It is ironic that though they have born much of the blame for the dastardly deeds of September 11, 2001, this crime has affected no group in America as negatively as it has Muslim Americans. Not only did Muslim Americans die on that day, they have since suffered psychological and emotional trauma as no other group of Americans has. No other community has been more maligned, disrespected, misrepresented, harassed, intimidated, misunderstood or rendered suspect -- not only by private citizens acting on their First Amendment rights, but by military personnel, public utilities, government officials and agencies, indeed, even presidential candidates, who either openly express anti-Muslim bigotry or display a conspicuously high tolerance for such.
And yet, ironically, all of this has begun a slow but steady and long overdue process of shifting the Muslim understanding of America and thus of themselves as Muslim-Americans. Prior to 9/11, America was for far too many Muslims essentially an ideological playground. From the pulpit of the Friday prayer, e.g., one could hear some of the most mindless and irresponsible rhetoric reflecting fanciful pipe-dreams of post-colonial payback or civilizational redemption. This was possible, of course, because America itself was the land of unalloyed freedom that allowed for the expression of views that could never be uttered as such in the Muslim world. At the same time, America was the land of absolute opportunity. There was no unearned privilege, and there were no victims; there were only winners and losers, those who worked hard and played by the rules and those who didn't. America's newest "model minority" could readily avail itself of all the opportunities born of America's successful pursuit of her ideals (freedom, equality, etc.). But they took almost no interest in America's historical failures (with the lone exception, of course, of foreign policy). What had happened to African Americans, Native Americans, Jewish Americans, Chinese Americans and others said more about these groups than it said about America as a democratic project. Race, in this context, that quintessentially American understanding of difference, was simply the odd obsession of a few bigoted whites and a majority of hypersensitive blacks. As for the challenge of American socio-cultural reality, this could be easily met by reproducing the conventions and cultural practices that had worked so wonderfully "back home."
All of this is now slowly but surely changing. Muslims are now painfully aware of the consequences of their words and gestures, and this has imposed a healthy and welcomed degree of discipline on Muslim American discourses. Nor are Muslim Americans any longer blind to the reality of victimhood; they now know that bigotry and prejudice are real and operative; and they know that both must be confronted! This has made it increasingly difficult to ignore the role and centrality of race in American identity formation and the production of "problem peoples." At the same time, as the cultural conventions and practices brought from "back home" reveal their impotence in the face of American forms of delinquency, Muslims are assiduously engaged in the pursuit of specifically Muslim American expressions of socio-cultural values and institutions.
This is the future of Islam in America, pregnant with opportunity, fraught with danger. Whether Muslim efforts will result in crass assimilation, principled indigenization or a combination of the two remains to be seen. What seems certain, however, is that 9/11 has opened a new era. And it will be impossible for Muslim-Americans to return to the pre-9/11 age.
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