HuffPost Jummah: Muslims in America Have Changed and Grown

04/06/2012 11:05 am ET | Updated Jun 06, 2012
  • Kecia Ali Associate professor of religion, Boston University

It's spring again. The forsythia are in bloom and the days grow longer. Somehow, spring always takes me by surprise -- and that's no different this year, even after a winter so mild it barely deserved the name. But even as the seasons sometimes drag on, the years fly by. Somehow the last decade has evaporated. What has been accomplished? A letter I wrote in late 2002 sums up what I thought Muslim scholars of Islam needed to do then:

Salaam alaikum. This is a long-overdue follow-up to conversations that I have had with many of you, individually and in small groups, over the past year. In the immediate aftermath of the tragic events of September 11, whatever private mourning and internal reflection we needed to undertake as Muslims was largely set aside in favor of our collective obligation to put our scholarly credentials to use in speaking to the media and in public forums. As the months have passed, however, it has become increasingly clear that only do stereotypical images of Muslims held by many Americans need to change, but Muslims as a group need to change also. Continued silence in the face of the simplistic answers presented as what "Islam says" -- in our mosques, in what a dear friend of mine refers to as "pamphlet Islam," on the Web, and by the leaders of Muslim organizations -- is a form of complicity in the narrowing of the bounds of acceptable discourse. It has as one result the indifference of those not content to live with such a unidimensional, impoverished view of Islam and the increasing conservatism of those who remain active and visible.

Certainly, the vast majority of American Muslims can be counted as moderates, both politically and theologically. These Muslims believe wholeheartedly that "Islam is a religion of peace," the mantra that we heard so often repeated last fall. But while it may be true that the greater jihad is the one against our own unruly souls, this is not the whole picture of the Islamic tradition, and we know it. As scholars, we have a duty to challenge not only extremist interpretations of scripture and law but also nice-sounding but simplistic apologia for widely accepted Islamic doctrines. And, as I have heard repeatedly from many of you, we must do so even at the possible cost of tarnishing the image of Islam and Muslims in the public eye. It is only by doing so that we can make a case for truly progressive Muslim responses to contemporary issues of political, social and economic (in)justice.

As Muslims living in the United States, we are freer than Muslims elsewhere in the world to discuss these topics without fear of reprisal. And given that our "homeland" is also the source of much of this injustice, we have a responsibility to do so. Thus, I propose that we begin to communicate with each other in some forum. We can share information about useful literature, projects, organizations, resources, etc. Most, importantly, we can help each other think through some of the most difficult issues confronting Muslims today. This is, of course, not to say that we must strive for unanimity, but rather for thoughtful discussion and respectful critique. We can aim eventually to become part of public discourse on Islam and Muslims, challenging the monopoly of the neo-conservatives and apologists. I am open to suggestion as to how best to accomplish this goal: mailing list, listserv, web site, electronic newsletter, eventually perhaps meetings or conferences. What do you think?

Looking back, I realize that much has happened in 10 years -- though I personally have stood on the sidelines. Scholars, activists and community members have founded organizations (some enduring, others transient), written books, created websites, spoken up in mosques, begun to blog and gone about living Muslim lives in a variety of ways. Female leadership has sometimes been controversial (the 2005 New York mixed-gender Friday prayer) and sometimes widely accepted (two large organizations, ISNA and the national MSA, elected female presidents). However, it's also the case that deliberately cultivated fear of Muslims has made the climate even more difficult for Muslims with critical perspectives to speak up without giving ammunition to critics.

Is it the same thing all over again? As I notice the buds beginning to appear on my azaleas, I remember that a decade ago, they were much smaller. From year to year, the growth has been imperceptible -- each spring seems like a repeat of the year before. And yet though it is the same process, the years have brought change and growth. And in this are signs for those who reflect.