Islamophobia or American Exceptionalism?
September 5, 2010 1 Comment
In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, Abdur-Rahman Muhammad* argues that “Whether or not Ground Zero mosque is built, U.S. Muslims have access to the American Dream”.
“Surveys have shown that Muslims in this country are above average in both education and living standards. They are living the American Dream. Nothing and no one can (or should) legally bar them from what Abraham Lincoln called “the right to rise”.”
The influx of Muslims began in the mid-1960s, when the Civil Rights Legislation leveled the immigration quotas from all countries instead of it being Euro-centric (as it was until then). This naturally included countries with large Muslim populations, as well. What is amazing is that these post-1964 immigrants, Muslims or not, have been able to achieve the American Dream within a generation or so; it had taken over two or three generations of previous émigrés to achieve the same feat.
“Muslims are everywhere in this country, doing practically everything. There are Muslim doctors, lawyers and businessmen – like Park51 developer Sharif El-Gamal, who went from waiting tables just a few years ago to being a multimillionaire. There are Muslim soldiers and CIA agents. Could this be possible if America were Islamophobic?”
Mr. Muhammad has asked a very pertinent question, which has only one answer. No. But why is there such a rancor and ado about the Cordoba project, apart from the fact that it is an election year?
A large part of it is the distinctness Islām appears to have in the American psyche. Consider:
Until the mid-1960s, most of the immigration was from Europe. The modes of travel in those time were more treacherous and long; the new arrivals had no other choice to settle down in their new land, lose much of the touch with their old homeland, and assimilate. At the same time, these immigrants being white and Christian, it was also easier for them to do so. Nevertheless, all new migrants faced discrimination from the settled; ‘N.I.N.A.’ (No Irish Need Apply) signs dotted the store windows in the 19th century US. Today, the number of Irish-Americans is ten times the population of Ireland.
The world grew ever smaller after the 1960s, and in the past few decades it has become a ‘Global Village‘, thanks to the advances in transport and telecommunications. In the last 50 years, the world has changed much more than it changed in several centuries before. As a consequence, new immigrants in the latter half of the 20th century have been more connected to their countries of origin, both in travel and communication, and have a choice to retain many of their original customs, traditions and language longer than settlers before them had the luxury to do. This has impeded the need to blend-in with the local mores of the new country.
Moreover, these were people from all over the world, and not just Europe. In fact, European immigration to the US during this time actually declined. The result was a multi-ethinic, multi-religious stock entering America in huge numbers. This ‘Browning of America‘ created demographic shifts in the US and the increased number of different ‘minorities’. This further delayed their integration. In addition, it happened rather fast: the gradual change in the texture of the fabric of American culture that took place over a few centuries suddenly churned vigorously in just a few decades, threatening rip it apart.
There is no denying that xenophobes, bigots and nativists exist in the US, as they do in every country. However, something that appears alien is definitely more intimidating, even to an average, well-meaning person.
The onus therefore lies with the new immigrant, of any ethnicity or religion, to assimilate as soon as possible into the ‘melting pot‘ of these United States. Unfortunately, Muslims have been rather slow to do so, and not as fully, on average. Therein lies the crux of the issue with the Park51 mosque, even as there are “…approximately 2,000 mosques across America, of which many have adjoining schools.“
Regardless, no matter which side of the ‘Ground-Zero Mosque‘ debate one is on, it is comforting to know that “Barring difficulties in fund-raising, the Park51 project, the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” will be built. Despite the fact that roughly 70% of the American people oppose it, U.S. laws ensure that not even the project’s most bitter foes will be able to stop it.“
This is American Exceptionalism.
*Abdur-Rahman Muhammad is a Washington, D.C.-based writer. He is a Muslim who was once the Imam of a mosque. He now works to combat Islāmic extremism in the American Muslim community.