Memorial Day with Muslims in America

Over the recent Memorial Day weekend, several thousand Muslims gathered in Hartford for the annual convention of the Islamic Circle of North America. ICNA was founded almost 40 years ago by Indian and Pakistani university students intending to return home. Most of them never did, but their organization still has ties to Pakistan’s Jama’at-I Islami, the Islamist party founded by Sayyid Mawdudi, one of the twentieth century’s most notorious Muslim intellectuals.

So this event featured much that would alarm or offend many Americans. Yet it also revealed how even Islamists here are adapting in ways that many of us would find encouraging, even gratifying. Nevertheless, these Islamists have yet to address the political realities of life in America.

ICNA’s Islamist lineage explains why its convention has been cosponsored by the Muslim American Society, or MAS, an affiliate of the Arab-oriented Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s more visible Islamist movement. But visibility was hardly the problem on Hartford’s deserted weekend streets. Among the many bearded men in conventional American garb were others in ankle-length thobes and kufi caps. Still more visible were the women, virtually all of whom were “covered” — most with head-scarfs (hijabs) and not a few in niqab, a veil covering the face, leaving only the eyes exposed.

Inside the convention center, there were several “sisters only” sessions. But most events were open to men and women, though the 2,200 seats in the main auditorium were divided by a barrier of large potted plants that shielded women choosing not to sit with their male relatives on “the brothers’ side.”

The conference theme was: “Defending Religious Freedom, Understanding Shariah.” All the more surprising, then, was the well-attended session on business start-ups. Another panel featured a Muslim-American academic arguing that mosques here are “failing to make a connection to our young people.” And in response to complaints from women in the audience that they had been discouraged from praying at their local mosque, the researcher agreed that “many of our mosques don’t make sisters feel comfortable.”

Particularly compelling was a “brothers only” session about avoiding the lure of drugs, alcohol, and pornography. At previous such events I have attended, middle-aged or elderly immigrant imams would cite passages from the Qur’an. But on this occasion, hundreds of adolescent males listened intently to two young imams only a few years older than they. These two spoke with the authority of individuals raised in this society, hinting that they understood the power of such temptations from their own experiences. One imam spoke especially persuasively of pornography’s destructive impact on marriages, emphasizing the alienation of Muslim wives from their addicted husbands.

Earlier that evening another young imam, American-raised but Saudi-educated, spoke on “the challenges of modernity.” He reminded the crowd that Islam had for too long resisted modernity, citing how Muslim societies had banned the printing press up to the middle of the nineteenth century. He then described a recent white-water rafting trip on which the guide advised that in case of capsizing not to fight the torrent but to “go with the flow.” So, too, this imam argued, must Muslims learn to adapt to modernity. Citing the example of homosexual marriage, he then argued while Muslims here did not have to endorse it morally, they would probably have to accept it as a matter of law.

For anyone familiar with these organizations, such assertions are startling for their insight and force. Clearly, a new generation of American-raised Muslims is emerging to take over from their decidedly less-effective immigrant elders. Such leaders will undoubtedly help Muslims adapt and integrate to our changing society and culture.

Yet glaring issues remain unaddressed. As at other such gatherings I have attended, there was complete silence about political obligations that Muslim Americans have to this country. Though convened on a national holiday commemorating those who sacrificed for the rights that Muslim Americans now demand as citizens, there was not a single mention all weekend about how those rights have been secured.

To be sure, there was one panel session on “Giving Back to the Homeland,” where ICNA highlighted its emergency relief efforts to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Yet one searches in vain for any display of the American flag or acknowledgment of the political obligations as well as the benefits of American citizenship.

This silence is no accident. In part it reflects decades of “rights talk” in America to which Muslims generally have readily assimilated. But this silence more fundamentally reflects the Islamist ideology on which ICNA, MAS, and other such organizations are founded — an ideology that has yet to come to terms with loyalty to the nation-state, particularly where Muslims are in the minority.