Ambassador’s Remarks at 49th annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA)
"A Strategic Dialogue between American Muslims and the Muslim World”
I am honored to be invited by the Islamic Society of North America to speak on such an important topic that is often distorted by those who misunderstand Islam, and sometimes manipulated by extremists within.
I hear the term, “Muslim World” tossed around carelessly these days. I fear that in some cases it has become a catch-all phrase that too easily glosses over an inherently complex, multilayered reality.
When we refer to the Muslim World, who are we really talking about? The Muslim world is as varied as its believers. All Muslims share the shahada that “there is no God but Allah and Muhammad (peace be upon him) is his messenger”. Outside of those precepts, the differences within this so called “World” are staggering. Islam is a global religion, numbering at least 1.6 billion today. It includes members of every race, ethnicity, and nation on every inhabited continent on earth.
North America is a living example of Islam’s international reach, as well as its complexity and diversity. A 2011 Pew report demonstrates how diversified the American-Muslim community really is. 63% of Muslim Americans are first generation immigrants to the U.S., coming from as close as the European continent and as far as South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Immigrants from Pakistan alone account for at least 14% of this groundbreaking Muslim generation. At the same time, the number of native-born Muslims also continues to grow exponentially. The ethnic makeup of the community mirrors the plural nature of American society, with believers from across the racial, cultural, and economic spectrum.
Despite our diverse backgrounds, both here and abroad, the differences are not nearly as strong as the principles that unite us. The values at the core of Islam transcend the superficial differences in skin color, gender, sect, geography, and nationality. Islam is not limited by the artificial boundaries established by wealth, nations, or society. That is why I sincerely believe that the Muslims of North America have a unique perspective to share with the global Islamic community. You exist as living proof that Islam is not only compatible, but complementary with modern democratic society. And just as you demonstrate the universality of Islam, you also manifest the fact that the American dream is alive and well. The United States has been a welcoming home to Muslims, and it is a country where Muslims have prospered, flourished and become fully integrated at every level of society.
In stating my case, I do not want to ignore that the North American Muslim community has and continues to face some challenges. Recent examples such as the Sikh Temple shooting in Wisconsin, reports of pervasive spying by the FBI and New York City Police on local Muslim populations, and the struggle to construct an Islamic cultural center in New York demonstrate that the negative impacts stemming from September 11th continue to reverberate. We have all encountered suspicion, and often discrimination, products of ignorance and fear and a reaction to a media that often presents Islam as a caricature of our true religion.
And yet, in the face of these setbacks, the North American Muslim community is thriving, probably more so than any other place in the world. You all are turning negative stereotypes on their heads through your eagerness to participate; to become engaged citizens in North American society -- economically, socially and politically. In the United States, the majority of Muslims report that they are U.S. citizens and overwhelmingly express faith in the American dream, believing that hard work will lead to progress. Two-thirds of Muslim Americans reported that the quality of life for Muslims in the U.S. is better than the quality of life in many Muslim countries. The community envisions life in North America like the American founding fathers did; not for the challenges faced today but by what a functioning democracy, like a pious Muslim, strives to be: free, equal, tolerant, and charitable.
The pervasive misconception that we must all battle to debunk is the belief that Islam and a modern democratic society cannot co-exist. The association of Muslims with hatred and extremism stems from a fear that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with a democratic and modern way of life. The political and economic vitality of the North American Muslim Community demonstrates what we have always known -- that democracy is not only compatible with Islam but is its central tenet. *The American Muslim Community can serve as a bridge between North America and Muslims around the world.*
Now I would like to discuss some of the misconceptions about Islam which can easily be debunked with the pluralistic model offered by the North American Muslims.
Some say Islam is incompatible with freedom. Since the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him), Islam has advocated for basic human rights, the most fundamental of which is freedom. North American Muslims exercise these rights every day. Muslims practice their religion openly. According to a recent survey conducted by the University of Kentucky, the number of Islamic places of worship in the United States rose 74% in the past decade. Muslims exercise their right to vote. A recent study from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding noted that the Muslim community could potentially sway the results of the presidential election in November.
Some say Islam is a religion for men. In truth, equality is a fundamental value Islam and North America share in common, as much as sensationalist media might try to twist the facts. In Islam, all believers are equal in the eyes of Allah. According to a Pew Survey, nine-in-ten American Muslims agree that women should be able to work outside the home. Seven-in-ten American Muslims say gender makes no difference in the quality of political leaders. A 2009 Gallup poll also reported that 59% of Muslim-American women actually work.
Some say Islam is a religion of discrimination. In truth, Islam has historical roots in tolerance and inclusion. The earliest Islamic communities freely accepted people from different beliefs, nations, and ethnicities. This principle is put to the test on a daily basis in North America. Muslims live and work shoulder to shoulder with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Mormons, Sikhs…bucking stereotypes, the United States is a very religious country, with 88% of Americans expressing belief in God. Interfaith organizations are present everywhere. In Canada for example, the Islamic Institute for Interfaith Dialogue strives to promote understanding and tolerance through communication and exchange of information about Islam.
Then it is said that Islam is a religion without mercy. In truth, the North American Muslim community provides a perfect example of how the pillar of zakat can mold with modernity, resulting in exciting innovations. For example, Islamic Relief USA, founded right here in California, is doing amazing humanitarian relief work across the Muslim world. They utilize all the technologies available to them including an engaged online presence, to champion their work. When the 2010 and 2011 floods devastated whole regions in Pakistan, they delivered vital resources to the flood victims.
Another misconception about Islam is that it cannot thrive in the modern world. I believe young North American Muslims growing up today would fundamentally disagree. The Islamic youth of North America are growing up in an age of information freedom and within a governmental structure that strives to give all an equal voice. This new generation can serve as positive role models both domestically and internationally. By continuing to prosper and advance, they demonstrate both to the West and to the Muslim World that the tenets of Islam do not clash with democracy and modernity but rather complement them.
I come here not to defend Islam from the charge that it is incompatible with democracy. Rather, I come here to prove that Islam and democracy are intertwined, always have been and always will be. Islam is not the caricature that has been hijacked by extremists, but rather a peace-loving religion of equality, opportunity and tolerance. The Muslim Community of North America is living proof that misconceptions are easily shattered; that Islam and a modern democratic society are not mutually exclusive. You all are Ambassadors of our faith both domestically and across the globe.
To those who say that Muslims cannot prosper and flourish in the West, that Islam and democracy are antithetical, that Muslims simply do not fit in the modern world I would say come to Detroit, to Dearborn, to Houston, to New York, to Toronto, to Vancouver, to Chicago. To those people I would say, come to this meeting, to this conference, to this great gathering of proud and successful North American Muslims.