How to Be a Muslim in America?

How to Be a Muslim in America?

Mar 26, 2012

By Reading Islam Staff
In a Q&A session with the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) following a talk in 2010 titled “Islam In Deed: Rediscovering the Muslim Identity,” Prof. Tariq Ramadan answers questions on how Muslims in a western society could proactively give back to their societies without sacrificing their Muslim faith and identity.

Question 1:
Having experienced the consequences of asserting Islamic identity by being banned to the US, how would you encourage American Muslims to assert their Muslim identity despite the challenges they may face?
I would say that there’re many levels, and I really think that we have to be really cautious not to be assertive because we are resisting. We should be assertive because we want to be who we are and we know what Islam means for us.
So the starting point is not because having been banned or because I’m facing many different attacks coming from westerners or from different circles in western societies.
I think that our strength is mainly to come back to the fundamentals of the Islamic faith, and the tradition and ‘Aqida (creed), which is really this connection with God.
I have one fear with Muslims living in the West and living in the States, for example. What I’m saying is two things; some are going very far into spirituality, and even Sufism, and “This is Islam”, and “This is the only way to be good Muslims”. On the other side, we have people very much against the system, struggling for rights and politics. And it is as if there’s a gap between the two.
But to be a Muslim and to assert your identity is to be both at the same time, is to really know the very essence of Islam, which is to purify yourself and to come back to this closeness to Allah, to God, and to try to understand that at the end of the day all our life is a struggle for peace, and the most important peace is the inner peace.
By saying this we come with values and understanding the oneness of God: At-Tawheed; is a reconciliation between you and Him (God) which means between you and yourself because the knowledge of God is between you and your heart:
… and know that Allah comes in between a man and his heart (Al-Anfal 8; 24)
This is one thing.
For a Better World
On the other side, we are doing all this to change the world for the better. And to change the world for the better means to change the United States of America for the better, is to be a contributing force to the best of values and justice, equality and empowerment, for Muslims.
So, because I know the meaning of being at peace with God and to try to promote justice, that I’ve been struggling for my rights in this country by saying ‘what you are doing is wrong’, because at the end of the day nothing is wrong in me supporting Palestinians, for example, because I will keep on supporting them whatever is going to happen, because this is justice; because these are oppressed people, and this is what we have to do.
So this mindset is important because you are not assertive against, (instead), you are assertive for: for your values, for some objectives: it’s more justice in the United States of America, it’s a democracy, but still not a perfect democracy. When you are an African American in this country you are still facing injustices. When you are poor, you are facing injustices. So the civil rights are an ongoing struggle in this country. It’s not because your president now is an African American president that everything is solved. That’s not true. It may be a symbol, but a symbol could hide the reality and not express it.
So I would say this is where the Muslims should be, and that’s why they have to be assertive.
Thus, by doing these two things that are very important to me; never to nurture a victim mentality. We are not victims. Life is a test:
{He Who created Death and Life that He may try which of you is best in deed} (Al-Mulk 67; 2)

Islam is visible through your actions and behavior, on the civil ground, on the social ground at both the individual level and the collective level

So, life is a test. Your life and death are tests, so you have to face up to the challenges of these tests. You have to be the subject of your own history. So by being American; by being citizens in these countries it’s not to say ‘Oh, we are victims. You don’t like us, so we are going to withdraw, or to show you a nice face of spiritual things, for example. That’s not right. The nice face is there, but it should be visible through your acts and behavior within the society. Because in Islam, faith is visible through your actions and behavior, on the civil ground, on the social ground at both the individual level and the collective level. So this is one dimension; so no victim mentality.
Stick to Your Values
Another thing, which is quite important as it is also what I’m seeing in many western societies as exactly the same in the United States of America, is this mindset of being minority; ‘Oh we are minority in the society’.
No, our values are majority values. So, as citizens we have to come and speak about justice, we will be understood by anyone as we do speak for justice for all, justice for every one; man and woman, black and white. Anything which has to do with justice we are for it, against, you know, torture, extraordinary rendition, wrong laws against immigrants …all these are our struggles.
So, I would say here that we have to come with something which is a majority mindset, which is we are talking to the whole of the United States of America as a majority with our majority values, and this is where we have to be constructive.
Question 2:
Do you think there are ways for Muslims to be integrated into the society without just being assimilated?
Once again, it’s always a question of terminology; what does it mean to be integrated?
For me, it’s over. The religious and cultural integration is done. You, your organizations, all what you are doing is just showing that you are Americans, you have just to be accepting the fact that you are American Muslims or Muslim Americans. That’s not the problem. What I’m saying now, and I’m always repeating this, because you have always people who say ‘You Muslims have to integrate’. And by using the term they create the problem. And we have to do exactly the opposite, because the success of integration is to stop talking about integration. That’s over now.

Our distinction should me a moral ethical distinction, and not only distinction in the way we dress

Let us talk about the real challenge which is contribution. It is what we have to do; we need to contribute. Our contribution to this society should be on many levels. And once again, not only on the social ground, but also on the spiritual ground; with ethics. Our distinction should me a moral ethical distinction, and not only distinction in the way we dress, because the way we dress is just showing what we believe in. These are values, we speak about dignity, we speak about the self. We are saying to the people your value is not in what you have, but your value is in what you are.
So this is the way we dress. We are sending a message. So, I would say that this is something which is really important in our presence in the United States of America and in the western societies.
So to let people know say ‘OK, look, if you want me to integrate by being lesser a Muslim and more an American, it’s over; you’ve lost the struggle.’ All the people who are now settling are willing to be both fully Muslim and fully American. And this is what we have to do.
But we also have to say to the Muslim ‘be careful. Don’t fall into the trap of this American dream that as you are settling down in the United States making money forgetting about values and principles.
And if you look at the reality of the Muslim community in America we can say that there’s a gap between the new immigrants, the new American citizens outside the inner cities they are making money building big mosques, while in the inner cities we have African American Muslims very poor, marginalized in this society. And they are saying to this society you are telling us that we have to integrate? We are native Americans; we have been here for centuries.  It might be exactly the opposite, that the United States of America should integrate the Muslim presence, not Muslims to be integrated. This is something that we also have to tell the people.
So, it’s also a very important intellectual struggle, an intellectual Jihad which is really to resist this use of wrong terminology used to create problems that are now solved already.
Question 3:
ICNA has multiple programs catering to the society at large, how important are these programs?
Also, how do you think this would play into creating that Muslim identity?
First, of course I’m supporting this because I really think this is what we have to do. I would start with a comprehensive picture is that for the Muslims not to be only visible when we speak about Islam. It’s when we speak about human beings we are here. This is what it is to be a Muslim. It’s really this. This is the essence of Islam.
Be Proactive
So when we speak about being Muslims in this country; in the States, it is really to be involved in all the discussions. We speak about schools we have to be involved in anything which has to do with education, not by saying ‘Oh, we are going to create our Islamic schools’.
That’s fine. Do your Islamic schools, but what about the state system? What about the schools and the curriculum, what we are teaching?
When we speak about social problems; marginalization, poverty in this country, this is supposedly the biggest and the richer country in the world. Despite that, if you go and see how people are living, you have poverty and things that are unacceptable. So we are speaking about human dignity. That’s what we have to be involved in; we have to be struggling against anything which has to do with poverty. In Mauritius, for example, we started a big campaign (a Jihad) against poverty because this is the right way of using Jihad-against poverty. Our enemy is not non-Muslims. Our enemy is anything which is wrong. So this is something that we have to do as well.
When we speak about family, we Muslims are very quick to say family is very important. OK, but what is happening in the rich countries, about divorces and kids not knowing how to deal with authorities and transmission. What about fatherhood? We speak very much about women, and we are right to do that, but we also have to speak about fathers because it’s very difficult to be a father in western societies, all this question of being a presence of going along your own kids.

Let people see you as an American- a Muslim American dealing with everything and not only with Islam.

So, this is where the Muslims should be; everything that has to do with being a citizen or being a human being. So, this is a comprehensive approach. Let people see you as an American- a Muslim American dealing with everything and not only with Islam. Because if you come only when we speak about Islam on the domestic side or in the international scene, we are perceived by definition to be on the defensive; you come only when we speak about Islam. So, this is something that we have to do.
The second point which is important is all the work that you are talking about; solidarity work and telling the people if you want to ask about Islam just come to us and we supporting the poor, the needy people. This is all fine, but it has to be part of something which is an overall vision. And the overall vision is when we speak about contributing we are not only talking about solidarity, it’s not only humanistic or humanitarian work. It’s also about rights, it’s dealing with rights. This is to be assertive. It’s, for example, very good to speak about democracy, but the way it is implemented is quite important. So when you are black man or black woman in this country, because you don’t have enough money sometimes, you are facing wrong implementation, it is discrimination on the job market, in housing. So this is also where we all have to be; is to assertive by saying ‘we are doing this for the sake of the country’.
For the Sake of Humanity
So, it’s not only to come with the big heart. It’s to come with a very demanding intellectual struggle on anything which has to do with our rights, our citizenship, our dignity. And then solidarity work should be involved into this. My fear here is really to see Muslims coming with all solidarity work during Ramadan and this solidarity thing. It’s all fine, but if we go behind it it’s as if we want to show the people that we are nice, that we are kind, that we care. That’s all good if and only if we are saying we have a heart and we have requirements as well; that we have claims, we want to be treated with dignity –and not only us but every single human being.
The last dimension of all this work is also to be involved in things that are essential for our time. I don’t see enough Muslim contributions into something which has to do with global warming, with ecology, with the way we treat animals, for example. And that’s what we have to be self critical. In Eid-Al-Adha, for example, the way we treat the sheep, the way we are slaughtering, we have to ask ourselves: ‘is this the right way to do it?’
Because we are very strict on the technicalities –as saying when slaughtering, “Bismillah, Allahu Akbar” (In the name of Allah, Allah is the Greatest). But on the way we treat animals, that’s wrong. That’s not the Prophet’s message. So to be self critical as the Prophet, peace be upon him, told us to treat animals with dignity.
So we can’t send a message to the people that we are strict on technicalities and not deep on teachings. So, all these things are quite important. So, of course I would support what’s done, but I would want it to be within something which is a vision, with multiple, multi-faceted vision including all things altogether.
Question 4:
How do you envision the American Muslim community to be like ten years from now, especially in the Bay Area?
Look, in my last book (What I believe) I’m saying it’s not a question of ten years, it’s going to be a question of two generations at least. We are going to face challenges and it’s not going to be easy. Because as you can see after 9/11 it has been more and more the case. Yet, before that it was already there. It is that we are perceived as the other; so an outsider within or an insider that is still perceived as a foreigner. And this is the very essence of the question; it is how we really deal with that.
I would say that it is a question of time. That’s why I’m always saying that we have to normalize our presence without trivializing it. Meaning by this, it’s normal to be an American Muslim but we have an ethical distinction, and this is not to trivialize our presence. That’s what God say:
{Thus, have We made of you an Ummah (nation) justly balanced, that you might be witnesses over the nations} (Al-Baqarah 2; 143)
So, I think it’s not going to be easy, you are going to face in the States challenges and campaigns against this Muslim presence.
Embrace the Challenge
Listen to what is said by some trends in the States about what’s going in Europe, trends who are coming mainly from the States, saying: ‘Oh, in Europe we are now dealing with Arabia with Islam is silently colonizing Europe because of the numbers. And exponentially the fact that Muslims are going to grow and being a very effective presence. So they are sending a message which is this is very scary.
At the same time in the States they are watching Muslims, and sometimes monitoring them. So, I would say to Muslims this is not going to be easy, but you have the choice, you will have what you deserve. If you are assertive, confident with your own values and you know that you are not coming here to be “the other”, but to be here is to be among the people as an American providing this society with the best values and the best behavior. This is where you have to be assertive.
Your spirituality, your heart, yourself; don’t forget yourself into the society, and don’t forget the society because you care about your own self. So it’s always a balance. And then give. You are what you give, and you are what you are in the same time. This is the very meaning of being a Muslim: {those who believe and do good deeds.} (Al-Baqarah 2; 25). This is the balance.
It’s not going to easy, you’ll have people if you are here to please them you’ll never be at peace with your own self, because life is not to please the people. Life is about His satisfaction, and you know that when you please God you will be respected by the people. This is the very meaning of being with God.
And then the second thing which is also important is whatever are the critiques and the people rejecting you, at the end you’ll find that within this society many people are starting to listen. Many Americans know something is wrong in the whole discussion. So they are listening to Muslims, they are listening to us, they want to know who are these fellow citizens trying to be, quite vigilant with their own values. So, it is up to us to do the job; it is to just to stop putting ourselves into something like we are not liked in this country.
If we respect ourselves we are going to be respected. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to take time, effort, patience, perseverance and endurance, and this is life. And if we think about what happen for other Muslims in other situations and in time, they were facing much more than what we are facing. So, we still have the resources to do what we have to do Insha’Allah.
Listen to the full interview here:


  1. Navroz

    Salaam wa alaikom and jazakaAllah Khyr for posting this very informative interview.


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