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How Islam Became “American”

Muhammad Ali “made being Muslim cool, in a way that no one could challenge his belongingness to America”. Ali represents the best of American ideals, the Orlando shooter represents the worse

Last update: 2018-06-11 15:15:32

[This article is published in Oasis no. 24. To read all the contents buy a copy or subscribe] I went to bed the night of June 11, 2016 having watched a replay of the funeral of Muhammad Ali. I woke up the morning of June 12 to the news of the mass shooting in Orlando. These are the opposite poles of Muslim life in the United States. I was born in Pakistan, and came to Canada in 1970 when I was four. At that time, there were less than 34,000 Muslims in the country. I grew up in Toronto, educated there from kindergarten to PhD. My parents’ generation were not the pioneers of Islam in Canada. The first Canadian census in 1871 (the modern country came into existence in 1867) listed 13 Muslims. But when my parents came to Toronto, there was only one mosque in the city, and only one small store near that mosque that sold halāl meat. One of my mother’s oldest friends told me that she met my mother around 1972, when my mother crossed a major city street because she heard this woman and her husband speaking Urdu. My mother was so excited to hear her native tongue from someone that wasn’t in her family that she crossed a busy street to talk with strangers. Since then, the number of Muslims in Canada has grown tremendously: by 2001, it was 579,600, and the last Canadian Household Survey in 2011 counted over 1 million Muslims. Now, one hears Urdu everywhere and there is a Punjabi (the language spoken in the Punjab, a region straddling India and Pakistan, Ed.) broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada, something I would have never imagined in 1970. Childhood Heroes In those days, I saw very few non-white people on television, and almost no Muslims. The only ones I remember were African American athletes, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali. Those were my childhood Muslim heroes, and over 40 years later, they remain models of how to be a Muslim. At the age of 32, I moved to Los Angeles where I’ve lived for the past twenty years. American Muslims, it should be pointed out, are very different from European or Canadian Muslim communities, other places where we are also minorities in a Western context. Canadian Muslims do not have the same history that American Muslims do. So while there was a small Muslim population in Canada at the end of the 19th century, it was nothing like the number of Muslim slaves that were present in America generations earlier. There is no comparable component in Canadian Muslim life that resembles African American Muslims, who represent at least one-quarter of American Muslims. African American Muslims have for centuries been part of the history of the United States. In Europe, the situation is markedly different, both among the Muslim and non-Muslim populations, which each tend to be much more homogeneous than they are in the United States. So in Britain, the majority of Muslims have their origins in South Asia. In France, Muslims are mostly from North Africa. In Germany, Muslims are usually Turks or Kurds. Contrast that with the American situation, where Muslims are equally African American, South Asian, or Middle Eastern (to take only the three largest groups). Also there are narrower definitions of what it means to be French or English or German than what it means to be American, which incorporates all of those European identities and many others. There is also a socio-economic difference. American Muslims are an American success story, solidly middle class and mostly professional. There are thousands of American Muslim physicians, for example, perhaps as many as 20,000 if one looks at information from the Islamic Medical Association of North America. European Muslims by contrast are more marginalized, often in a much lower socio-economic class with much higher rates of unemployment. Sometimes, as is often the case in Germany, they are in the status of migrants or guest workers, not citizens. Finally, there is a difference between American-style secularism, which doesn’t seek to abolish religion but to give all religions an equal seat at the table, and various kinds of European disestablishment of religion, which seek to make the public space non-religious. In the United States, American Muslims are free to live out their Islam in the public space. And there are so many American Muslims who do this, none who did it better than my childhood hero, the greatest of all time. “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee” Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay in Louisville, and gained national fame when he won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960 as a light heavyweight boxer. That same year, Clay turned professional, and became known as much for his verbal as well as his boxing skills. The poetry (“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”) that he and his cornerman Drew Bundini Brown created has had lasting significance in American culture. In 1964, the 22 year-old Clay, by his own admission, “shook up the world” in his six-round defeat of Sonny Liston, becoming the world heavyweight boxing champion. A few years earlier, Clay had gone to Nation of Islam meetings. There, he met Malcolm X, who as a friend and advisor was part of Clay’s entourage for the Liston fight. Clay made his conversion public after the fight, and was renamed by Elijah Muhammad, one of the leaders of the Nation of Islam, as Muhammad Ali. When Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam because of his issues with Elijah Muhammad, Ali broke with his old friend. [This article is published in Oasis no. 24. To read all the contents buy a copy or subscribe]

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