Religious Expression and Assimilation

War Refugee. Bosnian. Muslim. American. Proud

Muslim war refugee protest, Paul Stableman, 2017

Each decade spurred the Muslim American community to change their response to adapt to the pressures of assimilation.

Interestingly, Haddad also notes how Islam also “functioned as an assimilating religion” (10). With Muslims emigrating from Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, a Muslim's identity is not dependent on their ethnicity. Therefore, Islam served as a source of unity for Muslim Americans with various ethnic identities. Furthermore, additional diversity within the community stems from occupation, socioeconomic status, gender, the government of their source country, and many more factors. Thus, the Muslim community's initial response to assimilation within the U.S. was to utilize mosques as a haven for social gatherings, especially for women to congregate. Depending on the particular mosque's regulations, some even encouraged unified worship between men and women. Thus, this social aspect of Islam, as an umbrella for diverse peoples to connect, elaborated on Mosques’ crucial role in the community as a sacred place of worship and as a locus for culture.

Moreover, the lack of Islamic leadership in the U.S. stimulated assimilation with U.S. culture for early immigrants. With Muslim immigrants arriving in the U.S. through Ellis Island starting around 1892, some Muslims in New York earned money by owning an alcohol store in order to generate the assets needed to permanently settle elsewhere in the U.S. Although owning an alcohol store was an acceptable practice in the eyes of mainstream American culture, it is considered haram (prohibited) in Islam. Therefore, even this minuscule occupational change depicts assimilation by changing one's religious doctrine.

Furthermore, the early Muslim American community sought peace and success by focusing on the similarities between Islamic and American culture, which was dominated by Judeo-Christian religions. Establishing inter-faith marriages as legitimate in the Muslim community greatly contrasted arranged marriages, which were popular in Muslim countries. With Muslims anglicizing their children’s names, ties to their home country and unique culture were further dissolved. Additionally, worshiping in a mosque became a family activity, contrasting the all-male policy instilled by Muslim countries.

Ultimately, adjusting to a country with a separation of church and state was initially challenging for the Muslim community, since they were required to appear religiously neutral in areas of education and professional aspects of their life. However, this mindset changed with the reinstatement of imams’ authority following their arrival from the second wave of immigration. Many imams opposed mosques’ dual-usage as a social gathering center and place of worship. Thus, the westernization of these mosques was reduced, especially evident in the reinforcement of gender separation in these places. 

Bringing about political upheaval, the 19th Century propagated interfaith conflicts between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Because Muslims were grouped under the same label as Arabs (despite belonging to diverse ethnicities,) they became the antagonist of the Zionist Movement. The Jewish American community championed the U.S. government’s resources to resettle the land desired by the Israeli nation; thus, many viewed Muslim Americans as additional oppressors, since Jews’ conflict in procuring land in the Middle East was against many Muslim countries, Palestine being one example. The Al Watan Voice has discussed that in 1948, Jews, hostile to Muslims in the U.S. due to Jew's oppression by Muslim countries, allegedly chanted “pay a dollar, kill an Arab.” 

In response to increasingly icy Muslim and Judeo-Christian tensions in the 1960s, The Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG) coined the term Arab-American in order to create solidarity with Muslim states. Thus, as noted by Haddad, this spurred an “Arab nationalist ideology,” unifying the various religions within these countries. (19). 

In contrast to the assimilating behavior of early Muslim immigrants, Muslim Americans in the 1970s and onwards refused to compromise their values. As a result, they shifted their focus from the similarities to the differences between American culture and Islam. An aspect of Muslim American practice that forged concern was how American mosques referred to Islam utilizing the same rhetoric as Christians, such as a church, Bible, and pastor.

As the Muslim American community reinstated a bolder practice of their faith, missionary work in U.S. prisons has increased in its importance to the community since the early 2000s. Of considerable effort is the community’s conversion of African Americans to Islam. Professors Haddad and Esposito, in their work, "The Dynamics of Islamic Identity in North America," note that by sharing Muslim values of teaching responsibility, family values, and accountability, Americans’ conversion to Islam has encouraged the Muslim American community to boldly practice their faith and share it with others.

As other Americans are willing to hear their stories and understand their perspectives, Muslim Americans have begun a journey of openly expressing their historically overlooked religion.