This reader comment from the “Best Church For American Christianity In Exile” thread, was so good, and so distinct, that it deserved its own post. A Muslim reader who posts under the name “Jones” commented on the Christian part of the thread, which prompted me to ask him to expand his remarks on Islam and its prospects for survival and growth in an America that is becoming more hostile to religion (or at least those religions and churches that are most antithetical to modernity). He responded:
Good question! I’m worried; that’s a big reason why I read your blog. We face many of the same problems that you do. It’s an incredibly complex question and I can only touch on it here. I had thought that the chances for American Islam were good, precisely because we are already in “exile”: all those hard-earned virtues that are supposed to come from such a condition, we are forced to develop from the beginning. I grew up in a community that exemplified those virtues in a way I will never forget. That community still exists, but its members are aging and departing from the earth.
One of the main advantages we have, I think, is that many people in the community are immigrants who are still close to a truly, fully religious society. That is how they were raised, and it is the world they knew. They are irrevocably cut off from that world now, and in many ways, thanks to globalization, it is disappearing in the countries they came from. In fact a lot of people would say it already has disappeared in those countries.
The religion of that first generation is the one that I knew growing up. It had an incredibly rich texture. It was a “devotional” religion, focused especially on love of the Prophet (pbuh). This is characteristic of much of the Islam of the subcontinent. It shows itself in the exceptionally sensitive emotional dimension of our practice. Musicality, ritual, outward displays of emotion.
There is another strain in the culture, one associated especially with ideas coming from the Middle East. (I apologize that this is vague, but that’s how a complex theological landscape translates across all these boundaries. Also I’m no expert on Islamic theology!) These ideas result in a more “rationalized” religion – one that is stripped of many “frills”. One notable difference, and a repeated point of theological contention, is the role of the Prophet (pbuh). Whereas Sufi-inspired Sunni Islam sees the person of the Prophet as being of great importance – and derives more theological significance from the Prophet’s actions, sayings, etc. – Arab Islam today is more centered on the text of the Qur’an, and more dismissive of the rest. These people are (in)famous for insisting that the Prophet was “just a man.” This streamlined, rationalized approach is typical of more educated and wealthy American Muslims, who seem to converge on Arab Islam though they may be from elsewhere (in other words, they are more “cosmopolitan”), and perhaps look down on homegrown spiritual traditions.
In the contrast between these traditions, you will notice universal tensions between religious temperaments. Recently you had a post that compared Wahhabism to Protestantism. That was a very acute observation, one that impressed me. Because Wahhabism is usually invoked only in an inflammatory way in the West, Westerners are usually ill-positioned to appreciate that similarity.
Getting back to the original question. Early on it seemed like the previous generation was doing a very good job of passing on its practices. That judgment may have been based on a limited purview centered mostly on my own family and nearby community. I used to be very bullish on American Islam; my highest hope was that we would develop a form of Islam that could actually set an example to the rest of the Muslim world, grounded in a society that was peaceful and free. In the past year I’ve started going to a large, prominent mosque in New York, and have noticed some things that worry me. I realized that a lot of younger people have started to ignore the mores we used to observe. Frankly they are probably ignorant of many of them. I realized the effect of having a mosque that did not really coincide with an intergenerational community – most of the people who come are students, connected only by the university. I noticed that the imam covered a lot of important ground and powerfully conveyed many worthwhile messages, but discussions of topics like gender relations seemed one-sided. They seemed to highlight everything that was compatible with a modern feminist view and carefully sidestep most things that were in tension with, or even incompatible with, that view. I thought there was a missed opportunity to challenge the conventional wisdom of the society around us.
I’ve also noticed a trend in a lot of Islamic group environments: these settings are increasingly being used by young people to meet others of the opposite gender. Strictly speaking this is not appropriate. The consequences have convinced me of the wisdom of the traditional rules: an element of spiritual focus, discipline, and freedom is lost; the mind is brought back down to earth. The mosque ceases to be a place where you can forget the mundane and the base.
We are struggling to adapt – especially to the sexual mores of the society around us. These impose terrible choices and psychic costs on those trying to live a modest and chaste life, especially women. Increasingly I see young Muslims, men and women, succumbing to these pressures. Though when I was young it went without question that I would have an arranged marriage, slowly the system has begun to dilute into a hybrid system with a fair amount of “entrepreneurship” and very vague boundaries, which even my parents had to accept (mostly out of practical resignation). Even this system is very conservative by the standards of the American mainstream. Whether we come up with a stable alternative to that mainstream is in my mind the major factor in whether our religion comes out intact or not. Everyone passes through this gate. And the very structure of the next generation will depend on the kinds of families we form.
Many Muslims are also wealthy – if not in the first generation, then often in the second. This is starting to have its costs, too. Wealth brings freedom – including the freedom to make more mistakes, with fewer immediate consequences. Wealth brings comfort, ease, and insulation. In other words, the prerequisites of moral weakness. Some people are making it through these tests; many are not.
Again, we have advantages. We know we are not in the mainstream – actually, reading about Christian marginalization here has had a bizarre effect on me because it hadn’t previously occurred to me before that authentic religion <i>could</i> be mainstream here!
In sum, I think the reason American Islam will do well against the threats that you specifically mention (legal/political ones) is that Islam here is not benefiting from any kind of official sanction or accommodation anyway; more like the opposite (NYPD spying, mass deportation, Peter King inquisitions in Congress, a substantial group of Americans who literally think we are an enemy). When reading about the problems Christians face there is a certain temptation to say – welcome!! On the other hand, we’re succumbing to many of the same cultural and social forces, albeit along a different curve. Starting with conservative social mores that haven’t been seen in the West for about a century.
Many will quickly split off and assimilate to the point of being indistinguishable from mainstream America in beliefs and mores. But I think there will be a larger hardcore who will remain committed to the faith. I think they will do so because they will be clearer on what is good about their religion, because they have seen it really practiced, and because for many the more limited gains of assimilation will not be worth it (they will have a harder time shaking off their heritage in the public eye because of ethnicity, among other things).
It is my sincere hope and prayer that our communities in America, Christian and Muslim, can find some way to be a blessing and an encouragement to each other in the years and decades to come.
One thing I’ve really come to love about this blog is the friendships that get made across unusual lines. You should have seen how much genuine fun all us right-of-center Christians had with our Pagan friend Franklin Edwards at the Walker Percy Weekend. These are important friendships to have, if only because they make you realize that people cannot be reduced to their religious or ideological commitments.
I welcome comments on this thread, but if all you want to do is insult Islam (or Christianity), keep your remarks to yourself. If you wish to be critical, please be civil, and constructive.