American Muslims in a Global Context

From the earliest enslaved African Muslims brought to America in the sixteenth century, to Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia in the mid-1960s, the story of Muslims in America is one of transnational connections and global flows. These global connections vary from the donation of money to an earthquake disaster relief effort in Pakistan, to signing a petition to end sanctions in Iraq. The rapid improvements in communicative technologies and social media have enhanced intellectual and cultural exchange for Muslim American as they both speak to the world through blogs, video clips and news magazines, as well as in multiplying the sorts of discussions that are remold religious authority worldwide. While much media attention is given to how online connections risk the recruitment of young Muslim Americans to militant organizations, less attention has been given to how emergent communication channels are reshaping Muslims’ lives through such popular sites as online matrimonial sites and Islamic education programs.

One valuable way to begin talking about the global movement and influence of American Muslims is to discuss the hajj. In recent years, approximately 12,000 Americans have joined the 2.5 million Muslims who perform the annual hajj. Muslim Americans plan well in advance in order to access the necessary travel visa, and like Muslims around the world, many invest their life savings in order to afford the considerable costs, approximately $10,000. Pilgrims usually make travel arrangements through an authorized agency and remain with their travel group throughout the mandatory five days of rituals, with hajj tours often running about two weeks in length. Muslims are also dependent on travel agencies for the ‘umra, a smaller pilgrimage to other major holy sites, which may include shrines, mosques, and other holy sites in Iraq, India, and Egypt. Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem is considered the third holiest site for Muslims, but difficulty for Muslim travel to the site as well as debate as to whether Muslims should visit the site under Israeli occupation means that very few American Muslims make the journey.

The influence of Muslim Americans traverse the globe in myriad ways, from remittance support to poetry. Some of the world’s most influential Muslim thinkers live in America today, a list that includes Fethullah Gülen, Hamza Yusuf, Abdolkarim Soroush and the late Fazlur Raman. Gülen and Soroush aimed decisively to impact the politics of specific countries. Gülen’s influence in Turkish politics is exceeded by only a handful of Turkish politicians. Soroush put forth reformist interpretations of Islam in the hope of liberalizing Islamic practice abroad, influence that has been keenly felt in his native Iran. The influence of Muslim American writers abroad stretches back over a century. The “Mahjar school,” a group of Arab American writers, including Muslims and Christians, from the 1920s, became a foundational movement in modern Arabic literature. And more recently, Muslim American journalists have emerged at the forefront of writing on events abroad, being asked to supply cultural and linguistic insight into regions of the world most Americans knew little about.

Global events shape Muslim American experience. Nationalist movements abroad can increase the salience of national affinities among American Muslims. Regional wars along sectarian lines also ripple through American Muslim communities (though generally in non-violent ways). The Israel-Palestine dispute—because of its religious dimension and because it reminds many of anti-imperial struggles their own communities faced not long ago—unites Muslim political opinion in the United States. Similarly, the securitization of American society after 9/11, the passage (and reauthorization) of the Patriot Act, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ongoing struggle against violent extremism in Muslim lands challenged Muslim Americans to redefine their religious identities in geo-political terms. For example, American Muslims have been more likely to approve of the country’s direction since the 2008 election even though public approval of the U.S. in Arab countries has declined over the same period. While many Muslim Americans have mobilized against the War on Terror through affiliations, protests, and lobbying, others have supported state security initiatives by US intelligence and military. While thousands of Westerners have traveled to Syria to fight on the behalf of the Islamic State (IS), the organization has failed to recruit significant numbers of Americans. (They have been much more successful in Europe, and even Canada.) Those who did were radicalized by online propaganda and warned against attending American mosques from recognition on the part of IS recruiters that American Muslims would work to counteract their efforts.

From physical pilgrimage to social media, entrepreneurialism, or the arts, the Muslim American experience intersects with the experience of globalization itself. Often multilingual and multicultural, Muslim Americans draw upon nearly any corner of the earth to define their identities. Their experience, as well, illuminates the interconnectivity of regions and cultures and the possibility for forging, in the years ahead, a truly universal citizen of the world.