Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Soul Survival: The Road to American Muslim Political Empowerment

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Soul Survival: The Road to American Muslim Political Empowerment

Article excerpt

Recent events across the world stage have generated new interest in Islam as a world religion and Muslims as a diverse global community. Specifically, the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and the subsequent "war on terrorism" that led to military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, while placing the rest of the world on heightened alert, inevitably sparked curiosity about Islam within Western academia and popular culture. It is under the pall of these world events that Muslims in the United States have found themselves the subject of much scrutiny and debate. The discussion has focused largely on the extent to which American Muslims truly are American Muslims, or whether they are simply a community of strangers in a strange land. As a nation that prides itself on welcoming diversity and promoting pluralism, the U.S. has historically forced communities to compromise aspects of their identity to gain social acceptance. Experiences by Americans of African, Japanese, Catholic, and Jewish origin support this notion. In each case, the road to social assimilation while protecting one's identity came only through political empowerment. The civil rights movement of the 1960s is probably the most thorough example of a community, in this case African-American, that was only allowed to thrive socially once it fought for its place on the political stage. Clearly, the American Muslim experience has been no exception.

While the history of Islam in America dates back centuries, its emergence as an outright community is marked by its institutional development, which began as recently as the mid-1960s. The evolution of American Muslim institutions underwent three primary transitions: from internal, self-serving, and temporary structures, to intermediary, bridge-building mechanisms, yielding ultimately to external structures devoted solely to bringing Muslims into American public life. The challenges faced in these transitions were both internal and external.

An important debate within the Muslim community centered on the plausibility of public involvement, with systemic and ideological objections arising as a stumbling block. Only subsequent to the emergence of a critical mass among American Muslims committed to political empowerment did that movement commence. Externally, a number of social and political challenges, both institutional and informal, appeared in the 1990s as obstacles to the Muslim community's political aspirations. American Muslim institutions used the momentum they built in combating the "secret evidence" trials in the mid-1990s to develop into a potent political force. The community ultimately took a strong stand in the 2000 national elections, with intriguing results that will be shared here for the first time.

The emphasis throughout this report will be on the community's growing involvement in the public sphere, especially the developments within the past 15 years. As will be elucidated further, this era featured significant progress with implications reaching far beyond present conditions, ultimately creating new political realities in the process.


Contrary to popular belief, Muslims have had a presence in the Americas throughout the region's European history. Most historians believe that Christopher Columbus' ships carried Moorish Muslim sailors during the maiden voyage to America in 1492 (Fell 10). In the centuries that followed, European colonization of the Americas would come to include a slave trade vital to its economic survival in the New World. A "small but significant" percentage of the African slaves brought to America were Muslim (Tweed 10). Even conservative estimates say that one in every 10 Africans (or 10 percent), primarily from the Western region of the continent, was Muslim. Almost without exception, however, this early population was stripped of its religious and cultural identity. Virtually the entire African slave population was forced into adopting the religion of its masters, leaving no trace of any Muslim presence during the early stages of American history. …

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