AMERICAN CULTURE AND ISLAM

by Ihsan Bagby

The interface between American culture and Islamic culture in the American Muslim community is a multifaceted issue. Understanding this interface entails exploring the influence of American culture on the Muslim community and how American Muslims view American culture. Another aspect of this interface is the influence of Muslims and Islamic culture on American culture and the American public’s perception of Muslims and Islam.

The Muslim community itself is multilayered. A sizable portion of the Muslim community consists of those who do not attend a mosque, associate with other Muslim organizations, and do not practice Islam. This group has little interest in maintaining Islamic culture and, therefore, they are the most willing to assimilate into American culture. For many of them, their identity as American is paramount. This article does not focus on this group, but instead focuses on those Muslims who identify and associate with Muslim groups.

The Muslims who do associate with mosques and Muslim organizations are composed of immigrants (the majority being first generation), the children of immigrants (largely second generation) and converts (largely African American with significant numbers of Caucasian and Hispanic Americans).

The dynamics of the interface of American and Islamic culture in these groups differ. First-generation immigrants bring to America a set of customs shaped by the Muslim world, and these customs are affected by the American environment. Converts, already acculturated when they adopt Islam, modify their American culture to fit into the new environment of Islam. The children of immigrants, raised in America, are acculturated to two cultures and they must decide how each one fits.

American Culture’s Impact on Muslims

In the early decades of the Muslim presence in America (1920–1970), Muslim immigrant groups, possibly pressured by the dominant paradigm of the melting pot, allowed for the inclusion of many American cultural practices (e.g. dancing the twist in the youth associations and Saturday night bingo in the mosque). Also, converts to the major heterodoxical Islamic groups, such as the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple, mixed freely Islamic and American practices (e.g. chairs in the mosque, hymns, and fasting during Christmas).

All of that changed beginning in the 1970s when large waves of newly-arrived, Islamically self-confident immigrants opposed the earlier immigrants’s “Americanized” mosques, and convert groups began trying to incorporate “authentic” Islam into their practice. The new paradigm of ethnic pride and multiculturalism gave greater acceptance and legitimacy to the “foreignness” of Muslim practice, and the new powerful trend of Islamic revivalism gave motivation to Muslims to retain their Islamic practice. The overtly American cultural practices disappeared in mosques and Muslim organizations.

Thirty years later, the Muslim community has aged and mellowed, and a new consensus is emerging that American Muslims should adhere to those aspects of Islam that are truly Islamic as opposed to old-world cultural practices, and then allow the adaptation of those aspects of American culture that are not contradictory to Islam. This is a new paradigm that guards against changes in core religious practices while welcoming the assimilation of certain American cultural practices.

The idea is to be fully Muslim and American. Overall, the impact of American culture on the Muslim community has been significant but it has not touched basic Islamic practice. In other words, Saturday night bingo has not returned to the mosque, but pizza is the favorite food at mosque dinners.

The mosque. The greatest impact of the American environment on the Muslim community has been the transformation of the role of the mosque and the imam. Muslims have adopted a congregational model for the mosque as a selfgoverned community center, which is unlike the Muslim world where the mosque is simply a place of prayer, and the family and other institutions perform key cultural tasks. In America the mosque is a center for educating children, socialization, and major cultural events like marriages and funerals. For example, celebrating the major Muslim holidays in the Muslim world is largely tied to the extended family while in America the mosque is a center of activities with community dinners and festivals with games and gifts for children. American marriages are often events for the entire mosque community, as opposed to the extended family. The role of the imam in America has likewise changed dramatically. In the Muslim world the imam is simply the prayer leader, but the imam in America serves more as a pastor—much of his time spent in counseling, administering the mosque, and serving as spokesman for the mosque to the wider community.

Marriage. Muslim marriage customs in America have changed but not significantly. One major shift is that the signing of the marriage contract is sometimes a public event and not a private family affair as in the Muslim world. The public signing event resembles an American wedding ceremony with some differences—the bride and groom sit and often face the congregation. Signing the contract and the traditional wedding banquet (walima) in America often occur on the same occasion, which is not always the case in the Muslim world. Marriage gifts are often brought to the wedding banquet, which is the American custom, as opposed to the Muslim world where gifts are more often brought before the banquet.

Arranged marriages among Muslim immigrants are still common but in many cases the marriage is only half arranged: the son/daughter picks a mate and then informs the parents who begin the process of arranging the marriage. Muslim youth in America are certainly more involved in choosing a mate than their counterparts in the Muslim countries. One of the results is that interethnic marriages are slowly increasing. One of the persistent legal questions in the immigrant community occurs when the son or daughter desires to marry a good Muslim of another ethnic group, and the parents prohibit the marriage. More and more imams are taking the side of the youth and pressuring the parents to relent. The traditional dowry (mahr) in America is usually a very reasonable amount whereas in the Muslim world the dowry is often high because of its role in reinforcing status and class. For many individuals, especially those who do not have a family in America, Muslim matchmaking services are very popular. The matrimonial sections in Muslim magazines are widely used and Internet services, such as MuslimMatch.com and Zawaj.com, offer an array of services.

Gender. The issue of gender equity has become one of the most controversial issues in the Muslim community. About one-quarter of regular mosque participants in America are women, and in African American mosques over one-third of participants are women. These percentages are extremely low for Christian churches but in comparison to the Muslim world, where women have no role in the mosque, this is a significant difference. Women are most active in administering the weekend school and other social events. Two-thirds of mosques allow women to sit on their governing board, but only one-half have had women sit on their board in the last five years. Many Muslim women, who are unhappy with the progress of American mosques, have moved outside the mosque to organize. On the local level, women have established numerous study groups. On the national level Muslim women’s groups have been established, such as Muslim Women’s League, North American Council for Muslim Women, and Muslim Women Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights (KARAMA). Some Muslim organizations have become more inclusive of women: In 2000 the Islamic Society of North America elected for the first time a female vice president, and there are a significant number of Muslim student associations, dominated by second-generation immigrants, that have female presidents. The clear trend is that women’s involvement is growing.

Youth. Youth bear the greatest pressure  to assimilate American culture, and as a result many immigrants and African Americans have ceased to practice Islam. The issue of the assimilation of Muslim youth is, therefore, a major problem in the eyes of most Muslims. The Muslim youth who have maintained their association with the Muslim community evince outward aspects of American culture such as dress, sports, food, and entertainment—Muslim youth groups have their own “Islamic” rap music, and comedy shows—but they have fit it all within the boundaries of Islam. Dancing is still not present in Muslim youth groups, except that Imam Warith Deen Muhammad’s organization provides limited occasions where dancing is permitted. Imam Muhammad is the son and successor to Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam. In 1975, when Imam Muhammad took the reins of the Nation of Islam, he transformed the organization into a “mainstream” Islamic group. The organization has gone through many name changes, and the present name  since 2002 is American Society of Muslims. It is the largest African American Muslim group.

The loser in all this is not so much Muslim religious practice but ethnic cultural practice. Many youth are shedding their ethnic identity but maintaining a Muslim identity that supercedes all other identities. Muslim youth are, therefore, less interested in how Islam is practiced back in their parents’s home countries and more interested in identifying a legitimate Islamic tradition that is scripturally based and relevant to life in America. Muslim youth best exemplify the new paradigm of retaining core Islamic practices while adopting American culture.

Holidays and patriotism. The Muslim community in America does not practice any of the American holidays as a group. Thanksgiving probably receives the most recognition from Muslims as a holiday. Christmas and Easter are tied closely to Christianity and therefore unacceptable. The national holidays such as the Fourth of July and Memorial Day have not had any official recognition except in the American Society of Muslims under the leadership of Imam Muhammad. Patriotic symbols such as the flag and patriotic rhetoric are largely absent from mosques and Muslim gatherings, except again for Imam Muhammad’s organization. However, this is slowly changing, especially after the terrorism attacks of 11 September 2001. Many national Muslim advocacy groups have extended Fourth of July greetings, and the Islamic Society of North America displayed American flags on their platform during their annual conference. Individual Muslims do observe some of these holidays: Some have family dinners with turkey on Thanksgiving and even fewer have Christmas trees and let their children trick-or-treat on Halloween.

Muslim perception of American culture. The vast majority of Muslims recognize the good of American culture—political and religious freedom, self-reliance, and business practices—but they are critical of aspects of American culture, especially the moral laxity in sexual mores, and alcohol and drug consumption. In one study over one-third (37%) of Muslims agreed that America is immoral, while over half (54%) disagreed. Mosque leaders are even more disturbed: 67 percent agree that America is immoral compared to 33 percent who disagree (Bagby).

The Muslim community is virtually unanimous in believing that Muslims should be involved in the civic and political life of America—93 percent of Muslims (Zogby) and 89 percent of mosque leaders (Bagby) agree that Muslims should be involved in politics. Isolation from American society is firmly rejected. Yet a large portion of American Muslims feel that Muslims are unwelcome in the public sphere: 57 percent of Muslims believe that the attitude of America toward Muslims is unfavorable since 11 September 2001 (Zogby); 56 percent of mosque leaders feel that American society is hostile to Islam (Bagby).

Influences of Islam on American Culture

Muslims and Islam are no longer invisible in America—they have been given recognition and, in some respects, acceptance by major shapers of culture. Presence of Islam. President Ronald Reagan was one of the first U.S. presidents to mention mosques alongside churches and synagogues as part of the religious fabric of America.

Mention of Muslims with the other religions is commonplace now, especially after President George W. Bush visited a mosque and pronounced Islam a religion of peace soon after the terrorism attacks of 11 September. Iftar (meal at the end of the fasting day) dinners at the White House during Ramadan have become regular occasions since the mid-1990s. Perception of Muslims in the media. Movies have been less kind to Muslims and Islam. Ugly stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs in particular has a long history in Hollywood. Jack Shaheen has estimated that only 5 percent of movies that include Muslims or Arabs show a human image of them.

Since the late 1970s the image has been that of terrorists—from Black Sunday (1977) to Iron Eagles (1986) to The Siege (1998). Nevertheless signs of change have appeared as some of the more positive images of Muslims and Islam in movies have appeared in the 1990s—Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991), 13th Warrior (1999), and Three Kings (1999).

Negative stereotyping is reflected in the poor approval rating for Muslims in the American public, although significant changes have occurred since 11 September 2001. Before 11 September 2001 the public’s approval of Muslims hovered around 25 percent, but ironically with President George W. Bush’s strong endorsement of mainstream Islam, approval ratings shot up to a high of 47 percent in October 2001 but have since begun to dip (Waldman and Caldwell).

Sufism. The most popular Muslim poet in America is Rumi and with this popularity has come some appreciation for Sufism. Sufi groups starting with Hazrat Inayat Khan’s Sufi Order in the West in the early 1900s and more recently a group led by Shaykh Nazim al-Haqqani has had moderate success in attracting Americans, largely white. Although Sufi groups are a small percentage of the total Muslim population in America, their more positive image has translated into greater acceptance in certain circles of intellectuals and New Agers.

African American community. While Islam might have been invisible in Caucasian America, the impact of Islam on African American peoples has been substantial. The Nation of Islam (1930–1975), although a heterodoxical movement within Islam, still brought the idea of Islam to millions of African Americans. Malcolm X, who left the Nation of Islam to embrace a more mainstream understanding of Islam, is an icon in African-American history. The minister Louis Farrakhan, who resurrected the Nation of Islam in 1979, has maintained great popularity in the African-American community, especially among its youth. Imam W. Deen Muhammad has garnered much respect due to his interfaith efforts.

In light of this history, Islam has signified black pride and militancy for African Americans. Muslims have also played a key role in the 1990s effort to bring about a gang truce throughout the nation. Louis Farrakhan and Imam Jamil Al-Amin (former H. Rap Brown) were active in the gang summits that started in 1992 to broker a cease-fire between the rival gangs known as the Bloods and the Crips. The decline in gang violence through the 1990s can be linked to these gang truces.

African American culture. Islam has also impacted African American culture. One obvious manifestation is the adoption of Muslim names, undoubtedly an influence of the celebrities and sports figures who are Muslim or have Muslim parents—Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Ahmad Rashad, Tupoc Shakur, and others. From the 1970s to the present, the names

Jamal, Kareem, Ali, and Rashad have become popular African American names. One of the top African American female names is now Aaliyah, obviously the result of the popularity of the singer by the same name.

Other cultural manifestations occur in the hats and garb of African Americans, especially when they want to express their black consciousness. Through the influence of the large number of Muslims in prisons, the impact of Islam might also be detected in popular African American culture in the baggy pants look and even in hugging among men, which is now a common form of greeting. The fact that major gangs call themselves “nations” can also be seen as an influence by the black nationalism of the Nation of Islam.

Hip-Hop. In entertainment Islam has had a tremendous impact on hip-hop culture. The ideology of the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters, both heterodoxies within Islam, have had the greatest influence, but some rappers have been influenced by mainstream Muslim leaders such as Imam Muhammad and Imam Jamil Al-Amin. Public Enemy and Chuck D, Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, Big Daddy Kane, and Sister Souljah are just a few names that mention in their lyrics Minister Farrakhan or the ideas of the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters. Other rappers such as Mos Def, Q-Tip, Everlast, Styles of Beyond, Devine Styler, and Jurassic 5 have roots in the mainstream Muslim community. A few rap groups such as Native Deen market themselves exclusively to the Muslim community.

Communication. Muslim youth and certain Muslim groups have enthusiastically embraced the Internet. Major Web sites exist for news, information, books, and Islamic resources, such as IslamiCity.com, IslamOnline.com, Ummah.com, and SoundVision.com. Web sites of Muslim Student Associations are also numerous and full of useful information and resources. Muslims who are on the fringes of mosques and Muslim organizations are the most active in the use of the Web. Muslim women in particular have benefited immensely from the presence of a cyber-sisters community. Ideological groups are also quite active on the web. Many Muslims sometimes bemoan the proliferation of these sites and the emergence of the cyber mufti who have few links to the Muslim community. Many mosques, however, are far behind the curve—many do not have computers and others do not use them for communication.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bagby, Ihsan; Perl, Paul M.; and Froehle, Bryan T. The Mosque in America: A National Portrait. Washington, D.C.: Council of American-Islamic Relations, 2001.

Curtis IV, Edward E. Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation, and Difference in African-American Islamic Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Eck, Diana L. A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2001.

Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, and Esposito, John L. Muslims on the Americanization Path? New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

McAlister, Melani. Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945–2000. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

McCloud, Aminah Beverly. African American Islam. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Shaheen, Jack G. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001.

Smith, Jane I. Islam in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Waldman, Steven, and Caldwell, Deborah. “Americans’ Surprising Take on Islam: A New Poll Shows That Americans Have Not Turned Anti-Islam.” Beliefnet. 9 January 2002. http://www.beliefnet.com/story/97/story_9732.html (2 Februrary 2003).

Zogby International and Project Maps. “American Muslim Poll (Nov/Dec 2001).” Project Maps. 19 December 2001. http:// www.projectmaps.com/pmreport.pdf (2 February 2003).

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