US Muslims: The Social Angle

Ripening in the Melting Pot
Interview With Dr. Mazen Hashem
By Abdelrahman Rashdan
Political Science Researcher

"When you import muscles and brains, hearts and memories come along with them."— Dr. Mazen Hashem
us muslims socially
"How cannot you be optimistic? African American Muslims rose up from the ashes, passed through a phase of syncretism, and landed finally on the path of orthodox Islam," Dr. Mazen asserts.
US Muslims in the Melting Pot

A unique phenomenon, a community that reflects the cultures of around 1.5 billion people, the backgrounds of diverse ethnicities, all brought under the flag of one nation. In a state that respects professionalism, pushes for diversity, and encourages multiplicity, the US Muslim community is required to keep united, hold tight to its values, keep professionalism, and not loose Islam. US Muslims represent a special social experience that is interesting to tackle and investigate.OnIslam.net interviewed Dr. Mazen Hashem, an expert on US Muslims and a lecturer of Sociology at California State University. Born in Damascus, Dr. Mazen Hashem is a board member and the director of the American Center of Civilizational and Intercultural Studies and a founding member of Al-Rashad magazine. He holds a PhD from University California Riverside (2002), and MA from DePaul University (1989).

• Two dimensions that help understanding Muslims in the West • Where to place US Muslims • US Muslims and ethnic division • Future of division or unity • US Muslims among the religious groups • Immigrants' culture vs. liberalism • The traditional Arab patriarchal model of leadership • Internal vs. political (external) work • Factors playing for a better future for US Muslims


OnIslam.net (OI): In your book "Muslims of North America" you suggested that two dimensions that help understanding Muslims in the West, confidence in own social identity and the well intention toward the larger society. Can you elaborate?


Depriving people from their culture is like depriving bodies from necessary nutrients.
Hashem: These dimensions are critical when we talk about a multi-ethnic society, especially where there is a clear dominant group. Human beings are cultural beings; depriving people from their culture is like depriving bodies from necessary nutrients. Strong confidence in one's social identity is an enabling factor for the development of balanced individuals who can positively contribute to the well-being of their group. Likewise, maladjusted individuals are detrimental to their community, stereotyping it by their failure. Even successful, but alienated, individuals stereotype their communities through arrogance or self-hate.

However, it is not enough to have a strong cultural identity, for it could develop into chauvinism. That is why the second dimension is essential: to have good intention toward the larger society and to serve the public good. The claim of the universality of Islam by Muslims has to be translated into actions. If you are for justice, you are for it everywhere; if you are for social harmony, your actions should show it in all places.

OI: So, where do you place US Muslims in the past and into what have they developed?

Hashem: Early African American Muslims passed through torturous events until they rediscovered their true African and Muslims identity and developed confidence in it. North American Muslims of immigrant backgrounds also struggled to maintain their identity, but their story was not one of recovering something that was lost rather adapting what they already have to a new environment. In such process, social groups might become overly cautious, especially if they face subordination pressures from the larger and more powerful group in the society. That is normal. How would you expect that African American Muslims not to be, at one point of their development, vigilant in guarding their social being in the face of White supremacy? The same is true for newly immigrant Muslims who were keen to maintain their Muslim culture in the face of the commercial elements of the American culture. Were they too cautious of the new environment? Probably yes, and that is also normal, especially for the average person.

Those who haphazardly assimilate produce a social reality full of contradictions. Those who isolate themselves and strictly hold on the peculiar elements of their ethnicity end up in cocoons. It is the wise and confident who activates the principles of Islam to bear on the new reality in which their group lives. Muslims of North America made the transition in less that one generation. Major Muslim groups are now totally committed to address American reality. Such transition is admirable, although a lot is yet to be done and enormous challenges lie ahead.

A casual observer might overlook the internal dynamics within the American Muslim society if he or she does not appreciate the unique pattern of change in the Ummah. Change in the Muslim case does not occur in jolts with a group claiming monopoly over reform and casting itself as the progressive and enlightened. Rather, change is continual and takes place here and there at various societal levels in a form of virtual consensus. The absence of rupture at the surface does not mean the absence of piecemeal changes deep down.

OI: Is it true that US Muslims are currently ethnically divided and colliding? And why?


Those who haphazardly assimilate produce a social reality full of contradictions. Those who isolate themselves and strictly hold on the peculiar elements of their ethnicity end up in cocoons.
Hashem: Colliding is rather a strong word, and I would say definitely no. I like to note first that Muslims cast their intergroup relationship too idealistically. Some level of soft conflict is normal in human affairs, even among God-conscious believers. The important thing is how to deal with disagreements. The absence of sharp and frequent conflict within the Muslim community is rather surprising, and it may be a function of being few in a vast land with limited areas of friction.

As for being ethnically divided the answer is a qualified yes. It is a qualified yes because the existence of divisions is something and divisiveness and antagonistic polarization is something else.

Saying that, there is a major divide between African American and immigrant communities, and there is only formal interaction between them. Obviously, that is part of the larger historical circumstances that put each group in a different social location. African Americans do feel that they are somewhat neglected by their more resourceful immigrant brethren. Immigrant communities, on the other hand, feel that they stand on shaky ground and that they are not in a position to provide meaningful help. So, there is over-expectations from one side and inattention from the other. However, recently some creative efforts started to address this gap, such as the Umma Clinic in Los Angeles, IMAN foundation in Chicago, and Zakat Project in Washington, DC area.

There is also differentiation along ethnic lines within immigrant Muslim communities, such as between Arabs and South Asians, where each draws on different cultural repertoire and sensibilities. When conflict occurs, it is usually over mundane issues such as how to run the Islamic center. The real source of the problem here is inadequate bylaws and lacking organizational procedures. However, after the disagreement arises, it may align along ethnic lines.

OI: How do you see the future of such division or unity?


The absence of rupture at the surface does not mean the absence of piecemeal changes deep down.
Hashem: Let me first say that ethnic differences should be celebrated as they enrich the colorfulness of human existence. Diversity does not necessarily come at the price of unity. Contrary to popular imagination, Muslims in their history were always diverse.

As for the US Muslim community, divisions are melting down as it is going through similar experiences, both pleasant and not so pleasant experiences. Furthermore, the fact that American-born Muslims form now 35% of all Muslims (according to the 2007 Pew survey), 57% of which are African Americans. In other words, there is now a critical mass, even among the immigrant group, whose primary socialization and life experiences unfolded in the US. Add to this that when the children of immigrants grow up they play a significant role in advancing the acculturation of their parents.

Intermarriage also erects solid bridges among social groups; it is somewhat taking place among the second generations of immigrant Muslims, and I think it will sharply increases in the third generation. Most interaction and socialization then will take place within religio-class groupings — that is, between Muslims of similar religious orientation and similar social class position, such as occupation. The more pronounced divide will remain between African Americans and others.

OI: Where would you put Muslims in the US among the religious groups, are they more collaborative with Protestants or with Catholics and why?

Hashem: Muslims are becoming increasingly aware that they share with Catholics (as well as other cultural groups) more than they share with Protestants. White Protestant culture is highly penetrated by secular elements that left it rather an ineffective carrier of religious mandates, especially communal ones. Non-White Catholics are of Third World backgrounds and understand the pain of Muslims. White Catholics religious leaders, who feel that their community is being wrongly stereotyped or even victimized, are sympathetic to US Muslims. Also, many decent Protestants reject vilifying Muslims and reject the positions of the Protestant Christian Right. Nevertheless, it is the affinity in some social practices between Catholics and Muslims that bring them closer to each other.

OI: An immigrant with a different ethnicity is to be accepted in the US only if he is productive and not holding strong to his ethnic background and heritage; "liberalism" is what is made to dominate the American life and not the immigrants' culture… to what extent are those statements true?


How cannot you be optimistic? African American Muslims rose up from the ashes, passed through a phase of syncretism, and landed finally on the path of orthodox Islam.
Hashem: Although Native Americans preceded White colonization, and although African Americans and Mexicans have as much historical heritage in this land as Whites do, the identity of the US was largely formed along Whiteness. Initially, Whiteness was restricted to Protestant Anglo Saxons, and then extended to Catholics and Jews from Southern and Eastern Europe as well as from Russia. The US was only too effective in assimilating those waves of immigrants whose cultures were erased except for few symbolic expressions (Chinese and Japanese were reluctantly incorporated; they feel that they are like "permanent strangers"). Educators describe the US as a language graveyard; it is also a graveyard of cultures. Such incorporation of honorary Whites occurred under liberal precepts, leaving the country with two foundations, one religious and the other liberal, with significant tension among them.

Practically speaking, the large numbers of immigrants from non-European and non-Canadian origins came after the Congress's 1965 immigration act that widely opened US doors. The racial and cultural composition of the land was significantly altered: on one hand the percentages of non-Whites climbed to 30% and those of foreign stock (foreign-born and the children of foreign-born) formed 20% of the population in the year 2000. Obviously, this was largely based on economic consideration in search for labor and skills. Some Whites feel that their country is changing and wish to maintain their privilege and cultural hegemony; such feelings get exacerbated when the economy is not doing well. Economy-based immigration policy forgets that people are first and foremost cultural beings. When you import muscles and brains, hearts and memories come along with them. Immigrants, when are in large numbers, invariably bring with them customs, preferences, patterns of association, etc… in addition to religious beliefs and practices. This is the "American Dilemma," as it was once referred to.

OI: Do you think the traditional Arab patriarchal model of leadership and development will be more effective than the American institutionalized model in developing the US Muslim community?


American Muslims are privileged structurally by being middle class, culturally by possessing a rich heritage, and virtually by connecting to an Ummah.
Hashem: Well, if the American culture has something unique to offer, it is organizational models and management skills. This is exactly what Arabs, as well as some other Muslim groups, lack most. The US Muslim community is keen to strengthen its institutional base, which is still very weak and poor. Leadership style is heading in the right direction, and one hopes the trend accelerates. If Muslim institutions fail to incorporate the American-born generations, who generally command higher organizational skills, existing institutions are prone to become empty structures that will soon deteriorate.

OI: There are two different opinions among the US Muslim leadership, one that gives priority to community development, while the other gives internal and political (external) work the same importance. In your book, you argued for the first position. Can you explain why?

Hashem: US Muslims have not yet developed a political platform — a set of ideas and policy positions — that they can argue for. Civic engagement is not about garnering benefits to your group, but offering something to the public good. Politics of sheer interests is unethical. Of course, protecting the rights of Muslims as law-abiding citizens is vital. However, we need to remember that there is no law that specifically singles out Muslims. To the extent that a law disproportionally disadvantages Muslims, it is because of negative interpretation influenced by social attitudes.


Put in mind that the US political system is a federal one, and most of the issues that Muslims care for are not at that level.

Muslims have two sets of concerns. The first is middle-class concerns relate to health, education, safety, etc., and Muslims just need to join the conversation with their fellow citizens. Those activities are largely at the state and local levels. The other set is particular concerns related to religious activities and Islamic education. Unlike Europe, these are totally private enterprises in the US, and neither the Federal Government nor the local one interferes with them. Another top Muslim concern is the public image of Islam and of their communities and the ability to be able to speak on behalf of themselves. Obviously, the place to address such issues is the media and academia. Politics formalize the integration of minority groups, and some political work is necessary but is not sufficient.

OI: One would get a feeling of optimism when reading your book, what would you point out as factors playing for a better future for US Muslims?

Hashem: While naïve optimism and sweeping problems under the carpet leads to a state of sedation, active optimism that is not unmindful of challenges invites wonders. How cannot you be optimistic? African American Muslims rose up from the ashes, passed through a phase of syncretism, and landed finally on the path of orthodox Islam. All of that happened in just the course of four decades. This is startling. Religious sects usually splinter off the mainstream; the opposite happened here. The story of immigrant Muslims is also remarkable. Few entrepreneurs and student sojourners end up establishing vibrant communities. Muslims carry within them the genes of moderation and have the potential to offer America a unique blend out of its conservative and liberal elements. Building on the best what cultures have is what Muslims invariably did in their history, and there is no reason to think that the American case would be different.

American Muslims are privileged structurally by being middle class, culturally by possessing a rich heritage, and virtually by connecting to an Ummah. More concrete indicators are also encouraging. Educational mobility among the young generation is impressive, and unlike the pervious generation that was heavily represented in science and business, it pursues diversified endeavors that translate into human resources Muslims need. You can hardly find an indicator of the Muslim community that is below average. Probably, the most valuable resource American Muslims have is hope itself.

Related Links:
What Goes First for American Muslims
Politicking US Muslims - Interview with Dr. Salah Soltan
Abdelrahman Rashdan is a political science researcher and commentator specialized in national security and the Middle East.

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