When Will Muslim Americans Assimilate?

05/27/2011 04:12 pm ET | Updated Jul 27, 2011

The assimilation of my wife and me into American culture started in New Jersey in 1996. That is where we, both doctors, settled after moving from Pakistan.

As I started my medical residency at Monmouth Medical Center, she sacrificed her career for our newborn daughter and became a full-time homemaker. Our inability to afford a car left us stranded on weekends.

And even though a NJ Transit train station was right across from our home, round trips to Manhattan were expensive. This always left us one available and affordable excursion: a walk to the beach.

As practicing Muslims, you could recognize us from a mile away on the wooden boardwalk. My wife always chose to wear an outer garment with an Islamic head cover (burqa) and I kept a well-trimmed beard.

One thing we remember the most from those chilly evenings on the beach is the warmth of our interactions with the locals. Comments like "What a great day" and an occasional but curious "Where are you from?" were routine.

One decade and three children later, our nostalgia kicked in, and last week we planned a trip back to Long Branch. Same burqa. Same beard.

"See what a beautiful new middle school they built?" my wife said, trying (unsuccessfully) to distract our daughter from her Harry Potter book. And a few minutes later, when we reached the beach, it struck. While crossing the boardwalk, a woman on a bike, dressed in shorts and a tank top, scornfully yelled at my wife, "Assimilate!"

The rest of the day went by with us wondering, "Is it possible that we were more assimilated in American culture 15 years ago than now?"

So I went to my one-stop shop, Google, to understand the science of assimilation. Social scientists have primarily relied on four markers to measure cultural assimilation: socioeconomic status, spatial concentration, language attainment and intermarriages.

Data from Pew 2007 polls claims that Muslim-Americans share similar socioeconomic characteristics with the general U.S. population: one-fourth have a bachelor's degree or higher, one-fourth live in households with incomes of $75,000 per year or more and the majority are fluent in English.

With the exception of Dearborn, Mich., spatial concentration is not a prominent phenomenon among Muslim-Americans. And even though Islamic law prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims, 62 percent of Muslim-Americans say it's "OK" to marry non-Muslims.

President Barack Obama said in his 2009 Cairo speech, "American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building and lit the Olympic torch."

Trust me. Showing more skin (whether by removing burqas or shaving beards) would not have enriched our country. In reality, such an expectation to "assimilate" is antithetical to the freedoms that attract millions of talented immigrants to this great country of ours in the first place.

Just a day later, as we stopped at a rest area along the New Jersey Turnpike on our ride back home, a Caucasian woman approached my wife. With the same old New Jersey warmth, she said, "kaifa ha luk," an Arabic phrase meaning, "How are you?"

When my wife expressed in fluent English that she could not speak Arabic, her new acquaintance shared that she had lived in the United Arab Emirates and had Muslim friends.

Remembering the new middle school building, we are convinced the state of New Jersey is spending its taxpayer dollars in the right place: education.

For education may reveal that assimilation of most "Muslimericans" has already occurred.

A version of this article previously appeared in Asbury Park Press.

Faheem Younus is an adjunct faculty member for religion/history at the Community Colleges of Baltimore County and a clinical associate professor at the University of Maryland. He can be reached here.