The meaning of being an American and Muslim
By Alice Speri
Ramadan — the month of fasting that begins tomorrow for Muslims across the world — is a time of prayer and reflection in the Islamic tradition. But several hundred Muslims from New Jersey and neighboring states got an early start on the reflection this year. Men and women of all ages and ethnicities — but united by their religion and U.S. citizenship — gathered at a Somerset hotel two weeks ago for a symposium on their joint obligations to faith and homeland.
The evening’s guest was Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of Europe’s most prominent and controversial intellectuals. Ramadan, an Oxford professor with degrees in Western philosophy and Islamic jurisprudence from Swiss and Egyptian universities, is an outspoken proponent of Western Islam and pluralist societies. While the multicultural nature of the United States makes the Muslim American experience rather different from the European one, in recent years, Islamophobia has been on the rise in America.
In 2004, Ramadan was en route to the United States to start a tenured position at the University of Notre Dame when the State Department revoked his visa. The Bush administration questioned a $1,300 donation Ramadan had made to a European organization with ties to the Palestinian group Hamas, which the United States lists as a terrorist organization. Six years of legal fights later — during which the American Civil Liberties Union used Ramadan’s case to argue against the constitutional legitimacy of the Patriot Act — he obtained a visa to enter this country in 2010. His New Jersey visit was one of his first U.S. trips after the controversy.
Ramadan’s arguments against isolation and assimilation have upset many both in the West and in Muslim-majority countries, but his belief that one can be fully European (or fully American) and fully Muslim is taking hold, especially among younger generations. With the number of Muslim Americans slated to double over the next two decades — with many more born on U.S. soil — Ramadan’s call for a diverse society in which Muslim citizens are active participants inspires many.
“I’m an American, I’ve always been an American,” said Sana Khan, 29, a Clifton native who came to hear Ramadan’s talk. Khan, who is of Pakistani descent and married to a Palestinian-American, said that after 9/11, some Muslim Americans retired to their communities while others went out of their way to prove they are Americans.
“We needed someone like (Ramadan) to remind us that being Muslim doesn’t separate us from being American, and being American doesn’t separate us from being Muslim,” she said.
What follows are some excerpts from Ramadan’s address — from his thoughts on integration to his lessons on civic responsibility.
“If you have a duty as American citizens, it is to make it clear that when you are for justice within, you are for justice everywhere. If you are for dignity here, you are for dignity everywhere. And the best thing that you can bring to the United States of America is a sense of consistency: Just reconcile yourselves with your own values. If you are serious about democracy and you are serious about dignity, you should be serious about these things everywhere. Because the blood of an Afghani is as valuable as the blood of an American. Very often, our fellow citizens don’t get it right, mainly because this is our responsibility. We are not clear with our message. We appear as if we only care when Muslims are oppressed. That we only care when it’s about us. We should change this and show that we care when it has to do with human beings everywhere.”
“Thirty years ago, we had scholars telling us, ‘Protect yourselves from the surrounding societies, because these are not your societies.’ But this is not going to be our future. We are going to stay here. And it’s not a question of protecting ourselves; it’s contributing to our societies. Our perception should change. If you want to get it right as Muslims, and you want to get it right as citizens, the first challenge is to change your mind. It’s to get it right. If your perception is wrong, and you still speak about ‘them’ and you still speak about ‘this’ society, which is not ‘your’ society, your thoughts are not going to be the right ones. We need now to understand that, after 30 years, from protection we have to come to contribution. Our best protection in this country will be our gifts to this country. So ask yourselves, what kind of contribution are we making?”
On agents of peace
“Islam is about peace. Are you agents of peace in the United States? Are you agents of reconciliation in this country? Are you helping this country meet its ends? As Muslims and as citizens, this is your goal. Because one of the main objectives of Islam is to spread peace. Exactly the opposite of what is said about our religion, it’s as if every time we speak about Islam, we speak about violence. It’s a critical year that is coming up. With the coming elections, you will see that Islam is going to be a topic, a hot topic. It’s going to be used. The tea partiers are creating the ‘other,’ and the other are the Muslims: ‘Yes, you are Americans, but you are too Muslim to be truly Americans.’ And it’s your job now to get it right: not to react to these, but to get the best response to such a propaganda. How are you going to do this? Just by going out and saying to people, ‘You know what? We’re nice’? You are not here to appear as nice as you can. You are not here to be tolerated. You are here to be a driving force in American society. You are here to be agents of reconciliation.”
“The Muslim community, instead of being obsessed with being well-perceived, first have to start with feeling good within. Feel confident. Feel reassured that your values are universal values. You want good citizens? You need to love your family, love your neighbor, serve the poor. All these values are within Islam. We need to reassess this essence. First is mutual respect. So let us respect the people, be respected by the people. Don’t be scared to be Muslims. Don’t try to please people with the image of Islam. Try to be Muslims and be respected as Muslims. Be assured Americans, be confident Americans.”
On critical citizenship
“There is no contradiction between being a Muslim and being an American. Being a citizen means that, at the age of 18, you should be able to vote, to decide for yourself. You should be intellectually independent, financially independent, socially independent. You should try to find your way. Now, look at Islam. It’s exactly the same. At the age of reason, you have to try and be religiously independent, intellectually independent. A citizen in this country should be intellectually, religiously, socially independent. This is expected of all citizens and it is expected of all Muslims. But there is no way to be independent if you have no courage. A citizen, a true American citizen, when his or her government is doing something right, he or she supports it, and when the government is doing something wrong, he is criticizing or she is criticizing. …You have to be loyal to your country. And now you are American. The only right way to be loyal to your country is to be critically loyal. There is no contradiction between being a Muslim and being an American — if and only if you get it right. So let us try to be the best we can and serve the best we can and love the best we can.”
Original post: The meaning of being an American and Muslim