Madinat al-Muslimeen Islamic Message Board
|Changing Face of America from Judeo-Christian to Abrahamic...|
|09/19/01 at 01:14:20|
|Rethinking Islam's place in American society|
Perhaps no one in America felt more vulnerable last week than adherents to Islam. They've been subjected to physical attacks, verbal harassment, ugly suspicion, and the excruciating sensation of seeing the tenets of their religion twisted beyond recognition.
Even Muslims who wear their beliefs openly and easily have wanted to hide behind a business suit and blond hair because of the accusation in the ashen air that their coreligionists were responsible for the death and carnage of Tuesday's terrorist attack.
For the first time in his memory, Khalid Blankenship, chair of Temple University's religion department, is anxious because his wife insists on wearing the hijab to work, even though Islamic clergy have authorized women to take off the distinctive headdress.
"Nothing has happened, thank God," he reported Friday, "but it's the fear."
For the first time in her 25-plus years in this country, Rehana Jan is uncomfortable walking down the street in the traditional clothing of her native Pakistan. "I was never afraid to go anywhere, anytime," said Jan, an anesthesiologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. "But since Wednesday, I feel that I have to look over my shoulder."
There's an exquisite irony to these frightened expressions, because they come just at the moment when Islam is clearing a space for itself in American culture. Through immigration, procreation and conversion, its adherents are growing more numerous, more visible, and more politically active. (There are more than twice as many Muslims as Episcopalians in America.)
Some scholars have given a name to this evolution: Judeo-Christian America, they say, is becoming Abrahamic America - defined by the three major Western religious traditions that trace their roots to the biblical Abraham.
Before last week, the implications of an Abrahamic America made for an interesting academic question, something to discuss in a college sociology seminar or a conference on pluralism. Now, the challenge is as pressing and complex as the cleanup of Lower Manhattan.
"If it turns out that the producers of this terror were Islamic fundamentalists, that will have enormous impact on how we think of the incorporation of Muslims into this country," said Alan Wolfe, director of the Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.
America is going to have to think differently about Muslims. And Muslims are going to have to think differently about America.
The simplistic stereotyping that goes on - equating Arabs and Muslims - must stop. Two-thirds of Arab Americans are, actually, Christian. And up to three-fourths of the U.S. Muslim population is not Arab.
This challenge to pluralism can't be overcome in a nation that is ignorant of the history, philosophy and practices of Islam or, in fact, of any major religion. It's going to require a serious rethinking of the role religion should play in public discourse. It should, for example, affect how religion is taught in public schools.
Blankenship, who teaches world religion at Temple, is stunned by the ignorance in his classes. "Students don't know anything about Jewish practice, never mind Muslim," he says.
Education is a powerful antidote to ignorance - and there is evidence that it also breeds tolerance. A study by the Pew Research Center released in April tracked attitudes toward different religions and found that college graduates have a better view of Muslims than those who never graduated from college. Younger people generally have a more favorable impression of Muslims than older Americans.
The evidence was anecdotal last week for Shabir Monsuri, but just as convincing. Monsuri is the founder of the Council on Islamic Education, based in California; he has held workshops attended by 10,000 teachers nationwide. On Friday alone, he received more than a dozen phone messages from teachers thanking him for teaching them about Islam. They knew what to say to their students, how to separate rumor from reality.
"We're trying to bring the teaching of religion back into the classroom in a constitutionally appropriate way," Monsuri said. All 50 states finally have mandated teaching about world religions, he said, although some still are working out how to do so.
Just as America needs to reach out, Muslim America needs to extend itself.
"Muslims have been silent and even maybe passive members of the society," Rehana Jan said. "Nobody knows what Islam stands for until a bad thing happens, and then they get a distorted impression of what Islam means. We have to be a little more proactive and say who we are and what we are."
The complicated concept of jihad, the role of women, the dress and behavior and prayer schedule - all are grossly misunderstood, Jan believes. Worst of all is the assumption that Islam would glorify a fanatic who rams an airplane full of innocent passengers into a government or commercial citadel.
"Terrorism is a political statement, a philosophical statement," Jan insists. "It has nothing to do with religion. Islam absolutely condemns violence."
In black and white, that statement by itself may not sound convincing. Hearing it from an articulate, respected doctor, neighbor or teacher undoubtedly will carry more credibility.
Ultimately, the challenge of an Abrahamic America is the challenge of an immigrant America. If Muslims remain the other , the outsiders, then there is less chance they will embrace and enhance a communal future. It may be popular to think that ethnicity contributes to a factionalized nation, but experience shows otherwise.
Michael Foley, associate professor of politics at Catholic University, is conducting research on the role congregations play in helping people integrate into public life. His preliminary findings: The stronger the identity of the congregation, the more its members seek to reach out into the larger community and integrate into society.
So, it follows, a strong, educated, proud Muslim community can enhance, not weaken, communal America. Shabir Monsuri believes it already, even during this last, difficult week.
"I have lived here for 32 years," the Indian-born educator said just after a Muslim colleague spoke at the national prayer service in Washington. "The last 31/2 days have been the most fulfilling. America has given me a place at the table. This country, even in so much pain, is protecting our dignity."
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