Islam and Muslims as Religious Minorities in America

WedForum | CRCS | Ida Fitri

Jaye Starr

Jaye Starr, an American Muslim visiting the ICRCS/CRCS programs through the Henry Luce Foundation exchange program, started her talk at the Wednesday Forum by inviting the audience to express their percpetions or questions about Islam and Muslims in America. She then provided an overview of Muslims in America from an historical and demographic perspective. Of the 7 million Americans Muslims living in America today, 2% are European, 2% are South-East Asian, 25% arefrom the Middle East, 30% are African American, 33% come from South-Central Asia, and 5% come from other backgrounds. Starr explained the necessity of examing the historical background of Islam and Muslims in America today.

There are notable episodes of the arrival of groups associated with Islam, such as African slaves who carried their Islamic practice with them to America, the arrival of Middle Eastern immigrants from 1800 through the 1920s, and the entrance of highly skilled professionals afterchanges to US immigration law in 1965.Exchange programsand religious cconversionalso need to be taken into account when looking at the growing number of Muslims who represent areligious minority group in America.

According to Starr, American Muslims have been dealing with the challenges of being a minority group for many decades.  The most challenging period, however,has been following the 9/11 attacks, a time characterized by increasing instances of so-called Islamophobia, including a forty-million dollar anti Islam/Muslim campaign. This campaign, spread through traditional and social media, propogates ideas aboutshariaas something associated with people’s hands being cut off and women forced to wear the hijab. There has also been the emergence of discourse aboutMuslims trying to take over America, and even claims that American Muslims are not really Americans, but instead terrorists.

The Cordoba House in New York City, later renamed Park 51, is an initiative that commemorates Cordoba, Spain, in the 8th-11th centuries, a place which was a model of peaceful co-existence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Starr described this initiative as a continuing effort to foster cooperation and understanding between people of all faiths through an inclusive community center. This centerwas thrust into controversy because of its locationa few blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center. Opponents of this project insisted that there should not be amega-mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero, considered a sacred resting place for the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

Starr described other efforts by Muslim Americans to pursue peace building on a small scale in their respective neighborhoods, such as sharing food, having discussions, worshipping and hosting social programs. She noted that Muslims in America also have to learn on how to represent their religion and their communities. Public service and civic engagement have a significant role in peace building and managing diversity.

Starr also address pressures placed on Muslim women by other American Muslims to participate in inter-faith programs representing Islam to help dismantle American stereotypes about all Muslim women being oppressed. While this has had positive outcomes in many regards, women have also been encourage by some fellow Muslims not to address inadequacies in prayer spaces and other elements of women’s participation within the Muslim community for fear of perpetuating negative stereotypes.

During the presentation, she invited the audience to take a look at three relevant videos to see how American Muslims deal with challenges and to closely observe their dreams about living in America.

In the second half of the forum, Starr answered several questions about the lives of Muslim in America, such as what kind of non-governmental organizations have been established by Muslims in the US, and about who has the authorityto provide information about Islam in the American Muslim community where anyone with a professional background is allowed to preach. (Ed: Kelli)

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