Muslims were mainly brought to these shores as slaves. At the turn of the twentieth century, they came mainly in search of better economic opportunities. Some sought to escape inscription into the Ottoman army. In the latter half of the 20th century, they came not only for economic opportunities but also to go to universities or to escape from wars or political repression at home. Since the 1920s, the United States has also been home to a significant population of converts and to black nationalists movements that appropriated Islam symbolically to develop a distinct national identity through which they could escape the stigma of blackness and partaking in American progress.

Is it possible for the United States to evolve into a Judeo-Christian-Islamic society?
The Immigration Act of 1965 forever changed the religious landscape of the United States by getting rid of racist quotas that restricted immigration from Asia and Africa.
While some still see Christianity and Judaism as representing the established religions of American society, today, the religious landscape of America is colored not only by Muslims but also by Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, Jains, Baha’is and various other religions. I think America will not evolve into a Judeo-Christian-Islamic society but into a multi-religious society. The evolution will not be smooth, however. Religious pluralism is a founding ideal of the United States, but historically Americans have moved toward it kicking and screaming.

What are the challenges facing American Muslims today?
There is no doubt that there has been a rise in anti-Muslim sentiments in the US in recent years, but I don’t think this represents a threat to the prosperity of American Muslims.
Over the years, American Muslims have formed meaningful relations within their local communities, and thanks to civil rights legislation, they also have legal means through which they redress religious bigotry. Their biggest challenge is to construct institutions, communities, discourses, and relations that reflect their actual lives in the US so that they could protect the younger generation from feeling stigmatized or becoming radicalized by the negative stereotypes and anti-Muslim discourses that surround them.

Is homegrown leadership important for the future of the American Muslim community?
Because of the long history of Muslims in the United States and the presence of a large indigenous American Muslim population, the absence of homegrown leadership has not been a major issue for the American Muslim community. While there are some Muslim leaders who came from overseas, the majority of mosques in the United States are funded and administered by local communities. Most don’t have a paid Imam, which means that the duties of the Imam get rotated between members of the local community.

How can Muslims help America to become a more open, multicultural and tolerant society?
When faced with religious discrimination or bigotry, American Muslims could remind their compatriots of the nation’s founding ideal of religious freedom.
This is precisely what we saw in the summer of 2010 at the height of the controversy surrounding the proposed Park 51 Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. By defending their right to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero, American Muslims stepped onto the national stage and in their own voices defended America’s founding ideals of religious freedom and tolerance.

Are you optimistic about the future of Islam in America?
It’s perilous to try to predict the future based on the past. Nonetheless, I am cautiously optimistic. Despite all of the challenges that Muslims have faced and despite the US invasion of two Muslim-majority countries in recent years, most American Muslims interpret their post-9/11 context in term of civil rights struggles rather than a struggle against colonial hegemony.
This signals that they believe they could play a role in shaping the future of America by narrowing the gap between their lived experiences as American Muslims and the negative representation of Islam in the public square.

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