American Muslims and the Civic Good

Muslim religious organizations have and continue to bring successful long-term solutions to the problems facing our cities.
Alexander E. Massad
By dbking from Washington, DC (Islamic Center of Washington DC) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published on the blog Common Place and has been updated and readapted for Thriving Cities.

E pluribus unum – This is the ideal Americans have touted to describe the successful incorporation of different cultures, religions, and languages in the United States, which has produced a transcendent unified American identity. However, history presents a slightly different account. 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 an “American.” The current media focus on Islam has drawn the American Muslim community deeply into the persistent renegotiation between religious pluralism and liberal democracy. The issues in this renegotiation can be 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?

Regarding the first question, the growth of an urban American Muslim population has counterbalanced the Anglo-Protestant American identity matrix aiding in the increased spectrum of democratic participation. The first significant growth of an urban Muslim population occurred roughly between 1860 and 1940 during the large-scale African-American migration from the South to the North. Although many of the migrants were not Muslims initially, the rapid industrialization and urbanization of the Midwest stimulated Anglo-Protestant prejudice against these migrants encouraging them to look elsewhere for a sense of identity. In the book History of Islam in America, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri shows us how Islam provided these migrants an alternative American identity through an Afro-Islamic matrix for social and economic achievement. Groups such as the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple brought attention to and critiqued the dominant Anglo-Protestant matrix, which in turn motivated re-examination and re-definition of the American identity matrix to include an Afro-American identity. A more inclusive religiously pluralistic American identity would emerge later in the twentieth century.

The second period of major urban Muslim population growth occurred after the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which repealed quotas based on national origins and established a new system that favored skill labor and the re-unification of families. Pre-existing urban Muslim populations in cities such as Chicago and Detroit attracted extended family members, while skilled Muslim immigrants were attracted to pre-existing urban Muslim communities as they had the institutions needed to ease their transition. This dual emphasis on family and skill has enlarged the urban Muslim communities such that currently ninety-four percent of American Muslims live in urban areas. As the urban Muslim population grew into a substantial minority, and in some cases the majority, they began, according to GhaneaBassiri, 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.” Through this religious renegotiation and reform that the American Muslim community has advanced religious plurality as a fundamental component of democratic participation.

This renegotiation answers the second question in that American Muslims enrich and advance what it means to be an American today by expanding the definition and deepening its significance. Much of the dynamic renegotiation and institution building by American Muslims has occurred at the local level, though with significant struggle. In 2000, the Illinois city of Palos Heights offered Al Salam Mosque Foundation $200,000 to walk away from purchasing a local church. In 2011 there was an 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 struggles American Muslims have continued to take the initiative for positive change in American cities, especially where Muslim communities are faced with challenges such as poverty, crime, and social unrest. For example, Rami Nashashibi addresses the violence of Chicago’s south side through his organization Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), which has been a transformative force to counteract violence and poverty. Nashashibi, citing the Prophet Muhammad as a model, seeks to bring together the marginalized and disconnected segments of his community to instigate 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 it’s annual “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). Motivated by the Islamic tenents of mercy, compassion, and the dignity of human life, Patel brings 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. The 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.

Nashashibi and Patel are representative of the more pervasive influence American Muslims have had in helping us not only to rethink what it means to be American in a religiously pluralistic society, but they have also shown that religion is a powerful and positive force in civic life. Nashashibi and Patel help us realize that religious identity and religious organizations have and continue to bring successful long-term solutions to the problems that face our cities.

Alexander is currently pursuing his PhD in theology and religious studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. His research focuses on comparative theology, theology of religions, political theology, Islamic thought, Reformed theology. He is also an advocate for inter-faith relations and seeks to develop strong bridges between Christians and Muslims founded upon the strengths of our differences amidst our commonalities. His current research focuses on the relationship between religious identity and accusations of apostasy within liberal governments and religiously pluralistic societies.