The Immigrant Muslim Experience

Defining a US Muslim Immigrant

A substantial number of Muslims in the US are immigrants from around the world, primarily from the countries of South Asia and the Arab Middle East. Like all immigrant populations in the US, Muslim immigrants have contributed to the American cultural, social, and political fabric in profound yet uneven ways, as they have navigated the challenges of making new homes in America while remaining connected to the memories and sensibilities of the homes they left behind.

Among the major challenges of engaging with the subject of immigrant Muslims is that of defining the category of “immigrant Muslim.” How should one distinguish between a ‘native’ and an ‘immigrant’ American Muslim? At what point does an immigrant become a native? Does a Muslim have to be a US citizen in order to qualify as a US Muslim immigrant? What about Muslims in the US who are permanent residents, non-resident aliens (people on various visas), and undocumented migrants and who play an important part in weaving the fabric of Islam in the US; do they count as immigrant US Muslims? These seemingly simple questions can pose ample difficulty, stemming in large part from ways in which modern notions of identity are enmeshed with the idea of citizenship, constantly redefining the boundaries of who gets counted as an American Muslim immigrant.

There is a palpable tension that often exists between immigrant and native Muslim populations in the United States. To be more specific, this tension often occurs between those Muslims who have immigrated to the United States from Muslim-majority nations and “indigenous” Muslims, usually African Americans. It is important to recognize, however, that these categories are not unproblematic, largely because many so-called “immigrants” were born in the United States and many others have lived in the country since they were children. Indeed, the categorization of “immigrant” forms part of the root of the tension for those designated as immigrant, many of whom feel that African American Muslims do not consider them authentic Americans.

For their part, many African American Muslims argue that they are marginalized by the immigrant communities, the latter of which tend to conflate their cultural practices with a purer form of original Islam. Some of the tension can be traced to the fact that many African American Muslims converted first to the Nation of Islam and held to its teachings, which do not conform to traditional Sunni doctrine. However, in recent years charges of inauthenticity are more often based upon a lack of knowledge of Arabic, which only a handful of African Americans have attained.

These tensions are deepened by class differences. For whereas the African American community continues to suffer the historical legacy of American racism, the various Muslim immigrant communities have tended to thrive in the United States, attaining high levels of education and professional success. As such, African American Muslims often complain that their fellow American Muslims are insufficiently concerned with civil rights and poverty in the United States.

The Problem of Assimilation

Another issue that is important to note when considering the experiences of various immigrant Muslim groups has to do with the extent to which immigrant Muslims blend into the larger culture and function as productive citizens. The question of ‘assimilation’ is neither new nor specific to Muslim immigrants. Navigating a largely White Protestant cultural and political terrain is a challenge that most immigrant communities to the US have encountered and negotiated. In this context, the experience of Muslim immigrant communities shows a curious paradox. On the one hand, they have done remarkably well in various sectors of life and for the most part have excelled professionally and economically. However, at the same time, they have remained a community under threat, suspicion, and surveillance, as they have tried to seek assimilation according to rules that are not of their making. Certainly, immigrant Muslims have been productive members of US society for some time. Simultaneously, however, immigrant Muslim groups have faced a number of difficulties in their efforts to be accepted members of America’s cultural and civic landscape.

First, various early Muslim immigrants had to pass the legal hurdle of being declared “white” before they could be granted US citizenship. In recent decades, however, the burden has become more cultural than legal. Animosity between the United States and various Islamic-majority states as well as various terrorist attacks by extremist Muslims—such as the several wars between Israel and its neighbors, the oil embargo of the 1970s, the Iranian Revolution, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and especially the attacks of September 11—have led many Americans to fear, and in some cases even to lash out, against their Muslim neighbors. This sense of alienation is sometimes exasperated by American foreign policy, which tends to favor the State of Israel over/against the Palestinians and which has led to several wars in Islamic-majority countries.

Despite these difficulties, it is important to keep in mind that the majority of immigrant Muslims in the United States strongly identify with their American identity and, by most measures, are as patriotic and politically engaged as their fellow citizens. However, challenges still remain. For instance, it is quite telling that no immigrant Muslim, let alone a first generation immigrant Muslim, has ever been elected to the Congress, the Senate, or as a Governor. This is in stark contrast to the UK where the election of Muslim immigrants to the parliament has been commonplace.

Finally, it should also be mentioned in passing that immigrant Muslims have contributed tremendously to the cultural fabric of the United States, not least by bringing with them and eventually regularizing a wealth of outstanding food and cuisines that have become an important part of the country’s popular culture.