America’s Muslims: Staying Above the Fray has Run its Course

American Muslims have never been good at playing the role of the victim. By and large, their faith and sentimentalities reject victimhood as a static affliction and the weight of its label, which they consider maladaptive and unproductive. When faced with adversity and hardship they have made every effort to remain ‘above the fray’. But has ‘staying above the fray’ helped or hurt American Muslims? Has it curbed or facilitated the current hateful national discourse?

mai abdul rahman             July 2016


This week marked two important events for America’s Muslims. The end of Ramadan and the commencement of the Eid Al Fitr celebration coincided with Independence Day. So naturally, when more than 500 Muslim worshipers gathered for the Eid Al-Fitr services at a local mosque in Maryland, from the onset they were consoled that despite the toxic current political climate their right to worship is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and to forgive those Americans who question their faith and allegiance.

Citing the words of Prophet Muhammad that no Muslim should sleep contently while knowing his or her neighbor is hungry, worshipers were encouraged to be sympathetic and advocate for the large and growing number of America’s middle class who have joined the ranks of the poor, ct-muslim-ramadan-volunteers-met-20160604-1continue their Ramadan Zakat practice of feeding the homeless and less fortunate, and enjoy and practice their right to vote. In short, worshipers were urged to calmly mitigate the current intense political climate surrounding them, and to ‘stay above the fray’. But will this approach help America’s Muslims curb the spread of hate and Islamophobia?

With every wave of adversity, America’s Muslims have applied a fairly simple strategy: stay composed no matter the merits of the situation, avoid over reacting, dismiss hateful rhetoric, overlook discriminatory practices and individual acts of bias and bigotry, tread softly, educate, inform, and constructively engage community and nation. But will maintaining this course stop the spread and use of Islomphibia to advance narrow political agendas?

The time has come for America’s Muslims to re-evaluate the effectiveness of ‘staying above the fray’, and to assess whether or not their approach has allowed the spread of hate that has smeared them and others. Has their ‘stay above the fray’ strategy helped desensitize Americans on the effects of their words, political posturing, and actions on Americans whether Muslim or non-Muslim? Specifically, will their ‘stay above the fray’ strategy compromise the well being of America’s young Muslims? In other words, have their choices and responses to Islamophobia help or hurt America’s Muslims and the character of our nation? Above all, does employing the ‘stay above the fray’ strategy help facilitate the hateful discourse that has gripped this nation since 9/11?

If we agree that hate for one community fosters the hate of other communities, is it effective to simply rely on educating Americans of the long history and accomplishments of American Muslims? Probably not! It is not a hidden secrete that the presence of American Muslims in North America pre-dates Christopher Columbus and the American Revolution, and includes notable early American explorers and revolutionaries. Many are aware of the important role that Islam played in shaping America’s earliest enlightened thinkers and philosophers.

Countless researchers and academicians have documented the early presence of Muslim Americans. Many historians have explored how Muslim values whether they may be that all humans are born free of bondage, their conceptual understanding of free will, the treatment of the injured soldier, or Islamic Jurisprudence influenced early American jurists. American scholars have extensively written on the role of Islam and early American Muslims in shaping the views of early American political philosophers and thinkers, who helped formulate the best elements of our Constitution. Has any of this made a difference? Not really!

America’s Muslims have been in North America before and since the birth of the US. As a matter of fact, since the 1500’s Muslims have been present in North America. They were among the first to sail and bank its shores, and some traveled its width and length as explorers. While today most are abhorrent of the cruel treatment that Christopher Columbus exacted on the indigenous native populations, two of his ship captains and their younger brother were related to the Sultan of Morocco Abuzayan Muhammad III (1196-1465). Likewise, most American Muslims are repulsed by the early colonial explorers who injured and mistreated the native nations and tribes, but Estevancio of Azamor (1503-1539) the first non native to explore Arizona and New Mexico was a Muslim. He was born in Azemmour, Morocco.

Furthermore, Muslims were  responsible for building America’s early colonies and their free labor, sweat and blood built the wealth of this nation. Many of the early Africans who by force and abduction were enslaved were born to prominent Muslim families. Muhammad Bilal along with 80 Muslims under his command fought the British in the war of 1812, and successfully defended Sapelo Island, Georgia. Bilal authored the first American Muslim manuscript titled “Rissala” or “message” that explored his faith, beliefs, and prayers. Also in 1832, Omar Said authored the first hand written account of his abduction and enslavement in South and North Carolina. Bilal and Said are heavily referenced in African American literature and their accounts helped shed light on the severity of their conditions and brutality of America’s slave masters. In fact, most scholars acknowledge the important role that their faith played in shaping their identity and scholarship.

Every war America waged, American Muslims played a role. During the American Revolution Yusuf bin Ali and Bampett Muhammad among others fought with America’s early revolutionaries. The presence and accomplishments of early American Muslims was well noted by the Founding Fathers, who thoughtfully considered the relationship of Islam to the new nation. Their active involvement and sacrifice is the reason why much thought was expanded on the role of the state in protecting Muslims. In Jefferson’s autobiography, he recounts the passage of his landmark Bill for “Establishing Religious Freedom”. He wrote with satisfaction of Virginia legislature’s inclusion of religious protections for “Mohamaten” (Muslims).

Additionally, Islam has exponentially influenced the writings of early American philosophers and thinkers. For example, Islam shaped the philosophical perspective of Samuel Johnson, Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Paine, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Samuel Johnson is considered America’s first philosopher. He extensively wrote about Islam and explored Muslims’ attitude towards the environment. He studied the relationship between their faith and conviction that humans are stewards of nature in its multiplicity and various forms. In Johnson’s words the expression of the Muslim faith applies to “The plants of the garden, the animals of the wood, the minerals of the earth, and the meteors of the sky.”

Furthermore, the Founding Fathers embraced and studied the Sharia (jurisprudence), especially those laws that pertained to governance. John Adams, praised Prophet Muhammad’s “Thoughts on Government.” Adolph Weinman the sculptor of the US Supreme Court included Prophet Muhammad along with 18 great lawgivers in a marble frieze that sits above the justice’s bench. This simple observable fact is meaningless and irrelevant to a whole lot of contemporary state legislators who claim to be guardians of the US Constitution. Jefferson loathed narrow-mindedness, he wrote: “Bigotry is the disease of ignorance.” For these legislators suspicion and fear America’s Muslims is not merely an outcome of their ignorance. Their rush to ban Sharia law is advocated for political gain and has little to do with facts or logic.

America’s Muslims have been here forever and should begin to loudly reject any attempt to separate them from fellow Americans, and those who use hate and suspicion of Muslim Americans to advance narrow political agendas. Clearly, they and their faith are not a new American phenomenon. For more than 300 years American Muslims have lived and prospered in the US. They are racially and ethnically diverse and hold the second-highest level of education in the US. As a matter of fact, American Muslim women are one of the most highly educated females in the US. They largely belong to America’s dwindling middle class with a large base of income earners contributing handsomely to America’s tax system.

In addition, despite their small number they have produced a cadre of innovators that have influenced our economy and daily life. For example, the seat belt that keeps America’s children safe was modified and improved by an American Muslim, the first mass produced IBM electronic computer was invented by an American Muslim, and the innovation of an American Muslim solar energy pioneer spurred a thriving and promising US industrial sector that is enriching and employing many Americans. In a nutshell, their industrious contributions have enriched their states, and their creative inventions have created a whole lot of jobs.

So than why are Americans of Muslim faith continue to be collectively lumped, smeared, and discredited? The answer is complex, but two reasons stand out. America’s Muslims reluctance to attack bigotry and hate directed at them and other fellow Americans head on is one. Also their use of soft and restrained tactics to change attitudes and practices is partly to blame.

Scarred by the aftermath of 9/11 anti Muslim discourse, they assumed that by informing Americans of their faith they would help lift the veil of mistrust shrouding them. They believed that by being involved in their own communities and by being engaged with the various interfaith communities they would succeed in dispelling the thick layers of confounding myths that do not reflect their faith or community. islamad-e1350125874829They assumed choosing a laid back strategy will help control the spread of Islamophobia and hate. Instead, their approach helped supporters of Israel’s illegal settlements implement a well funded campaign that has complicated their situation at home, and the prospect of peace for Palestinians and Israelis.

And the proof is in the pudding. 15 years after 9/11, their strategy of choice has not tempered the toxic national discourse or reduced the number of hate crimes committed against American Muslims. Simply stated-their decade long strategy has failed on every level, for one overarching reason. Unchallenged, bigotry in the US can become an institutional trend that takes over every public and political sphere, and cyclically repeated and spread by the US corporate media.

Racial bias in the US is a manifestation of a complex system that has been consistently employed through the use of overlapping and well funded legislative initiative. Once these policies are funded they are fostered by the private sector that often carries out its implementation and become invested in its continuation. Meaning, funding bad policies makes them hard to eradicate by simply engaging with others on their negative impact on the individual and community.

While not every legislative initiative results in institutionalizing racism, some have. The four decades long US war on drugs helped institutionalize racial injustice by targeting African Americans and rewarding police departments on the number of arrests. The war on drugs was advanced by legislators who used monetary incentives to implement it’s objectives at the state and local level. Consequently, it was used to foster racial bias that resulted in the economic exclusion of African Americans, who constitute 35% of America’s Muslims.

Hate is America’s centuries old malady, and US legislators who help fuel and fund it are its instruments. The exclusion of Americans is an embedded and entrenched practice that continues to divide and separate Americans. Its success depends on rewarding the few who apply it a shallow sense privilege. The only means to tackle this habitual US legislative practice is to challenge those legislators who engage in peddling hate speech, and their use of our taxes to fund laws that harm Americans of all colors and ethnicities.

Meanwhile, fear of American Muslims has become a national obsession, and bigotry has become its accepted currency. Undeniably, American Muslims are like other faiths and secular communities with their share of lunatic extreme fanatics, and some have committed heinous crimes against innocent Americans. And while one fanatical Muslim is too many, the numbers of American Muslim loonies is no more or less then those represented among other faiths. While unequivocally refusing to allow any form of prejudice that implicates their entire community and faith, American Muslims have to fortify their young from feeling helpless and traumatized by the nagging and constant drum of hate they are daily exposed to. They must take ownership of teaching their children the true tenants of their faith to shield them from the poisonous discourse from within and from the predators lurking to pluck them from without.

America’s Muslims have to exert a greater role in educating their young to reject all forms of extremism, by embracing prophet Muhammad’s call for Muslims to take the path of moderation in every political and social expression, and action. But first, they must start building a cadre of American Muslim scholars trained to teach the tenants of their faith that are also articulated in the ideals and aspirations of our nation. None, but American Muslims can assume the responsibility for educating their young of the true Islam that helped shape the best of the America’s ideals, and to prepare them to lead and create a better future for their community and nation. Creating a class of American Muslim scholars and advocates can help protect young American Muslims from succumbing to the hate that surrounds them, and would also help spawn future American leaders.

For the time being, American Muslims can take comfort and solace in words written in 1776, but words alone will not end racism and bigotry in the US. They must step out and take the responsibility for realizing the American values, rights, and protections that have remained an unfulfilled promise for the vast majority of Americans. They must not shy from exercising the entire list of rights that their identity bestows on them, and breath life and actualize the caption embodied in the Latin words inscribed on the seal of the United States, that sums up America’s distinct identity— “E Pluribus Unum”: out of many, one.

Meanwhile, America’s Muslims have to become fully involved on every civic and political level to create the space for our country to embrace and honor all its citizens and its multitudes of faiths and non-faiths. ‘Staying above the fray’ has run its course, and it has not helped shield them or other Americans from bigotry and racial bias.

In the true spirit of their faith and national ideals, America’s Muslims must help break down the long established barriers of bias and discrimination, including those that have inflicted great suffering on Americans of color, and the marginalized of all colors. Only through a well articulated, deliberate, and comprehensive strategy to end institutional racism and bias will this nation of ours have the fortitude to fulfill its promise to honor and respect all of its citizens, whether they may be brown, black, white, or purple. Yes, it’s a tall order, but it’s doable.


2 thoughts on “America’s Muslims: Staying Above the Fray has Run its Course

  1. Wonderful article with lots of interesting links backing up assertions. I agree with the argument the Muslim Americans have remained above the fray. One reason for this could be that many of the religious minorities in Muslim countries have taken this approach for centuries and this is the way Muslims have come to expect minorities to act. Whatever the causes, it is important for Muslim americans to unite around their commonalities, and get more politically and socially active…not just for their own sake but for the sake of the country and the world. Passivity is not acceptable.


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