Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
November 30, 1999 | Razaq, Sadia
The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, the Iran-Iraq war, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Gulf war and the attempted destruction of the World Trade Center in New York all are associated in the minds of most Americans with Islam. “Islam’s Dark Side,” “Haunted by an Angry Faith,” “Sword of Islam,” “Fundamentalist Cry: Death to America” are only some of the media headlines concerning the above events. Movies such as “The Siege,” “Aladdin,” and “Not Without My Daughter” have instilled in viewers the idea that Muslims are cruel, suspicious, lazy, and violent outsiders. All convey the message that “they” are most definitely not similar to “us.”
Americans will only realize that all this is aberrant behavior, like lumping all residents of North America with its child abusers, serial killers, and survivalists, when they gain some understanding of the core beliefs of the worlds billion-plus Muslims, at least six million of whom live and work in the United States.
To help address this problem, and as part of an extensive project to study different ethno-religious groups, Pew Charitable Trusts has awarded Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding a $1.25 million grant. With the funding, the Center is undertaking a three-year research effort, MAPS (Muslims in the American Public Square), to document the presence, participation, and contribution of Muslims in American civic life and to deconstruct the misconceptions that exist about Islam and Muslims.
As founding director of the Center and professor of religion and international affairs, Dr. John L. Esposito will serve as the principal coordinator of the project. Acting as one of the two principal investigators will be Dr. Sulayman S. Nyang, professor of African-American studies at Howard University in Washington, DC. Dr. Zahid Bukhari, a political scientist from the University of Connecticut and former chairman of the Islamic Circle of North America Relief division, will serve as the second researcher for the project.
According to Dr. Bukhari, an appointed National Advisory Board comprising six recognized academic scholars on Islam would provide guidance and expertise to the researchers. Four scholars named to the board thus far are Dr. Ali Mazrui of Binghamton University, Dr. Vincent Cornell, Dr. Esposito, and Taha Jabr.
“The American Muslim community is going through a transitional period as it comes out of its initial phase of hesitation, isolation, and anxiety,” Dr. Bukhari explained. By documenting its movement into the larger public life and its interaction with civic institutions, scholars can begin to fill the void of research and basic information that exists about Muslims residing in the United States, Dr. Bukhari said. Researchers can begin to examine how Muslims are reacting to American traditions, and whether their civic participation is concentrated on the local or national level, Dr. Bukhari continued.
MAPS, still in its initial stages, is working on forming a group of 20 individuals who will contribute to publication of a volume that will encompass five major themes.
Some of the participants, Dr. Bukhari explained, will be asked to engage in the discourse on living as a minority in a pluralist system. The individuals will explore experiences of the Muslim minority in the United States and examine the tensions between isolation from and assimilation into the larger society, Dr. Bukhari said.
Others will be asked to focus on the evolving role of the masjid (Islamic center) in the Muslim community. Members of this group will examine the function of the masjid not only as a disseminator of religious knowledge but also as a place from which to encourage Muslim communities to be involved in public and political institutions.
A third element of the MAPS project, Dr. Bukhari said, is to ascertain whether the willingness of Muslims to participate in the political process is determined by their ethnicity, nationality, age, education or affluence.
The group of scholars within this topic will have to examine the distinctions between indigenous African-Americans and immigrant Muslims and the historical baggage which determines whether each group will or will not participate in American politics, Dr. Bukhari continued. The panel of experts will have to factor in the historical struggle of African-Americans for emancipation from slavery and apartheid, and their basic mistrust of conventional politics. As for studying the attitudes of immigrant Muslims toward political participation, the scholars will have to examine immigrants’ use of the American political process to address international issues.
The fourth issue MAPS will deal with is the response of existing Muslim organizations to Muslim participation in American public life.
The fifth and final section will address how international issues, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the growing tension between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and Kosovo act as catalysts to Muslims to get organized at the local and national level. Part of this study, Dr. Bukhari continued, will also include the study of how Muslim participation in American politics is affecting the solutions of these issues, and its impact on governance within Muslim countries.
The second volume to be published at the end of the project is a compilation of one thousand contemporary Muslim figures, similar to the series Who’s Who in America. MAPS hopes to document the Muslim men and women who have made great strides in business, computer technology, sports, and even the entertainment industry, Dr. Bukhari said.
In addition to publishing these two volumes, Dr. Bukhari continued, MAPS will create a comprehensive and up-to-date directory of all the Islamic centers within the United States. Included within the directory will also be a detailed outline of each center’s civic activities. Information will be obtained through a two-stage national survey of Muslim communities and religious leaders.
By creating such a directory, Dr. Bukhari said, MAPS hopes to provide Islamic centers with a mechanism to report on their achievements. This would provide Islamic centers, such as the Islamic Society of Central New York (ISCNY), a platform from which to inform the wider Muslim community of its participation strategies and successes. Under the guidance of Shaykh Ahmed Nezar Kobeisy and years of local participation by Muslims, ISCNY has convinced Syracuse University to recognize Islamic holidays and to provide halal meat for Muslim students in several cafeterias. The masjid also has persuaded the local airport to construct a special ablution and prayer facility for Muslims traveling through the airport.
The fourth element of MAPS, Dr. Bukhari explained, is the creation of an interactive Web site as a resource on Muslims and Islam in America and also as a link to similar projects being conducted on other religious groups. The Web site will also serve as a means of dispelling myths and misconceptions that exist about Muslims and Islam.
Throughout the MAPS project, newsletters, regional seminars, intra-community dialogue, and national conferences will disseminate the findings of the scholars involved. These settings will also provide an opportunity for individual Muslims to offer input and participate in ongoing discussions. For MAPS, this is an extremely important aspect because of its desire to include the wide array of opinions that exist on the issue of civic and political participation.
“What we hope,” Dr. Bukhari said, “is that MAPS serves as an important part of the development of the Muslim community in America and that we utilize it as an opportunity to overcome misunderstandings that exist between Muslims and non-Muslims. To put it simply, the fastest-growing religion in the world today can no longer afford to be misunderstood.”