Closing the Fear Gap in America

Professor Nazeer Ahmed

Islam is under intense pressure in America. According to published reports, only a third of Americans have a positive view of Islam. More than fifty percent are negative and view Islam and Muslims with a degree of fear and suspicion. The rest have no opinion.

The reasons for this state of affairs are both external and internal. The relentless barrage of Islamophobic propaganda, well financed and well executed, has found its mark. The unending wars in the Middle East, which have destroyed a vast swatch of earth extending from the river Indus to the sands of Tripoli, have taken their toll. Concurrent with these external events, there has been a steady increase in right wing Salafi propaganda, much of it directed against traditional Islamic practices packaged as “Bida”, “Shirk”, “Kufr” and “Haram”. The trend towards Salafism is historic and has been going on for more than three hundred years, ever since Aurangzeb won the Battle of Samugarh in 1658. There has been a steady increase in momentum in recent years. It is like a hammer and an anvil. Caught in the gristmill of Islamophobic propaganda and the compulsive pull of right-wing Salafism, many a Muslim youth is confused and has become susceptible to extremist movements, which seem to pop up under a new avatar every ten years.

The recent attacks in Paris and California have thrust the debate about radicalization and Islamophobia to the front page. As noted by President Obama in his address to the nation on December 7, 2015, the issues are urgent and can no longer be avoided. This article looks at Islamophobia from an internal perspective and examines what can be done to close the fear gap in America.

Islam in America- An Historical Perspective

Islam is not new in America. In his book, Deeper Roots, Dr. Abdullah Quick has documented with scholarly care the arrival of African Muslims in the Americas before Columbus. Al-Masudi (d 956), in his monumental work, Muruj adh-dhahab wa ma’adin, describes how a young man, Khashkhash of Cordoba, sailed west, visited far off islands and came back with untold riches. Al-Idrisi (d 1165) who served in the court of Roger II of Sicily, in his Kitab al-Mamalik wa-l-Masalik, describes the journey of a group of seamen who reached the isles of the Americas. The report describes travel between islands whose inhabitants spoke Arabic. Al-Idrisi prepared a map of the Atlantic which shows the contours of Brazil and Central America with remarkable accuracy. The Hajj of Mansa Musa (1324), the majestic ruler of the Empire of Mali, is well recorded. He took with him so much gold for the Hajj that it affected the currencies of Egypt as well as other lands he passed through. Shihab ad-Din al-Umari, a famous Arab geographer, in his Masalik al-Absar fi Mamalik al-Amsar describes how the predecessor of Mansa Musa sailed west at the head of a thousand ships never to return. Archaeological, linguistic and sculptural evidence in the Americas confirms the presence of the Mandinkas in Central and South America. The 1512 map prepared by Piri Raees, the well-known Turkish admiral, shows with great clarity and accuracy the latitude and longitude of Brazil, the Cape Verde Islands, the Canary Islands as well as the course of the Amazon River. These geographical features were unknown to the Europeans until the end of the sixteenth century. As documented by Professor Leo Weiner of Harvard University (1920) the presence of Muslim Africans in the New World was known to the early Spanish explorers but this information was suppressed.

The post-Columbus era has seen four waves of Muslim arrivals in the United States. The first wave came from West Africa. The Atlantic slave trade (1607-1859) brought millions of Africans to the Americas. Estimates of men, women and children who were loaded on the slave ships vary from a low of 12 million to a high of 100 million. Millions perished at sea. Among those who were brought in chains were scholars, noblemen, carpenters, masons, metal workers, farmers and tradesmen. As Islam was the most prevalent religion in the Sene-Gambia and Niger River areas, there were a large number of Muslims among the arriving Africans. Considering the demography of these regions, I would estimate that twenty to thirty percent of the Africans who landed in the Americas were Muslim. Bilali Muhammed (b 1777) was one such Muslim scholar. Despite the oppression of slave life, Bilali retained his scholarship and wrote a manuscript on Islamic law which is preserved in the library of Georgia State University and has inspired generations of American Muslims.

The second wave came in the middle of the nineteenth century when an attempt was made to introduce camels into the American Southwest. The United States army hired camel drivers, some from Egypt and some from the southern Punjab in British India. The experiment was not a success and this generation of Muslims disappeared. The last of them, Haji Ali, died in Arizona in 1902.

The third wave arrived after the First World War from Turkey and Greater Syria. The defeat of the Ottoman empire, first in the Balkan war of 1911 and then in the First World War (1914-18), precipitated a large refugee influx from the eastern Mediterranean from a region which includes modern day Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Lebanon. They settled in northern New Jersey around the Hoboken area. Some migrated to the American heartland in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Ross, North Dakota. The pull of the American secular culture was too great and this wave, too, melted away into the larger American matrix.

The Current Generation of Muslims

The current generation of Muslims is the fourth wave since Columbus. Prior to 1965, immigration from Asian and African countries was restricted with each country receiving a quota of 100 immigrants annually while immigration from Europe was open and unrestricted. When the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 lifted these restrictions, a large number of immigrants came from Muslim countries and the process continues to this day. Estimates vary, but judging by attendance at mosques, there are about 4 million Muslims in the United States and Canada. Although a major portion of this community is made up of immigrants, there has been a steady increase in the number of Americans accepting Islam.

Significant as these numbers are, the major impact of Islam on American life is not so much in demography but in the world of ideas. Much as America is the melting pot of nations, it is also the melting pot of ideas. Americans traditionally have considered their ideas as rooted in Judeo-Christian teachings. Only recently are they becoming aware of the third, co-contemporary monotheistic faith, Islam, and they ask where it fits in their world of ideas.

What the New Arrivals Achieved

Islam sees its raison d’etre as the creation of a society enjoining what is good, forbidding what is evil, and believing in God. Muslim life has at its core the imperative of a persistent and continuous struggle to create such a society on earth superseding the more narrow allegiance to race, tribe or national origin. Thus Islam becomes a process wherein tribal or ethnic allegiance is continuously challenged by allegiance to a universal idea.

In Islam, man is the trustee of his own free will and all that is between heaven and earth is subject to this will. It is his manifest destiny to exercise this free will, to mold, shape and bend the created world, and to be judged by the consequences of his action. However, unlike the unfettered free will of Nietzsche, the free will of man in Islam is a gift bestowed by the Creator, a trust to be exercised in justice and in balance.

Interestingly, there is no concept of original sin and salvation in Islam. Man is created in the most noble of molds and is endowed with reason and judgment so that he may fulfill the moral regency bestowed by the Creator. The Islamic concept corresponding to salvation is falah, or well being, which man struggles to attain through his actions and through an exercise of his free will. The focus of individual and collective life is thus an unceasing effort for the material and moral well-being of mankind.

The immigrants who have come here from places as diverse as Egypt and Pakistan, Indonesia and Morocco brought with them an Islam coated with the cultural crust of their native lands and modulated by their historical experience. In the American melting pot, this crust falls away along with traditional and regional bias, exposing the universal core of the immigrants’ religiosity.

America opened its arms to immigration from Asia and Africa including Muslim immigration. However, there was no religious infrastructure to support the Islamic community. The new arrivals, therefore, plunged themselves headlong into building mosques where they could hold congregational prayers and primary schools where their children could learn their own culture. They had a dual challenge: reach out for the American material dream while at the same time preserve the Islamic cultural and religious legacy for their children and grandchildren. In this effort they have been remarkably successful. Mosques and minarets now grace the American landscape from New York to California.

A second generation has now taken over. The American children of first generation immigrants are bringing Islam close to what the mystics and the reformers of the last century were unable to do: create a multi-ethnic society of faith that is cleansed of parochialism and is universal in character.

What The New Immigrants Did Not Anticipate

Even as Islam found a niche in the American social spectrum, there were clouds gathering on the horizon. The unending Palestinian-Israeli conflict cast a continual shadow over the community. The implosion and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw the simultaneous ascendancy of the neocons in America who turned their attention from the Soviet Union to the “democratization” of the Islamic world, by military force if necessary. Concurrently, there was a rise of extremist movements in the Islamic world such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Daesh (ISIL). The ghastly tragedy of 9/11 was quickly followed by an invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, then Libya and the more recent bombing of Syria. Long is the list of countries that have been devastated by this endless war – Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Eritrea. War opens up old wounds and begets hatred. Shia-Sunni and tribal tensions that were held in check by despotic rulers erupted into open civil strife once the central authority was destroyed by war. Millions have been killed or displaced and a refugee crisis unlike any seen since WWII has shaken the Middle East and Europe alike. Concurrent with these wars, there has been a sustained increase in Islamophobic propaganda in the United States.

The nascent Islamic community in America was ill prepared to take on these challenges that emerged so rapidly towards the end of the twentieth century: the demise of the Soviet union, the rise of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, 9/11, rising Islamaphobia, hate propaganda, ISIL, the endless wars in the Middle East and the onset of terrorism on American soil. The magnitude and rapidity of these challenges have overwhelmed the scant intellectual resources of the community. The Salafi training of the religious leadership, with some outstanding exceptions, has not prepared them to lead the community in these times of crises. The result is that Islam is adrift like a rudderless giant ship on the stormy seas.

A Search for Solutions – Faith, Knowledge, Service, Worship

With all of its flaws and deficiencies, America remains a beacon for much of humankind. Given a free choice, much of the world would want to migrate to America. There is no other country in the world that continues to welcome thousands of people from around the world. This is a unique experiment in human history.

America offers an historical opportunity for Islam to discover its essence, namely, its existential spiritual, universal self. The freedom of expression available to immigrants in America is precisely the element they lacked in their native lands, to express their religiosity. The Islamic world, faced with the loss of independence in the 19th Century and the subsequent challenge from Western ideologies, has been unable to muster the courage to open itself to political and social processes where its own internal ethos can express itself. Thus freedom is often muzzled and religious expression stage-managed so that it does not pose a threat to the established order.

The American experience offers a breath of fresh air to the Muslim. Here, he can search his soul in peace and freedom, articulate the universal elements in his religion, and participate in the struggle for equity and justice. Thus Islam may yet find its golden age in America much as Judaism found its golden age in Muslim Spain. Faith, knowledge and service will be the drivers of this golden age.

Here are some recommendations:

1. Zero Tolerance for Extremism

The Qur’an declares: “Innallaha La Yuhibbul Mo’tadeen” (Indeed, Allah does not love the extremists). What Allah does not love cannot succeed. How can the Muslims hope to prosper when they are beholden to the extremists? The global Islamic community has been marching headlong towards the Salafist version of Islam for more than three hundred years so much so that the extremists have now hijacked the religion and use coercion against those who disagree with them. The origins of the salafist virus are historical and will be explored in a separate article. Suffice is it to point out that traditional Islam is spiritual and its function is to bring the soul closer to God. Mainstream Muslims who have stood aside and allowed the salafist virus to sicken the body politic of Islam must speak up and be active participants in the construction of a just, rational, spiritual Islam that is at peace with the social matrix of the United States. For this to happen, the religious discourse must move from discussions of hijab and beards to the more substantive issues of radicalization of the youth and the survival of the community.

Salafist Islam stands discredited in the court of global public opinion. The verdict of history is clear and the writing is on the wall: If the current generation of Muslims wish to survive in America and not disappear like the previous generations, there must be zero tolerance for extremism. Islam in America must be rescued from political extremism and guided towards its spiritual core. Khateebs and religious teachers need basic training in science, history, and the culture of a pluralistic, multi-faith, secular society. Use reason in everyday life. Be moderate. Avoid rigidity. “Indeed, Allah does not love the extremists”.

2. Pay Attention to the Youth

Institution building is the foundation for the long term survival of a community. But these are extraordinary times and they require extraordinary solutions. The focus of the community must shift from acquiring more land and more buildings to sustaining the youth and the survival of the community. Bereft of guidance from busy parents and ignorant imams, the Muslim youth (like millions of youth all over the world) turn to the internet where they are bombarded with information and misinformation. Unable to sort out what is right from what is wrong, a few end up radicalized. The consequences can be tragic both for the youth and the family.

In an earlier article, The ISIS Phenomenon ( I outlined, from an historical perspective, the radicalization of societies. Here, the focus is on the radicalization of individuals which happens in stages:

1. First comes the grievance. This could be a result of persistent discrimination, peer teasing, job loss, workplace abuse, unhappiness with international events and the like.

2. Anger. This is the second phase and is born out of a helplessness to confront and overcome the grievance. Published reports claim that the prevalence of anger among Muslim youth is somewhat higher than in the general population.

3. Radicalization. In this phase, a person, a group or an ideology promises to right the wrong, sometimes offering the promise of a reward in return for radical deeds.

4. Violence. This is the destructive phase where an individual takes out his anger causing harm and destroying himself in the process.

There is no room for destructive behavior in a civil society. It is imperative that the youth be counseled, supported and nurtured in these difficult times.

First, at the most basic and human level, learn to listen to the youth. Anger begins when a person feels he is not heard. Anger subsides when a person feels he has been “heard”. Every mosque or community center must offer counseling to the youth by trained personnel or by community elders who can share what they have learned from the “school of hard-knocks”.

Secondly, Islam must be taught in its pristine core as a loving and living faith whose function it is to elevate humankind to the pinnacle of inner knowledge of the soul and the outer knowledge of the universe so that man attains the highest consciousness of divine presence and discharges his divinely ordained mandate to know Him and serve Him.

Third, methods and processes for addressing grievances must be offered. If a job is not a good one, then one gets a different job or starts a business. If there is harassment, one has recourse to legal remedies. If there is discrimination, one moves away from the sources of discrimination and associates with those who accept him. Which ethnic group in America has not faced some form of discrimination?
The blacks, the Chinese, the Jews, the Irish all faced discrimination in their journey to the American dream, some more so than others. Each group has learned to overcome it in its own way, consistent with its internal social genius.

3. Disengagement from Foreign Conflicts

The nascent Islamic community is in no position to weather the storms generated by foreign conflicts. The Qur’an declares “Allah does not place a burden on a soul greater than it can bear.” ( 2:286 ). If you attach a jack fruit (a large fruit that grows in the tropics and in Southern India and weighs up to 100 pounds) to a twig, the twig will snap from the weight of the fruit.

Much of the convulsion in the American Muslim community is a blow-back from foreign conflicts and the continuing devastations in West Asia. If the peoples of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia cannot resolve their political disputes, is it reasonable to expect the struggling American Muslim community to resolve them? Politics is the art of the possible. It requires emotive intelligence. One can demand moral outrage at perceived or real injustices in the world but moral outrage carries no weight in real politic. The arbitration of realism is invoked here. The capability of a nascent, struggling, small American Muslim community is limited to working with like-minded civil society organizations in America, extending humanitarian and moral support to suffering people around the globe on the basis of equity and justice.

4. Rediscover the Qur’an and the Love of the Prophet: Faith, Knowledge, Service, Worship

Faith is the basis of civilization. Where there is no faith, there is no civilization. Faith makes it possible for ordinary people to work together and achieve uncommon results.

Spiritual Islam is a commandment of Allah. Political Islam is a development of history. The Qur’an declares: “Ma Qalakhtul Jinna Wal Ins Illa Le Yabudoon” (I created not beings of energy and beings of clay except to worship (serve) Me). A Hadith e Qudsi declares: “I was an unknown treasure. I willed that I be known. Therefore, I created”. Thus knowledge, service and worship are at the core of Islamic faith.

Traditional Islam cultivated these core values. That is how it attracted to its fold millions of people of different races and regions, from lands as diverse as Nigeria, Indonesia, Bosnia, Bangladesh, China, India and the United States. Historical Islam moved away from these core values. It started with the destruction of tombs and ended up with the destruction of historical monuments.

The first significant milestone on the road to Salafism occurred in 1658 when Aurangzeb defeated Dara Shikoh, the heir apparent to the Mogul emperor Shah Jehan. Dara was a scholar-prince who was trained by the Qadariya Sufi Shaikh Mian Pir of Lahore. His translation of the Hindu epics, the Upanishads, into Farsi under the title Sirr-e-Akbar (the greatest of the mysteries), was an honest intellectual search for the truth that transcends dogmatic religion. The book became available in Europe through its Latin translation and influenced the works of the German philosopher Schopenhauer. Suffice it to state here that after his defeat at the Battle of Samugarh (1658), Dara was brought to Delhi and paraded on a dirty elephant as a renegade to Islam because of his scholarly pursuits and his befriending of Hindus and Sikhs. He was executed and his head was sent on a tray to the ailing emperor Shah Jehan. People of wisdom say that the genesis of nightfall is at midday when the sun is at its brightest. The genesis of Salafism occurred in the mid-seventeenth century, at the height of Islamic power in India, Iran and the Ottoman Empire.

As Muslims lost their political power to a resurgent Europe, they receded further into a cocoon of Salafism. The subsequent century saw the rise of Shaikh Abdel Wahab of Najd. In the twentieth century, as the stranglehold of colonial European rule loosened with the two World Wars, there emerged the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, the Jamat e Islami of India-Pakistan, and other right wing movements offering the promise of a return to the golden years of early Islam. A large number of Muslims bought into the promise but the results were disappointing.

The Salafi movements gathered momentum with the rise of the Taliban after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent emergence of Al Qaeda and Daesh. What is significant is that Islamic scholarship failed to evolve a coherent, determined and successful response to Salafism for three hundred years except for rear guard action by a receding and moribund Sufi tradition.

If Islam is to reclaim its spiritual core as a faith dedicated to knowledge, service and worship, and a rightful place alongside other great traditions of humankind, it must discard its salafist robes and rediscover the universal message of the Qur’an and the love of the Prophet. This is a challenge that the American Muslim community can no longer defer.

5. Community Outreach

The current efforts at community outreach are clearly insufficient to meet the challenge of the times. These efforts must be doubled up and expanded. Local and national organizations that are engaged in this effort must be encouraged and supported. Bridges of understanding and coalitions of purpose must be built with like-minded civil organizations. Operational transparency and close coordination with law enforcement agencies are essential.

At the highest spiritual level, there exists a covenant between man and God. “Al Astu Be Rabbikum” (Am I not your Creator, Sustainer and Cherisher?) asked the Divine voice (7:172). “Qalu, Bala’ (Yes indeed, You are!) answered the human. At the temporal level, every citizen has a contract with the United States. It is obligatory on all citizens of the United States, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, secularists, believers, disbelievers, indeed all the people of the land, to honor this contract and defend the Constitution. Muslim children must receive instruction in the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights so that they become conscious of their rights and responsibilities. Honoring of contracts is a Divine commandment: “O you who have certainty of faith, do honor your contracts” (Qur’an, 5:1).

6. A Charter of Ehsan (Excellence) for Muslim Organizations

When asked by the Angel Jibrael, the Prophet explained the inner meaning of Ehsan: “It is to worship (serve) Allah as if you see Him. And if you do not see him (and for for sure you cannot), know that He sees you.” What is Ehsan? It is the love of a mother for her baby. It is the compassion of a father for his children. It is the light imparted by a teacher to her pupil. It is feeding the hungry and giving shelter to the homeless. It is supporting a poor student. It is a kind word spoken to a neighbor or the good counsel given to a friend. It is lending a hand to a man when he is down on the ground. It is to serve the community that gives you work and sustains your family. It is to protect your habitat and excel in deeds that make life on planet earth beautiful.

I call upon Muslim organizations in America to draw up a Charter of Ehsan, in fulfillment of the Divine command to struggle and create a society “enjoining what is good, forbidding what is evil and believing in God.” Discard the soiled clothes of exclusion and hate. Don the resplendent robes of compassion and love. Focus on excellence – excellence in knowledge, excellence in worship, excellence in service. This is the inner meaning of the Divine mandate: “I created not beings of energy and beings of clay except to serve Me”.

In today’s world when human progress is limited only by the speed of light and the human capacity to absorb change, civilizations overlap and complement each other. Spiritual Islam has the historical opportunity to round off the jagged edges of a materialist global civilization and awaken humankind to its pristine noble destiny.

Islam is a living civilization. Each time it faces a trial, it dives deep into its own soul, renews itself and comes out triumphant. In America, Islam will go through a two-way osmosis, providing yet another color to the rich spectrum of ideas in the American crucible, and in the process rediscovering its own soul.

(Note: An earlier version of this article by Dr. Ahmed was published in the Los Angeles Times on April 9, 1988. It has been revised and considerably expanded for this publication to reflect the current socio- political context.)