Are Muslims at home in America? And, is America at ease with Muslims? Mucahit Bilici investigates these questions in his superb new book, Finding Mecca in America: How Islam is Becoming an American Religion (The University of Chicago Press, 2012).
Mucahit Bilici is Assistant Professor of Sociology at John Jay College, City University of New York. He was educated at Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey; University of Utah; and University of Michigan.
Bilici served as a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration, and Religion from 2009-2010.
In Finding Mecca in America, Bilici studies how Muslims have adapted to America and embraced it as home. It has not been an easy journey for Muslims in the United States. In their quest for ‘membership in American society’, Muslims faced discrimination and persecution, especially after 9/11. They overcame these obstacles through solidarity, outreach, and sheer determination to belong in America. ‘Islam and America’, Bilici writes, ‘have become enmeshed. It is becoming impossible to objectify Islam in America without mutilating America itself’.
Finding Mecca in America is an exceptional study of Islam in America. It is one of the best books on the Muslim experience in America. Mucahit Bilici discusses his new book in this exclusive interview.
What was the inspiration for your new book?
I think up until 9/11 Muslims were simply living in the United States. With the crisis that questioned their right to be here, they had to actively become American. While I was always curious about Muslim life in the West, the project of investigating the citizenship of Muslims was mostly triggered by 9/11. In this sense, this book participates in the very process it describes.
Do American Muslims still consider themselves as ‘strangers in a strange land’?
Not anymore. Of course, you can always find a few people who still hold the long-abandoned view that Muslim presence in this foreign land is legitimate only if it is out of necessity. But really things have changed so fast and in such a short time. Even the Muslim public intellectuals and pundits who could, perhaps, afford to be reckless in their criticism of America, have today evolved into exemplary American citizens engaged in civic works of dialogue, understanding and tolerance. The ideological transformation of the Zaytuna Institute’s leaders is one example. And a more recent one is the trajectory of Yasir Qadhi (the star of Al Maghrib Institute).
The strangers have become citizens and the strange land (America) is today called ‘home’ by almost all Muslims in this country. The transformation has been fast and in my opinion this is mostly a virtue born out of necessity.
How was 9/11 a critical turning point in the history of Muslims in America?
According to the Muslim faith, God constantly sends divine signals and warnings. The calamity of 9/11 forced Muslims to become one community. They faced great challenges and continue to suffer from the institutional consequences of 9/11. But this crisis gave them both visibility and exclusion. It led to more recognition. 9/11 opened the door for the Muslim voice to be heard in America. To walk through it in the proper way is the challenge for Muslims today.
I am confident about the ability of Muslims in America to naturalise Islam and Muslims and to cultivate a sense of unity with their fellow citizens. Most of the literature on Muslims in the US focuses on their suffering but fails to capture the progress and gains they make in moments of crisis.
Why is Detroit, Michigan considered ‘a microcosm of Islam in America’?
I believe what distinguishes the Detroit area is the fact that Islam is older and more institutionalised there. You need to pass the critical threshold in demography, socio-economic level, and most importantly in people’s sense of settlement and belonging. In America, we can only imagine: What would a Muslim neighbourhood - even a town - look like if there were that many Muslims in our area? Muslim police officers, for example. Muslim teachers in the public schools. Muslim bank tellers, postal workers, local government officials. Most other places in America, you can ask this question only as a hypothetical, but in the Detroit area it is a reality. That’s why the institutionalisation of Islam in the Detroit area gives us a clue about the future of Islam in the rest of the country.
How have American Muslims become interfaith partners with their fellow citizens?
A believer is typically not under the obligation of learning about other people’s beliefs as long as he or she lives in a homogenous society. But in America diversity is inescapable and every faith group has to reckon with this
reality. Among Muslims, you may still find those who avoid interaction with non-Muslims in matters of faith and religious conversation, but the overwhelming majority of Muslims have come to this conclusion: If you want to make Islam part of America, you have to make America (and its religious diversity) part of Islam.
9/11 effectively forced Muslims to become partners in interfaith dialogue. Both pull and push factors played a role in creating an entire class of Muslim activists who have acquired the skills and motivation for ecumenical conversation. Interfaith dialogue and experience play an important role in making Muslims American.
How active are American Muslims in politics and civil rights organisations?
Most Muslims - and here I mean immigrant Muslims - would typically choose not to be seen as politically active in exclusively Muslim causes. This was true in the past, and 9/11’s unfortunate climate has worsened things. Yet in matters of civil rights and the citizenship struggle, Muslims could not avoid becoming active. They were literally dragged and forced into a condition where they were asked to prove their loyalty.
As a result, today Muslims are very active as conscious and conscientious citizens. Muslim civil rights groups like CAIR and MPAC are playing an important role in awakening a sense of active citizenship among formerly dormant Muslims. Muslims today are in a much better position to defend their rights and to build alliances with other American civic and social groups.
How are American Muslims shaping a new vision and identity for themselves in the 21st century?
The next generation of Muslims in America will be American in the sense of being fully conscious Muslims who have no worries or questions about their Americanness. This means the next generation will be so confidently American that they will be able to tackle Muslim issues head-on. We should thus expect more Muslims in the American public sphere. I think in about five to ten years, Islam will have become completely ordinary as an American religion. We will see more Muslim pundits, comedians, and politicians, as well as artists and public intellectuals.
Other things being equal, Muslims in the United States have every reason to be optimistic about their future.
[Joseph Richard Preville is an Assistant Professor of English at University of Tabuk, Saudi Arabia]