By Khurram Dara
Who speaks for Islam in America? After tragedies like the ones that occurred in Paris and San Bernardino, the dearth of central leadership in Muslim America has become increasingly apparent. While a host of Muslim organizations, communities and thought-leaders routinely condemn violence committed in the name of Islam, their voices are often dispersed and drowned out.
When we move beyond mere condemnation to talk about what action can be taken to curb the radicalism crippling Islam, who are we supposed to listen to?
There’s hardly consensus on who speaks for America’s Muslims. There are certainly a number of effective Muslim organizations that exist, but an overwhelming majority of American Muslims do not believe any one group sufficiently represents their interests. According to a 2011 Gallup poll that surveyed Muslims in America, even the organization that received the most votes on the question of who represented Muslims — the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) — only managed to muster the support of a little more than 1 in 10 Muslims.
The lack of coordinated central leadership is routinely used to bolster the narrative heard in popular media that Muslims in America aren’t doing enough to stop, or may even tacitly approve of, radical Islamists. Despite the many voices speaking out, without a central authority that can speak on our behalf in one voice or that can mobilize Muslims to take action, it’s easy for critics to push this narrative — and easy for some (especially those who may not have ever met a Muslim) to believe.
Many assume that Muslims, like other minority groups, would have coalesced around a single organization as its representative. But this missing leadership is unsurprising. There are probably as many denominations of Islam present in America as there are candidates for the upcoming Presidential election. And congregations are often separated by race, ethnicity and to a degree, orthodoxy.
While significant Muslim populations exist in places like Michigan and New Jersey, Muslims are widely spread out across the country, with vibrant communities in places you may not expect, like the Deep South. With that kind of diversity, it’s but natural that no one single group has successfully become the spokesperson for Muslims in America.
But while some may see this as a burden, it may actually be a blessing. Finding a national, comprehensive one-size-fits-all solution to things like preventing radicalization and limiting anti-Muslim bigotry isn’t practical. Relying on individual congregations to bridge the gap with local law enforcement and civic leaders, on the other hand, might be. The largely Somali congregations of Minnesota probably have different concerns and issues than do the predominately South Asian communities of Western New York — so why would we treat them the same?
A more local approach gives leaders the opportunity to be responsive to the interests of their particular communities. It’s also probably less intrusive to congregations when relationships are built with law enforcement, government officials and other local leaders who live in those same cities and towns as they do, who might be their friends or their neighbors, who might have children that attend the same school or play on the same Little League team.
These kinds of connections have the potential to change how other Americans view Muslims. I have a feeling most people are not looking for a lecture on Islam and its teachings. We all probably have ideas of what being Christian or Jewish is like, not necessarily because we’ve carefully studied its respective teachings, but because we’ve known or interacted with a practitioner of that faith.
The American Muslim doctor who saves lives or the teacher who mentors students probably does more to improve Islam’s image than any press release or interfaith event could ever do.
But relying on local engagement in lieu of central leadership is not without its own challenges. It requires religious and community leaders stepping up to take on that responsibility. It means individual congregation members have to be active participants not passive attendees. And of course, media outlets and law enforcement have to be willing to rely less on national Muslim organizations for their soundbites (or lack thereof) and more on local leadership.
Defeating radicalism and hate is obviously an enormous endeavor, unlikely to have one single solution. But the decentralized nature of America’s Muslim communities and the ability to experiment with different strategies could provide us with a roadmap to success.