Islam: As American As Sweet Potato Pie

September 24, 2010  |  

The dust has settled around the most recent public uproar concerning Muslims and their religion of Islam.  Story lines about the, alleged, mosque at ground zero and the, actual, Americans held captive in Iran have been momentarily eclipsed by the victories of Tea Party candidates in the final run of U.S. primary elections.  Perhaps this respite between religiously-inspired tumults is a good time to revisit the mass Qur’an burning that was scheduled to take place in Florida on the anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 attacks.

Terry Jones was the mastermind behind this provocation.  Although it was thwarted, the plan to set the Islamic holy books ablaze did garner the attention of the international press and Muslims around the world.  The intentions of Jones, the pastor of a minuscule Gainesville congregation who was deemed a cult leader in Germany during the 1980s, also got on the radars of President Barack Obama and Secretary of the Defense William Gates.

Admonished by politicians, pundits, and religious leaders, a central rationale informing the widespread rebuke Jones encountered was that his actions would stoke a degree of anger and resentment that would endanger American troops abroad.  While it is possible Americans serving overseas could be harmed by this event, the impact upon Americans was not the sole troubling aspect of Jones’ plan.

In U.S. society, Muslims and Arabs are too frequently portrayed as bloodthirsty terrorists on screens both small and cinematic.  A less glaring but far more commonplace representation in our mass media has been the tacit painting of Islam as a foreign religion in comparison with Judeo-Christian beliefs.  While it is true that the horrific actions of some Muslims have killed and frightened Americans and unfairly fostered discrimination and violence against Muslims, many religions have been distorted to harm and exploit people across human history.  Must we be reminded of the obvious? Just as Timothy McVeigh or the murderer of the oft-forgotten African American mother Alice Hawthorne, Atlanta Olympic terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph do not represent all Christians; there is variance of thought and action among Muslims as well.

We should also acknowledge that there are key elements connecting Islam to its sister belief systems of Christianity and Judaism – all three of which have their origins in the region of the world we now call the Middle East.  As I pondered Jones’ pending actions I wondered if he knew that the Qur’an upholds many of the same prophets Christians and Jews look to for guidance and inspiration.  The burning of pages mentioning Moses (Musa) and Jesus (Isa) in those Qur’ans Jones would have destroyed evidence of the relationship Islam has to the religious status quo in the U.S.

In addition to those links, Muslims, like the descendants of Europeans, also have a lengthy presence in the U.S.   By 1920, more than 200,000 immigrants from Arab countries settled here in groupings composed of both Christians and Muslims.  Even earlier, Muslims were among the many kidnapped Africans who became enslaved in the U.S. during the 15th and 16th centuries.

As further proof, it is African Americans who constitute the largest group of Muslims living in the U.S. today and this is a population whose ancestors have been in the U.S. for centuries. If Americans could hear such points periodically interjected into mainstream discussions of Jones, the New York City Islamic Center or related issues, Islamophobia could be mitigated.  Islam has been misappropriated by terrorists and mischaracterized in U.S. media reports by both omission and assertion.  Polls reveal the negative impacts but through small steps Americans can embrace a fresh perspective on Islam and more sophisticated understandings of religious diversity.  Minor adjustments to the lens can build a framework of inclusion and nuance that can halt the march of ignorance and undermine not knowing as a continuously damaging force in the global, human experience.

Dr. Sabiyha Prince is a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor of anthropology at American University whose research has centered on urban life in the United States.

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