Islam in America: American Muslims and the Moral Dilemmas of Citizenship

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ISLAM IN AMERICA: American Muslims and the Moral Dilemmas of Citizenship

The demonization of Islam in mainstream American media compels Muslims to become sensitive about their identity. All their activities are motivated by this identity and geared toward defending their faith from a perceived American assault. They rarely, if ever, get opportunities to live as American citizens endeavoring to maximize liberty, equality and prosperity.

Similarly the negative image of America in the eyes of most Muslims, a consequence of its foreign policy in the Middle East, elicits paradoxical responses from American Muslims. America's prosperity and freedom attract them and, once they are here, its policies and its attitudes toward Muslims and Islam alienate them. Becoming American citizens presents an unusual moral dilemma for American Muslims. They love to live in America, while many of them love to hate America.

I once asked the president of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) at one of his talks in Washington, DC to spell out the obligations of naturalized Muslim citizens to their new country -- America -- keeping in mind the Qur'anic injunction (Qur'an; 9:4) that promises made must be kept (pacta sund servanda). While asserting that he was not an Islamic scholar and therefore unqualified to give an authoritative answer, the president of ICNA proceeded to give an interesting reply.

He said that, in the opinion of many scholars whom he had consulted, becoming a citizen should be understood as signing a treaty between a Muslim individual and the United States. Therefore all Muslims who make this compact with the U.S. are obliged to fulfill their obligations as proper citizens, obey the law, pay taxes and so on. He also recommended that since the U.S. has offered the option to decline military draft to new citizens, Muslims could take this option to save themselves moral dilemmas if called to fight against Muslim states. If for some reason, he said, Muslims do not like the society of the United States they must terminate their treaty and leave.

However, he added, "of course Muslims are not obliged to obey laws and policies which are specifically against Islamic beliefs." He also recognized the opportunity for dissent and change that the U.S. constitution provides its citizens and recommended that Muslims avail themselves of this opportunity.

To most Muslims in the audience, the answer seemed rational, sensible, and even enlightened. Nevertheless, I am personally not very satisfied with his analysis. When Muslims become naturalized citizens they do not inform the U.S. government that their acceptance of U.S. citizenship is conditional. They do not make it clear to the U.S. that they will remain good citizens as long as no explicitly anti-Islamic law or policy is legislated or implemented.

I am sure that the U.S. government would not agree to any such conditions, since after all it is the Muslim individual who is seeking association (citizenship) and not vice versa. Thus many Muslims who see Islam and the U.S. in a state of conflict have enormous problems in beginning to think of themselves as American Muslims.

They want the prosperity and the freedom of America, but not its foreign policy or its liberal culture. And Muslim leaders who oppose political assimilation without opposing naturalization inadvertently place Muslims in a morally delicate situation. …