The Emerging American Muslim Civic Identity

Eboo Patel

The recent spate of high-profile news on Muslim-Americans can be summed up easily: horror and terror.

From Faisal Shahzad to Jihad Jane to the five young men caught on terror charges in Pakistan, it doesn’t take much for news organizations to pick up on the theme of the hour.

This scares me. First and foremost, the stories continue to scare me. I am as likely to be in Times Square and the victim of a terror attack as anybody else. If there is backlash because of that attack, it’s Muslims who stand to suffer the most. And whether or not I’m on that plane or by that car, the fact that there are violent extremists who call themselves Muslims, and there is a media environment that constantly repeats their mantra, in the end it is my faith — Islam — that is being linked to violence in the public imagination.

The high-profile actions of the few are overshadowing a trend that is capturing the many: the emergence of an American Muslim civic identity, which is to say, how Islam inspires its followers to be better citizens in America.

You can see this in three ways:

1) The work of American Muslim intellectuals – like Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah of the Nawawi Foundation, who is working to show not only how Islam is indigenous to America by articulating the compatibility of American and Muslim ideals, but also the important role that Muslims have played throughout the history of our nation. In his most recent paper, “Turks, Moors & Moriscos in Early America”, Dr. Abd-Allah writes, “The presence of Muslim peoples throughout the history of American attests to the fact that they have played a noteworthy role in the American experience.”

2) Muslim organizations who are emphasizing how Islam inspires Muslims not only to build a strong Muslim community, or to be strong in their private practice, but also to be excellent public citizens. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is holding its annual convention in Chicago this weekend. The theme is not “The True Meaning of the Qur’an” or “How to Dominate other Religious Groups.” The theme is “Nurturing Compassionate Communities: Connecting Faith and Service,” and the convention offers workshops like Nurturing Compassionate Communities through Interfaith Partnerships, Cooperation, Translating Faith into Service, and a Muslim Entrepreneurs’ Showcase.

3) The contributions of a growing generation of Muslim-American civic leaders. I have often written about the exceptional work of Rami Nashashibi, who runs the Inner-City Muslim Action Network on the South Side of Chicago. Here I want to highlight Nadia Roumani and her program The American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute (AMCLI), which aims to empower emerging American Muslim civic leaders to help their communities engage in effective civic participation. The participants range from leaders of social service organizations to interfaith organizations – in other words, the type of civil leaders that religious communities in America have nurtured for generations and who this country relies on to strengthen the social fabric and contribute to the common good.

It’s no accident that I’m writing today, and that the ISNA convention is being held over the July 4th weekend. On this Independence Day, I remember that the promise of American citizenship is that people get to keep their particular ethnic-religious-racial identity and connect it to their role as citizens. It’s not just a privilege, it’s a responsibility, and it’s one that American Muslims are taking seriously.


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Posted in Op/Ed, United States

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