Western Muslims: Can we talk?

Posted in Broader Middle East | 08-Dec-05 | Author: Geneive Abdo| Source: International Herald Tribune

U.S. ambassador to Belgium Tom Korologos.
BRUSSELS The U.S. ambassador to Belgium hosted an extraordinary event here recently, one that exposes the shortcomings of the Bush administration's militarized "war on terrorism." He organized a conference with Muslims to hear about their lives in the West.

Ambassador Tom Korologos and other U.S. officials intervened at times, but mostly they were more like flies on the wall as Muslims from the United States and Europe - activists, journalists and lawyers - discussed their concerns among themselves, talking about Islam and their experiences practicing their religion in Western societies. There were no self-declared "experts" and no interpreters speaking about Islam on behalf of Muslims with whom they have little real contact.

That was the foremost reason that this conference was more effective than most sponsored by branches of the U.S. government, or even by Washington-based research institutes, and why its approach should be used as a model for understanding how Western governments can begin to address the increasing isolation of Muslims living in the West.

But there were others: For one, the conference addressed the underlying reasons for the increasing alienation of Muslims in the United States and in Europe. It asked Muslims to identity why they feel they are targets of discrimination. Is it the media, generally biased against them? Is it their lack of participation in their respective societies?

For another, Muslims from the United States were asked to compare their lives with those of their Belgian co-religionists. Who suffers more from bigotry in the media? Who is targeted more by law enforcement? Is it one's socio-economic background that determines the degree of integration?

Perhaps surprisingly, young American Muslims learned from their Belgian peers that economically the Americans might be better off. Their parents struggled as immigrants, but managed to climb the social ladder, and the immigrants' children are now doctors and lawyers. Some of the Belgians, however, were born to parents who emigrated from Morocco or other Muslim countries for low-paying jobs. One young Moroccan woman explained that her mother, even after years of living in Belgium, is still illiterate. And unlike many Muslim-American participants who grew up in America's suburbs, the Belgians were reared in urban ghettos.

"European Muslims came from more trying backgrounds," said one American Muslim, who is a representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a 10-year-old advocacy group based in Washington. "Our parents came from affluent backgrounds. Over 60 percent of American Muslims have an average annual salary of $62,000," he said.

But some said they felt Muslims in America, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, are being ghettoized by mainstream society, despite their lives of relative riches. Why then, they asked, are Muslim Americans treated by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies like terrorist suspects if they are part of middle-class society? "The notion of Islam is better developed and more understood in Europe than in America," said one American Muslim. "The way we are treated is based on ignorance."

Both groups agreed that the media were the key to changing perceptions of them in their respective countries. If the media shape public opinion, and public opinion becomes more favorable toward Islam and Muslims, everything else will follow, they said.

"It is important for us to form Muslim media," said one Muslim American. But he cautioned against preaching to the choir. "But it is more important for us to get involved in the general media."

In order for that to happen, they said, Muslim Americans must encourage their children to become journalists, rather than higher paid doctors and lawyers.

Both groups agreed that living as Muslims in the West requires the formation of a unique Western Islamic identity. What that means is crafting a life that allows for religious expression while fully participating in mainstream society.

How to go about creating this identity is yet to be determined. But in the end, it could be the key to solving the integration problem.

(Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, is completing a book on Muslims in America.)