It Matters What Kind of Islam Prevails

Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and the author of three books on Islam

Islam is said to have 6 million adherents in the United States and to be the fastest-growing religion in this country; in 1960, there were an estimated 100,000 Muslims living here. In important ways, this is a unique community, unlike any that came before, and it faces choices that are likely to have a major impact both on the United States and on Muslims around the world.

American Muslims--immigrants and native-born converts alike--look at the United States in one of two predominant ways. Members of one group, the integrationists, have no problem being simultaneously patriotic Americans and committed Muslims. Symbolic of this positive outlook on the United States, the Islamic Center of Southern California displays an American flag.

These integrationists insist that the West’s norms--neighborly relations, diligence on the job, honesty--are essentially what Islam teaches. Conversely, they present Islam as the fulfillment of American values and see Muslims as a very positive force to improve America. As one integrationist put it, to be a good Muslim, you have to be a good American and vice versa. Or, as the American black leader W. Deen Mohammed put it, “Islam can offer something to the West, rather than represent a threat to the West.” Integrationists accept that the United States will never become a Muslim country and are reconciled to living within a non-Islamic framework; they call for Muslims to immerse themselves in public life to make themselves both useful and influential.

In contrast, chauvinists aspire to make the United States a Muslim country, perhaps along the Iranian or Sudanese models. Believing that Islamic civilization is superior to anything American, they promote Islam as the solution to all of the country’s ills. In the words of their leading theorist, Ismail Al-Faruqi, “Nothing could be greater than this youthful, vigorous and rich continent [of North America] turning away from its past evil and marching forward under the banner of Allahu Akbar [God is great].” Or, in the words of a teacher at the Al-Ghazly Islamic School in Jersey City, N.J., “Our short-term goal is to introduce Islam. In the long term, we must save American society. Allah will ask why I did not speak about Islam, because this piece of land is Allah’s property.”

Some of this ilk even talk about overthrowing the U.S. government and replacing it with an Islamic one. Although it sounds bizarre, this attitude attracts serious and widespread support among Muslims, some of whom debate whether peaceful means are sufficient or whether violence is a necessary option. (Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the World Trade Center bombing figure, clearly belongs among those who believe violence is necessary.)


In short, integrationists are delighted to live in a democratic country where the rule of law prevails, whereas chauvinists wish to import the customs of the Middle East and South Asia. If one group accepts the concept of an Americanized Islam as no less valid than an Egyptian or Pakistani Islam, the other finds very little attractive in American life.

Which of these two elements prevails has great significant for the United States and for the world of Islam. If the great majority of American Muslims adopt the integrationist approach, the Muslim community should fit well into the fabric of American life. There is also the added benefit that the well-educated, affluent and ambitious community of American Muslims will spread their version of a modern and tolerant Islam to the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere.

But if the chauvinists are numerous and (as today) run most of the Muslim institutions in the United States, the consequences could be bitter indeed. Take the March 1996 incident when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a black 27-year-old convert Islam then playing in the National Basketball Assn., decided to sit down as the American national anthem was played before each game. As a Muslim, he said, he could not pay such respect to the American flag, which he considered a “symbol of oppression, of tyranny.” The disaffection of this wealthy and successful Muslim has dire implications if it becomes widespread.

There’s a role here for everyone--Muslim, non-Muslim, business executive, Hollywood producer, journalist, teacher, religious leader--to explain what it means to be an American and to argue against Muslim chauvinism. One might think it obvious that life in this country is immeasurably preferable to that in Iran or Sudan, but that’s clearly not obvious to everyone. Those of us who understand this simple truth must explain it to our fellow citizens.