Big Tent Citizen Islam

Eboo PatelBy Eboo Patel

The future of Islam in America will turn on two things: whether Islam becomes a big tent religion, and whether Muslims view their religion as an inspiration to contribute to America. Call this the "Big Tent Citizen Islam" question.

Big tent Islam means that Muslims from a range of geographies, ethnicities, theologies, and intensities all consider themselves part of a single community whose similarities outweigh their differences. It means Sunnis and Shias, sufis and salafis, African-American converts and Arab immigrants, five-times-a-day-prayers and once-a-year-mosque-goers have two words for each other: fellow Muslim.

The alternative to big tent Islam is civil war Islam. We see civil war Islam in the news reports of intra-Muslim violence in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. No American Muslim wants civil war Islam here.

Citizen Islam encourages Muslims to vote, join the PTA, lead volunteer projects, join interfaith coalitions, run for office -- do the whole Toquevillian American participatory thing.

The alternative to Citizen Islam is Bubble Islam. Bubble Islam seeks to build a set of institutions around Muslims -- mosques, schools, community centers, etc. -- that separates them from American public life. The most famous community to succeed at this is the Amish.

Maintaining the institutions of the bubble is very, very hard. And while the Rated R aspects of American culture are troubling to many religious communities, there isn't a nation on earth that allows its citizens to have a greater impact on its civic, cultural, and political life than this nation. Muslims have come to realize that at the core of American greatness is its invitation to citizens to participate. Muslims want to be a part of that rather than apart from it.

Big Tent Citizen Islam has slowly but surely become the dominant trend in American Muslim life over the past twenty years. The controversy over Cordoba House/Park51 will strengthen and accelerate this trend. There's nothing like urgency to focus a community's attention.

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Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan -- the visionaries behind Cordoba House -- have long advocated for a Big Tent Citizen Islam. You can hear it in Imam Feisal's writings and sermons, and you can see it in a range of programs Daisy has organized. Conservative dimensions of the American Muslim community sometimes dismissed these efforts as too liberal. Why do their programs and prayer circles include Muslims from so many different backgrounds, including those who you rarely see at the mosque? Why are they spending so much time giving talks in churches and synagogues, building relationships with interfaith and civic groups?

But now that Imam Feisal and Daisy are being vilified in a way that can only be described as Islamophobic, Muslims from all theological persuasions are coming to their aid. Theological conservatives are pointing to Imam Feisal and saying, "That's my guy," not because they agree on the interpretation of the faith, but because they consider themselves part of the same community. The big tent around American Islam just grew a bit larger and a lot stronger.

And now that Muslims all over the country have been put on alert that their mosque or community center or prayer circle may face ugly opposition -- indeed that anti-Muslim rhetoric may make good electoral politics for some candidates this November and beyond -- their commitment to civic and political engagement just grew as well.

So welcome to the American scene, Big Tent Citizen Islam. Please stand alongside your cousins, Big Tent Citizen Christianity and Big Tent Citizen Judaism; both of them know something of what you have been through. Congratulations on becoming an American religion.


Eboo Patel is founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international non-profit working to advance the interfaith youth movement. He is a member of President Obama's Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, where he is working to realize the President's priority of interfaith cooperation. He is the author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (2007) and a regular contributor to the Washington Post, National Public Radio, and CNN

8/16/2010 4:00:00 AM
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