Muslims Maintain Unique Identities within our American Mosaic



The writer is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Islamic Studies Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Are Muslims part of the American mosaic? This question requires us to address a dilemma for many American Muslims: searching for purity in one’s faith while tailoring religious practice to one’s life in America.

To address this dilemma with one simple answer is almost impossible. When we talk about American Muslims, we’re talking about a very diverse group of people. Only the annual hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) brings together more Muslims from more countries than those living in the United States today.

And the Muslim experience of being part of American history is not unique. Muslims, like other religious minorities did in the past, are looking for ways to retain their religious identity and to be American at the same time.

Muslims pragmatically adapt into the American mosaic in a variety of settings, such as mosques, institutes, schools and other public spaces. Taking advantages of what a liberal democracy offers, Muslims are establishing themselves in society through their institutions.

In doing so, they negotiate their identities and reach new hybrid identities compatible with both their authenticity and American values. The interaction between the pragmatic reasoning of American Muslims and American liberal democracy creates new combinations of Islamic interpretations that make an American Muslim community possible.

This is why American Muslims are forming a unique identity. Ingrid Mattson, who served as the president of the largest Muslim organization in the United States, Islamic Society of North America, between 2006 and 2010, once said, “I, as an American Muslim leader, denounce not only suicide bombers and the Taliban, but those leaders of other Muslim states who thwart democracy, repress women, use the Koran to justify un-Islamic behavior and encourage violence.”

Such statements are an indication of a new emerging American Muslim identity.

This does not mean that there is one unified Muslim community in the U.S. There is a wide diversity among Muslims. More inward-oriented communities have produced relatively stricter Islamic interpretations and focus more on retaining their authentic identities while more outward-oriented communities have led more liberal interpretations of Islam that emphasize issues like interreligious dialogue.

However, what unites these different groups is their tangible transformation within American social life despite the varying pace of change.

The American Muslim experience teaches us that Islam is not as static as we have been suggested to believe in many public debates. American Muslims differ, for example, in the way they approach a variety of choices: religious discourses in which they engage, the dynamic relationships that they establish with non-Muslims, and the religious interpretations that they adopt in meeting social and political challenges.

Dr. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, a professor of religious studies at Reed College, in his book, “A History of Islam in America,” demonstrates how Muslims have been part of American mosaic from the turn of the 16th century to today. As a leading scholar on American Muslims, he ably examines the American Muslim community and its relationship to broader American society, drawing on historical context.

Dr. GhaneaBassiri is coming to the University of Nebraska at Omaha to give a lecture to answer the question, “Can American Muslims Define a Multicultural America?” at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 13 in the UNO Community Engagement Center.

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