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Muslim Identity, Diversity And Difficulties With Assimilation – Analysis

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This research aims to gain a new understanding of the overall lived experience of Muslim immigrants’ challenges, the difficulties encountered, and what contributed to the variegated degrees of integration and adaptation into the new environment.

My overall and general thrust of writing this research shall be predicated, to a great extent, upon a study conducted by Sulayman Nyang of Howard University (1999) is entitled “The Muslim Community In The United States: Some Issues.” In order to recapitulate, briefly, some essential information regarding the title as mentioned above reflects one of the most salient challenges facing the American Muslim community and the question of identity, which arises for many of the immigrants Muslims who still suffer from the myth-of-return syndrome an essential facet in understanding the Muslim community’s mindset.

Additionally, the research offers a new perspective on how to look at the challenges that the mosaic Muslim immigrant community faces at large and debunking common misconceptions about Muslim immigrants’ myth-of- return to their countries of origin and their impact on their respective communities in which they reside.

Introduction

Indeed, there exists great demographic complexity as well as the diversity of Muslim immigrants throughout the United States, which relates directly to this writer’s topic of interest. At the same time, it is difficult to thoroughly examine the ‘Muslim mindset’ without consideration of Muslim immigrants’ pattern of migration and settlement in the United States and compare the Muslim’s patterns of immigration to those of Jewish.  This writer believes that the Jewish Diaspora or patterns of migration are, at least to some extent, parallel to those of other religious groups that are already established in The United States.  I referred to the word ‘Diaspora’ which historically has been associated with Jewish people.  

For purposes of this research paper, the word also applies to Muslim immigrants, which shall occupy a central part of the analysis that I shall be presenting throughout this research paper.  The view of this aspect of Muslim American immigrants is primarily overlooked throughout the general literature (review).  In accordance with the outlined instructions, and as I have iterated, this writer should like to proceed with considering the study presented by professor Sulayman Nyang, as previously indicated.  In fact, the following shall both offer as well as represent important content associated with this research paper as previously described, and, as well, provide professor Nyang’s insight regarding the Muslim community in the United States – – which he regards to ‘some issues.’  Prior to citing some of the studies provided by Mr. Nyang, I should like to make the point that it was published in 1999.   

Muslims in the United States now number at least 5 million.  The demographic complex of Muslims is very diverse.  It includes alphabetically [Albanians], Algerians, Afghans, [Azerbaijanis], Bengalis, Burmans, Ethiopians, Indians, Indonesians, Malians, Palestinians, Pakistanis, Yemenis, and Zambians.  Given the growing Muslim presence in America, and in the view of the diversity of the Muslims’ national origins and cultural backgrounds, scholars, journalists, and TV and news magazines are beginning to pay greater attention to these new citizens of the United States.  This increased attention has, in turn, led to, among other things, increased attention be paid to the study of the common elements in the migration patterns of Muslims and other faith communities in the country. 

This writer should like to interject, at this juncture, that it is herein that professor Nyang provides that content that is particularly applicable to this research paper.  

Nyang’s paper examines the Muslim patterns of migration and settlement in America, comparing these with similar Jewish patterns.  Starting with the assumption that experiences of the American Muslim community are identical to those of other faith communities that settled in the United States earlier, and building on the sociological insight that each of the previous religious community immigrating from the Old World carried with it most, if not all, the cultural and religious differences that had caused it to become fragmented.  Another objective of Nyang’s paper is to show how Muslim leaders and their followers are dealing with their faith community differences. 

Finally, Nyang offers a third objective: to examine the nature of the challenges facing Muslim organizations and leadership in those parts of the country that have a sizable Muslim presence.  Previously, I referred to the myth-of-return syndrome, which, at this time, I should like to expound upon.  One of the most pressing issues confronting the American Muslim community is that of a question of identity, as previously indicated, which arises from many of the immigrant Muslims who still suffer from the myth-of-return syndrome.  

Scholars who have looked at immigrants worldwide both in contemporary and historical terms have concluded that this phenomenon has existed since the earliest migration of humans.  The classic example of the migration agent who knew, on a conscious level, that he was not going to return to his homeland is that of the patriarch Abraham. The life story of the latter is central to the three Abrahamic religions.  From Biblical and Quranic accounts, Christian and Muslim immigrants know about Abraham’s decision not to return, but that has not deterred recent Muslim and Christian Arab immigrants in the United States and Canada from entertaining the myth-of-return.   

Mohammad Anwar, a British scholar of Pakistani origins, captured the spirit of the Pakistani immigrants’ life in Britain in the title of his book, “Pakistanis In Britain: The Myth-Of-Return”.  Who does this psychological and psychocultural state affect the Muslims, and how does it affect the self-definition of the American Muslim community?  

The data are still sparse; I do not know of any systematic survey that has been conducted, Gallop or Harris style, on this subject.  But the growing evidence available in the Muslim press and Muslim oral exchanges at conferences and symposia does enable one to make some observations on the matter.   

There is, indeed, a growing realization among Muslims that the myth-of-return is a psychological wedge separating the second-generation immigrants from the native-born American Muslims.  Those immigrants who still entertain the possibility that they are going to strike it rich and then head home delay the necessary cultural and political adjustment of their families in the local communities and prevent the inclusion of their interests in the larger American basket of needs and special interests.  The ability to resolve this issue spells disaster to an embryonic community, one whose younger generation is trying to secure of foothold on the American landscape and many of whose first-generation immigrants have made significant strides towards greater Americanization.   

The myth-of-return affects the relationship between the first-generation immigrants and their children and grandchildren and between the immigrant community and the native-born Americans.  In a paper presented at a conference, (Nyang) has argued that “pride and prejudice” have developed among American Muslims because the myth-of-return allows the first-generation immigrant to hold on to his homeland’s old ways and make little or no effect adjust appropriately and meaningfully in his adopted homeland.  This points to a fundamental difference between the Jewish immigrants and the other groups who came to the United States’ shores.  As the literature on Jewish immigration clearly shows, the Jews fleeing persecution and exterminations in Western and Eastern Europe had nowhere else to go; America was their final destination.   

The American Muslim community’s myth-of-return has created adjustment and assimilation problems for many recent immigrants from the Muslim world.  In my perspective, it is imperative to understand that the myth-of-return has created many problems of adjustment assimilation for “all members of the Muslim community” …  “while Nyang presents the conveyance of the impression that the problem is largely emanating from the younger (demographic) Muslim segment. 

Still, to quote Nyang, while these problems are not peculiar to these immigrants, there are reasons to believe that greater Muslim participation in the American experiment would depend largely on eliminating this myth.  The first problem is attitudinal.  Those immigrants who dream of returning home are the least likely to change their nationality, and their children are likely to be subjected to tremendous pressure to keep the cultural robes of distinctiveness.”  Briefly stated, it has everything to do with what I identified at the outset of this research paper – – and that is ‘Identity.’  Nyang expounds on this ‘attitudinal’ problem as a cause of adjustment problems assimilation for all members of the Muslim community.   

Nyang identifies the second cultural consequence of the myth-of-return as the lack of attention paid to children’s socialization process; and finally, the third cultural consequence of the myth-of-return of the development of a defensive attitude toward the media and the larger society.  Nyang further addresses American Muslims and the American racial dilemma stating – – Muslims became more visible in American society after the Civil Rights Movement’s success in bringing about significant changes in American political, social and economic life.  A principle virtue of Islam that the earliest propagator of this religion sought to present before their American people was Islam’s allergy to racism.  A white American advocate of Islam made his claim a long time ago in his ‘Islam In America (1893)’.   

What makes the race issue explosive and potentially divisive for the American Muslim community is the emerging class differences between the Muslim immigrant families and the Muslim segment of the black underclass that has seized upon Islam as a moral, psychological and spiritual life jacket in the stormy sea of American racism. 

Nyang ends his study by drawing three conclusions when first, the research had shown that a significant challenge facing the Muslim community of the United States is the myth-of- return.  In order for the American Muslim community to take its rightful place in the American experiment, its leaders and members must begin to address this issue.  The second conclusion is that American Muslims cannot be perceived as role models and success stories unless they solve the emerging race-class divide within their ranks.  It is only by living up to Islam’s original teaching about social justice and the equality of the human race that the American Muslims can stake any claim to moral leadership at the table of American decision making.  And finally, the third conclusion is that sectarianism is an old problem.  Neither Christianity nor Judaism, two Abrahamic sister religions that preceded Islam and history, could escape the sting of sectarianism (Nyang, 1999, pps.113).   

What impresses me the most (as there is a complexity of issues as I have cited at the outset) is that the “myth-of-return” is fundamentally anti-Islamic.  Also, I made a point earlier that the article was written and published in 1999, which was before the now infamous – – and oh! so delicate/fragile – – “9/11”.  Indeed, immediately following the said event, sporadic incidences of violence against Muslims (and related) communities were reported.  Americans perceived almost anyone with a turban, a beard, or garb that remotely identified them with the “Middle East” as ‘categorical’ and ‘stereotypical.’  In my perspective, this reality lends further impetus to the demographic issue, as referred to at the outset of this research paper.  

At the same time, I shall attempt to maintain as great a focus as viable and reasonable regarding Muslim patterns of migration and settlement in America.  The myth-of-return is an issue that has been picked up by other authors, such as (Elkholy, 1966, Naff, 1985, Abraham, & Nabeel, 1983) as well as one report by the Muslim American Society, which states, Americans are a pluralistic society par excellence.  

America doesn’t have a state religion, and Americans do not constitute one race or one ethnicity.  America is a society of immigrants. Ever since its discovery, people from different parts/corners of the world migrated to the U.S. from diverse religious, ethnic, and racial backgrounds.  All groups face the challenge of preserving their identity, culture, and religion, mostly through isolation, and later had to deal with the challenge of integration in society and develop a new identity.  Muslims are no exception, except that only two-thirds of them are relatively recent immigrants, and they already constitute four different generations of immigrants.  The other one third is African Americans.   

Muslims also cover the whole spectrum when it comes to their level of integration in society.  However, the trend is toward a rapid increase in the fraction of Muslims born and raised in this country.  American Muslims came a long way in integrating into society and developing a genuine and cohesive American and Muslim identity and way of life. The Islamophobia and the climate of fear that prevails due to the current events in the so-called Muslim world, and perhaps the increased direct entanglement of the U.S. with the Muslim world, maybe on the surface in the short run, hamper the process of integration.  However, suppose American Muslims read and handle the situation correctly/adequately. In that case, they may well turn into an opportunity to accelerate their integration and fulfill an essential role as a bridge between the U.S. and the Muslim world.  

On the other hand, the U.S. has, throughout its history, accommodated all kinds of religions, ethnicities, cultures, and races.  And Islam and Muslims are no exception, especially that the vast majority of American Muslims were born and raised here. Therefore they didn’t know any other country or culture except those of America.  The rest are Americans by choice (naturalization).  They are grateful for the freedom and better opportunities they get in this country.  All American Muslims have a stake in the country they have chosen to be theirs, and their children and grandchildren will be living.  This, and other religious obligations for practicing Muslims leave no room for Muslims but to work for their country’s well-being and fulfill all their commitments/contracts, including their citizenship on their visa applications.  The nature of American society and constitution facilitates the integration of any group in the community without disavowing any element of their original identity.    

According to the author, if Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Jews, Africans, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists can develop an American identity, it should be more comfortable for Muslims who don’t constitute a race or nationality, and whose religion is neither racial nor sectarian.  The author continues – indeed, the Quran teaches us that prophets were always sent from amongst their people and with their language so that they can deliver the message effectively.  The main reason that delays or hinders the process of developing an American Muslim identity and integrating into society are:  

  1. The “myth-of-return” which until recently caused the vast majority of immigrant Muslims to think of themselves as temporary immigrants, and therefore they focused on preserving their identity;  
  2. The fact that many Muslims do not believe in the obligation of sharing Islam to others and civic engagement, which necessitates integration and adoption and developing an American Muslim identity;  
  3. Misconceptions among some groups about the Islamic perspective on the relationship of non-Muslims and the issue of citizenship.  

Heretofore, and overall, in my perspective, many firm and valid points have been made – – especially by Nyang.  Muslims are no different (neither spirit nor inferior) than any other of America’s pluralistic segment groups.  As is also cited (from another source), America traditionally and continually maintains a mindset that is one of openness and welcoming to individuals from other lands. 

Actually, while Islamophobia has come up in the literature several times, and in point of fact, is replete with Islamophobia (due to the current world events), when one considers America’s past wars – – especially World War II – – there exists relatively little overt biases or racism towards Muslim Americans.  For example, in World War II, German Americans physically beat up routinely, had their home and property destroyed, as was the case with Japanese Americans who were literally rounded upon and interred in camps on the United States’ west coast.  This, by any American (or otherwise) standard(s) was deplorable and despicable.         

While we do not see this happening today among Muslims, Arabs, etc. (most Americans lump people from the Middle East into one category, not really understanding any sense of their overall cultural, political, religious, or otherwise differences). 

According to one Mustafa Malik, Muslims pluralize the west and resist assimilation.  To a large extent, Muslim communal life in the west devolves through their perception of “selfhood” as members of a global Muslim community, ‘the Umma.’  Some scholars have described the Umma as an “imagined community” similar to a nation.  The Umma was born in the Arabian town of Yathrib (Medina) in the 620s as an interfaith defense alliance against Muslims, Christians, and Jews to protect that town against invaders from Mecca. Since 656, when a bloody rebellion broke out against the third Islamic Caliph, Uthman, the Umma (Muslim community) has been fractured over theology, ethnicity, political power, and statehood.  Mustafa continues – – Muslims in North America and Western Europe, numbering about 20 million, have a heightened sense of their own Umma ties.  Islam is a more useful locus of identity for Muslim immigrants because it carries a profound sense of meaning.  

Religion, says Clifford Geertz, can “transport a person into another mode of existence.” Islamic beliefs, practices, festivals, and other symbols enable the Muslim immigrant to revisit his old self and environment in a most intimate sense.  Islam also helps him cope with this new environment because it serves as a template for “thinking and feeling about reality.” Besides, the institution of Umma enables the uprooted and isolated Muslims in the Diaspora to build meaningful social, political, and matrimonial relationships across ethnic boundaries.  Interethnic Muslim marriages are picking up rather slowly, yet very rarely would a Muslim marry a non-Muslim even from their own ethnic group (Malik, 2004, p. 8). Mustafa also weighs in on Islamophobia, stating Islam is steadily integrating into western societies despite the “Islamophobia” of many nativist westerners and the xenophobia of many Orthodox Muslims.   

As this writer has identified the issue of “identity” as singular, for purposes of this research paper, I should like to conclude by expounding on this very issue … and this might best be characterized by quoting one Gary Puckrein who states – – identity matters (people retain identity in the face of the majority cultures’ attempts at total assimilation).  

In my viewpoint, Puckrein makes important points because he addresses the issue of ‘identity’ universally, thus establishing facts that are relevant both to Muslims as well as other ‘hyphenated’ Americans.  From the most fundamental level of matter to human societies and individual experience, stress is a force that shapes and alters form and identity.  

Minorities must bear this truth in mind.  No individual and no people can escape being molded by the larger culture, which is often indifferent to, if not hostile towards, its minority voices.  Assimilation is neither a strategy nor an option; it is an inevitability. At issue is only the degree to which the original entity can define the terms of the incorporated identity.  Puckrein raises this issue not to address a contemporary dispute in the community but rather to reassert, yet again, American Visions’ relevance in the face of perennial questions as to why we fail to address contentious issues (Puckrein, 1997, p. 10). 

Ultimately, I would agree that integration and assimilation are ‘inevitabilities’ which the Muslim communities are both required and want to establish. With time, it is my perspective and understanding that the Muslim community shall increasingly realize both integration and assimilation in American society.  Simultaneously, it is very much up to Muslim (community) and civic leaders to assume the banner towards assimilation and integration.  

*Dr. Mustapha Kulungu is the Principal Researcher at the ILM Foundation Institute of Los Angeles, California. He graduated from Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, California. 

REFERENCES 

Abraham, S., & Nabeel A. eds. (1983).  Arabs in the New World: Studies on Arab-American Communities (Detroit: Wayne State University, Center for Urban Studies. 

Elkholy, A. (1966). The Arab Moslems in the United States: Religion and Assimilation (New Haven, CT: College & University Press Services. 

Karp, A. (1977). Golden Door to America. The Jewish Immigrant Experience (New York:Penguin Books. 

Malik, Mustafa.  (2004, March 22).  “Muslim pluralize the west, resist assimilation.”Middle East Policy. 

Naff, A. (1985). Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press 

Nyang, Sulayman S.  (1999). “The Muslim Community In The United States: Some Issues.”  Studies In Contemporary Islam, Sample Article 2 (Vol. 1) (www.as.ysu.edu).   

Puckrein, Gary.  (1997, April 1).  “Identity matters (people retain identity in the face of a majority culture’s attempts as total assimilation.”  American Visions.  

Web post “Muslim identity; Muslim American Society.” Retrieved from:  (www.mascincy.org).  September 10, 2007. 

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