The growth of Islam in America, driven by migration and conversions, has created a diverse and multicultural Muslim community. While scholars are busy studying how this community is faring in the pluralist and multicultural environment of the U.S., very little attention has been paid to the fact that the American Muslim community itself is a multicultural community. Composed of people from all races, and from nearly every country on the planet, American Muslims have rapidly become a microcosm of the global Muslim community. The politics of identity and identity formation that are shaping the American Muslim community cannot be fully understood until the internal diversity within the community itself is fully appreciated.

The two issue areas which have the greatest impact on the development and politics of the American Muslim community are religious development and political goals. The community has been struggling to build Islamic institutions like mosques and Islamic centers, Islamic schools, and Islamic societies for Dawah (religious outreach) and religious development of the community. In these endeavors they have succeeded to a great extent.

Preserving Islamic Identity

Islamic movements like the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) are well seconded and are serving their purpose amicably. Today there are nearly 2,000 Islamic centers and hundreds of Islamic schools that are also toiling to defend against the erosion of Islamic identity, as well as doing Dawah to sustain one of the fastest growing religions in the West.

But in the arena of American politics, American Muslims have yet to make an impact proportionate to their size and potential. In spite of the growth of the Islamic organizations designed for political mobilization and education, Muslims have yet to enjoy the fruits of political victories.

Like its markets, America's political environment has very high entry barriers. But more than external barriers, there are certain characteristics of the American Muslim community itself which have erected internal barriers to political cohesiveness and effective mobilization. The single most important barrier to political cohesion is the inability of the community to prioritize its political goals and evolve a widely accepted short list of political goals. American Muslims came from many parts of the Muslim world, and with the growth of the community many subgroups have emerged. The two biggest represent Muslims from the Arab world and from South Asia.

Each subgroup is attempting to organize itself to pursue parochial rather than the overall goals of the community. However, it is fortunate to have many leaders who have a vision of a strong and cohesive American Muslim community and who have to a great extent succeeded in preventing its fragmentation. The Pakistani Americans are the best organized subgroup. They have as many political action committees as all the rest of the American Muslim community. While on purely Islamic issues, such as building mosques or Islamic schools, Pakistanis remain an integral part of the general American Muslim community, on political issues they have charted their own separate territory. One can understand that the political challenges that the Pakistan homeland faces affect Pakistanis more than other Islamic subcommunities. And clearly they have concluded they cannot afford to wait for American Muslims to become sufficiently powerful to deal with all political issues in which its subgroups are interested.

But if all subgroups pursue their own goals separately, they will not only weaken the American Muslim community as a whole by redirecting meager resources, but they will also prevent the emergence of a cohesive American Muslim community. The challenge facing American Muslims is the classic dilemma of collective action. If all subgroups cooperate in building strong political institutions of a unified American Islamic community, these institutions will serve as a public good that will serve all their interests.

A Hold on Parochialism

A well-established and well-funded American Muslim community can have a greater influence on issues than can its smaller constituent communities on their own. But in order to create this powerful community, each subgroup must put a hold on its immediate parochial ambitions in the interest of strengthening the American Muslim community.

At present, many subgroups are reaching a critical mass that can enable them to have some rudimentary forms of separate institutions. The temptation to break away from the mainstream on political issues while cooperating on religious issues must be resisted in the interest of the larger community. If American Muslim leaders fail to prevent emerging subgroups from breaking away, they will become a community of communities rather than a single multiethnic and multiracial community.

The task of achieving political unity is difficult since there are many interests, sometimes even competing interests, within the community as a whole. It is going to be very difficult to get all Muslims to agree upon the same political goals.

This will not happen until all Muslims in America have the same identity--American Muslim. As long as many of them continue to think of themselves as Arab-American, African-American and so on, the community will remain divided. However, it is possible for enlightened leaders to at least agree on one unified goal--to strengthen the American Muslim community. As we succeed in this, everything else will slowly fall into place as we wait for the next generation of American Muslims to grow up with a more unified and more homogenous outlook.

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