Under Political Siege, Muslim Americans Confront America’s Ugly Side

By Michelle Chen Jun 07, 2010

Besieged by media attacks and riven by internal conflicts, Muslim American communities have been wrestling with an identity crisis for years now.

The latest slew of "homegrown terrorism" allegations has prompted the Obama administration to show that it’s at least as adamant as its predecessor in treating terrorism as a domestic as well as an international issue. Caught in the crossfire, as usual, are the members of the Muslim diaspora who have struggled to make the U.S. home in the post-9/11 era.

With groups like the Council of American Islamic Relations waging damage-control campaigns, Faisal Shahzad, Rafia Zakaria of altmuslim.com suggests that community leaders are too eager to distance themselves from controversial and, presumably, less American elements among them. Desperate attempts to align with American culture have inadvertently led to a kind of "catatonia that has not permitted Muslim Americans to truly assess the potential of radicalisation within their own communities."

After 9/11 seared the profile of the terrorist threat into America’s public imagination, he writes:

In distinguishing Muslim Americans as a separate breed from Pakistanis or Palestinians, and promoting white converts or African Americans to leadership roles, it was thought that a degree of insulation would be achieved and the community would be shielded from taking on responsibility for the nefarious acts of those in faraway Muslim lands….

As reactions to the Times Square plot illustrate, the Muslim American community and the organisations it has produced since 9/11 remain largely reactive. They spring into action only in response to a crisis, thus entrenching the very apologetic paradigm that is most harmful to the Muslim American image. The community’s concerns have not been able to develop a theology or leadership of its own that is accepting of its immigrant dimension.

To Zakaria, Muslim American leaders too often insulate themselves in elitist materialism but remain tone-deaf to internal tensions:

The apathy inevitably bred by affluence has meant that few, if any, prominent community members are bothered with issues such as the increasing alienation of young Muslim Americans — except when mainstream Americans become suspicious of them. Few Muslim American parents, for example, pause to consider the dualities in their children’s lives, where they must keep themselves apart from mainstream American culture to maintain their Muslim identity and yet try to excel in every form of academic achievement.

Zakaria isn’t downplaying the difficulty of confronting these internal conflicts, particularly while staving off political attacks from the outside. But he says ignoring the problem is far riskier.

The alleged ties between Somali American youth in the Twin Cities area and militant Islamic groups in their ancestral homeland, may speak to the dilemma of selective assimilation. As I reported for ColorLines last year, the mystery behind the "disappearances" may say a lot more about the emotional and cultural isolation of young Somali Americans than the domestic terrorist narrative played up by the media.

While Muslims in America face unique struggles in developing authentic political representation, they’re not the only group struggling with cultural "dualities." In nearly every community of Others, there’s always friction between assimilation and group solidarity, as seen in the political tumult surrounding Asian American and Latino voters in 2008, and the ascendancy of Black conservatives in the next campaign cycle. Whether navigating "inside" or "outside," there’s nothing more American than straddling two worlds at once.

Image: Jewcy.com