THE USA: MUSLIM IDENTITIES, CIVIL RIGHTS AND LOOMING POLITICAL FEARS

Are Trump’s statements consistent with democracy constitutive features? Or are they showing a radicalization process in a part of American politics?

By Glauco D’Agostino

“We applaud the Clifton Board of Education for taking this important step toward inclusiveness and recognition of the civil rights of Muslim students”. This way last March 15th Jim Sues, the New Jersey Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), expressed satisfaction with the decision of including ‘Īd al-’Aḍḥā (Festival of Sacrifice) into 2016-17 school calendar, taken by the public schools of the opulent Middle Atlantic State city.

This choice is believed consistent with the Clifton Board of Education duty, which, “in an open and reciprocal community partnership, is to provide all students with a quality education to develop the skills necessary to become literate, life-long learners who are responsible and productive citizens contributing to a democratic society in an ever-changing world”, as it stated on its website. CAIR, for its part, is a high-profile organization set up in 1994, which is deemed subsidiary to the Muslim Brotherhood, and whose mission “is to enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding”, as it describes itself on the official website.

These accents of conciliation between public and religious minority’s subjects contrast the abrupt statements presidential candidate Donald Trump (photo below) made just recently in the US. After November 19th he had acquiesced to a suggestion of recording Muslims in a database identifying them by a special ID, and after December 8th he had asked for them a temporary entry ban in the US, last March 9th, the Presbyterian billionaire said the following: “I think Islam hates us … There’s a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it. There is an unbelievable hatred of us … and we have to be very vigilant, we have to be very careful, and we can’t allow people coming into this country who have this hatred of the United States”. Asked whether there is a war between the West and “radical Islam” or between the West and “Islam itself”, Mr. Trump stated: “It’s radical, but it’s very hard to define. It’s very hard to separate because you don’t know who’s who”.

In turn, these claims show a radicalization process in a part of US politics, certainly not positive for a peaceful living within the Union. This attempt at radicalization should perhaps be countered in terms of culture, indeed with the acculturation of that loose cannon of the society which, relying on an ill-defined idea of superiority, refuses compatibility between ethnicities and religions that gave birth to the USA.

Far from us entering the American election campaign, but, if an eventual Republican presidential candidate verbalizes in such terms on Islam, and offends US citizens of a religious minority as composite as Muslims are, right American Muslims should think about the options they are going to do in the upcoming November elections. This is not about choosing an ideological attitude towards one field or the other (the Democrats or Republicans), here it’s not shooting themselves in the foot!

Just as the The Atlantic magazine recorded December 9th last year in an article by David A. Graham, it’s not that US Muslims rally together to vote one party or another, but they undeniably gradually moved their option toward Democrats, after in 2000 most of them had voted George Bush. In 2004, a survey by the Georgetown’s Muslims in the American Public Square project “found three-quarters of Muslims planning to vote for Democrat John Kerry and just 7 percent backing Bush … A 2011 Pew poll found 46 percent of Muslims identified as Democrats, with another 24 leaning that way. Only 11 percent said they were Republicans”.

How did it happen? Yet, American Muslims (particularly immigrants) typically tend to be conservative in terms of morals and life schemes. The Atlantic suggested several interesting arguments, we can summarize this way:

  • Muslims did not appreciate the war policies supported by the White House in the Middle East;
  • They care about civil liberties and disapprove of the restrictive measures excesses, justified by national security;
  • About the contrast opposing Israelis and Palestinians, they favor the latter and, since Republicans patronize Israel to an extent now reaching unanimity, this has created greater separation from the GOP;
  • The rise of Islamophobia and the persistence of an anti-Muslim rhetoric among the Republicans did not help a voters’ approaching;
  • Republican state lawmakers have proposed and frequently have passed laws banning the use of Sharī’a, and more recently campaigners have endorsed proposals to ban the teaching of Islam until high school:
  • Republican Governors have asked the Federal Government not to resettle Syrian refugees in their States, and Republican candidates have introduced to Congress draft laws designed to exit the program for refugees;
  • In the social policies, they are conducive to a broader government offering more services.

Now, without necessarily invoking the “free exercise clause” of the US Constitution First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]”), it might be useful to point out that respect of religious minorities, still within the constitutional principles and laws, is a democracy constitutive feature. This is why any speeches tending to marginalize an entire religious component are not constitutionally correct, especially when uttered by those who have the power to influence public opinion and direct it to a discriminatory behavior. All charges towards American Muslims to have hatred and sow violence are belied by the instructions given by the Fiqh Council of North America, which is one of the most reliable Muslim associations responsible for the Sharī’a interpretation in North America. They are worded as follows, with respect to sensitive issues such as violence and terrorism:

  1. ”All acts of terrorism, including those targeting the life and property of civilians, whether perpetrated by suicidal or any other form of attacks, are haram (forbidden) in Islam.
  2. It is haram (forbidden) for a Muslim to cooperate with any individual or group that is involved in any act of terrorism or prohibited violence.
  3. It is the civic and religious duty of Muslims to undertake full measures to protect the lives of all civilians, and ensure the security and well-being of fellow citizens.”

(In the side photo from White House official website, President Barack Obama participates in a roundtable discussion with American Muslim leaders at the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque and Al-Rahmah School in Baltimore, Maryland, Feb. 3, 2016)

On the other hand, that you cannot monitor the entire US Muslim community is also understandable, having regard to its varied composition. The various resulting statistics and analyzes, despite their differences depending on sources, give us this:

  • Their demographic density ranges from 3.3 million (Pew Research Center, 2015) to 4.7 million (Britannica Book of the Year, 2005) to 6-7 million (CAIR, 2007), with the largest relative concentrations in the States of Illinois, Virginia, New York and New Jersey;
  • Most of them are first-generation immigrants (65%) from nearly 70 countries, while the second-generation’s are a further 7% of the overall Muslim population;
  • Among the former, the largest group consists of Arabic-speaking immigrants from Middle-Eastern and North-African countries, followed by the one from South Asia, whose components were mostly born in Pakistan and Iran, followed by India, Lebanon and Yemen;
  • The number of Muslim immigrants currently accounts for around 10% of all legal immigrants in the US and a significantly lower percentage of all unauthorized immigrants;
  • Education and economic opportunities stand out among the immigration reasons, while political motivations (conflicts, persecutions) account for 20% of the total;
  • 20% of adult American Muslims have grown up in a different faith or none at all. At the same time, as many people formed as Muslims ceased to identify themselves by faith;
  • In terms of cults, most Muslims are, of course, Sunni, with the highest rates among first- and second-generation Pakistanis and South-Asians, while the Shiites, with the highest prevalence among the Iranians, account for nearly a quarter of the US Muslims. Among the Native Americans, which, as the Pakistanis, are the most regular at religious services, Sunnis prevail, with a large presence of Shiites and Nation of Islam members;
  • In racial terms, most defines themselves as white, followed by black and Asian, while among the Native Americans percentages are reversed, with more than half defining themselves as black;
  • The mosques in the US are more than 2,000 (nearly doubled compared to the beginning of this century), mainly spread across California, New York, Texas, New Jersey and Michigan. Only Alaska and Vermont lack them;
  • Muslims in the US (unlike in Europe) are mostly integrated and part of the middle class;
  • Despite the adverse political following September 11th, the US Muslim community has proved to be resilient, responsive to challenges by a wise mix of support for national policy, grassroots activism and interreligious spreading.

All this depicts the sedimentation of a presence dating to the early XVI century, because of the slave trade partly handled from countries where Islam was practiced. The first major Anglo-American who converted to Islam in the US was in 1888 the writer Alexander Russell Webb, previously adhering to Protestant Christianity. The first Muslim organization in the US was born in 1907 in New York, at the hands of Tartar immigrants from Russia, Poland and Lithuania. Following the immigration from the Middle East since 1880, Muslims who withstood post-WWI economic hardships were subjected to a general climate of intolerance, that favored the emergence of immigrant clusters (still existing nowadays) in Iowa, North Dakota and Indiana. In 1924, the Asian Exclusion Act and the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act blocked the entry of non-Europeans, particularly the Arabs (identified as “Asian”), and we must wait for the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act in order to fully reverse restrictive policies and to encourage practices of skilled labor recruiting: this produced new Muslim immigration in the country, including the one coming from Israel-occupied Palestine and from Arab countries victims of ruthless Nasser-inspired dictatorships.

Meanwhile, some Muslim communities had arranged around the concept of Islamic Black Nationalism and had founded associations based on African-American pride and racial superiority: in 1913 in New Jersey, the Noble Prophet Drew Ali established the Moorish Science Temple of America, and, after his death in 1929, a year later in Detroit, Michigan, the preacher Wallace Fard Muhammad founded the Nation of Islam, calling itself militant Islamic sect. When in June 1934 he mysteriously disappeared, the Georgian Elijah Poole, the new movement leader under the name of Elijah Muhammad, proclaimed him Allah on earth, and began preaching a complete separation from the white society (with the goal of creating an exclusively black pro-Islamic nation within the US). Among others, Malcolm X and the world heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali, as well, joined (before separating from) the Nation of Islam. When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, he was succeeded as Supreme Minister by his son Warith Deen Muhammad, who, in contrast to Louis Farrakhan, conformed to Sunni Islam. Muhammad has headed the American Society of Muslims since 1988 to 2003, when, despite having 55 chapters in over 35 States of the Union, left it in order to found The Mosque Cares. By then, also the Farrakhan’s new Nation of Islam, reborn in 1981, since 1997 had entered the Sunni Islam circle, by adopting the Friday celebrations, the ritual fasting, and other Islamic obligations; but, with a twist, May 8th, 2010 Farrakhan publicly announced his support for Dianetics, and fostered the Nation of Islam members to approach the practices of Ronald Hubbard’s Church of Scientology.

This relates to African American history of Islam, but nowadays the Muslim presence in the US is represented by a myriad of associations and organizations, gathering believers for a wide variety of purposes and in several operational fields, ranging from politics to doctrine, from legal activities to the social and community ones, from research to profession, also grouping into umbrella organizations, mostly for electoral purposes. Here, we give you an overview, definitely not exhaustive, but that seeks steering an understanding about a proliferation of associations not easy to follow in its development.

The umbrella organizations

A)   The U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO), born in March 2014, has the mission to offer communication and coordination to all American Muslim organizations, and as an intention to conduct a census of American Muslims for creating a database to be used to improve the civic and political participation in the elections. It includes among others:

  • Two African-American-offshoot associations: the aforementioned The Mosque Cares, based in the Chicago metropolitan area, Illinois, and ruled by Wallace D. Mohammed II, the son and successor of its founder; and the Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA), based in Lexington, Kentucky, created to address the social and economic problems plaguing Muslim communities, particularly those in the inner cities;
  • The Islamic Shura Council of Southern California (ISCSC), established in 1995 to promote community cohesion and cooperation, and today based in Garden Grove, California;
  • The American Muslim Alliance (AMA), founded a year earlier by Agha Saeed to promote the Muslim participation in the US electoral system by organizing voter mobilization drives. It’s headquartered in Newark, California, with branching in New York, Washington, D.C., and a hundred other decentralized chapters in 31 States of the Union. Often it works in partnership with the California Civil Rights Alliance (CCRA);
  • The Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), established in 1971 by immigrants from the Indian sub-continent to support, educate and empower American Muslims according to Quran and Prophet teachings. It’s located in the Queens, New York, with US and Canada regional headquarters in Detroit, Michigan, and Oakville, Ontario. It also works in connection with ICNA Relief charitable organization, which provides social services, documents cases of civil rights violation and delivers judicial case management services to community members;
  • Two associations close to the Muslim Brotherhood: the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), founded in June 1994 by the Jordanian ‘Omar Aḥmad, as a civil rights association promoting an Islamic perspective at the American public and encouraging social and political activism among American Muslims. Based in Washington, D.C., has other 32 chapters in 20 States of the Union; and the Muslim American Society (MAS) (its Executive Director in the photo below), born the previous year by individuals involved in the activities of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and its affiliated Muslim Students’ Association of the United States. The MAS, headquartered in Falls Church, Virginia, and more than 50 local offices, has as its aims to strengthen Muslim community relationship with the traditional and conventional America, and it operates through its offshoot MAS Freedom Foundation, as well.

Interestingly, relations among these associations or their members are quite interchangeable and flexible, and membership in an umbrella organization doesn’t prevent them joining another one, also because at times they result from one another.

B)   The American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections (AMT) was established in February 2004 in a Muslim Brotherhood context to “encourage community-based Muslim political participation and to defend against the erosion of civil liberties in a post-9/11 social environment”. It welcomes many of the acronyms already in the previous organization umbrella (MANA, AMA, ICNA, CAIR, MAS), but includes, among others, the following:

  • The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), based in Plainfield, Indiana, and formed in 1982 to act as a structure coordinating Islamic associations, addresses the immigrant Muslim community, by providing it with education and spread knowledge services, acting in partnership with The Mosque Cares. ISNA counts among its founders the Islamic Medical Association (IMA), the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS), and the Association of Muslim Scientists and Engineers (AMSE). Nevertheless, it has its roots in the Muslim Students’ Association of the United States and Canada (MSA National), founded in January 1963 by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamā‘at-e-Islami Theo-democratic movement, with the task of establishing and sustaining Islamic societies on Canada and US campuses, and now counting 150 autonomous offices;
  • The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), born in 1988 in order to promote “the civil rights of American Muslims, the integration of Islam into American pluralism, and a positive, constructive relationship between American Muslims and their representatives”. It has its headquarters in Los Angeles and an office in Washington, D.C.

Other associations work mainly in the following fields, with no claims this sorting gives rise to an exclusive expertise for them:

Juridical-theological understanding

  • The Islamic Supreme Council of America (ISCA), based in Fenton, Michigan, maintains relationships with neo-con non-Islamic circles. Founded in 1998 by the Lebanese-American Shaykh Hisham Kabbani (an adherent to the Naqshbandī Sufi Order), has the following objectives: to propose Islam “as a religion of moderation, tolerance, peace and justice”, by cooperating closely and actively with non-Muslim people and organizations; to increase a “mutual respect between all cultures and religions”, stressing the “common heritage of Islam, Christianity and Judaism”; to supplement the traditional doctrine in solving contemporary problems affecting the preservation of the Islamic faith in modern secular society. Accordingly, it explicitly rejects puritanical Islamic forms, such as Wahhābi Islam been practicing in Saudi Arabia, the Tālibān, and terrorist organizations embracing Islamist ideologies;
  • Karamah (Dignity): Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, based in Washington, D.C., and established in 1993 by the American philosopher and academic Azizah al-Hibri, provides a legal Islamic guidance with the following aims: to educate Muslim women to be competent in the Islamic Law and clever leaders within their communities; help develop the American Muslim community at large, and particularly women; and to act as an asset for American legal professionals about Islamic jurisprudence matters.

Defense of US principles

  • The American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) was born in March 2003 as an online forum by professionals, including former military commander of the US Navy Mohamed Zuhdi Jasser. Based in Phoenix, Arizona, advocates very sharp political ideas: separation between State and religion; contrast to political Islam; free market economy;
  • The Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism (FMCAT), located in Washington, D.C., was formed in May 2004 by the Palestinian-American Kamal Nawash to counter the use of violence by some Muslims. Paradoxically, with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it remains neutral, despite the origins of its founder;
  • The American Islamic Congress (AIC) was created in November 2001 by a group of Americans, including Zainab Al-Suwaij, born in Baṣra and granddaughter of the Āyatollāh of this Iraqi city. Based in Washington, D.C., and an additional office in Boston, Massachusetts, right from the beginning it has received a significant portion of its funding from the White House;
  • The American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA) is an outcome of the will of two Imām, Fayṣal ʿAbd ar-Raʾuf (photo below) and Faiz Khan, who founded it in 1997 “to cultivate American Muslim identity while improving relations between Muslims and other communities in the United States” (cit., Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs). Headquartered in New York, it has Sufi roots and, when it was founded, was called American Sufi Muslim Association.

Social justice and community services

  • The Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) began as an ASMA program in November 2006 by the American Kashmir-born Daisy Khan, Imām Fayṣal ʿAbd ar-Raʾuf’s wife and herself Executive Director of the connected Association. Its purpose is to strengthen a women and youth leadership based on faith, so as to promote a more peaceful and equitable Islam;
  • Two organizations, both located in Illinois, are especially devoted to provide social services: the Human Development Foundation of North America (HDF USA), based in Schaumburg, was founded in 1997 as a non-political movement aimed at the social change and reinforcement of community conditions, primarily “through mass literacy, enhanced quality of education, universal primary health care and grassroots economic development”; the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), based in Chicago and established a year earlier, has created programs to encourage arts in urban communities, as well as providing direct social services;
  • The American Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism (AMILA), founded in 1992 by Native Americans and Muslims grown in the US, has the mission of integrating the activities of mosques and local Muslim organizations through events and projects relevant to them.

Information and Research

  • The Islamic Information Center, based in Washington, D.C., and focused on the spiritual and philosophical aspects of Islam, was formed in 2002 by the Shiite theologian Mawlānā Naqvi in order to ensure a genuine Islamic information to the political, the media and interfaith environments. It has local offices in New York, Miami, Atlanta and St. Louis, Missouri;
  • Three organizations geared to the study of pluralism and democracy in the US, but born in different time frameworks: the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), established by a group of scholars and philanthropists after September 11th attacks, studies the impact of US domestic and foreign policy on American Muslims. Managed by Egypt-born scholar Dalia Mogahed, it’s headquartered in Washington, D.C., with extension to Dearborn, Michigan; the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), also based in Washington, D.C.; the Institute on Religion and Civic Values (IRCV), founded in 1991 as Council on Islamic Education (CIE) by the Indian immigrant Shabbir Mansuri, aims to raise awareness on world religions and appreciation for religious freedom and pluralism;
  • The International Strategy and Policy Institute (ISPI), based in Oak Brook, Illinois, was created in 1994 “to explain the moral ethical positions of Islam and Muslims to fellow Americans”;
  • The International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), established in 1981 in Pennsylvania and funded by members close to the Muslim Brotherhood, has its headquarters in Herndon, Virginia.

Professional activities

  • The American Muslim Chamber of Commerce (AMCC) was formed in 2008 by a group of US professionals  “to promote the development of trade and investment opportunities between the United States and the entire Muslim world”;
  • The Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals (CAMP) was launched in 1994 “to facilitate and inspire the development of Muslim Professionals to become exemplary leaders”. By working in partnership with the AMCC, it has its main office in Orland Park, Chicago, Illinois, with 14 local offices in the US and Canada, including those of New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C .;
  • The National Association of Muslim Lawyers (NAML), born in 2000, but deeply rooted in the 1996 MuslimJD founding, fosters access to legal assistance for Muslims and their full integration into the US judicial system. It’s based in Washington, D.C., and gave birth to some affiliated initiatives: in 2005, Muslim Advocates legal advocacy organization, which provides from Oakland, California, sophisticated legal and political competences to government leaders and the US Muslim community; in 2002, the National Muslim Law Students Association (NMLSA), set up to “foster the [Muslim] community’s professional growth, while maintaining solid educational and spiritual roots for Muslims in the law”.

Local community activities

Countless other organizations work locally standing as a platform to foster dialogue and facilitate cooperation among Muslim organizations, to encourage an active engagement into civil society and to give a unified view of the Muslim community as a whole. Among the most remarkable are: the Northern California Islamic Council, based in Newark, California; the Islamic Society of Greater Houston (ISGH), established in 1969; and the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC).

*****

This is a simplified framework of Muslim political and social presence in the US. These organizations are responsible for providing a clear and accurate indication (even in the choice of institutional representatives) about the future path of the communities they serve, in terms of religious minorities’ rights and duties, and in terms of defense of civic freedoms established by the Constitution!

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