If the attacks on Ahmadis in Lahore, Pakistan in May were not horrifying enough, the ensuing debate on Pakistani talk shows and television programmes was even more chilling. While condemning the attack, it seems Pakistanis were unwilling to deal with the underlying bigotry that permits such hatred.
Across the globe in the United States, on the same day as the attack in Lahore, the Manhattan Community Board in New York City voted to allow the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero despite opposition from several groups. This curious juxtaposition presents a timely illustration of ideas of American pluralism and Muslim identity brought into proximity by globalisation and migration.
Can Muslims expect tolerance from western nations where they are minorities when their own nations are unwilling to apply similar concepts? Do religiously diverse and pluralist societies have a greater burden to accommodate minorities as compared to Muslim-majority nations, or should they be as primordial in their concept of who counts as ‘American’? It is the interplay of these identities in the American context that is the subject of Professor Akbar Ahmed’s new book Journey into America: The challenge of Islam.
Given the ravages suffered by the Muslim American community following the arrest of the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, the timing of the publication could not be better. In undertaking the research for the volume, Professor Ahmed took a Tocquevillian voyage across America, interviewing both Americans regarding their ideas of identity and Muslim Americans about their conceptions of faith and nation. The result is a compelling volume that poses some difficult yet crucial questions for both Muslims and Americans across 75 cities and 100 mosques.
The book’s central thesis is based on the interplay of three kinds of American identity with three consequent sorts of Muslim identity. Americans are loosely divided into ideological strains that demonstrate primordial, pluralist and predator identities.
The primordial identity is centred on the Mayflower and the original migrants to the United States who came to the country believing that the land had been granted to Christians. The pluralist identity is centred on the thoughts of leaders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who believed that America was created to provide freedom from religious persecution. Finally, the predator identity has developed around the idea of zero tolerance for religious diversity and the belief of some settlers that all native tribes must be eliminated.
Ahmed divides Muslim Americans into literalists (approximately 30-40 per cent), modernists (also 30-40 per cent) and Sufis who make up the remainder. Expectedly, Muslim modernists are attracted to the pluralist strain of American identity that would both tolerate and accommodate their presence. And it is this strain that finds itself attacked in particular since 9/11 with the resurgence of the predator identity that seeks the elimination of Muslims from America and sees them as a persistent security threat.
In challenging the modernists — doctors, lawyers and businessmen who make up the visible leadership of the community — Ahmed questions the depth of their avowal of American identity and whether it is based primarily on material successes while remaining uninterested in the ideological foundations of their new home. In the words of activist Najah Bazzy whom Ahmed interviewed for the project, many of these modernist Muslims see “America as a giant ATM machine”. Ironically, as Ahmed points out, it is Salafist Muslim Americans that are most critical of American materialism from a spiritual perspective.
Another incipient taboo explored by Ahmed in the book is the Muslim American pursuit of ‘whiteness’. One example is the team’s visit to the Lebanese community in Dearborn that views itself as ‘Arab whites’ and calls black people ‘abd’, which means slave in Arabic. South Asians, raised in societies that venerate whiteness, are similarly obsessed with identifying with the white.
Professor Ahmed suggests that instead, Muslim American leaders need to look to the African American community for pointers on how to recreate the community’s self-image and extricate it from persistent identification with 9/11 and terrorism. Only if they do so will they be able to escape the self-loathing that Ahmed sees settling into the community after having been labelled ‘worthless’, ‘violent’ and even “inhuman” by mainstream American culture.
Ahmed’s final chapter brings a thought-provoking comparison between Thomas Jefferson, the founder of American pluralism, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. The ideas of these two thinkers came to coalesce eerily in New York on 9/11. Sadly it seems both Americans and Pakistanis are only too willing to eviscerate the commitments these two founding fathers made towards tolerance and religious pluralism.
The decision by the Manhattan Community Board to establish a mosque near Ground Zero demonstrates the American impetus to continue holding on to that religious pluralism but its detractors demonstrate the danger that lurks in the background. Conversely in Pakistan, people condemn attacks on minorities but are unwilling to support the repeal of blasphemy laws that leave minorities vulnerable to persecution and ostracism. The legacy of Jinnah’s pluralism seems all but lost in the carnage of repeated attacks on those considered different.
Ahmed’s book is evocatively written and traverses a breadth of scholarship and experience. Read in the aftermath of the tragedy in the Ahmadi community and the furore over Facebook, it seems to ask whether Muslims and Muslim Americans belong in the ummah only when it is victimised and not when it victimises.
The religious intolerance and racial prejudice which remains unquestioned within the Muslim American community has the same basis of discrimination which among Americans encourages the profiling and victimisation of Muslims. Unless this root similarity is recognised, both Jinnah and Jefferson’s dreams of pluralism, brought together so eloquently in this book, may for ever be lost.
Rafia Zakaria is Associate Editor of altmuslim.com. This article was previously published in Dawn (Pakistan)