Originally published as a December 12, 2009 webcomic for Everyday Citizen
Ever since the Fort Hood shootings a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading a lot about the rise hostile incidents that Muslim Americans have gone through. In much the same way Japanese Americans suffered through prejudice after Pearl Harbor, several Muslims have experienced harassment or dirty stares from people around them. I’ve heard conversations where people suggest that the military place special restrictions on Muslims serving in the military. Not knowing too much about Muslim Americans, I checked out two books from the library: American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion by Paul M. Barrett and American Crescent by Imam Hassan Qazwini. There is also a magazine called Islamic Horizons that explores contemporary Muslim American communities and their achievements. Reading these materials hasn’t made me an expert on the Muslim American community, but it’s helped me to gain a greater appreciation of the diversity of this American community. I’m just as susceptible as anyone else of believing in stereotypes that come out of the media, so I’m glad to read about the complexities of this community that break out of the often simplistic stereotypes that Muslims are portrayed as.
The November 9, 2009 edition of the New York Times had an article on Muslims in the military. Since September 11, 2001, the military have eagerly recruited Muslim Americans for their linguistic and cultural knowledge of the Middle East. About 3,557 Muslims are in the military, many of them being deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of 2006, some 212 Muslim American soldiers had been awarded Combat Action Ribbons for their service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and several have been killed. In 2006, for instance, Petty Officer Michael A. Monsoor, a Navy Seal, won a Congressional medal of honor for pulling a member to safety during a firefight in Ramadi, Iraq. Petty Officer Monsoor died to save another American soldier. Captian Eric Rahman is an Army reservist who won the Bronze Star for his service in Iraq in the beginning of the war. Captain Rahman mentioned in the article of the importance of Arab Americans in the military:
“We need those skill sets, we need those backgrounds, we need those perspectives.”
Here are some facts about American Muslims that I found in the book American Islam by Paul Barrett. Most American Muslims are not Arab, and most Arab Americans are Christian, not Muslim. About 34 percent of American Muslims are from East Asian countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, according to the polling organization Zogby International. About 26 percent are Arab Americans, 20 percent are native born African Americans, and the remaining 20 percent are from Africa, Iran, Turkey and elsewhere. Of the Muslim American population, 85 percent are Sunni and 15 percent are Shiite.
Since the Census Bureau doesn’t count by religion, it is not known how many Muslim Americans are in America. In a 2001 survey by the Council on American Islamic Relations of 400 mosques, they estimated that there are two million Americans who associated with Islamic houses of worship. Assuming that only one in three Muslims associates with a mosque, the Council on American Islamic Relations estimates that there are at least six million Muslims in the United States.
American Muslims live mostly in the cities and suburbs, with large concentrations in New York, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The majority of American Muslims are employed in technical, white collar and professional fields, including information technology, corporate management, medicine and education. Over 59 percent of Muslim American adults have college degrees, and a 2004 survey conducted by a University of Kentucky researcher found that the median family income among Muslims is sixty thousand dollars a year. Four out of five are registered to vote.
Most American Muslims have fairly conservative views that echo conservative Christian views on social issues. They tend to be against sex outside of marriage, disapprove of alcohol, and are against homosexuality and abortion. Though these beliefs are held by many Muslims, Muslim Americans are not monolithic in their beliefs, as there are a wide diversity of ideas and beliefs within the American Muslim community.
Barrett notes in his book of many Muslims who have taken individual paths to their understanding of their religion. Khaled Abou El Fadl is a professor of law at the UCLA School of Law where he teaches Islamic law and calls for a constant reexamination of the applications of the Quran’s themes of justice, compassion and mercy, following a tradition of the Usuli school of jurisprudence. Asra Nomani is working to have women treated more equally through such acts as trying to change the separation of worship of men and women, and to condemn domestic violence against wives. Sheikh Kabbani practices a modern version of the Sufi spirituality, which is condemned by the more fundamentalist Muslim groups.
With the great diversity in the Muslim community, there is an extremist group in the community that has its roots in the Wahhabi tradition of Islam. Wahhab was a strict eighteenth century evangelist who launched a rebellion against the Ottamon Empire and killed thousands of Muslims that they deemed apostates. This Wahhabi tradition lead to many fundamentalist ideologies, and in the 1970s, Islamic fundamentalism surged in the Middle East and South Asia. This Islamic fundamentalism surfaced at around the same time Christian fundamentalism became prevalent in the United States and the Likud Party began to rise in dominance in Israel. This small group of radical Muslims condemn non-Muslims, especially Jews, and believe their interpretation of the Quran is the only valid reading and that any other interpretations are apostasy. Among the groups that fit this radical description are the Saudi Wahhabism, a broader Salafism, and the extreme branches of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Though these extreme views exist, most Muslims in America and elsewhere in the world reject these extreme views of Islam. As someone who spent 8 years in an Evangelical Church, I can say from experience that there are some more fundamentalist Christians who share a similar rigid view of Christianity. In the same way that these more rigid Christians should not be seen as representing all Christians, radical Muslims should not be seen as representing all Muslims. Imam Hassan Qazwini, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan, wrote in his book American Crescent an important insight:
“After the London subway bombings in 2005, The New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman wrote a column in the form of a letter to the world’s Muslim community. In it he said that it was incumbent upon Muslims to deal with the terrorist problem. If it did not, he wrote, western governments would have to take care of it themselves, and we might not like the results. I admire Friedman and often agree with him, but in this case his advice was impractical. We Muslims can denounce the actions of these extremists who have hijacked our faith, and we can cooperate legally and politically with the governments and international organizations addressing terrorism, but we cannot police these groups alone, any more than the FBI could prevent U.S. bombings by Timothy McVeigh and Eric Robert Rudolph.
Arguing that we can assumes that we operate as a single unit, a monolithic culture in which all Muslims are directly connected. It also ignores a hard reality: the average Muslim fears extremists as much as anyone else.”
The Islamic Society of North America produces a magazine called Islamic Horizons whose purpose is to serve the North American Muslim community. In the September/October issue, an editorial writes about the goals of Islamic Horizons magazine and the Islamic Society of North America:
“Since its founding, ISNA has worked hard to serve the North American Muslim community by helping to se up Islamic centers and schools, publish quality Islamic literature in English, resettle Muslim refugees, and meet countless other needs. Each year ISNA honors an outstanding Muslim with its Mahboob Khan Community Service award to remind Muslims of the centrality of such service to Muslim life.”
As someone who has certain stereotypes of Islam based on what I watched in the media, I was searching for two subjects that particularly interested me as I looked through Islamic Horizons. What were Muslim American women accomplishing in American society? In what ways were Muslim and Jewish groups working together to build bridges of understanding?
The September/October issue of Islamic Horizons highlights the accomplishments and activism of several Muslim American women. Mona Minkara, a chemistry and Middle Eastern studies double major, was the commencement speaker at Wellesley College on June 5, 2009. Legally blink due to a macular degeneration and con-rod dystrophy, Minkara will continue at Wellesley as a researcher on how enzymes and proteins recognize each other, which could lead to improved medicines for HIV and other diseases. Dr. Mariam Ayesha Papa has started a study of the perceptions of and uses of complementary and alternative medicines in the Jordanian population under a Fulbright scholarship. Muslim women in Chicago joined in Represenative Jan Schakowsky’s 8th annual Ultimate Women’s Power Luncheon on May 11, 2009. Clarke County high school senior Bisma Y. Sheikh won the Winchester Star Leadership Award on May 31, 2009 for her work in packaging food and raising funds for the Stop Hunger Now relief agency,the Afghan Children’s Fund, for earthquake victims in Pakistan, and volunteered one-on-one help for kindergarten and first grade students at Berryville Primary School.
The September/October issue of Islamic Horizons also highlighted a group of European imams and rabbis who visited the United States under a U.S. State Department program coordinated by the ISNA and the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Dr. Ingrid Mattson, the president of ISNA, joined with Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and seven other heads of faith groups to promote the National Religious Campaign against Torture in a public witness in front of the White House on June 11, 2009.
The November/December issue of Islamic Horizons mentions two conferences that involve Muslim, Christian and Jewish cooperation. On September 22, 2009, the second annual Lake Junaluska (NC) Peace Conference hosted more than 320 Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, with the goals of learning more about each others faiths and exploring ways in which to be more effective peacemakers in their communities. Among the participants were Archbishop Elias Chacour, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling (member of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) and Dr. Lisa Schirch (professor of peace-building, Eastern Mennonite University). From January 30 to February 1 2010, the Interfaith Just Peacemaking Conference will be held with Muslims, Christians and Jewish leaders from the Salam Institute, the Muslim Peace Fellowship, the Chicago Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, Tree of Life Congregation, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and several other religious organizations.
A few years ago Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner wrote a book called The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew, Three Women Search for Understanding. The Faith Club chronicles a trio of women who began to meet after September 11, 2001, to discuss the similarities and difference of their 3 respective religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. At first the meetings were tense, as the 3 women struggled with misconceptions that many Muslims, Christians and Jews have about the other religions. After they had some long discussions about those misconceptions, they were able to move on and participate in discussions that gave them a greater appreciation for the spiritual practices of each faith. The success of their group and the book has spurred other Faith Groups to be formed around the country. If you want to join a Faith group or to form your own Faith Group to learn more about your fellow Muslims, Christians and Jews, you could go here.
A while ago PBS did a series on Muslim Americans called America At A Crossroads Muslim Americans. This PBS series explores the diversity of Muslims in America today, focusing on experiences of Muslim Americans after 9/11, and compares Muslims here in the United States with Muslims who live in Britain and Europe. It examines why American Muslims have not become radicalized like large numbers of Muslims in Europe. I think one of the most important studies in this series is their exploration of young Muslims in America, who tend to be more observant of their religion than their parents and who have struggled to be loyal to both their faith and their country.
As I’ve read these articles and researched items on the web, I’ve gained a better understanding of the diversity of Muslim American life. It’s been helpful to me, as I’ve held some of the same stereotypes as many of my fellow Americans. One incident in particular exposed me to some prejudices that I didn’t know that I had. A few months ago I went to an In-and-Out Burger restaurant with my wife after watching a movie. While we were waiting in line to buy a burger, I noticed a woman wearing a burqa and I felt a tinge of fear within myself. I then watched how several people in line stared at this woman, which naturally flustered the woman. I felt kind of ashamed of my initial reactions and began to realize how tough it must sometimes be for that woman to go out and be stared at. We all have prejudices that we struggle to overcome. Part of overcoming them is to get to know a wide diversity of people and to learn about about different cultures and ways of life. I end this with a quote from Imam Hassan Qazwini’s book American Crescent:
“Muslims want the same things all other Americans do: good schools for their children, safe neighborhoods, a responsive government, clean air, water and food, and the chance to succeed economically. Muslims embrace Americans’ generosity and add to it. They value America’s commitment to education and come from all over the world to take part. They accept that their neighbors won’t necessarily worship the same way they do, or at all, and they appreciate the American idea of pluralism. If one were to draw a circle on a piece of paper representing Islam’s values and the boundaries of what it permits, that circle would fit easily within the larger circle of what the American legal system, and its cultural standards, permit. However you wish to view Islam, nothing about it disservices the American way of life.”
If you enjoy this cartoon, take a look at these links for more of my political cartoons at Everyday Citizen:
Jasper Finds His Way Home
Jasper At A Detention Center
Jasper Meets a Poet
Jasper Tackles Health Care
Jasper Protests the War
Jasper and the Economy
Jasper Sings a Protest Song
A Cartoon about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
A Cartoon about My Experience in an Evangelical Church
A Cartoon about Political Debate
A Cartoon On Gay Marriage