Posted by on June 29, 2012 in Blog

By Nama Khalil

2012 Summer Intern

The House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, led by Representative Peter King, held the fifth Congressional hearings on 'radicalization' in the American Muslim community. Though the Congressional hearings unfortunately did not present accurate information on American Muslims, other events inside the beltway tackled the issues facing the Muslim community with a little more finesse. The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding held a timely symposium, Reason vs Rhetoric: Understanding American Muslims, which featured leading experts on issues facing the American Muslim community, and their place in the broader national landscape.

Religious freedom was a common thread through the day’s symposium and was the topic of the first panel. Constitutional and legal principles framed the discussion around the religious freedom of American Muslims. The two main problems facing the American Muslim community that were addressed are civil rights and security. In regards to civil rights, several communities of faith historically faced parallel anxieties to those experienced by American Muslims today. Issues considering, for example, building and/or expanding synagogues, or starting church clubs at public schools were discussed and resolved through legislative measures. These cases set in place tools that have been used by law enforcement to aid the American Muslim community.  Several comparative cases were noted in regards to public schools accommodating religious practices and thus were the basis for public school to also accommodate Muslim practices.

With the rise of Islamophobia, most accommodations made for Muslims have been framed in a binary, “us vs them” narrative, which promotes fear, bigotry, and gross misunderstanding of American Muslims and Islam in general. This discourse is perpetuated through media and is beginning to be a primary concern for American Muslim youth. Radicalization of youth is a myth, but there is an identity crisis that has evolved when Islam is derided. Young American Muslims are feeling unwelcome and excluded from American society. Scholars at the symposium, along with community leaders, discussed efforts to engage the youth to develop confident Muslim American identities. American Muslim youth should not have to choose between being American or being Muslim.

After 9/11, the American Muslim community’s first goal was to prove they were not terrorists. The present goal is to establish an understanding that Muslims are not foreign to America. Several panelists proposed a future goal at the symposium, one that I personally weary of. To move forward, the new goal is for American Muslims to be viewed as individuals first and Muslims second. On the surface, this sounds simple.  But how can veiled women ever be viewed as an individual first if her veil marks her as “other.” This very question was posed to the second panel, but left unanswered.

Along with the greater American public, American Muslims need to work on transitioning from “assimilation to belonging.” A need for a cultural expression of American Islam is becoming increasingly necessary. The American Muslim community already produced a wealth of cultural material, but there is a long way to go to fully cultivate an indigenous American Muslim culture--one that should be critical, nuanced and accessible. Arts and culture can play a great role in filling the gap between American Muslims and the debates surrounding them.  

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