The strength and vitality of religion in America has meant that one of the most effective means of becoming “American” has been to become more religious (regardless of the religious tradition). For example, one of my favorite essays I use in my classes is entitled “Becoming American by Becoming Hindu” by Prema Kurien.
Yet the aftermath of 9/11 has made the process of Americanization different for American Muslims. What, months ago, Sarah called the utter ordinariness of demeaning Islam has turned into full-blown, ugly bigotry (and that includes both Qur’an burnings as well as efforts around the country to prohibit the building of mosques).
Today my friend and colleague Parvez Ahmed, who has, himself, been attacked by anti-Muslim activists, sent me an article from the New York Times that raises the question of whether American Muslims will ever “belong” to America. Citing both the “ground zero mosque” controversy and the planned Qur’an burning at a Gainesville church next weekend (as well as other examples of the growing Islamophobia in America). The Times points to the transformation of the way American Muslims feel about their place in America over the last year.
For nine years after the attacks of Sept. 11, many American Muslims made concerted efforts to build relationships with non-Muslims, to make it clear they abhor terrorism, to educate people about Islam, and to participate in interfaith service projects. They took satisfaction in the observations by many scholars that Muslims in America were more successful and assimilated than Muslims in Europe.
Those efforts were buttressed, and their effects documented, by a number of polls over the last two years that showed American Muslims to be diverse, educated, assimilated, successful, and mainstream (both politically and religiously).
For immigrant Muslims, America has represented freedom. Especially prized by them, according to the polls, has been America’s commitment to religious freedom. One such immigrant Muslim told the Times “In no other country could we have such freedoms—that’s why so many Muslims choose to make this country their own.” While Muslims in European countries face social and legal opposition to their religious practices, Muslims here reported feeling tremendous freedom to practice their religion as they understand it.
We had a chance to “get it right” while the rest of the world was getting it wrong. We had a chance to show al Qaeda and the Taliban for what they are. And instead we seem to be playing right into their hands. It’s as though they have assigned us a role in a cosmic battle and an ugly, loud, minority of us are all too eager to play the part.
I remember when George W. Bush said about al Qaeda: “They hate us for our freedom.” I cringed then, because I know that people define that word differently, and the simplistic use of it seemed too manipulative. Now I’m beginning to wish it were true. What if our enemies really did just hate us because we believe in freedom?
Get a grip people—maybe it’s not too late.