With the 2004 presidential election cycle heating up, it is only natural that American ethnic and religious groups begin to assess the candidates’ opinions regarding the issues that the groups care about. While Jewish-Americans demonstrate a strong interest in supporting Israel and in promoting religious freedom and tolerance within the United States, many Evangelical Christians are focused on what they view as the alarmingly increased support for gay marriage in American society. Muslim-Americans, like their Christian and Jewish counterparts, are likewise reflecting on the issues that concern them and are assessing the strengths and weaknesses of all the major candidates.
A question that must be asked at this point, is whether there exists such a thing as a “Muslim vote,” that is, whether there is a coherent voting bloc of Muslim-Americans who, upon agreeing on a certain core set of issues, vote en masse for one particular candidate. If one listened to the spokesmen for the more vocal Muslim-American organizations, one would come to the conclusion that the plight of the Palestinians and strong opposition to the Iraq War were the most significant issues on the minds of Muslim America. However, upon closer inspection, not only is that not the case, but it appears that there really is no such thing as a “Muslim American vote.” The reason for this is quite simple and one generally ignored by both the mainstream news media and by the more radical factions in American Muslim society: many Muslim-Americans have stronger allegiances to their ethnic or national identity than to their religious identity.
For many Americans, the label “Muslim-American” automatically conjures up images of bearded Arab men and Arab women in hijab, the traditional head covering worn by extremely devout Muslim women. In reality, however, the vast majority of Muslim-Americans are not Arab at all. They are more likely to be either white converts disillusioned with their Christian heritage, African-American athletes, sub-Saharan African immigrants, South Asian physicians, or Circassian law enforcement officers, and they, in fact, have their origins in dozens of countries and regions. Their traditions range from that of the intolerant Wahabbism indigenous to Saudi Arabia to that of numerous orders of Sufism. They include secularists and Ismailis, admirers of Israel and unrelenting critics of the totalitarian regime that is Saudi Arabia, beer drinkers and teetotalers, MTV-fans and watchers of Lifetime.
While some Muslim-Americans have been deeply angered by the American-led war to liberate Iraq, others Muslim-Americans, most notably Shi’a Iraqi-Americans from Michigan and nominally Sunni Kurdish-Americans, have shown their deep appreciation for President Bush’s commitment to a free and prosperous Iraq freed from the shackles of Saddam Hussein. Those who claimed that “Muslim-Americans” were universally opposed to the removal of the horrific regime that once had a home in Baghdad were either completely misguided or just plain naïve.
Muslim-Americans hail from countries as culturally and geographically far apart as Albania and Bangladesh, with Albanian-Americans far more interested in developments in the Balkans than in South Asia, and vice versa for Bangladeshi-Americans. Although many Albanian-Americans are indeed Muslim, their primary identity, for both cultural and electoral purposes, is that of their Albanian nationality. A patriotic community that is deeply appreciative of American efforts to rescue the large, primarily Muslim Kosovar Albanian community from Serbian-sponsored genocide in the late 1990s, Albanian-American voters, it is safe to say, are far more interested in independence for Kosova than in ‘liberating’ Palestine. While the stereotype of Muslim-Americans is often that of a community belligerent to Israel and to Jews, I can say from first-hand experience that the Jewish community has a friend in ‘Albanian-America,’ a community, it should be noted, which is deeply proud of the fact that many Albanians risked their lives to save Jews during the dark days of the Holocaust.
Another Muslim-American community with which I have had personal contact is that of the Circassian-Americans of Wayne, New Jersey. A community of some 5,000 people, New Jersey’s Circassian, or Adigha, community maintains a vibrant community center that promotes both their ancient Circassian identity and their adherence to a tolerant form of Hanafi Islam. Descendants of the Circassians who were brutally expelled from the northern Caucasus in the late 19th-century and found refuge in Turkey and the Levant, Circassian-Americans balance their myriad identities as Americans, Circassians, and Muslims in both their private and public lives.
Like their Albanian counterparts, Circassian-Americans, although Muslim and deeply respectful toward their Arab and Turkish Muslim compatriots, maintain a stronger national identity as Circassians than a religious identity as Muslims. Although they continue to teach their youth the traditions of a tolerant Islam and Arabic, they also maintain a deep attachment to their sacred Adigha culture and its beautiful traditions. In my discussions with members of the Circassian-American community, what impressed me the most was their deep loyalty to the United States and their profound appreciation for the opportunities that this country has given them. This is perhaps an ideal picture of how a community within “Muslim America” can balance its identity and both contribute to the building of a multi-ethnic American identity and, given their tradition of national service, to American law enforcement and the Armed Forces.
“Muslim America” is thus clearly far more diverse, both ethnically and religiously, than either the Wahabbis or the cable news media would care to acknowledge. The term “Muslim-Americans” encompasses Turks who would feel far more comfortable in a synagogue with their Jewish friends than in a Salafist mosque, Algerian-Americans who fled the barbarism of the Islamic extremists that bloodied their homeland in the early 1990s, Pakistani Shiites who are far more fearful of hate-filled neo-Deobandi extremists back in Pakistan than they are of John Ashcroft’s Justice Department, Kurdish-Americans with an ambivalent attitude towards Islam and who may be more Zoroastrian than Muslim, and Iranian-Americans who never much considered themselves to be “Muslim” at all until the 1979 Revolution forced many of them to flee to the safety of our shores. The Iranian-American community in Los Angeles, for instance, is the vanguard of the burgeoning Iranian cultural and youth revolution that threatens the integrity of the fundamentalist regime in Teheran. These primarily secular, Shi’a Muslims are on the forefront of the march toward Middle Eastern democracy and maintain one of the most vibrant, assimilated Muslim communities in the United States.
No one, however, should be oblivious to the very stark reality of radical Islam’s strong and financially influential role in American Muslim life or the fact that many extremists, particularly members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, have infiltrated the American Muslim establishment and are agitating on university campuses in order to brainwash the next generation of American Muslim youth into believing that their highest calling as Muslims must be to identify with the most anti-Zionist Palestinian extremists and to lambaste the United States as a racist, intolerant nation. The large number of indictments recently handed out against some self-appointed American Muslim community leaders is likewise worrisome, but may also indicate that radical Islam’s influence on American public discourse is slowly diminishing.
A more honest appraisal of American Muslim life will likely please neither the anti-Islamic extremists nor the Wahabbi fanatics, but it would go a long way to highlight the often forgotten communities that constitute “Muslim America” and give a voice to those Muslim-Americans, secularist and religious alike, who are deeply patriotic and are, in many ways, far more culturally “American” than they are religiously “Muslim.” Anti-American extremist elements within the Muslim community will doubtlessly feel even more sidelined in the years to come. This is, of course, a good thing. Pro-American Muslims who would much rather serve honorably in law enforcement than in a jihad against the “infidel” will, in contrast, likely continue to find a place in the fabric of American cultural life among their Christian and Jewish friends and neighbors.