How well are American Muslims fitting in?

The suicide bombings in London raise questions of assimilation for the 3 million Muslims in the US.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's called the "Virginia Jihad" case: Iraqi-American medical researcher Ali al-Yimimi, who preached in northern Virginia mosques and disseminated his radical thinking on the Web, was sentenced to life imprisonment last week. His crime: inciting followers, many of them young American-born Muslims, to a violent defense of Islam and war against the United States and its intervention in Islamic countries.

Mr. Timimi's sentencing in an Alexandria, Va., courtroom came against the backdrop of the London bombings, which British police now say were carried out by young British Muslims - and not foreign terrorists as in the case of the Sept. 11 attacks. They also say that the mastermind may have been a US-educated Egyptian chemist arrested Friday in Cairo.

The London blasts not only brought the phenomenon of terrorists blowing themselves up to Western soil, but they raise new concerns of home-grown terrorism - not to mention a sense of dread about consequences among Britain's predominately peaceful and moderate Muslim population of approximately 1.6 million.

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In the US, the attacks and events like the Virginia Jihad case are raising anxieties about immigrants and their allegiances in the midst of a rapidly expanding immigrant population. With a new report finding that births to foreign-born women in the US are at their highest level ever - nearly 1 in 4 - some experts are warning that the traditional rapid assimilation of immigrants risks breaking down - with potentially worrisome consequences.

"Traditionally you had in the US an immigrant child learning to swim in a sea of native children, but increasingly it is the children of natives lost in a sea of children of immigrants," says Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. His research of US Census figures shows that in 2002, 23 percent of US births were to immigrant mothers - up from 15 percent in 1990.

The figure is closer to 25 percent today, Mr. Camarota adds, and could approach 30 percent by 2010.

The vast majority of those children are born to Mexican and other immigrant Spanish-speaking women - a fact that prominent experts like Harvard's Samuel Huntington, of "clash of civilizations" fame, say presents its own special challenges.

Camarota estimates that the US Muslim population is about 3 million, including converts. Other organizations, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, put the overall number much higher, at perhaps 6 million. Based on a 2002 study of US immigrants from the broader Middle East, Camarota estimates around 600,000 children of Muslim immigrants in the US.

These facts, set in the context of new twists in Islamic terrorism, are raising questions about how well the children of Muslim immigrants are being assimilated.

In California, the issue arose last month in the Central Valley town of Lodi - with a community of some 3,000 Muslims, mostly Pakistani immigrants or their descendants - where federal agents arrested two residents, a father and a son, for allegedly lying about links to terrorist-training camps in Pakistan, and two local imams.

The Lodi case roiled the city's Muslim community, raising worries about the sudden national spotlight, and drawing professions of allegiance and love for America from the local Muslim residents.

Such cases appear to be feeding a growing sense of concern among Americans about immigration, and about Muslim immigrants in particular. In a new survey published last week by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, Americans joined other Westerners in the perception that Muslims have a strong and growing sense of Islamic identity, and want to remain distinct from the mainstream culture.

"What we're seeing is a relationship between a perception of separatism among Muslims living in these [North American and European] countries and serious concerns about extremism," says Carolyn Funk, senior project director for the international survey of Islamic extremism.

The survey of 17 countries did find that approval of terrorist acts such as suicide bombings is falling in many Muslim countries, with more Muslims expressing concerns about the threat posed by Islamic extremism to their own country. Even Osama bin Laden is losing some of the shine he enjoyed in some countries, such as Morocco and Indonesia, although the survey shows esteem for him actually rising in Jordan and Pakistan.

In Western countries with sizable Muslim minorities, the survey shows, concerns about unassimilating populations run parallelel to worries about extremist violence. In the US, where 70 percent said they worried about Islamic extremism in their country, half said they sensed an increasing interest in Islamic identity, and generally saw that as a bad thing. "The US is on the lower end [when compared to European countries]," says Ms. Funk, "but the same trend is there."

Americans seem to be of two minds about immigration, with a new Gallup poll confirming that ambivalence: It finds that a large majority of Americans think immigration is good for the country, while at the same time feeling that current levels of immigration are too high. For experts like CIS's Camarota and others, those misgivings reflect a concern about the ability - or desire - of some groups to assimilate.

At the same time, many Muslim community representatives say assimilation has become more difficult as Islamic extremism has risen to have an impact on the West. And they add that addressing the isolation and fanaticism that can feed homegrown extremism has to be the work of both the Islamic community and the broader society.

"The challenges for immigrants, and in particular for Muslims, are more formidable in the post-9/11 era; the assimilation process is a much more difficult mountain to climb," says Salam al-Marayati, national director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. Comparing the assimilation process to something of a two-way street, he says there are essential roles for both the minority Muslim community and the majority society "to make sure that Islam and Muslims play a positive role in American pluralism."

He also says that public officials must do more to acknowledge the cooperation they are getting from and relationships they are building with the Muslim community. He notes for example that his organization is working with the Department of Justice and the FBI on an antiterrorism campaign that has resulted in community forums and training in 20 cities. But he says officials have never held the press conference acknowledging the program as promised.

"All I can think is that there are political calculations that keep them from doing it," Mr. Marayati says.

If true, that would run counter to what many experts say is a key factor in preventing another attack on US soil: the cooperation and allegiance of American Muslims. Clearly many have played key roles in cases where law enforcement has been able to target activities with potentially violent designs.

But some Muslims say more encouragement is needed. "There's a lack of space for Muslims to contribute to the political and social spheres," Marayati says, "and you end up with an exclusion of the American Muslim voice."

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