Islam in America

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Experts examine myths regarding American Muslims and address fears of Islam in the United States.

CALVIN G. SIMS: Good afternoon. Thank you for coming. I want to welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. I'm Calvin Sims. I am a program officer at the Ford Foundation and a member of the council.

We are in for a very delightful hour here today examining the state of Islam in America. And I sort of want to start out by asking everybody, so that we don't have interruptions, everybody to turn off their BlackBerrys or their cell phones, and not just sort of mute them, but if you could turn them off we would appreciate that.

I also want to remind members that this particular session is on the record, so be mindful of that in your comments; and also just give you a heads-up that the next session here at the council will be on June 6 and it will examine the AIDS pandemic after 30 years. And that will feature Michelle Bachelet, Robert Orr and Michel Sidibe. So that's on Monday from 5:30 to 7:30 here at the council. OK.

By way of introduction and framing this sort of look at Islam in America, I wanted to start out by sort of sharing two brief segments that I found on the Internet recently. One is by a conservative blogger, and this is what he had to say: The Muslim population in this country is not like any other group, for it includes within it a substantial body of people, many times more numerous than that of the agents of Osama bin Laden, who share with the suicide hijackers a hatred of the United States and the desire ultimately to transform it into a nation living under the strictures of militant Islam. Although not responsible for the atrocities in September, they harbor designs for this country that warrant urgent and serious attention.

And then I want to share with you a passage from Time magazine in the last few months: But where ordinary Americans meet Islam, there is evidence that suspicion and hostility are growing. To be a Muslim in America is now to endure slings and arrows against your faith, not just in the school yard or the office, but also outside your place of worship and in the public square, where some of the country's most powerful mainstream religious and political leaders unthinkably -- or worse, deliberately -- conflate Islam with terrorism and savagery.

So with that note, we're going to hear from our three panelists, who are going to give us sort of their opening views of the state of Islam. We will have a discussion after that, and then we're going to open it up to questions.

So I'd like to start off with Daisy Khan, who is the executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement. And Daisy, could you just frame this a little bit in terms of how you see the state of Islam, especially keeping in mind those two sort of diverging views of the state.

DAISY KHAN: Yes. Well, thank you very much, Calvin, for inviting me. And thank you very much to the distinguished guests in the room, many of whom I know and many that I don't know.

Talking about slings, I'd like to just, you know, bring this all together as to what I think are the frequently framed myths about Islam in America right now.

Number one myth is that all American Muslims are foreigners and must be treated that way. The truth is that Islam was in America well before there was a United States, but Muslims didn't at that point immigrate peacefully, as many immigrants have since the '30s and the '40s and the '50s and the '60s; they were actually brought here by slave traders. And historians estimate that 30 percent of the slaves were Muslim. And Muslims fought to preserve American independence in the War of 1812, for the union in the Civil war, and more than a century later, thousands of African-Americans, including people like Cassius Clay and Malcolm X, became Muslim.

Currently there are two African-American Muslims who are members of the Congress, we know Andre Carson and Keith Ellison, and thousands of Muslims on active duty in the armed forces. So if you wear the uniform of the United States and are willing to die for this country, can you really be considered a foreigner?

Now, this is very close to my heart because I have a 21-year-old niece who was born in Virginia, of Egyptian parents, and she chose to join the Army. And she just came back from Iraq and is now being deployed to go to Afghanistan. And I have a best friend who as an immigrant, like me, came here at the age of 16, Halima (ph), who also joined -- decided to join the U.S. Army. I have no idea why, because the two of us went to a nice Catholic school. But she has just retired at the age of 53 as a colonel in the U.S. Army, and she fought at Desert Storm. So this is just two people that I know in my own immediate circle.

Second is, American Muslims are ethnically, culturally and politically monolith. Well, this is far from the truth. In fact, the most ironic thing is that the American Muslim community is the most diverse Muslim community in the world. There is not a single Muslim country, not a single non-Muslim country that has the kind of diversity -- of thought, of ethnicity, of nationality -- that exists in America. So we are in a very unique position to actually have an impact for the global Muslim -- to the global world Muslim community.

Most Muslims are also very diverse in their sectarian affiliation, so they span everything from cultural Muslim to secular Muslim to very conservative Muslim, to progressive Muslim and all other shapes and sizes. I know families where a husband will vote as a Republican and a wife will vote as a -- you know, as a Democrat, and very proudly, you know, they cast their own vote, and cancel each other out in the process. (Laughter.) Sixty percent of American Muslim households earn more than $50,000 a year, well above the average U.S. median household income.

Third myth is that Muslims, wherever they are, even in the United States, oppress women. Now, we know that people oppress women, but the reality in America is very different. American Muslim women are not only educated -- more educated than women in Western Europe, but they're also more educated than the average American. U.S. Muslim women report incomes equal to their male counterparts than American women of any other religion. They're at the helm of many key religious organizations, such as Arab-American Family Support Center, Azizah magazine, Karamah, Turning Point, Islamic Networks Group, and my organization, American Society for Muslim Advancement. And my organization is hundred-percent Muslim women board, hundred-percent Muslim women staff. Yay. (Laughter.)

But of course, challenges are there. And this is why in 2006 I founded a global initiative called Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, to address those many issues that Muslim women face globally. And we recognize that and we acknowledge that and we're working on it.

And in fact, we have a wonderful initiative that has come out of this initiative, which is called the Muslim women muftiyyah program, which is basically creating Muslim women jurists, who will issue fatwas in the future. And that program is being created right here in the United States.

Then fourth -- and I'm going to go very quickly -- American Muslims are often terrorists, and if not, they're on their way to becoming terrorists. And -- (chuckles) -- you know, in these -- in this country, in the grip of Islamophobia, we just heard from Time Magazine, where Representative Peter King can convene hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims and ignored the role that the Muslim community has played. And the Triangle Center found that the largest single source of information provided on planned terrorist attacks by Muslims in the United States was provided by the American Muslim community. So we are the ones that have foiled a lot of these attacks.

And fifth is, American Muslims want to bring Shariah law. Now this is the newest thing, something else they took out of their bag of tricks and have basically been very good in spreading this message out that we're bringing Shariah law to this country and we are here to dominate.

In Islam, Shariah is the divine ideal of justice and compassion, similar to the concept of the natural law in Western tradition.

Though radicals exist on the fringes of Islam, as in every other religion -- and most Muslim jurists agree on the principle of objectives, but most Muslim jurists agree on the six principles. And those principles can be applied here in the United States as well: protection and promotion of life, religion, intellect, property, family and dignity. And none of this includes turning the United States into a caliphate.

For centuries, most Islamic scholars around the world have agreed on one important thing: that Muslims must follow the laws of the land in which they live. And not only do American Muslims have no scriptural, historical or political grounds to oppose the U.S. Constitution -- both the U.S. Constitution is in line with the objectives and ideals of Shariah, and Muslims already practice Shariah in this country when they worship freely and follow U.S. laws.

I'd like to thank you and end there.

SIMS: Thank you, Daisy.

Eboo Patel, you are the founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core. Can you put this Islamophobia in some context historically here in the United States? Other groups have actually faced similar periods in their history.

EBRAHIM S. PATEL: Right. Right. Thanks.

So my friend Suhail Khan has the distinction of taking the Berkeley College Republicans from the smallest college Republican group in the state of California to the largest one. This was in the late 1980s. And he did such a good job that the Republican Party in the state of California hired him to work on the Bush election in 1988.

He got especially enthused about a Republican candidate from his district -- which happened to be in the Bay Area in the mid-1990s -- helped to get Tom Campbell elected. And Representative Campbell brought him to D.C. in the mid-1990s.

Suhail tried to find as many discreet places in the Capitol as possible to pray. And when Representative Campbell said, you know, you don't have to pray in hallways and stairwells; you can pray in my office, Suhail said, well, thank you very much, but you know, we have a different challenge. And that challenge is that on Friday afternoons, we Muslims have congregational prayer, and as wonderful as your office is, it's not going to hold the couple of dozen of us from the federal government who need to congregate for those prayers.

Representative Campbell said, you're going to have to go talk to the speaker of the House about that, because the speaker of the House, in kind of a quaint relic of American politics, controls all the space in the U.S. Capitol.

So Suhail put together a plan for the coalition that he would build to get the speaker of the House to give regular space to a group of Muslim Americans to pray in the U.S. Capitol. And you can imagine how scarce space in the Capitol is, and how long the list, and how -- the number of influentials on that list to get that space.

Suhail happens to be standing next to the speaker of the House at a cocktail party and decides to broach the topic and says, you know, I'm part of this group who needs to pray regularly. We would like space in the House. I've lined up a set of representatives and senators to come talk to you about this. And the speaker said, well, how many of them are you? And he said, well, there's about 30 of us now. He said, well, you know, what do you need? And Suhail said, well, we need to make sure that the room is clear of chairs or tables and that we can face towards Mecca, because that's how we pray. But we'll move the chairs and the tables, and we'll move them back afterwards.

And the speaker of the House says, I'm going to make sure you have a place to pray for 50, and our staff will move the tables and the chairs for you. And as long as I'm speaker, you can count on that.

A couple weeks later, a Turkish journalist on assignment came to the U.S. Capitol, saw this group of Muslims praying and was astonished, because in Turkey, you couldn't even wear a head scarf in a public building. And he said, who gave you the place to pray? And Suhail said, well, you know, this guy from Georgia who used to be a professor and led this dramatic revolution in the Republican Party and made it the majority party in the House after 40 years of Democratic rule, a guy named Newt Gingrich.

So Mr. Gingrich has the distinction of helping to facilitate Shariah in -- (laughter) -- which puts him, actually, in a long line of American statesmen, beginning with Thomas Jefferson, who hosted an iftar at the White House, and of course continuing through President Obama.

So here's why I find this interesting -- and if -- there's plenty to be said about Mr. Gingrich's personal zigzags, but what -- I find it very interesting historically, right -- is that Shariah is a -- is a 1,400-year-old way of thinking and body of law. It has not changed dramatically from 1995, when Speaker Gingrich allowed and facilitated Muslim prayers in the U.S. Capitol, to 2011, when Speaker Gingrich spoke about the Shariah anvil that was prepared to fall on the United States of America. Right?

What has happened in those 15 years to make this go from an issue of reasonable accommodation, to allow the contributions of various communities in America, to a conversation about the majority of American Muslims wanting to take over?

There's a couple of other things I want to point out about what I find is the fascinating dimensions within this story. So we all know Mr. Gingrich is running for president in 2012, and one of the ways that he is -- is -- he is gaining support is by talking about his Catholic faith.

Well, fascinatingly, 50 years ago, when John F. Kennedy was running for president, the single thing that he worried about most was his Catholic faith. Fifty years later, in the United States, it's considered a major point of attraction, particularly for certain segments in the Republican Party, if you're a Catholic.

Even more interesting, the very same segment that was opposed to John F. Kennedy's run for president in 1960, which is to say American evangelicals, are the segment that is most attracted by Speaker Gingrich's Catholicism.

The final thing that I want to say is the way that Shariah is talked about right now in American political and public discourse is almost identical to the way that the Catholic hierarchy was talked about 50 years ago, which is to say, it didn't matter how many times Senator Kennedy said, the Pope does not speak for me; I will not take marching orders from cardinals or bishops or the Vatican. It didn't matter, because the notion was the Catholic hierarchy would work through its secret agents, right; that as a Catholic, you were required to dominate, whether or not you wanted to. In the exact same way, the idea is that as a Muslim, Shariah requires you to dominate. And again, the language on this, you can literally replace the terms.

Let me close by saying I think there are many ways to view this story. People can call it ironic. People can call it cynical. I frankly think it's hopeful. And here's why I think it's hopeful: because prejudice changes very, very quickly in this country. And the same group of people who can be remarkably bigoted, to be explicit about it, about a particular candidate, a particular faith, a particular community, can be dramatically on the other side 50 years later. That's the American story, is how much we change, right?

And I think we're at a special chapter of this story right now, a chapter in which it's not Catholics, it's not Jews that are at the center of the debate of what it means to be an American. It's Muslims. And I view this as an American issue and a Muslim opportunity. We have the opportunity, just as Catholics have done, just as Jews have done, just as African-Americans have done, to speak of freedom not just for our own people, but for all people, because that's what this country is about. And I hope that my co-religionists use this opportunity.

SIMS: Thank you.

Mohamed Younis is a senior analyst for Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. Could you give us a little bit more context as well in terms of what are you finding about the experience of Muslims, American Muslims, in the aftermath of 9/11?

MOHAMED YOUNIS: Absolutely. First of all, thanks to CFR and Calvin for putting this together.

You know, what the other two panelists have -- sort of spoke about very eloquently is Islam in America. What I'll talking about a little bit more is Muslims in America, specifically looking at the religious group and comparing them to other religious groups in the country.

Now we actually have a study coming out in August that -- some of the data I'm going to show, which is actually unreleased, but I thought it was very relevant to what we were discussing, so I thought I'd go ahead and share it with you.

The story, I mean, from the data for Muslim Americans is honestly one of stunted potential. It's a group of people that stand out in very positive ways, when you look at the data, in terms of a lot of measures that we'll talk about. But when you start to examine whether or not they can use those talents to contribute fully to American society, they're definitely experiencing a lot of barriers.

I should say that most of the polling that we've done on Muslims in America actually came after 2001. So while these issues certainly predate 2001 and predate 9/11, like many other organizations in the country, not a lot of research organizations were really focused on what was going on with Muslim-Americans with that sort of level of focus.

So what we find is that Muslim Americans and Jewish Americans actually have the highest life evaluation of any religious group in the country. So when you ask people on a scale from zero to 10 to evaluate your current life, 60 percent of Muslim Americans, 61 percent of Jewish Americans rate their life so high that they fall into what we call the thriving category or sort of the top of the three potential categories that you can be in life evaluation.

What's more interesting is that when you talk about the future and optimism for the coming years -- so you evaluate your life today, evaluate your life in five years -- Muslim Americans are THE most optimistic about how much their life will improve in the next five years. They are most likely to say that their standard of living is improving, when you compare them to all other religious groups in the country.

And as Daisy mentioned, they are the most racially diverse religious group in the United States. I know you're comparing them with Muslims globally, but when you actually look -- and I really wish I had the chart, because it's shocking -- when you look at the religious breakdown of Catholics, Protestants, Jewish Americans, Mormons, those who claim no religion and Muslims, what's amazing is that every single one of those categories, for the most part, is predominated by a racial group. And for most of them, it's white. For Muslim Americans, it's literally a pie chart of colors of the rainbow. I mean, they literally represent almost every single racial group that we ask about in our daily poll of a thousand Americans that we conduct once a -- every day for the past four or five years.

So in these characteristics, they sort of sound like the perfect American story: They're upwardly mobile, they're more likely to be highly educated, they have a higher income rate, they are racially diverse -- all things that we, as Americans, want to celebrate, tend to celebrate and very strongly identify with who we are as America and what America is all about.

Now when you get to the challenges -- some of the data I'll read to you is not surprising, but I think on some grounds it's little worse than we would expect.

So despite the fact that Muslims are, for example, the most likely religious group in America to say that they have a high level of confidence in the electoral process, in the honesty of the electoral process, they're the least likely religious group to say that they're registered to vote. So even though they have a lot of faith in the system, getting people in the community to actually mobilize, register to vote, participate in the system has been a challenge that I think has been more easily overcome since 9/11, but before 9/11, in many communities, was a major, major point of discussion, point of debate about whether or not, as a community, we should engage in the political system, vote, host people -- you know, host people running for office at our various venues and events, et cetera.

Over 40 percent of Americans, to some degree or another, self-report feeling a level of prejudice against Muslims. So we don't -- we don't say this group of people is prejudiced and label them. What we do is ask a respondent, do you yourself, in your daily experiences throughout your life, feel a level of degree against Muslims in this country? And it's a great deal, some, none at all. And what we find is that over 40 percent of Americans will either say some or a great deal. About 10 to 15 percent, depending on the year that we poll, will say that they do -- they do feel a great deal of prejudice against Muslims or toward Muslims, however you want to put it.

Most Americans also have a very negative view of Islam as a faith -- not very surprising for anybody in this room. What is interesting is that they have a much more negative view of Islam than they do of Muslims as people. And I think this -- I hope we can unpack this a little bit in our discussion of this sort of tokenism approach at dealing with Muslims in America in some ways as victims of their own faith -- so I don't hate Muslim; I hate Islam -- something that Geert Wilders said. It's sort of a very common sentiment that we find in the data, that people are very alarmed by Islam; Muslims, not so much. It's more pity than fear that we find in our data.

Many believe that Americans harbor prejudice against Muslims. So when you ask the average American in our polls, do you think that in the U.S. today a lot of people harbor prejudice against Muslims, what we find is that a slim majority, about 51, 52 percent of people in America, will say yes, in fact, there is a great deal of prejudice against Muslims.

When we ask it based on the religious groups, not surprisingly, Muslim Americans are the most likely to say that. But what's really interesting is that almost an identical rate of Jewish Americans also say the same. It's -- one thing that we found in our data is that the opinions of Jewish Americans and Muslim Americans are actually very similar on a lot of the items that we ask about discrimination or prejudice, or whether or not there's a perception that Muslims are loyal to the country. What you find is that -- surprisingly to many of us who've been studying these communities for a while -- the perception in Jewish American -- the Jewish American community is not very different than the perception in the Muslim American community. So 66 percent of Jewish Americans say that a lot of people in this country harbor prejudice towards Muslims. Only 60 percent of Muslims agree. So Jewish Americans in our poll were actually more likely to say that than Muslim Americans. I thought that was very interesting.

Probably -- what I'll probably end with is what is most alarming to me, as somebody who's by profession an attorney: 48 percent of Muslims say that in the past 12 months they faced some sort of racial or religious discrimination. Obviously, that doesn't directly translate into EEOC claims or actual acts of discrimination, but it's a sentiment that in some situation or another they were treated with -- in a discriminatory manner.

I just want to close by talking a little bit about the discourse surrounding Muslims in America, in addition to just talking about Muslims themselves. So a big part of the discourse or the major part of the discourse surrounding Muslims in America is really about one thing. It's about loyalty. And from that issue, question of loyalty, the degree to which Muslims in this country are actually American or are secretly rooting for al-Qaida behind closed doors, comes the issue of do they support terrorism, do they support organizations like al-Qaida, et cetera, et cetera.

Another aspect of it is whether or not Muslims are doing enough to condemn terrorist acts. So that's sort of the most common thing that we hear: Where are all the condemnations? I know Daisy is very familiar with that argument.

One thing that's really interesting is that when we ask Americans, the general public, do you think that Muslims in America should be sort of exceptionally expected to condemn acts of terrorism, the country's actually split on that issue. So 40-some percent of Americans say yes, but 40-some of Americans say: You know what? They're not -- they should not be expected to sort of individually condemn acts of terrorism because they are Muslims.

So while Muslim organizations and Muslim Americans are sort of falling over themselves to prove that they've been condemning terror -- and they have been; I mean, if you check their websites, they are -- but you know, the discourse sort of takes us on this trail that is actually in reality not very close to what most Americans actually think.

And I think this gets to a larger issue about sort of the language and tone, and the quote that you use is a perfect example of very sort of hateful, if you want, bigoted, if you want, misinformed -- you can put that adjective in front of it -- voices that present a reality that doesn't really match up with a lot of the perceptions of the general public that we find.

So Rush Limbaugh is on the radio saying something outrageous and offensive and -- et cetera, et cetera, to whatever group. The way that we react to the discourse, as people who engage in this topic, I think, is very flawed because we assume that everybody who's listening to Rush Limbaugh actually agrees with what he just said, and now we need to mobilize and do something about the fact that this has been said. Muslim organizations need to take a stand. You know, civil society organizations need to have an event or a conference. But what we always seem to forget is that many times the most extreme voices don't necessarily represent the majority of people.

I think that's true here, in the U.S., but I also think that's very true in Muslim-majority countries. So the voices that you'll hear talking about Muslim-West relations a lot of times out of Muslim-majority countries don't necessarily represent the majority of people in those countries. So what ends up happening is a pseudo-discourse, a token discourse, between the "Clash of the Uncivilized" versus the a "Clash of Civilizations" sort of approach that we've all been grappling with.

SIMS: Thank you, Mohamed.

Let's pick up on this issue of separating Islam and Muslims, especially within the American psyche. I think that's very important to address. And I have sort of two quick questions before we open it up to the audience.

One is, again, how do we begin to address this Islamophobia? And if we don't address it, are American Muslims sort of destined not to be fully assimilated in the long term? They are the fastest-growing religion in this country, through migration and conversion. They aren't going anywhere. They're going to be part of the fabric -- the social fabric of America. But if this Islamophobia continues, what will happen to them and how do we counter it?

And there is an international component to this, is there not, in the sense that we're fighting four wars in countries that have predominantly Muslim populations. And the news cycle was such that even if, for many Americans they want to have an open mind about this, they're constantly reminded every day about jihad.

So I wanted to know who would like to sort of start to address that. How do we unpack these things, and how we address this Islamophobia?


KHAN: Go ahead.

YOUNIS: OK. Well, that's -- it's really tough question, as you can tell. Everybody's -- (laughter).

I mean, it's a lot of things. It's a lot of things. I tend to be -- and this is, you know, my personal opinion; this is not based on, like, polling we've done at Gallup -- you know, I tend to think that whether or not, you know, sentiments, voices of Islamophobia are quelled tomorrow or are quelled in six or seven years from now -- for the individual Muslim on the street, is that going to sort of prevent them from having, you know, a successful life in America? No, because they have been for the past 10 years, and it hasn't stopped them.

I think, you know, who has most to lose out of not changing the discourse surrounding Muslims in America, is America; not necessarily Muslim Americans. You know -- and I talked a little about the data but just, you know, most of the folks in this room that have engaged this issue have come in contact with Muslim Americans, have come in contact with Muslim American organizations. They have seen them at the forefront of these issues. They have seen them at the forefront of policy-making, at the forefront of many of the issues that our country is grappling with generally.

I think that what can really help the discourse surrounding Muslim Americans is for us to get to place where the discourse is not based on a Muslim person representing the Muslim perspective on a Muslim affairs issue. The day I can turn on CNBC and see an economic analyst who happens to be named Mohammed and is there talking about economics and not Islam in America, I think, is the day that we've made a huge advancement.

Until today, the discourse is really based on this token idea that there is a Muslim perspective and a Muslim representative that we just need to find, and once we find that person and sit him at the table, all the -- all the -- all the challenges that we're facing will sort of be overcome.

SIMS: Yeah.


KHAN: Well, I think that just like Brand America has an image all over the Muslim world -- most people see America through the actions, its military actions; they don't see America for its education, its civil society, for its innovation and all the things that they love about America, because they walk around with American gadgets, they thrive off of American gadgets, but yet Brand America has a problem because it's seen through a very skewed lens.

Similarly brand Islam has a problem in America because people don't see the nuts and bolts of the Muslim community, the values of the Muslim community; they actually see it through the lens of international affairs. And so we are a community that is largely seen through a magnifying glass because of events that unfold over there.

And this is what makes our challenge more difficult, and I would say that Eboo's point about the Catholic experience and even the Jewish experience -- we depart a little bit from that experience because now, you know -- back in those days, it was a very insulated community that came on the shores; the borders were shut off; there was no mass communication. And if Catholics, you know, did something in America, like church-state separation, it didn't reverberate all over the Catholic world.

Well, now the situation is such that when an event takes place overseas, it has a direct impact on the Muslim community here. And with diversity, we also have a -- an excellent, excellent arsenal, which is that we have a diaspora community which has direct links with its mother country.

So we can use this diaspora community in the United States to be the ambassadors and the interlocutors between the global Muslim community and the United States, and have us become ambassadors for America and for the betterment of Islam all over the world; or we can relegate and marginalize this community and say this community is suspect. And when people hear that this community is suspect here in the United States, it doesn't stay in the United States. It's all over the world. So I have to sit here and defend my own faith, but in Muslim countries, I have to defend America, and that is the unique position that most Muslims find themselves in.

I am fighting for American ideals and ethics. And in fact, oftentimes when somebody says to me, America did this, I said, well, do you use Google? Do you have an iPhone? Using Microsoft? This is all America. Are your children in school in, you know -- have you sent your children for further education in America?

So they enjoy all the great innovation that comes out of America, but the problem is really one of politics; the problem is one of how we are seen -- both America and Islam is seen through a political lens, and that is what, I think, our communities can correct and we can be ambassadors for one another.

p>SIMS: Eboo?

PATEL: So I want to pick up on Mohamed's point about what it means for communities to contribute to America. And I want to put it in two contexts. One is the context of political philosophy; the second is a parallel with the Catholic experience.

So there's a great little book by the political philosopher Michael Walzer, called "What It Means to Be an American." And in that book he says that for generations -- frankly, from the Greeks -- political theorists believed that you could only have democracy in entities which were religiously or ethnically homogenous; that places -- political entities where there were diverse populations had to be led by dictators. Walzer ends that section and begins the next one, and here are the first words of that next section: "Except in the United States."

We're the first nation to show that you can have a democracy with populations that are from very different backgrounds, and this was the case from the beginning. This doesn't mean it was always pretty or perfect, but what it meant was that, when you had a governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant -- right? -- many hundreds of years ago, ban Quakers from New Amsterdam, you had a group of Christians who came up with the Flushing Remonstrance and said, we believe that Quakers, even though they worship differently than us, ought to be able to worship and contribute freely in this country.

In 1775 and 1776, during the beginnings of the Revolutionary War, when Catholics from Maryland wanted to join the Colonial Army, and there were other segments of the Colonial Army that were burning effigies of the pearl -- of the Pope, General George Washington sent out a general command that said, we will not insult Catholics, because they are part of our army. That was the first multiethnic, multireligious transcolony American institution -- was the Continental Army.

And George Washington recognized that if we're going to have a single Continental Army, we cannot be bigoted or prejudicial towards particular segments of that army. When Washington was president a couple of years later and receives a letter from the Newport congregation, the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, from Moses Seixas, the Jewish leader of that congregation, who says -- well, basically -- after centuries of being dismissed and discriminated against in Western civilization, will Jews be safe in this new nation? -- Washington writes back and says, this country, my government, will give "bigotry no sanction" and "persecution no assistance."

I'm going to fast forward just a little bit and give you a couple of interesting data points. Mid-19th century, there's the emergence of a political party called the Know-Nothing party, whose entire platform is anti-Catholicism. We learn about this in high school. What has shocked me in the research I'm doing for a new book is just how powerful this party is. In the 1850s, they elected 75 congress people. That's shocking, right? Seventy-five -- entire state legislatures were full of people who are part of the Know-Nothing party, and the single biggest thing that they were against was Catholic influence in America.

What was Catholic influence? Schools, universities, hospitals. Imagine America without 7,000 Catholic elementary and high schools, without 230,000 Catholic universities, without Georgetown, without Notre Dame, without Fordham, without the 600 Catholic hospitals that serve 85 million Americans every year.

This nation -- and not just in its dream, very much in its reality -- is built by its communities who contribute to civil society. For me, one of the most shocking things about the furor around the center that Daisy was launching, originally called the Cordoba House, was that it was -- the vision of it was a center inspired by a pluralistic understanding of Islam, whose purpose was to serve a pluralistic nation.

That is a very good illustration of where Muslims are at in this day and age, which is after spending a couple of generations building our private institutions -- of schools and mosques -- we are now in the situation that Jews and Catholics were in some generations ago, where we would like to build a set of institutions that have a civic purpose: that are outward-facing, that serve the nation. And it would be a shame, just as we are prepared to serve in that way, if this nation was suspicious of that service.

SIMS: Very well put.

Let's take some questions from members in the audience. And the protocol is to identify yourself and to actually ask a question instead of making a statement. So, who would like to go first?

Over here. And could you wait for the microphone?


QUESTIONER: Thank you so much for these wonderful comments. Just a very specific one to Mohamed. I'm Mary Evelyn Tucker from Yale University. You've said that Muslims were traditionally not interested or willing to participate in the political process, and I wonder -- and others of you might want to comment on that. So that was my question. You know, why was that, traditionally? And what is the future in that regard?

YOUNIS: Yes. Well, I -- and I should clarify. That's not based on polling we've done, but just sort of anecdotally, as somebody who grew up very active in the Muslim American community on the West Coast -- and I hope Eboo and Daisy can sort of share their experiences as well. But I mean, prior to 9/11, it wasn't really about voting. It was about what Eboo was talking about. It was about a community seeing itself as part and parcel not just of the American society, but as people that should be contributing and are expected to contribute, as part of their duty as citizens, to the political process in this country.

You know, many of the communities that I grew up in are immigrant-based communities. The reality is very different for African-American Muslims in certain parts of this country, and I wish that this panel included a voice from their community, because the reality for them is different.

In many immigrant Muslim communities or sort of immigrant-based Muslim communities, what you find is what you find in most immigrant communities: People have come to this country. Most of them are economic migrants. They're very hardworking. They're very committed to providing a good future for their children. They don't want their kids to get involved in politics. They're not necessarily politically minded. They want their kids to go to Harvard and Yale and become lawyers and doctors and do great.

I don't think that that's unique to Muslims. I think that 9/11 was definitely an enormous wake-up call for everybody, for those voices that were saying we need to get more involved, like -- personally, like mine -- and other voices that said no, we need to focus on our community, we need to focus on our kids having good schools, we don't need to start becoming a ploy for the political games that are going to unfold every time there's a Congressional election or a presidential election.

9/11 made that attitude untenable because the entire country suddenly was -- turned around and looked at Muslims and said: What's your deal? What are you doing? Are you contributing? Are you not? And suddenly everybody cared about what Muslims are doing.

So in that way, I think that's one of the positive things that have come out of 9/11 and that whole experience, is this recognition on the part of the vast majority of Muslims that you'll interact with today -- will say of course we need to organize, of course we need voter registration. Like every other community, we need to be able to contribute and have a voice in the way our country is run and the way our taxes are spent.

SIMS: Do you want -- (inaudible)?

KHAN: Yes. I just want to add the international angle to this. Because many of the immigrants come from authoritarian regimes, they fundamentally don't believe that they can create any change. So I think many of the older immigrants just never really felt that they could engage in the political process because no -- nothing's going to happen with my vote. So my vote is useless.

But I'm seeing a major shift in the next generation; that is, Eboo and Mohamed's generation. I know somebody who was in this room who actually left his job and goes out there to do voter registration -- Assim (ph), just put your hand up for a second -- (laughter) -- and actually convinces people to go into mosques and say: You've got to vote. It's time to vote.

And this is the generation, I think, that is going to change that.

SIMS: OK. More questions. How about over here in the back, this gentleman. Yeah.

QUESTIONER: My name is Chandrakant Pancholi from Overseas India Weekly. And do you think that this Islamophobia is a reflection of several intolerance we see in Middle Eastern countries, in all these republics like Saudi Arabia? Can we help a church, a synagogue, or a Hare Krishna temple there?

And those Shariah laws -- you didn't touch upon the women's rights there, like a man can have many women and are you for them --

MR. : Yeah.

QUESTIONER: -- and whether adulteries laws, rape -- laws against the rapes -- rape -- that there should be four witnesses, and about adultery laws where a woman should be stoned to death, if necessary, there?

So I'm not against -- I'm not for adultery, even though your wife -- your neighbor's wife may look more attractive than your own. (Chuckles.) So can you just touch upon this subject, Saudi Arabian intolerance and Shariah laws --

SIMS: So the question is to speak a little bit about intolerance in south Saudi Arabia vis-a-vis Islam.

KHAN: Well, you know, pluralism is at the heart of the Islamic doctrine. And as I mentioned earlier, the six principles of Shariah are the protection of life, but also protection of religion, and protection and furthering of religion -- of all religions. So no one religion is to dominate, and no religion is to be prevented from practicing. This is why, when you look at great civilizations that Islam created, like, you know, in all the countries, whether it was in Istanbul or it was Ottoman times or Spain or Cordoba, there were always churches and synagogues thriving side by side with mosques.

The tragedy is that Saudi Arabia or at least a certain understanding or certain clergy in Saudi Arabia do not understand that pluralism and have prevented, you know, religious communities from flourishing. This is fundamentally un-Islamic.

Now, am I going to be able to tell that to a Saudi prince? Probably. I think we even recommended that they establish a church and establish a synagogue and even Hindu temples, because they have so many migrants. Why shouldn't people be allowed to read their Bible when the Koran clearly talks about religious freedom? There is no compulsion in religion.

So we are urging them, but they have their own political issues why they've not been able to do that. It has nothing to do with Islam.


PATEL: So actually -- I want to just -- I think the gentleman brings up a very important philosophical question, right. And I think there are two dimensions to this. I actually don't have an answer to this, a direct answer. But I think there are two philosophical dimensions to your question, which ought to be raised, and not just for Muslims but for a country of diaspora communities, right.

The question, number one, is what does it mean to be part of the political entity called America? Which is to say that when I am a citizen of a nation that invites my political participation and invites my political and civic activity to help realize the ideals of that nation. So when I advocate for a candidate or for a policy or for legislation in America, I do it under the category of citizen. When -- if I were to seek to change -- to advance an idea in Egypt or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, I would do it under the category of Muslim.

But those are states, states with their own ideas of citizenship, right. I don't vote. I don't advance candidates. I don't advance policies in those states.

The definition of America is that citizenship means you can do -- you can advance a set of ideas under constitutional principles here. So I just want to say, philosophically, I think that we have to make sure that we're understanding American citizenship and what it allows people in this country to do.

The second, I think, is actually more complicated, which is, what are diaspora groups, whether it's Irish, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Pakistani -- what are we responsible for when it comes to our co-religionists or our co-ethnic group abroad? Am I responsible for the actions of the Saudi state? Am I responsible, as a Shia Muslim, for the actions of the Iranian state, right? I don't think I am.

Now, an important question that Muslims have to ask ourselves, I think, is, if we want to wipe our hands of the villains who speak in the name of Islam abroad, what is our role in representing who we see as the victims of Islam abroad? In other words, is there a consistent philosophy as to what the relationship between American Muslims and the broader -- and the broader ummah outside of America -- in other words, can a -- is it reasonable to say I am deeply hurt by the treatment of Hazaras in Afghanistan, but I'm not going to speak at all about the role of the Saudi government?

MR. : Yeah.

PATEL: If -- or is that, in fact, philosophically inconsistent?

KHAN: I'd just like to make one point on that before we go to the next one, and that is that -- Mohamed said that Muslims consider them to be a thriving religious community. And I believe that we're also the most empowered Muslim community in the world. Granted, we're going through our difficult moments, but nothing in comparison to what the world Muslim population is going through. You'll all witnessing what's happening all over the world. You know, we have the Constitution behind us, and we are economically stable and politically stable community.

We can do a lot, and this is why the gentleman who asked about women's issues -- I know that many of the issues that you talk about, whether it's stoning or it's domestic violence, it's honor killing, any of the 10 top injustices against women, I, as a Muslim woman, who is empowered in this country, who has access to civil society and resources, have an obligation to do something about that. And that I why I started an initiative, because I know that whatever little steps I take, maybe I can have an effect, and maybe I can speak on behalf of those who are silenced or don't have a voice.

So the Muslim community has a vital role. The only thing we're asking the American public is to please let us do our work. Let us do our work. We can do a lot.

SIMS: We have just a little time left, so what I'd like to do is to maybe take three questions, and then we can address them. So let's start here.

QUESTIONER: Margaret Osgrew McQuaid (ph). You have mentioned there are two pillars, in a sense. There is Islam and there is the Muslim. But it seems to me there might be a third, which is the imams, and you mentioned clergy. And from this vantage point, we see many examples, either political power or social mores power in Saudi Arabia, whatever.

And I would like to -- your opinions on what you think the actual role is of imams in America towards political or social behavior, and what do you think it should be, because there are huge differentials in interpretation of the Quran, as you know. So clearly, these are people through whom a lot of this filters, and I'd like to have your perception of the role they play.

SIMS: OK. And let's get two more, just quickly. Right here. Here's the --

KHAN: Mic.

SIMS: The microphone's right here.

QUESTIONER: Thanks. Frank Wisner, from the law firm of Patton Boggs. Daisy Khan, I was very interested in your last answer and wonder if I could get you to comment on how Muslims look at American Muslims worldwide. How do they relate to you? Do -- are the fatwas that are written in this country read and understood and accepted? Or American civil society institutions, Muslim civil society institutions -- do you have strong counterpart relations in the main centers of Islamic thinking, learning and organization? How does the world look at Americans?

SIMS: And one more. One over here.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Laurel Kearns, from Drew University. I'm a sociologist. And many times when we talk about these issues, we talk about stereotyping in media and we talk about individual prejudice. But I'm wondering if anyone can address structural discrimination toward Muslims in America.

SIMS: OK. Let's start with the role of imams in America. Mohamed, do you want to --

YOUNIS: Yeah, I'd love to take that one. Thank you for your question. It's a very important question.

I think that the challenge with imams in America is actually the only place where I would argue that Muslim American challenges are very similar to European Muslim challenges. And this is, again, specifically in the immigrant Muslim community, just so that we can be as accurate as possible.

You know, a lot of institutions were established in the two generations that are past -- as passed -- have passed, as Eboo pointed out very eloquently. The challenge with that is, the people that would be able to play the role of religious leader in those communities and in those specific institutions many times haven't grown up in this country. They don't understand the challenges that a person faces in being American, in being a kid at school, getting picked on. What are you getting picked on for? What does it mean to be a Muslim and live in a society where not being a virgin is something that people revere and being a virgin is something that people make fun of? I mean, these are questions that an imam who is an immigrant from Egypt has no idea how to deal with, because they just come from a different world.

What has been happening lately and very much predates 9/11 is a very serious attempt on the part of Muslim American institutions to address this issue and to train people to become imams who have had more of a sort of indigenous American experience in their upbringing. Zaytuna is an institution that does this. There are many, many more. I think Daisy just gave us an example of focusing on the role of women in religious leadership.

This is a topic that is definitely on the radar of Muslim Americans, not to appease the public and not to appease, you know, the voices on Fox News, but because people want their kids to be able to grow up in a, you know, a coherent Islamic American environment kind of a setting, to grow in a community where the leader not only has a strong background in the faith, theologically, for example, but also understands the challenges that their congregants are facing in their real-life experiences every day and can figure out how to, you know, network and find the resources to meet the needs of that congregant or of that group of people.

So it's happening. It's definitely not as sexy as, you know, the latest outrageous statement by some extremist religious leader. That's why you don't often hear about it. But it's definitely something that's occurring.

But it's a huge challenge that our community is grappling with. It's true.

SIMS: And Daisy, you want to address the issue of how American Muslims are viewed from abroad and vice-versa? Yeah.

KHAN: Abroad, yes.

SIMS: Yeah.

KHAN: Recently, you must have heard -- I think all of you know I'm married to an imam, Imam Feisal. When he was on his State Department trip in Egypt last January, he was invited to meet with a group of Azhari scholars -- Azhari is one of the premier religious institutions -- to talk to other fellow imams.

And most of them came with this trepidation, that this is an America imam; he must be lightweight; what does he know about our religion. And after they had the discussion and he spoke about the Quran and he talked about the insights of his religion, they were stunned at his mastery. They said: Where did you learn all this? How do you know all this? He said: What do you mean? And they somehow assume that because you're living in America you must have somehow been influenced by the secular thinking and that you are somewhat lightweight, and they were quite shocked.

So that was Azhar. But I'd like to give a specific incident of something that happened in our office when we had a visiting delegation coming from Bahrain. It was all jurists, very prominent Shia and Sunni jurists. These are people who issue major fatwas in the country and are highly regarded in their country. And they also came with a State Department delegation.

So they came to my office. And frankly, I don't speak Arabic, and they didn't speak English, so everything was being done with translation. So I was a little nervous around them, because they were in their full regalia and looked very prestigious, and I'm thinking: What am I doing with these people? So I asked them a simple question: What do you want to know? You are here. I don't have -- I'm not -- I'm not a scholar like you, not as prominent as you.

They said: What are some of the social issues you're dealing with in America vis-a-vis, you know, Shariah? And I said: Well, the biggest social issue that I have is one of Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men. And they said: Explain that to us. And they were very intrigued. So I explained to them that, you know, most Muslim men -- well, other than these handsome men here -- marry non-Muslim women. So the quota of men goes down, and Muslim women are required to only marry Muslim men. So therefore, Muslim women have no (more ?) Muslim men to marry.

p>And they said: So what are you doing about that? And I said: Well, we are trying to create some legal (fiction ?) around that. And all of a sudden -- these are legal minds, and they're saying: So -- so what are you doing? You -- I can see them, like, leaning forward. And I said: Well, if I tell you what I'm doing, you're probably going to issue a major fatwa against me -- (laughter) -- and then I will -- I will have death threats against me.

PATEL (?): (Laughs.) More death threats.

KHAN: And they said: No, no, no, no, no. No, explain to us. I said: I won't tell you what I've concluded, but I'll tell you the process that I'm using. Because my husband has taught me very well. When speaking to scholars, this is how you argue with them: You don't argue the result; you argue the process, because this is how their brain works. They're lawyers; they've got to think the argument. So I laid out my issue, and I gave them the argument. And I gave them the process by which I am dealing with this issue.

One of the scholars looked at me and he said -- he said: What you are doing is right, and the result that you have arrived at is right. And I pray for you, and I pray for all those people who think like you, because you are going to be the person that is going to help us living all over the Muslim world. He said: You have no idea, I'm envious of you, because you live in this country which allows you to think critically and to think openly. He said: If your scholarship is good, the result that you've come up with is going to help us in Bahrain, because we have the same problem. But I can't think freely, like you can. So, bravo. And thank you to you, and thank you to -- you're a mini-jurist. We have appointed you a -- you know, a lay-jurist.

So I think if the scholarship is good, and if the arguments are good and we speak literally out of scripture, that's what falls on these ears and that's what they understand. And that's what they regard highly.

SIMS: Thank you, Daisy.

And Ebrahim, I'm going to give you the last question about structural discrimination, how to address that.

PATEL: I'm going to answer that question through the side door.


PATEL: If you will. And I'm going to -- I'm going to actually combine these two questions, and I'm going to expand on it a little bit. I think that the single most important phenomenon and the single most under-reported phenomenon about Muslims in America is this, is that this -- we have in the United States probably the greatest concentration of Muslim scholars in the Western Hemisphere.

And many, many -- so in other words, what -- if -- the people who attract 40,000 27-year-old kids in London to a Muslim sermon, they're American imams -- they're American sheiks, so to speak. Many, many of them are white and black converts to Islam.

Here's why that's fascinating. When you hear Sheik Hamza, who's probably the most prominent and prolific of these speakers, when -- one of the reasons that so many 19-year-olds are attracted to him is because of the way he weaves the Quran and Bob Dylan. And it's not because he's -- it's not because he's a Quranic lightweight, it's because he grew up listening to Bob Dylan, right? He's in -- he's assimilated Islam into an American cultural pattern, right? And it would be the same with Sherman Jackson. It would be the same with Dr. Omar Abdullah (ph), et cetera, et cetera.

So what you've got in this critical mass of American Muslim scholars is people who are very much part of the American project, which is to say if you look at their papers, what they're articulating is a way of being Muslim that isn't just harmonious with America but that advances the American project.

I think what has developed over the past 10 years is a group of younger Muslim institution-builders -- Nadia Roumani is amongst these; Mohamed Younis is amongst these, right -- who are -- who have paid a good deal of attention to these scholars -- Hussein Rashid is amongst these, so there's a handful of them; Sayida (ph) in this room -- paid a good deal of attention to these scholars. And they're asking the question: How do I build institutions to that vision? Right?

So if we're talking about Muslims contributing to the American project, how are we starting youth programs, women's programs, health centers that are inspired by Islam and that contribute to America?

Frankly, it's very, very similar to what you would see in Catholicism and Judaism some generations back, which is an understanding of America as a place that communities contribute to and build, and articulation by religious leaders in those -- in those segments of the population about how that is a Catholic or a Jewish thing to do, and then a set of people who are building institutions along those lines.

I'll close with this final insight, which is, I think that probably the best work of fiction on contemporary American Muslims was written by Chaim Potok about New York Jews in the 1940s, and it's called "The Chosen." And the reason that it's such a powerful -- and it's a book that many, many of you have read, right? It's one of the -- it's a classic high school reading book.

It tells two stories. It tells the story of a couple of Jewish kids in Brooklyn who grow up six blocks apart but who never met each other before because they lived in effectively sealed communities. And one -- literally, one Hasidic Jewish community would say to the Hasidic Jews six blocks away: You are "apikorsim." Does anybody know what "apikorsim" means? OK. It means nonbeliever. The reason that many people don't know what it means anymore is because it is so rarely used in Jewish circles. Jews don't call each other nonbelievers anymore. But 70 years ago, in this city, Jews from six blocks away would call the other Eastern European Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community nonbelievers.

Chaim Potok's book, the first scene is set on a baseball diamond where a group of kids from one Jewish community and other Jewish community meet to play baseball. Why are they playing baseball? Because it's the time of World War II and it's important to prove your Americanness. And what's a more powerful place to do that than on the baseball diamond?

And it's the story of these kids and their friendship with each other, and their expansion of Jewish identity, expansion of what it means to be Jew, and an understanding of linking Judaism to citizenship.

That's exactly what's happening in America. Back then, it was the trauma of World War II, the trauma of the Holocaust. Right now it's the trauma of the aftermath of 9/11.

But we're on the right trajectory. In 30 years these institutions will have matured. In 30 years the scholarship will be mainstream and you will have another community who's contributing, like Catholics, like Jews, like Mormons, to America. And we'll be a stronger country.

SIMS: Thank you very much. I want to thank everybody for coming and thank the panelists. (Applause.)

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