On US Independence Day weekend, 45,000 Muslims gathered in the nation’s capital for the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), a membership organization that contributes to the betterment of the Muslim community and society at large. The theme of this year’s convention was “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”, to coincide with the immortal words from the US Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson 233 years earlier. Conference participants reflected on what “being American” means for Muslims today.
The struggle to define what it means to be American has become even more difficult since 9/11, especially for Muslim Americans. In fall 2008, former Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, an anthropologist and Islamic scholar at American University in Washington, DC, and a team of young Americans, including myself, set out to create a travel documentary and book covering over 75 cities and 100 mosques across the United States to reflect on what it means to be American, with a particular focus on the Muslim community.
The film, which documents these travels and interviews, premiered on 4 July at the ISNA convention as part of the annual Islamic Film Festival.
Our group visited small towns and big cities, north and south, east and west, from the slums of Detroit to the stately homes of Palm Beach. We spoke with countless imams, rabbis, priests, ministers and people of many different faiths – from Mormons to Zoroastrians. We interviewed thousands of Americans from different races, generations and regions. We visited the oldest mosque in America in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the largest ones in New York, Detroit and Los Angeles.
Our research team found that Muslims in America respect the United States exactly for the values that Jefferson and the other founding fathers espoused. “America is the best place to practice Islam because of the freedom here”, said a 20-year-old Lebanese American girl in Dearborn, Michigan, reflecting a widespread view among interviewees.
The head sheikh of the Dawoodi Bohras in Houston, a small Shi'a sect from South Asia, said that they “love America” because the men can wear long beards and shalwar kameezes (traditional South Asian clothing), and the women their colourful dresses and hijabs, or headscarves, to work, school and elsewhere without fear of persecution.
Non-Muslim Americans who we spoke with for the most part expressed tolerance toward Muslims, although many admitted that they simply did not know enough about Islam. And, unfortunately, despite the many efforts to educate the public on Islam following 9/11, this vacuum of knowledge is still often filled with suspicion and false perceptions.
Although few mainstream American media outlets covered the ISNA event, and the constructive debates that took place during the convention had limited impact in the broader American community, the event was well attended.
Showing support for Muslim Americans, US President Barack Obama’s senior White House adviser, Valerie Jarrett, spoke at the convention's opening ceremony. Reverend Rick Warren – an Evangelical Christian and author – attended a large interfaith panel discussion on the theme, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”. And the first Muslim elected to the national US House of Representatives, sworn in on a copy of the Qur’an once owned by Thomas Jefferson, Keith Ellison, was also in attendance. In an interview with our team, he noted, “American identity is an essential commitment to American principles… Our cultural ethos is fairness, rule of law and freedom of expression. These are American ideas.”
Jefferson was a passionate believer in a pluralist America. At the main entrance to the University of Virginia stands his statue with the inscription, “Religious Freedom, 1786” and below are inscribed the names, God, Jehovah, Brahma, Atma, Ra and Allah. It is no coincidence that the ISNA leadership chose his declaration as its theme. These words have inspired Americans of all stripes, and it is this pluralistic vision of America that we should defend, celebrate and continue to work toward.
* Hailey Woldt is an Ibn Khaldun research fellow at American University and research associate at the Berkley Center for Peace, Religion and World Affairs at Georgetown University. More information about the film, Journey into America, is available at journeyintoamerica.wordpress.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).