The best place in the world to be a Muslim –

To return to our initial question, which community, the American or the European Muslims, is doing better? In the US, we can give examples of two Muslim congressmen, many Muslim mayors, councilors, prominent comedians such as Dave Chappelle and Aasif Mandvi, musicians and Hollywood actors. Europe can boast a similar number of prominent figures, such as members of parliament in countries such as Germany, major television presenters, and famous soccer stars. In the UK, there are a dozen Muslim members of the House of Commons and House of Lords. The captains of the national cricket team of the UK as well as the national soccer team of France have been Muslim.
In terms of identity, the US has an advantage. American identity is rooted in the vision of its Founding Fathers. This ideal is of a genuinely pluralist society rooted in human rights, civil liberties and democracy. European societies, in contrast, are often based in an ethnic vision. Germany is a country for Germans as defined by its very name and they speak the German language, while Denmark is the land of the Danes and England the land of the English. This is why a Pakistani or someone from Trinidad in the UK will say they are British — a broad identity based on citizenship similar to American identity — but rarely will they claim to be English, nor will they be defined as such by the English themselves. A third-generation Muslim immigrant may say “I am English, I do everything English people do. So why am I still considered a foreigner?” The US, in contrast, is not the land of the white people or brown people or any other kind of people alone.
However, 9/11 spoiled things for Muslims in the US and Europe. But Islam is also challenging American and European identity in profoundly political and philosophic ways. For Americans, the unfair treatment of the Muslim community challenges notions of being a liberal democracy in the vision of the Founding Fathers. Europeans also commonly define themselves as a civilization of the enlightenment promoting democracy, human rights and liberal values. Yet there cannot be a situation, in either the US or Europe, in which everyone is equal except for one particular community, which is targeted for discrimination on the basis of religion.
To attack a minority is to travel on a slippery slope
The way forward
We have to ask ourselves, as people of good faith, what should we be doing to improve relations between Muslims and non-Muslims and promote genuine pluralism in society? It is precisely to answer this question that I embarked on a series of projects, along with a research team, to examine the relationship between the Islamic world and the West after 9/11 and how those relations might be improved. The studies are: Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization (2007), which involved me traveling across the Muslim world and examining what Muslims thought of the West; Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (2010), for which I traveled to 75 US cities and 100 mosques to examine how Americans perceived Islam and Muslims and the relationship between Islam and the American identity; The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013), a study of Muslim tribal societies on the periphery of nations where so much of the violence associated with the “war on terrorism” is taking place; and my forthcoming study, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire, which has involved travel to 30 European cities and 40 mosques to study the Muslim experience in Europe.
On the basis of these studies, I have concluded that Muslim leaders have to play a greater role in fostering unity and cohesion in the Muslim community. The Muslim community is divided — there are sectarian differences such as Shias and Sunnis and Deobandis and Barelvis, then there are ethnic divisions between Arabs, Iranians, Bangladeshis and so on. The communities often lead separate lives and are sometimes even antagonistic toward each other. They must instead come together and be able to create platforms where they can speak to each other and form a united front. They need leaders who can represent them. Americans and Europeans often ask me who represents the Muslim community. I find it difficult to answer.
The Muslim community also must build alliances that stretch across religious and political boundaries. They must reach out to Jews, Christians, atheists and others. They have to learn from other minorities. There are so many rabbis, for example, who are eager to work with Muslims and help build bridges. Muslims should be asking them for advice and strategies that religious minorities can utilize to improve their situation.
Young Muslims also have to be more involved in the Muslim community as well as the wider society. Many important Muslim organizations in the US and Europe are still headed by people who were born in Muslim countries, whose experience is different from their children and grandchildren growing up in the West. Muslim parents often want their children to be professionals, like doctors and lawyers, to secure their income, but the young also need to be part of the larger debate about Islam in the media. They need to be involved in politics. They need to be on television, to improve the visibility of the community in society and put forth their point of view. They must be seen and heard to be considered American or European. Muslims must also write books and studies and ask hard questions about themselves. I have seen very few self-analytic books from the Muslim community.
Muslims also need to participate in local cultural events. In the U.S., for example, I have heard debates about the 4th of July celebrations in the Muslim community. I tell them that the 4th of July is an important event in American cultural life. Some Muslims simply do not understand its significance and have told me that, as it does not have anything to do with Islam, they would not participate. But the Muslim leadership should tell people that they are part of this culture and society and cannot be isolated and thus inadvertently cause offense to the majority population. Non-Muslim Americans would not tell Muslims to violate their religious principles and drink alcohol, so it is possible to participate in cultural events without compromising their religion and identity. All countries have these cultural events. Right now it is hit or miss whether members of the Muslim community will participate in these events. I return to my point about immigrant imams in the US who may have no idea what the 4th of July means.
The reality is that Muslims have to be involved in the local culture and these are ways they can participate. If they do not, and if Islamophobia worsens, the results can be dangerous. History has established that a minority that is living under a shadow, that is isolated, afraid and unsure of its place, and is the target of violent attacks will have a bleak future.
While the targeting of a minority is currently focused on Muslims in the West, there is a larger social point to be made. To attack a minority is to travel on a slippery slope. Muslims may be the target today, but in the future, it could be another minority and then another. Either equality and rights for all citizens are upheld or the notion of equality and rights are compromised. This is why Muslims must join other groups in society to work for equal rights for all citizens. If they can do this, the US and Europe will truly emerge as ideal places where Muslims can thrive and contribute so much to their nations. Muslims, and indeed all US and European citizens, must work to make that a reality, not just for the sake of Muslims, but for the health and prosperity of the countries in which they live. It is at that point that the ideals of Islam and those of Western civilization meet.
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and the former High Commissioner from Pakistan to the United Kingdom. He is currently working on the forthcoming book and documentary film project Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire. This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2014/15 issue of The Islamic Monthly