Common Place   /   October 7, 2014

Faith in the City: Part IV—American Muslims and the Civic Good

Guest Blogger

In Part III of the Faith in the City series, Common Place interviewed Milton Friesen about City Soul, an initiative by Cardus to help faith-based organizations better contribute to the life of neighborhoods. In Part IV of this series, Alexander Massad considers how the historic growth of urban American Islam has led some Muslims to respond in innovative ways to the issues and challenges of urban life.

From the image of the melting pot to the motto e pluribus unum, the United States has been portrayed as a nation that successfully incorporates different cultures, religions, and languages to produce a unified American identity transcending these differences. History presents a different picture. Since its inception, America has constantly negotiated and renegotiated religious pluralism and liberal democratic principles in an attempt to clarify what it means to be “American.” The current media focus on Islam has drawn the American Muslim community into the ongoing debate over the terms of religious pluralism and liberal democracy. The issues are summed up in two broad questions: What does a growing urban Muslim population mean for religious pluralism and democratic participation in America? And how can American Muslims enrich and advance what it means to be American today?

Although Muslims first came to North America through the slave trade, two later historical periods contributed to the growth of urban American Islam. The first period, roughly between 1860 and 1940, involved large-scale African-American migration from the South to the North, rapid urban industrialization, and white prejudice. New urban centers in the Midwest perpetuated the dominant American identity matrix, which a priori rejected African-American culture. As Muslim scholar Kambiz GhaneaBassiri has pointed out, Islam provided a response by asserting Afro-Islam against Anglo-Protestantism as an alternative matrix for African-American social and economic advancement. This led to the formation of urban Muslim organizations such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam.

The second major event was the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, which significantly increased the number of non-European and non-Christian immigrants to the United States. These new Muslim immigrants were drawn to urban centers such as Chicago and Detroit by their long-established American Muslim communities and institutions. This influx enlarged these urban communities to the point that currently ninety-four percent of American Muslims live in urban areas. As the American Muslim community grew,  David Machacek explains, it began to, “renegotiate the terms of American social and cultural life.” This renegotiation was not a rejection of an American identity but rather a reinterpretation of it through “a process of active cultural [and religious] renegotiation and institutional reform,” says Machacek.

The most dynamic renegotiation and institution-building by Muslims has occurred at the local level—and it has not always been easy. In 2000, the Illinois city of Palos Heights offered Al Salam Mosque Foundation $200,000 to walk away from purchasing a local church and then there was the 2011 uproar over the building of an Islamic and interfaith community center in lower Manhattan. Then there was the controversy over the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, that cost the local community nearly $350,000 in legal fees alone.

Despite these headline stories, there are numerous examples of Muslims taking the initiative for positive change in American cities, where Muslim communities themselves are faced with challenges such as poverty, crime, and social unrest. Addressing the violence of Chicago's south side, for example, Rami Nashashibi established the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) as a transformative force to counteract conflict and poverty in these neighborhoods. Propelled by his faith, Nashashibi and his organization have sought to bring together the seemingly disconnected segments of their community for urban development. IMAN has received financing and support from Muslim small-business owners, which has enabled it to provide a free community health clinic, to organize voter registration, and to convert abandoned property into environmentally friendly housing. The organization’s most publicized event is “Taking It to the Streets,” a “Muslim-led festival where artistic expression, spirituality, and urban creativity inspire social change.” IMAN has been a model for similar ventures in other major urban cities like Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Baltimore.

On more of a multi-city level is Eboo Patel's Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). Patel acts on Islam's core tenets of mercy, compassion, and the dignity of human beings, beliefs that motivated him to bring together different religious groups for community service in cities and on college campuses across the country. The goal is to cultivate a practice of interfaith cooperation on civic projects that would influence future generations. IFYC asserts that religion is one of the most powerful motivators for action and seeks to tap into its potential for civic good amidst religious pluralism.

America has been, and continues to be, a nation that constantly renegotiates its identity. IMAN and IFYC are just two examples of how Muslims have tried to show that Islam can be a powerful force in civic life, joining other religious and non-religious organizations in bringing positive, long-term solutions to the problems faced by our cities.

Alexander Massad is a Ph.D. student in Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown University, working on Religious Pluralism. His research focuses on the socio-political effects of Christian and Muslim epistemology within religiously diverse communities.