‘And God, he is with the Steadfast’: American Muslim Lives in the New Millennium


‘Ve Allah hu ma as-samad’

The Indo-Pak Grocery Store is sandwiched between a Midas Brakes and a hobby shop selling baseball memorabilia. Located in a strip mall in a working class suburb near a decaying Midwestern city, it is an unlikely monument to the nearly extinct South Asian values of pluralism, diversity and tolerance. Nevertheless it has become a focus for homesick expatriates, like myself, who stop by in this little oasis not only for a taste of home but also for friendly and heartening Urdu conversation. The owner, Mr. M, a middle-aged man from Pakistan, exemplifies not only South Asian but also immigrant virtues – hard work, fortitude, endurance.

He moved to the United States from Pakistan about eighteen years ago. He lived and worked first in the south, in Virginia, running a gas station. He moved to the Midwest only a few years ago, leaving behind the high crime, which was magnified by hate crimes. His own brother was stabbed to death during a robbery attempt. In the Midwest, there were fewer jobs and fewer opportunities but people were more welcoming and open. He did not face any problems with crime or bias here. In response to my question, “Are there many people from Pakistan and India in the area?” he tells me, “My customers include all kinds of people – not only from India and Pakistan but of all nationalities and all races – white, African-American, Spanish, people from the Middle East – all different religions.” The diversity of his clientele and his friendship with them are a matter of pride. Equally, he is disdainful of fundamentalism and its politics: “What have they to do with true religion? Religion is about faith (iman), truth and trust.” He remains suspicious about its connections to the sources of financial and political power. More hesitantly we talk about the negative stereotypes of Muslims in American media and how little these have to do with the everyday lives of Muslims. In the Midwest, he has never had any problems. Just once, he says, there was a troublemaker: “I could hear him from some way off, he was coming down the block, shouting things about ‘you people’ and what should be done to us. He never made it to my store. My neighbor from the hobby store brought out a baseball bat and stood in front of my door . He told this man to keep going, and he did. I’ve never had any other problems.”

There are such little islands scattered across the Midwest, as expatriates try like Mr. M to recreate a forgotten ethos in a new setting, bridging with their lives the divides of religion, race and nationality. They are worlds removed from the media-dominated stereotypical images of Islam and Muslims which permeate the public discourse. Donald Trump, millionaire property developer with political ambitions, at the least to be a kingmaker, believes that there is “a Muslim problem” in the world. Admitting that he was no expert on the Quran, he said that nevertheless “There’s something there that teaches some very negative vibe.” Newt Gingrich, candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination weighs in with a now-obligatory denunciation of ‘sharia law’ in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in July 2010: “I believe Sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it,” Even more disturbing, such statements made on the campaign trail represent a shift from his own earlier more cordial relationship with Islam and Muslims. Clearly, the perception is that on the road to political power, Islam-baiting is the way to go.

Periodic campaigns keep the Muslim version of the red scares in the public eye. The project to create a Muslim community center in downtown Manhattan by the Cordoba Initiative, whose very name evokes an era of pluralism, tolerance and rich creativity, is stigmatized as the “mosque at Ground Zero”. Pastors in Florida and Texas gain publicity by threatening to burn the Quran. And hate sites with right-wing political connections spew a continuous stream of untruth and invective about Islam and Muslims, not even pausing when a deranged killer inspired by their writings massacres seventy-seven people in Norway. Law enforcement and congressional hearings actively promote the view that Muslims are to be viewed with suspicion. Candidates for political office are persuaded to pledge their opposition to sharia law and to non-existent efforts for it to replace the constitution of the United States. What exactly, then, is the state of the United States Constitution and the liberties it is meant to protect, ten years after 9/11?

The Laws of the Land

The metaphor of the canary in the mine shaft has never been more appropriate. A whole range of repressive measures, ranging from surveillance to secret detentions to torture, first introduced as necessary to fight the “War on Terror”, with the tacit understanding that they would only be used to target “suspect communities” such as the Muslims, have slowly and inexorably become part of the normal administrative apparatus. The national security state, it seems, has come to stay. And its chosen method is the very deliberate and targeted scapegoating – of Muslims, immigrants, unions – which pushes back the boundaries of civil liberties and basic human rights. In a recent article in the Washington Post, Jonathan Turley lists the powers acquired by the US government since 9/11: assassination of US citizens, indefinite detentions, arbitrary justice with the president deciding if an individual is tried by the federal courts or a military tribunal, warrantless searches, secret evidence, war crimes (are not prosecuted), secret courts, immunity from judicial review, continual monitoring of citizens, extraordinary rendition. Further, these are not ad hoc measures, but part of an overall design: “While each new national security power Washington has embraced was controversial when enacted, they are often discussed in isolation. But they don’t operate in isolation. They form a mosaic of powers under which our country could be considered, at least in part, authoritarian.”

The speed and scale of the depredations against the Constitution and civil liberties are astonishing. Nancy Murray of ACLU writes:”At the end of the 20th century, few of us would have predicted that within a handful of years, the US would become a country in which a thousand people could disappear into secret detention. Few of us would imagine that the US attorney general’s office would be arguing in federal court that “nothing in the due process clause of the Constitution” prohibits reliance on statements obtained through torture to decide whether people can be held indefinitely as enemy combatants. Who would have conceived of uniformed military attorneys filing a brief to the Supreme Court denouncing the Administration as a “monarchical regime” that has created “a legal black hole” in which one person, the President, has the power to prosecute, try and execute sentences? Who could have imagined the existence of a large number of documents attesting to our military’s use of torture and abuse in its detention facilities — some 20,000 emails and other documents have been released to the ACLU through a FOIA lawsuit.”

The extension of executive powers has continued and evolved under the Obama administration. Distinctions between military and domestic law enforcement, between the CIA and domestic surveillance are already breached. At the time of writing, the use of unmanned drones in the US has been authorized, leading to speculation about possible applications, most appealing to law enforcement. The massive expansion of surveillance to target groups that criticize government policy has been called a 21st century version of COINTELPRO, with correspondingly advanced technological capabilities. Domestic dissent has been characterized in military training documents as “low-level terrorism.”
A series of Associated Press investigations has revealed extensive surveillance by the New York Police Department of mosques, stores and Muslim neighborhoods, and student groups all without any suspicion or evidence of wrongdoing, and based only on religious identity, using tactics normally reserved for criminal organizations. “The NYPD Intelligence Division snapped pictures and collected license plate numbers of congregates as they arrived to pray. Police mounted cameras on light poles and aimed them at mosques. Plainclothes detectives mapped and photographed mosques and listed the ethnic makeup of those who prayed there.” Student groups at Yale and Columbia University were infiltrated by NYPD operatives; NYPD spying operations were extended to New Jersey. The AP documents also reveal that a CIA officer helped to set up the whole operation, without authorization. Repeated denials issued by the Police Commissioner and his spokesman, which are then disproved by further AP revelations, add another layer of concern to questions about the secrecy and illegality of the operations. “Earlier, Browne had denied the NYPD used mosque crawlers or that there was a secret Demographics Unit that monitored daily life in Muslim communities.” The issue here is not only the targeting of Muslim communities but also of the relationship of law enforcement to the public they are meant to protect. Recognizing the dangers inherent in this course, civil liberties groups, elected representatives and university officials have joined Muslim groups in demanding accountability from the NYPD and the Mayor.


On Trial

How well does the judicial system fulfill its role as watchdog of constitutional liberties? An answer to this question is to be found not only in the rapid advance of national security legislation and surveillance, but also the highly publicized trials in which “terror plots” are apparently unmasked and the Muslim “extremists” behind them sentenced to long years behind bars. A closer look at some of the terror cases brought to US courts raises questions about law enforcement strategies that rely upon what has come to be called “entrapment”, in which paid informers, often to escape criminal penalties themselves, work for the FBI to infiltrate mosques and Muslim communities. Mainstream media reports repeat the arguments of the prosecution and law enforcement, presenting lurid images of plots to attack malls, blow up bridges and kill American soldiers. When alternative media and legal scholars try to match up the rhetoric to the evidence presented, they come up with startling findings: the terror plots would not exist without the FBI informants who provide the planning, money, equipment and literally drive the “conspirators” to the sites where they are arrested.

A common theme of the various sting operations is that the FBI informants with their extremist opinions and calls for violent “jihad” are shunned by the Imams and worshippers at the mosques. They then turn to poor, marginal figures and draw them in with offers of money, financial backing and rich lifestyles. Rather unexpectedly, the sting operations show that the only “radicals” in the Islamic community are FBI informants and provocateurs. Terminology is a difficult issue here – a true sting operation is based on existing leads or evidence of inclination or plans to commit a crime. In the domestic “terror” cases, there are no plots and no predispositions until they are planted by the FBI’s own informants. Revised guidelines and expanded law enforcement powers make possible the aggressive use of informants, while denying those caught up in the plots the entrapment defense.

In the case of the Fort Dix Six, the extremist statements on record are all made by the FBI informant, as attested by the FBI’s own tapes presented as evidence. The Six, convicted of plotting to attack Fort Dix in New Jersey and to kill American soldiers, are heard commenting on tape that it is forbidden in Islam to kill innocents. The informant takes them for drives to Fort Dix, which is then presented as evidence of “reconnaissance” trips for a planned attack. The planning, maps, and advocacy for the attack came only from the informant, with no recorded evidence of the Five supporting the idea. The informant screens violent videos for them, which is then offered as proof of their”predilection” for extremism. They are now serving long sentences ranging from 33 years to life.

In the case of the Newburgh Four, a close look at the case reveals much more about the relationship of law enforcement to the desperately poor, marginalized communities of color than it does about the spread of violent extremism. Four young men from the struggling town in New York state were ‘recruited’ to carry out an attack on a synagogue in Riverdale in the Bronx; the FBI’s own transcripts of the entire sting operation reveal that the ‘plot’ only existed in the mind of their own paid informer, who acted as provocateur. For varying reasons of financial need, the four continued to meet with the informer. One of the supposed conspirators never spoke, he came to the meetings only to eat. Cromite, the most vocal, was given small amounts of cash for making extremist and anti-Semitic statements. Each such utterance produced payments of $160. David Williams was promised money to pay for a lifesaving operation for his brother. As FBI agent Robert Fuller testified at the trial, the government was “pretty much in control of what the defendants were doing.” Even more sinister from the point of view of the community was the fact that while the informant’s politics were repugnant, they had no means to stop him as he was so obviously an FBI plant. Masjid al-Ikhlas in Newburgh is not the only mosque to face such a problem. The Islamic Center of Irvine in Orange County, California sought and received a restraining order against an FBI informant who tried to recruit supporters for his plans to blow up a mall.

The rare cases in which FBI informants are able to recruit support for terror plots, it is based not on religious belief but on repeated and provocative exposure to evidence of civilian casualties in the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in drone attacks on Pakistan. Glenn Greenwald writes:”Here we find one of the great mysteries in American political culture: that the U.S. Government dispatches its military all over the world — invading, occupying, and bombing multiple Muslim countries — torturing them, imprisoning them without charges, shooting them up at checkpoints, sending remote-controlled drones to explode their homes, imposing sanctions that starve hundreds of thousands of children to death — and Americans are then baffled when some Muslims — an amazingly small percentage — harbor anger and vengeance toward them and want to return the violence. And here we also find the greatest myth in American political discourse: that engaging in all of that military aggression somehow constitutes Staying Safe and combating Terrorism — rather than doing more than any single other cause to provoke, sustain and fuel Terrorism.”
Investigative journalist Petra Bartosiewicz, who had followed the trials closely, writes: “The defendants in these plots, most of them male Muslim immigrants with no history of terrorism or violence, have become unwitting actors in a disturbing theatrical performance: The FBI scripts the plot and provides the weapons, along with money, cars and any other logistical support needed to carry out the “attack.” In the end, it may be the words “actors”, “theatrical”, “performance” and “script” that provide the key to understanding the spectacles enacted through the domestic terrorism trials.

One of the strangest and saddest cases in the legal murk engendered by the US’ War on Terror is that of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. Dr. Siddiqui is a Pakistan-born scientist who studied at MIT and Brandeis University where she received a doctorate in neuroscience. Also a devout Muslim, she raised funds for Bosnian war orphans and to send copies of the Quran to Muslim prisoners in the Boston area. Around 2002, she and her husband moved back to Pakistan. They divorced, and with her three young children she went to live with her mother in Karachi. In 2003, she and her children mysteriously vanished.

Her family and supporters who have painstakingly put together the missing pieces of her life believe that she was kidnapped by Pakistani agencies at the behest of the US government, and held for five years in the notorious US prison at Bagram in Afghanistan. She would thus have become one of the thousands of Pakistanis who have been disappeared in the course of the war on terror, handed over to the US and held at the prisons in Bagram or Guantanamo. Dr. Siddiqui’s family were warned against speaking to the media, if they wanted her to remain alive. Two weeks later, she was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, though not for any terrorist crimes. Meanwhile prisoners released from Guantanamo who were previously held at Bagram reported hearing there the screams and sobs of a woman being tortured by American soldiers. On being shown pictures of Dr. Siddiqui, they were able to confirm her identity.

About the same time as these reports, in 2008, as a habeas corpus petition was filed for her in the Pakistan High Court in Islamabad, she reappeared in Ghazni, Afghanistan, accompanied by her oldest child. She was arrested by police and handed over to American troops and FBI. The conditions of her arrest are unclear, but form the basis of the case of against her after she was brought to the US. She was not accused of any terrorism-related crimes but of resisting arrest in Ghazni and of shooting at American soldiers. She had herself been shot during the arrest and was recovering from bullet wounds in the abdomen. In court, the prosecution did not present any forensic evidence that she had handled the weapon she was supposed to have fired, or even that it had been fired. Eyewitness accounts, among others by journalist Petra Bartosiewicz, relate that prosecution witnesses contradicted themselves.

As with the domestic terror cases, the trial was as much a media spectacle as a judicial process. Her trial by media as “Lady Al-Qaeda” accused her of crimes ranging from being married to the nephew of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks being held at Guantanamo, to travelling to Liberia to deal in diamonds to fund Al-Qaeda. The judge’s departure from the axiomatic impartiality of his role was evident in the conduct of the trial, admission of evidence, remarks and summing up for jurors, and in sentencing. Any discussion of her disappearance and the missing five years was banned from the trial. Equally curious were his continual references, with a strange mixture of mockery and resentment, to her intellectual achievements and impeccable English. As he pronounced the sentence of 86 years, he added: “Enjoy your life, Aafia.” She is currently held at Carswell Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, a facility for mentally disturbed prisoners, after court-appointed doctors and psychiatrists ruled her mentally fit to stand trial. She has been kept in solitary confinement for over a year; her brother has been allowed to meet her only two times. This treatment seems to disturb even the prison authorities at the notoriously harsh facility; they have told her brother, “Our normal rules don’t seem to apply to your sister.” Her second child, a daughter, was returned after a period of seven years to the family home in Karachi, traumatized and speaking perfectly accented American English. The fate of her youngest child remains unknown.

While the truth about the case may never be known, it functions as an index of the subversion of the legal system. As Glenn Greenwald notes, the mere association of the word “terrorism” puts an end to any concerns about fairness, due process, civil liberties, human rights and international law, and effectively silences human rights and civil liberties advocates. Through it all, the families of those thus convicted struggle to find legal support and to deal with the impact in their lives. As the case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui moves to the appeals stage, a small group of supporters gather outside the Daniel P. Moynihan Federal Courthouse at 500 Pearl Street in Manhattan where the hearings are held. They are a varied but committed group, touched in some way by this story which compels them to brave the stigma of being labelled “terrorist sympathizers”. Many are young Muslim Americans, no longer willing to be silent spectators to the demonization of their community and determined to exercise their right of democratic protest. There is the young mother who thinks of Dr. Siddiqui every time she holds her own child in her arms. There are the stray Indians for whom Dr. Siddiqui might have been a classmate, a friend, a neighbor, a fellow-activist, coming as she does from an educated middle-class Pakistani background. There is El-Hajj Mauri’ Saalahkhan, a Washington D.C. based human rights activist who is the founder of the Peace and Justice Foundation. He has rallied support for Dr. Siddiqui, travelling as far as Texas to support Mohammed Siddiqui, who stands by his sister. His is one of the few Muslim organizations to support Dr. Siddiqui. Also among the supporters is Alicia McWilliams-McCollum, who is not Muslim, Pakistani or Middle Eastern. She is the aunt of David Williams of the Newburgh Four. She believes that her nephew was tricked, and has channeled her sorrow into a struggle for justice, living her belief that the targeting of Muslim communities is not a problem for Muslims alone, and that poor and marginalized communities must stand together.


It Can’t Happen Here

In two terror attacks in Norway on July 22, 2011, Anders Breivik first placed a car bomb near a government building in central Oslo, then opened fire at a Norwegian Labour Party summer youth camp on the island of Utoya, 38 km away. He was wearing a fake police uniform and was armed with assault weapons. The two attacks killed seventy-seven people. Appearing in court in February 2012, far from showing any remorse, he described the attacks as “a preventive attack on traitors”and self-defence to save Norwegian culture from “Islamic colonization”; he felt that he should be given a medal. In a detailed manifesto posted on his website before he began the killing, he listed those who had inspired him.

Prominent among these are US-based hate sites such as Atlas Shrugs, run by Pam Geller, Jihadwatch run by Robert Spencer, and the Gates of Vienna operated under the pseudonym Baron Bodissey and Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) run by Pam Geller and Robert Spencer. Seeing himself as a Crusader defending Europe from a Muslim takeover, Breivik recorded his obsession with “the desire to see not only the deportation of all Muslims from Europe but also from ‘the West Bank and Gaza Strip’. He described himself as a supporter of ‘pro-Zionism/Israeli nationalism’, and one of his key intellectual influences was Bat Ye’or (pseudonym of Giselle Littman), who first coined the term “Eurabia” and identified the threat of ‘Dhimmitude’ or western subjection to Islam.”

Other prominent figures in the industry are David Yerushalmi, of the Society of Americans for National Existence, whose “model legislation” banning Sharia law has been included in bills in South Carolina, Texas and Alaska; and Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum and Campus Watch, a group that seeks to monitor and control discussion on the Middle East. Spencer and his fellow haters are no marginal figures in US public discourse. They are routinely featured as experts on Islam on TV shows and invited to college campuses to propound “the truth about Islam”. Spencer has long been an invited speaker on college campuses and his bio at the Jihadwatch site lists some of these: Dartmouth College, Stanford University, New York University, Brown University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, Washington University of St. Louis, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and many other colleges and universities. In 2003, Daniel Pipes was appointed to the Board of the US Institute of Peace and served a two-year term. He is currently a distinguished fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Nor are their collective efforts in vain. According to a Washington Post – ABC News poll conducted in 2010, 49% of Americans held an unfavorable view of Islam, up from 39% in 2002.

Along with college campuses, some of the best consumers of their output are law enforcement agencies. Parallel with the AP disclosures about NYPD surveillance of the Muslim community is the outrage at the revelation that the NYPD showed the film, “The Third Jihad” to new officers as part of their training. Full of images of bombings, chanting crowds, burning American flags and churches, mad mullahs and an Islamic flag flying on top of the White House, it carried the message that the Muslim presence in America is the culmination of a project of world domination. One of the officers, who found the film offensive and contacted reporter Tom Robbins at the Village Voice, said: “It was so ridiculously one-sided. It just made Muslims look like the enemy. It was straight propaganda.” Particularly interesting is the funding behind the film: “The 72-minute film was financed by the Clarion Fund, a nonprofit group whose board includes a former Central Intelligence Agency official and a deputy defense secretary for President Ronald Reagan. Its previous documentary attacking Muslims’ “War on the West” attracted support from the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major supporter of Israel who has helped reshape the Republican presidential primary by pouring millions of dollars into a so-called super PAC that backs Newt Gingrich.” The film also featured NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly; his spokesman first maintained that it used file footage. Internal department documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) revealed that he was specially interviewed for the film. Former Mayor Rudi Giuliani endorsed the film, calling it “a wake-up call for America”. The Clarion Fund also produced the 2008 film Obsession, with $18 million from an unknown donor. That film was sent to some 28 million voters in crucial swing states, distributed as an insert in weekend editions of local and national newspapers.

Scapegoating in a time of economic crisis and two disastrous wars is not new. It is precisely because this pattern has been seen before – with fascist movements in Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States in the 1920s with the Palmer Raids and the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Japanese internment during World War II – that it is clear that the dangers of following this road are real. A counterbalance is provided most unexpectedly by the Arab Spring and the spontaneous uprisings against long-established dictatorships in the Middle East. They have not only inspired people around the world; they have also called into question and seriously jeopardized the Orientalist constructs underpinning US policy in the Middle East and towards Muslims. Overthrowing not only US-supported dictators but also ideas of the incompatibility of Islam and democracy, the uprisings have revealed the longstanding US policy of support for dictators like Mubarak and Saleh and for fringe extremist groups like Al-Qaida in the Libyan Transitional Council. They have revealed the utter lack of principle in these policies, and their usefulness only to a small ruling elite in the US and other Western states. As a spontaneous Arab response to a century of Western domination in the Middle East, the uprisings serve as mirror for the West, its policies, and its image outside corporate-controlled media. A gift of democracy indeed, but not in the direction proclaimed by American policy-makers.


A Bridge too Far?

With perfect symmetry, when anti-Muslim hate groups are backed by conservative and right-wing funders, American Muslim activism takes the side of movements for peace and social justice. For its part, Occupy Wall Street has reached out to the Muslim community, inviting them to pray with OWS on Fridays. It has been something of a scheduling challenge to find a Friday when OWS was not being evicted by the NYPD. Camille Raneem is a 21-year old New Yorker who brings these two strands together in her own person. She converted to Islam two years ago. She is also an active member of the Occupy Wall Street movement. What brings together the two in her view is the shared repression both face at the hands of the police. They also have a shared value, that life is to be treasured, preserved, and allowed to flourish in its natural state. A common basis for the love of life. She was eleven years old when 9/11 happened. Even at that age it prompted questioning and a commitment to activism for social justice. In high school, while reading quantum physics and thinking about particles and intentionality, she encountered the Quran, given to her by a friend. She stayed up all night, finishing half of it in one reading. Even then, she wanted to be respectful of the religion and took a while to fully understand it before taking the shuhada. The Muslim declaration of faith. Her friends were very supportive, her family initially less so. Over time, with understanding, they have become more accepting. She says:

“The Occupy movement owes much more to the Arab Spring than is commonly acknowledged. I remember last year just around this time (February) I was glued to the TV, watching Tahrir Square day and night. And so were all my friends, we watched with bated breath as the events unfolded….I was so proud of them.”

Also representative of American Muslim activism is Dr. Shaik Ubaid, who has lived in the United States for twenty-five years. He moved here from India with his family in the 1980s, after completing his medical training. As a founder of the Muslim Peace Coalition, he is active in bringing a Muslim voice to movements for peace and social justice. The Muslim Peace Coalition is “… composed of Muslim Americans in 15 states who are committed to the principle of standing up and speaking for justice (Quran 4:135) not only because of their desire to uphold the principles of their faith, but also out of deep concern and commitment to our country.” The idea of the Muslim Peace Coalition USA was conceived by Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, who is the first ever Muslim chair of the World Parliament of Religions. He is instrumental in bringing the anti-war movement and organized labor together: “I had only 15 minutes to convince the board of the largest union in the USA to support the anti-war movement this week. This was at the behest of President George Gresham, of local 1199, our nation’s largest labor union with about 400,000 members. He had invited me to speak to his group. Following thunderous applause after my talk, they endorsed the upcoming April 9, 2011 rally in New York, calling for jobs, not war.”

Dr. Ubaid’s earliest experiences of working with the Muslim community in the US was in African-American neighborhoods, so he doesn’t find the strategies and practices of law enforcement surprising. They are new only in their choice of target; African-Americans have lived with police tactics of entrapment, surveillance, and scapegoating for a long time. COINTELPRO was directed specifically at taking out community activists who stood out. As an Indian Muslim, he is no stranger to anti-minority prejudice, discrimination and violence. He has also been a moving force behind coalitions bringing together diverse South Asian groups to stand against the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India and among the expatriate community in the US. He believes that the Indian Muslims experience can be valuable for US Muslims as they know how to live as a Muslim minority in a pluralist democracy. As an Indian Muslim, he also has the experience of dealing with hatemongering, particularly as Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) becomes the fastest growing wing of the Islamophobic machine in the US.

While there is no American Muslim community at this time culturally, there may be one in the future. At this time all there is, is a community in the making. People go to the mosque near their homes or work, so patterns of worship tend to follow patterns of residence. This separates different immigrant groups from each other and from African-American Muslims. The first wave of Muslim immigrants was from Balkans as the Ottoman empire retreated in 1880s – they assimilated. A second wave from Greater Syria in the 1920s followed the fall of Ottoman empire after WWI — they too assimilated. The current wave of immigration beginning in the 1960s, the post-nationalist generation, held on to its beliefs and its identity. They did not assimilate. There is now a second generation of Muslims which is both Muslim and American, and seeking to define itself.


Q: What inspires you to continue? How do you keep going in the face of so much hate?

SU: As a doctor, I understand how the brain works, how easily people can be made to fear and to hate…what happened in Gujarat and in the former Yugoslavia can happen here tomorrow. Bosnian Muslims were the most integrated, but assimilation didn’t save them………the idea that we are running out of time.

Q: What do you think is the place of the American Muslim community in the larger Muslim world? What is at stake here for the rest of the Muslim world, for the world as a whole, in what happens to American Muslims?

SU: It matters very much. The American Muslim community has the potential to become a bridge to the rest of the world, not only to Middle East but to Africa and Asia. Like so many immigrant groups before them, they have ties – family, culture, politics, business – that can not only enrich American life but also create and promote understanding and co-operation.


The struggle of American Muslims to establish themselves and to live according to their faith in co-operation and harmony with their compatriots is coterminous with the struggle for peace, justice and democracy. The stakes could not be higher.



I would like to thank the following for their generous help and support in writing this essay: Dr. Shaik Ubaid, P. Adem Carroll, El-Hajj Mauri’ Saalahkhan, Alicia McWilliams-McCollum, Camille Raneen, Nancy Murray. Many others who spoke to me could only do so on condition of anonymity – this is perhaps the clearest sign of the times. ■



Shubh Mathur is an Indian anthropologist whose work concerns human rights, nations and borders, violence, minorities, immigration and Muslim communities in the United States, gender, South Asia, and the Indian Ocean world. She teaches in the Global Studies program at Northeastern University.