Islam: The Evolution of an American Religion


Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017


Most Muslims are unaware that what they are going through is more of a sociological rather than a religious phenomenon, one that remarkably parallels the historical experience of immigrant Catholics and Jews. American Muslims today feel as if their faith is still generally regarded by American non-Muslims with suspicion and hostility. Catholics and Jews felt the same way a century ago. If the experience of Muslims follows that of Catholics and Jews, it will take another generation or two before American Muslims reach the same point achieved by their Catholic and Jewish predecessors in America. The point to which I am referring was the time when American Catholics and American Jews were finally able to establish their Catholic-ness and Jewishness not apart from or in spite of their Americanness, but precisely in and through it.

Although Catholicism was present on American shores from the start, in New Orleans, Louisiana, and in the territories bordering Mexico, it was always seen as more of a foreign church struggling to find its place in a growing American culture, a vestige of British attitudes toward the French and the Spanish. When large numbers of Irish Catholics—followed by the immigration of Italian Catholics and Polish Catholics—began to immigrate to America in the 1800s, a hostile anti-Catholic movement began to take shape. This movement was directed primarily at the Irish “foreigners,” who were felt to be imperiling the livelihood of “native” Americans, as well as their culture, religion, and the American way of life—strikingly similar to what Muslims are accused of today. In time, however, American Catholic bishops defined the Catholic Church in the United States and performed an indispensable task in mediating between the Catholic Church as a strange and alien body and the emerging American culture.

In a process characteristic of the American pattern of life, the church played a crucial role as a vehicle for the social, economic, and political ambitions of immigrant groups bent on building themselves from poor foreigners to middle-class Americans. In particular, its widespread network of institutions and activities, as well as its Catholic schools and colleges, helped the church accelerate the emergence of a Catholic middle class, enabling the Catholic community to become more American—America being preeminently a middle-class country. It thus became possible to be an American not only without falling away from the church, but precisely in and through being a Catholic. The clearest sign of the Americanization of the Catholic Church in America probably came around the middle of the twentieth century, when American Catholics and non-Catholics alike began to regard Catholicism as one of the three great American religions. As sociologist Will Herberg writes in his book Protestants, Catholics, and Jews:

Under the pressure of the American environment in which they so successfully adapted themselves, American Catholics learned to operate with a double vision: in terms of a self-enclosed microcosmic community within their own church, and in terms of a tripartite macrocosm in which Catholics, Protestants, and Jews were conceived as living in harmonious coexistence, if not cooperation, under the benevolent aegis of American democracy.

American Muslims today, especially immigrant mosque centers, operate with a similar double vision: in terms of their own small community with their own ethnic institution often tied to a “back home” worldview, and in terms of a much larger pluralistic and democratic society.

American Jews followed a similar path in becoming part of American society. Although the first Jews to come to America landed in 1654, like American Catholics, American Jewry is predominantly the product of the great wave of migration from Germany and Eastern Europe in the 1800s. By the mid-nineteenth century they were already busily erecting a network of community institutions (synagogues, schools, community centers, etc.) that reflected their conditions of settlement and not simply traditions carried over from the past or abroad.

However, because religion and immigrant culture were so thoroughly fused, the 1.7 million Eastern Europeans to arrive in America at the turn of the twentieth-century came up against a shattering crisis in their interaction with their American-born sons and daughters. Desperately anxious to become unequivocally American, the second generation born and raised in America rejected the foreignness of their parents, which sometimes also meant rejecting Jewishness and Judaism. In response, Mordecai M. Kaplan’s “Reconstructionism” movement sought to combine a liberal theology with a concept of Judaism that saw Jews in America as living in two civilizations, one American and the other Jewish.

By the mid-twentieth century, the form of American Jewish religion was characterized by a far-reaching accommodation to the American pattern of religious life. The American Jewish community had become an integral part of American society. American Jews, like American Catholics, established their Jewishness not apart from or in spite of their Americanness, but precisely in and through it, and thus had achieved the status of Judaism in the American way of life as one of the three religions of democracy.

Likewise, the work involved in developing an American Islamic identity has to involve, by definition, a high appreciation both for what it means to be American and what it means to be Muslim. It cannot be just the accidental experience of being a foreign Muslim living in America, each part at odds with the other. Nor can it be an American becoming Muslim in order to reject America. It requires unpacking the psychological layers of past individual and collective experience, separating history from essential humanity, shedding what is irrelevant, and building an identity based on what is eternal to the human condition, and essential to Islam, in a new America and a globalized world.

One way to accomplish this goal is to engage with our predecessors in the immigrant experience, Christians and Jews who had to develop an American Christian and American Jewish identity, learning from their experiences as they evolved from being imported expressions of mainly European churches and synagogues into American expressions of Judaism and Christianity. Based on the Jewish example, for instance, American Muslims may find ways to practice their traditions and have them recognized by the wider American society. The Muslim community might follow the example of the Jewish community in establishing the equivalent of their Beth Din, a legal system for Orthodox Jews in which rabbinic judges adjudicate cases; the decisions are legally binding in American courts because the cases “are conducted in a manner consistent with the requirements of secular arbitration law” and not against the principles of American law.

Jewish and Catholic experiences in America have paved the way for Muslims to have their religious needs recognized in American society and law, and, as a byproduct, therefore help to influence the development of the Islamic tradition outside the United States. While each experience is unique, many aspects of the process are common and can afford meaningful and fruitful opportunities for growth. This means that the fast track for American Muslims seeking to find their American identity lies through learning from the immigrant experience of American Catholics and Jews. Blended with lessons gleaned from Islamic history, when the earliest Muslims spread beyond the Arabian peninsula to the ancient cultures spanning West Africa to Southeast Asia, this knowledge can help American Muslims more rapidly shape a new definition of what it means to be an American Muslim in a globalized world—as much for their own sake as for the sake of their children and grandchildren, and for their coreligionists around the world.