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Is There Space for American Muslims in the Ummah?

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What is the state of Muslim identity and fraternity among the global community of Muslims, also known as the Ummah? Whether in the context of counter-extremism and Islamophobia in the West or radical change in majority-Muslim societies, the role of a global Muslim identity that binds the 1.4 billion members of this faith group is always central to these debates. Data is available to use Muslim Americans as an illustrative group to explore the state of global Muslim identity.

A recent study of Muslim American opinion by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center posed a number of questions to members of this community about the extent to which they identify with varying components of their identities. While 69 percent of Muslim Americans say they identify strongly with the US and 65 percent say they identify strongly with Islam, 37 percent of Muslims Americans say they identify strongly with those that share their faith worldwide.

That means 37 percent of Muslim Americans identify strongly with the Ummah. Despite such high levels of fidelity to the United States, Muslim Americans are the American religious group most likely to see US actions as causing unfavorable views of the US in majority-Muslim countries, as opposed to the spreading of misinformation about America in those countries. Muslim Americans are also the religious group most likely to say that the Iraq war was a mistake and to agree with a Palestinian majority on the viability of a two-state solution (an independent Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel).

The data paint a portrait of a community that, while challenged by prejudice and discrimination, is equally confident in its American and Muslim identities. Moreover, the community uses its freedom to voice disagreement or opposition to policies coming from Washington, DC. So why would Muslim Americans have such low levels of identifying strongly with Muslims globally?

The Arab world, as the birthplace of Islam, has always carried significant sociological weight in the development of Muslim identity. As the region enters a new era of its development following the recent spring of revolutions, many commentators are speaking about the role of Islam and Muslim organizations in the future of post-revolutionary countries. Discourse is flowing throughout countries like Egypt about the role of organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-orthodox ideological movements such as some Salafist approaches to Islam. These domestic and sometimes insular debates are important and essential.

Such debates are insufficient, however, as this kind of domestic tunnel vision will likely lead to a loss of opportunity in the search for a way to rekindle the flame of collective identity among Muslims globally. As the Arab world progresses in the development of its communities, cities such as Cairo are beginning to experience a resurgent leadership role among Muslims globally. It will be interesting to see whether a new era of engagement with the Muslims of the West will come to pass.

There are many honorable efforts funded by Arab heads of state and supported with large financial backing to engage in interfaith dialogue globally. However, there is not a single effort to build bridges between Muslims in the Arab world and Muslim Americans. A strong argument can be made that Muslim Americans are an important community with resources to catalyze the progress of majority-Muslim societies.

A partnership with America can start in the form of a partnership with its Muslims. American Muslims can spark a resurgence in global Muslim communal (not necessarily spiritual) identity, but others must engage them. The changing landscape of the Arab world offers a leadership opportunity. The question is whether such efforts will come to fruition amidst the current chaos of change, and whether there is an appetite for such partnership among both sides.

(The writer is a Senior Consultant of Gallup and a Senior Analyst of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and the Muslim-West Facts Initiative. This article first appeared in Asharq Al Awsat on Aug. 27, 2011.)

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