Talk on Muslims in America Provides Some Historical Context
At a talk this morning, a noted scholar of American Muslim communities spoke about Muslims in America as the keynote speaker at a symposium at California State University, Long Beach. The talk, delivered by Dr. Amir Hussain, was the keynote talk at a symposium on “Displaced Religion: Diaspora, Gender and Community”, put on by The Department of Religions Studies in collaboration with Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, the Department of Africana Studies, and the Middle Eastern Studies Program. While the talk was entitled “Displaced Religion: American Muslim Communities Post-San Bernardino”, Dr. Hussain’s remarks focussed not on the recent attacks two months ago in San Bernardino in which Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik murdered more than a dozen people, but rather a broad overview of Muslims in America.
Starting off with the observation that, “if you look at the post-San Bernardino [attacks] rhetoric” as well as the remarks coming from certain Republican presidential candidates, “you get the sense that Islam is a new religion and foreign to American values.” However, he pointed out that Muslims have been in America since before it was a country. Since “at least 10% of the slaves brought over from Africa were Muslim”, there have been Muslims in this country since before 1776.
Looking towards current-day attitudes, Dr. Hussain pointed to a 2011 Pew Forum report, “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism”, in which Dr. Hussain noted that “over half of Muslim Americans say they want to adapt to American lifestyle,” while only 1/3 of [other] Americans think Muslim Americans want to adapt. This then led Dr. Hussain to point out how Muslims in America have been key sports figures, such as Muhammed Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, key architectural figures, and also significant musical artists. In this latter category, Dr. Hussain pointed out a handful of famous Hip-Hop performers and observed that “Islam is the language of Hip-Hop”; that, when one listens to a lot of Hip-Hop, one can learn about Islam.
He also discussed the controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”, although he pointed out that he, himself, had taken part in Muslim prayer services in the World Trade Center towers, so not only were there Muslims who died in the twin towers, but there had also been Muslim prayer services that took place in closer proximity to the towers when they stood than where the “Ground Zero Mosque” had been intended to take place.
In concluding his prepared remarks, Dr. Hussain observed: “what’s more American than Islam, that has been with America since its founding?”
In moving on to the question-and-answer section, the first question concerned the Nation of Islam. Dr. Hussain said that “nowadays, anywhere between 25-40% of Muslims in America are African-American” and “almost all of them came through the Nation of Islam” before it came to become part of Sunni Orthodoxy. With about 1.5 million African-American Muslims, he said a “lot of them converted in the 1960s” on account of the racial issues at the time. In the religious element, “it’s kind of familiar to you”, whether converting from Protestant Christianity or even Catholic, because there is one God and still have Jesus. Dr. Hussain noted that “converting to Islam is as much a political statement as it is a religious statement.”
When asked about Islamophobia, Dr. Hussain first pointed out a term he heard from another scholar: “the normalization of Islamophobia”, which has become widespread. He then observed that “part of it is the sense of this is that it is easy to demonize the other when you think of them as the other.” Part of what is fuelling Islamophobia, he said, is that 68% of Americans do not know any Muslims. “I think some of it is the ignorance there”, said Dr. Hussain, and “I think part of it is the effort to demonize Muslims.” “For instance, you look at the anti-Sharia laws” in many states and that “I think it is easy to demonize” the other; continuing, that “I think it is easy to say ‘evil comes from the outside’.” He also had heard someone point out, in a workshop at Oxford “isn’t it interesting to see how closely related anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are?”
Dr. Hussain also shared that between the Chattanooga shootings, in which Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez had killed five people in July 2015, and the aforementioned San Bernardino shooting in late 2015, there were 19 killed by homegrown Muslim terrorists, which is 19 too many. Yet, there were 372 mass shootings in the US in 2015, which is a seemingly disproportionate amount of attention on Muslim mass shootings, which led him to point out that “it is easy to say ‘it’s the Muslims doing the shootings’.”
When asked about why are young people leaving to go and fight in the Middle East, he pointed out that “there are huge differences between American Islam and European Islam.” “In America, Muslims are America’s success story” in their socioeconomic achievements through their professions. However, in Europe, Muslims are “often the underclass” and one gets “more of a sense that society has failed” Muslims in Europe, so it’s easier for them to make their minds up to go leave and fight. With those who have gone off to fight from the US, it’s more about disenfranchised young people connecting on the Internet than they are with their own mosques here. The youth are more easily radicalized via the Internet than by other people around them.
The last question was a fascinating one about which kinds of outreach can be done, if so few Americans know Muslims. He said his answer is unpopular with Muslim parents, in that he advises them to stop telling their kids to go into the professional fields, such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.; rather, he suggests, they should go into the arts, writing, and journalism, so they can tell their story.
With a certain comfortability in addressing the audience, Dr. Hussain provided both an insightful and entertaining talk, easily keeping the audience’s attention. Rather than a boring and dense talk, Dr. Hussain was accompanied by visual references, as well as peppering his talk with both humorous notes as well as references to the Los Angeles Lakers (of whom he is a fan), allowing the audience to enjoy it. It was a great way to kick off the religious studies symposium to gain more insight for the attendees into this demographic in America.