Americans have prided themselves for doing a better job than the Europeans assimilating “our Muslims.” There are now indications that pride may be mistaken. In Sunday’s Washington Post Geneive Abdo reports on her conversations with Muslims (especially Muslim women) around the country. She find that while assimilation to the American way of life was on the increase, after 9/11 and the changed attitude toward Muslims here, Muslims have increasingly deepened their identity as Muslims.
Over the past two years, I have traveled the country, visiting mosques, interviewing Muslim leaders and speaking to Muslim youths in universities and Islamic centers from New York to Michigan to California — and I have encountered a different truth. I found few signs of London-style radicalism among Muslims in the United States. At the same time, the real story of American Muslims is one of accelerating alienation from the mainstream of U.S. life, with Muslims in this country choosing their Islamic identity over their American one.
A new generation of American Muslims — living in the shadow of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — is becoming more religious. They are more likely to take comfort in their own communities, and less likely to embrace the nation’s fabled melting pot of shared values and common culture.
What ought we to make of this? Should we wonder where Muslims put their ultimate allegiance – to their country or to their religion? When we interact with them can we expect them to respond like “one of us” or like one of those stereotypical Muslims on TV (violent, angry, irrational)?
The supposed contrast between the peace loving American way and the raging Muslim way isn’t what Abdo finds, however. Her Muslim friends instead find the American way – the way to which they choose not to assimilate – to be characterized by immodesty, irrelegion, and loose morals.
Fatma described the mosque as central to her future: “What made me sane during years of public high school,” she said, “was coming to the halaqa every Sunday.” Fatma was also quick to distinguish herself from other young Muslim women who embrace American mores. “Some Muslims do anything to fit in. They drink. They date. My biggest fear is that I might assimilate to the American lifestyle so much that my modesty goes out the window.”
In recovering Muslim habits and practices they take a stand against the American notion that faith ought to be privatized, rather than integrated into all aspects of life.
Sounds pretty dangerous, doesn’t it? If they won’t assimilate – if they won’t takeup the American way of life – how can we trust them? How can we know they won’t turn on us?
At the end of the third century A.D. the Romans felt that way about Christians. Beseiged by enemies on every side, the Romans saw the Christians as a fifth column: living off the blessings of Roman power, yet unwilling to give simple honor to the empire. Just a pinch of insense, just a small offering. “We’re open minded. You can honor your Jesus too, just don’t forget our gods. You think our gods aren’t real gods? Well, what are we supposed to think of your god? We crucified him as a common criminal a few hundred years ago. Sure doesn’t sound very godlike to us. But we’re tolerant: if only you’ll assimilate.”
In the next generation a mutual assimilation – the church with Roman power – took place. Now the Christians were on the inside, encouraging (too put it mildly) the pagan hordes, Roman and barbarian alike, to assimilate.
Nowadays Christians don’t need to assimilate. We live in a Christian country – God’s own nation. What? You think not? Well, I guess it is the case that liberals and conservatives alike find America mired in sin (though the sins they coddle and the sins they decry differ). If from so many major Christian viewpoints America is no longer – if it ever was – a Christian nation, then why should we think it a bad thing when Muslims no longer assumilate? Is it because they make us feel guilty for assimilating – for being mostly indistingsuishable from the world?
Perhaps instead of fearing Muslims in America, we should be jealous of them. After all, they seem to still have institutions capable of helping people resist assimilation. Most of our churches, on the other hand, gave up the battle long ago and some have even become temples of the American Way.
Am I saying that it’s a bad thing to be an American? No, not at all. I don’t see any other nations out there that I’d rather live in. I also understand why so many the world over want to come live here. But being an American is not the same as being a Christian. I believe God has us here to be a blessing to the people of this nation. We become that blessing not by assimilation (losing our saltiness), but by living as apprentices of Jesus, demonstrating to the watching world – whether secular America, American Muslims, or whomever – the reality of Jesus. Maybe if the Muslims in America could distinguish the Christians in America from the overwhelming background noise of a morally degenerate culture, they might develop some curiousity about Jesus.