Backlash: As American As...

Although scapegoated, Muslims, Sikhs and Arabs are patriotic, integrated--and growing

  • Share
  • Read Later

(3 of 5)

The largest is African American, a group of almost 2 million whose story is unknown to most of their countrymen. In the 1930s, Wallace D. Fard and his acolyte Elijah Muhammad founded a group called the Nation of Islam. The Nation was misnamed: its racialist views and unique theology cause most Muslims to see it as non-Islamic. Elijah's son Wallace, however, was trained in classical Arabic and, following in the footsteps of his friend Malcolm X, made a Meccan pilgrimage. After Malcolm's murder and Elijah Muhammad's death, Wallace changed his name to Warith Deen Muhammad and gradually led his flock to mainstream Sunni Muslim observance. Although Louis Farrakhan eventually reactivated the Nation name and attracted some 25,000 adherents, W.D. Muhammad is the effective leader of 1.6 million believers. He is regarded by many as a mujaddid, a once-in-a-century "renewer of the faith."

African Americans are among America's most observant Muslims. While Yvonne Haddad of Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding estimates the fraction of immigrants who attend mosque at a mere 10%, many American blacks, with converts' zeal, memorize verse after verse of the Koran and are extremely serious about Islamic injunctions against premarital sex, abortion and alcohol. Most also shun MTV, Hollywood films, hip-hop and dancing. Such social conservatism also translates politically: the tally of Bush votes among African-American Muslims was 25% higher than in black America as a whole. The community is thoroughly patriotic: W.D. Muhammad sometimes leads his flock in the Pledge of Allegiance before worship. And although it has traditionally drawn from the poor and working classes (it is immensely successful in prisons), the black middle class is increasingly intrigued.

The remaining two large American Islamic blocs have roughly parallel histories. The majority of Arab and South Asian (Indian subcontinental) believers began arriving here in the late 1960s in response to changes in immigration law and home-country programs that subsidized study here. The students became professionals and put down roots. They were joined by relatives and by refugees from various international upheavals. Most, while thrilled at America's free speech and its economic prospects, were shocked by the materialism, secularism and free morality that they encountered. Settling into lives as doctors, engineers or grocery-store owners, they contended with malls, disco and recurrent spasms of anti-Arab and -Muslim sentiment fueled by events such as the Arab oil boycott and the first World Trade Center bombing. Many also had vivid memories of American involvement in their home nations. A sizable faction was attracted to the Islamist movement, which argued for isolation from the American social and political system in favor of an eventual Muslim triumph. "The process of Americanization," wrote Georgetown's Haddad in 1987, "is impeded."

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5