Muslim success stories in America are an eye-opener

AFTER printing the new Pew Research centre report, “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream”, on my Samsung four-in-one laser printer/digital copier/laser fax/colour scanner, I buckled my four-year-old son into his car seat in our family’s Dodge Caravan minivan, picking up his new McDonald’s Happy Meal Shrek toy when he dropped it.

 We dashed across the town to the 4.30pm Tiny Tigers class at Casey’s American Taekwondo Association, tucked behind the local West Virginia State Police station. I pretended to ignore my son as he asked, “Can we go to Burger King?” At taekwondo, sitting in a waiting room of folding chairs with other American parents, I read the Pew report, breaking only to wave back to my son, beaming happily at me through the glass window.  When I left the cover page face up, I quietly wondered if any parents would freak out reading the big font headline, “Muslim Americans”. I quickly flipped it over. I would have analysed the Pew report more, but we had to zip across the town again for T-ball, a mini-version of baseball. I’m the coach for my son’s team, the Citizens Bank Dinosaurs. And I also happen to be Muslim.

American Muslims as middle class? Mostly mainstream? That’s an understatement. But with big headlines from USA Today (“Poll: American Muslims reject extremes”) to the Sacramento Bee (“Upbeat portrait of US Muslims: study finds most embrace America, denounce extremism”) and the Christian Science Monitor (“In many ways, US Muslims are in mainstream America”), we would have thought we’d learned that, indeed, Muslims aren’t Martians.

To me, the brouhaha over the study’s findings underscores how little we’ve understood a basic fact: give folks something to lose, and they probably won’t want to destroy. Success in America has taken an edge off Muslims in America; the same can’t be said for their counterparts in Europe. In large part, I blame institutionalised racism and discrimination that doesn’t slap us in the face in America.

According to the report, around one in five Muslims in the UK, France, Germany and Spain earn low incomes compared with the general public, while in the US it’s a minuscule two per cent of Muslims who are low-income compared to other Americans. To me, contentment is directly proportional to tolerance and progressive thinking. Muslims in the United States rejected Islamic extremism “by larger margins”, the study reports, than did Muslim minorities in Western European countries. In an issue important to me, one in five Muslims in America said women and men should be allowed to pray alongside each other in mosques —  something that is hardly allowed in any mosques in the world, except in the holy city of Makkah. Two of three Muslims said it’s “okay” for Muslims to marry those who aren’t Muslims.

Journalist Paul Barrett interviewed hundreds of American Muslims for his book, ’American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion’ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and says that “the overwhelming majority seek what my immigrant relatives sought: a chance to make good in a wide open society that provides economic opportunity and freedom for those who work hard”.

Immigrants to America from India in the 1960s, my family realised the American dream — living examples of public diplomacy in action. We’ve even got the picket fence. My father earned his PhD after first arriving in the US on a scholarship from the US Agency for International Development. He became a professor of nutrition at West Virginia University, and my mother ran a boutique in downtown Morgantown for over 20 years. In retirement, they’d join the local Rotary Club if they had more time. Born in India, my brother and I grew up on a steady diet of The Munsters, Bewitched and Sunday school classes at the mosque. I’ve got Lynard Skynard, Dr Phil, the Sufi rock band Junoon and Canadian-Muslim singer Dawud Wharnsby Ali in my car visor CD collection. I interrupted writing this piece to play “Scooby Doo! Pirates Ahoy!” for my son. And almost four decades after my arrival in the United States, I’m a writer-activist in the Muslim community for women’s rights and tolerance by Muslims.

To stem hostility and rage among Muslims, the governments of western Europe — including the UK — could borrow a lesson from America’s culture of (mostly) meritocracy: let your Muslim immigrants prosper. Give them something to lose.

Asra Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam