USA: Tolerant approach – Muslim Americans find ways to engage

Global Arab NetworkBy Mehrunisa Qayyum and Ramah Kudaimi

In August 2011 the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center released a report in which the key finding was that Muslim Americans are among the most integrated and successful citizens in the United States. To accompany these statistics, personal stories highlight how, unlike first-generation immigrants who tended focused their activism on fundraising for the development of their countries back home, second-generation Muslim Americans are dedicating their time instead to resolving domestic problems and engaging in interfaith dialogue. Our focus is on our current homeland – the United States.

One missing aspect of the current Muslim American narrative is this contribution, by Muslims, to civic engagement such as community service, political activity, service-learning, activism and advocacy in the United States. Instead of concentrating on what Muslim Americans think, as many polls and think tanks currently do, focusing on what they actually do will go a lot further in changing the misconceptions that Muslims are not contributing members of American society and instead a group to be feared or marginalised.

Such misperceptions are what lead to the Park 51 controversy in Manhattan in the summer of 2010 or the anti-sharia hysteria which has gripped many states and has kept Muslims in a negative media spotlight.

In a survey by PITAPOLICY, a blog that focuses on the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa, 75 Muslim Americans between the ages of 18 and 50 across the United States were polled. Several respondents, at least 15 per cent, stated they have felt victimised or stereotyped during the past few years.

“Recently, I am somewhat hesitant to tell people I am Muslim,” someone wrote. Another common response was, “Why are they doing this to us?” highlighting the concern over the treatment of Muslim Americans especially in regards to civil rights.

At the same time though, the constant negative attention paid to their religion is pushing Muslim Americans towards civic engagement. We found that 84 per cent of Muslim Americans engage in civic matters such as community service. As one respondent put it, “I feel driven to counter stereotypes.” More than 95 per cent see the positive impact of their professional work, volunteerism and outreach efforts in the arena of civic engagement, and more than 75 per cent of respondents are engaged in some sort of community organising.

When we asked people we polled to identify organisations they worked with as volunteers, interns or professionals since completing high school, many listed fraternities or sororities and professional organisations, such as Habitat for Humanity and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and local organisations such as hospitals and social service agencies. While organisations which primarily serve Muslims, such as the Islamic Society of North America, were also listed, they were greatly outnumbered by groups which serve a wider range of Americans.

The Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) in Chicago, for example, is a community-based non-profit that has been working on social justice for all since 1995 by offering a free health clinic and cultivating the arts in urban communities through community cafes and music festivals.

Chicago Public Radio selected Rami Nashashibi, IMAN’s Executive Director, as one of the city’s “Top Ten Chicago Global Visionaries”.

And in March 2009 Asma Uddin launched the website, which explores gender in Islam by providing a platform for intra- and inter-community dialogue on a wide variety of gender-related issues. Essentially, this online magazine, Asma explains, serves as public space media where people with similar opinions, from different or similar backgrounds, meet. Altmuslimah has succeeded in highlighting women of all backgrounds as political change-makers. Altmuslimah has also inspired a similar gender advocacy project from a Christian perspective:

Muslim Americans are carrying their civic engagement spirit into the private sector as well. Social entrepreneurs Khaled Beydoun and Hamada Zahawi combined their public defender and corporate attorney backgrounds and founded Write Track Admissions, a company that helps high school students develop compelling applications to colleges and universities. And more recently Beydoun and Zahawi have been offering free workshops to students from lower income and ethnic minority backgrounds to strengthen their chances of being accepted for higher education programmes.

These contributions support the conclusion in the Abu Dhabi Gallup report that Muslim Americans are “most optimistic” about their community’s improvement compared to other American groups.

And regardless of the results of various polls, organisations like IMAN, Altmuslimah and Write Track are rewriting the Muslim American narrative to include Muslim social entrepreneurs who inspire and mentor all Americans – regardless of religious or ethnic background.

Global Arab Network

* Mehrunisa Qayyum worked for the US Government Accountability Office for four years before becoming an international development consultant and Founder of PITAPOLICY Consulting and blog. Ramah Kudaimi is an MA candidate in conflict resolution at Georgetown University. Follow her at This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

American Muslim Consumer Conference: 29th October 2011, Hyatt Regency, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA