It matters what kind of Islam prevails in U.S.

July 25, 1999|By Daniel Pipes

ISLAM IS said to have 6 million adherents in the United States and to be the fastest-growing religion in this country; in 1960, there were an estimated 100,000 Muslims living in this nation. This community is unlike any that came before, and it faces choices that are likely to have a major impact on the United States and on Muslims around the world.

American Muslims -- immigrants and native-born converts alike -- look at the United States in one of two ways. Members of one group, the integrationists, see themselves as patriotic Americans and committed Muslims.

They insist that the West's norms -- neighborly relations, diligence on the job, honesty -- are essentially what Islam teaches. Conversely, they present Islam as the fulfillment of American values and see Muslims as a very positive force to improve America.

As one integrationist put it, to be a good Muslim, you have to be a good American and vice versa. Or, as the American black leader W. Deen Mohammed put it, "Islam can offer something to the West, rather than represent a threat to the West."

Integrationists accept that the United States will never become a Muslim country and are reconciled to living within a non-Islamic framework; they call for Muslims to become useful and influential participants in public life.

Falafels, not hot dogs

In contrast, chauvinists aspire to make the United States a Muslim country, perhaps along the Iranian or Sudanese models. Believing that Islamic civilization is superior to anything American, they promote Islam as the solution to all of the country's ills.

In the words of their leading theorist, Ismail Al-Faruqi, "Nothing could be greater than this youthful, vigorous and rich continent [of North America] turning away from its past evil and marching forward under the banner of Allahu Akbar [God is great]."

Some of this ilk even talk about overthrowing the U.S. government and replacing it with an Islamic one.

In short, integrationists are delighted to live in a democratic country where the rule of law prevails, whereas chauvinists wish to import the customs of the Middle East and South Asia. If one group accepts the concept of an Americanized Islam as no less valid than an Egyptian or Pakistani Islam, the other finds very little attractive in American life.

Which of these two elements prevails has great significance for the United States and for the world of Islam. If the great majority of American Muslims adopt the integrationist approach, the Muslim community should fit well into the fabric of American life.

There is also the possibility that the well-educated, affluent and ambitious community of American Muslims will spread their version of a modern and tolerant Islam to the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere.

But if the chauvinists are numerous and (as today) run most of the Muslim institutions in the United States, the consequences could be bitter indeed. Take the March 1996 incident when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a 27-year-old convert to Islam then playing in the National Basketball Association, decided to sit down as the American national anthem was played before each game.

As a Muslim, he said, he could not pay such respect to the American flag, which he considered a "symbol of oppression, of tyranny." The disaffection of this wealthy and successful Muslim has dire implications if it becomes widespread.

There's a role here for everyone -- Muslim, non-Muslim, business executive, Hollywood producer, journalist, teacher, religious leader -- to explain what it means to be an American and to argue against Muslim chauvinism.

One might think it obvious that life in this country is immeasurably preferable to that in Iran or Sudan, but that's clearly not obvious to everyone. Those of us who understand this simple truth must explain it to our fellow citizens.

Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and the author of three books on Islam. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Pub Date: 7/25/99

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