We ought to welcome the growth of Islam in America for one reason: Muslims in America are fast becoming the model of intelligent and progressive Islam for the entire Muslim world. Muslim Americans have all the ingredients at hand to nurture the most reasoned and learned scholars, thinkers and leaders. This is a good thing for America and the rest of the planet.
Muslims often say America is the best place to practice Islam -- not the easiest place -- but the best place to be a Muslim. In many parts of the country Muslims still struggle to come together for worship and community life; and when a mosque is finally built, different challenges arise. These places of worship are being vandalized; hate mail and death threats are left on mosque answering and fax machines; and worshippers have been targeted while at prayer. Small, very vocal groups are whipping up the hatred and bigotry with a lot of paranoid and xenophobic rhetoric. However, despite this adversity, Muslims in America can vote, we have the freedom to assemble, the freedom of speech, and the freedom to practice Islam the way we choose. This cannot always be said in many Muslim-majority countries.
Muslims in America are free from the shackles of culture that so often bear a weight on their understanding of Islam. Because we are an incredibly diverse group of people who frequently have only Islam in common, we are deliberate and thoughtful about what is being taught in our mosques. American Islamic centers are living and breathing institutions that have evolved and matured over time. The statement, "this is the way we always did it back home" doesn't hold water in an American mosque. Before 9/11 and after, I've seen many cultural practices and extreme ideologies be dismissed in America's mosques while the clean and pure Islamic practices are implemented and embraced.
The larger and stronger a mosque becomes in a community, the more the Muslims are able to engage their youth in positive activities like service projects, sports, healthy recreation, and proper Islamic scholarship. The last thing any of us want is for our kids to turn to the Internet or some small fringe group for companionship to be negatively influenced. Muslim kids are under tremendous pressure; when they leave their homes they are inundated with prejudice and bigotry toward them for no other reason than they are Muslim. Having a safe haven where they can connect in positive ways with their peers, vetted mentors and other caring adults will help these kids grow up feeling proud to be Muslim and proud to be American.
When a mosque is well-established in the neighborhood, its members seek to create partnerships through interfaith service and fellowship that strengthens the entire community. Christian and Jewish faith leaders are opening their interfaith circles to include Muslims, and all are finding tremendous commonalities between their faith teachings. Muslims work cooperatively with various faith groups in their shared communities to serve the needy. Muslims are charged by our faith to serve everyone in our community; in fact, there is a tradition that says if our neighbors within a radius of forty houses are hungry, we are obliged to share what we have to ease the hunger. Look in some of the poorest, inner-city neighborhoods and you will find Muslims running food pantries and health clinics that serve everyone in need.
Muslim women are being empowered in America, often well beyond their overseas counterparts. When a Muslim community grows and settles in, women become an integral part of the mosque. We still have a long way to go toward real gender equity in our communities; however, women are fighting for more than a space in the mosque, we are fighting for and winning leadership roles within Islamic institutions. Dr. Ingrid Mattson exemplifies this trend. Muslim women in America are implementing programs that support peaceful families; they sponsor scholarships for young women; they mentor young girls through apple pie programs like the Girl Scouts of the USA.
As Muslim women become leaders in American mosques and institutions, they prevent the import of misogynistic practices and attitudes that are still accepted in some overseas patriarchal societies. They are raising their daughters to know their Islam-given rights as equal partners within the Muslim society. These same women are models for Muslim women around the world. I hosted a web chat for the State Dept. last year and answered questions from Muslim women all over the world on the subject of being a working Muslim mother in America. The women I spoke with were encouraged and empowered to hear our American-Muslim story. One of the last comments from a Muslim woman in Africa said it all. She wrote, "Sister, I envy you. This ideal situation of yours: reconcile your status as businesswoman, Muslim and mother. This is possible because you are in the United States, which offer great opportunities to anyone with ideas. Thanks to Allah."
There's something in the air in America that inspires Muslims to work cooperatively toward the common goal of a strong faith community. Because we are a small group from a huge world of vastly different cultures, we have learned to work together as Muslim-Americans instead of as nationals of different countries. For example, while India and Pakistan rattle their sabers at each other over Kashmir, Indian and Pakistani Muslims in America have left politics back home and work together for the common good. We can't afford political or sectarian strife, instead we are moving forward toward a holistic way of working together for the sake of God and society.
Folks who push back against a mosque being built or expanded in their neighborhood on the grounds that they don't want Islam to spread in their area are being naive. Protesting against an Islamic center, (as recently occurred in Tennessee, New York, and California), only serves to create animosity and more misunderstanding between the community at large and their Muslim neighbors. Efforts to limit Muslims' freedom to worship will not keep Muslims from living in your neighborhood, going to school with your kids, supporting your businesses, contributing to the tax base or practicing Islam.
Muslims are positively contributing to the beautiful diversity of this country through community service, professional and business development, and academic achievement. A growing and thriving Muslim community in America is a tide the haters can't turn as long as we continue to be a free society that protects the civil liberties of all. The hostile bigotry displayed toward Muslims in America is hurtful, but we are reminded of Nietzche's memorable quote: "What does not destroy me makes me strong".
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