Student spotlight: an essay by Jamie Poulin

Islam in America: Religious revivalism in America’s Muslim immigrant communities

Throughout August, BU Today will publish pieces of student scholarship and creative work. This article by Jamie Poulin (CAS ’07), a double major in Anthropology and Art History, first appeared in the Spring 2006 Issue of The Journal of the Core Curriculum, an annual anthology of creative and scholarly work from the Core community.

Russian Jews migrating to the United States at the dawn of the 20th century had an important choice to make. Faced with starting anew in a strange place one question loomed large for these immigrants: were they Russian, Jewish or both? The question of identity, however, is not confined to immigrant groups of the early 1900s. Muslim immigrants today face the same dilemma as their Jewish counterparts, but with one important difference. Unlike Jewish immigrants of the early 20th century, many incoming Muslims have left largely Islamic countries in order to take advantage of greater economic opportunities in America, as opposed to Russian Jews, who were forced to flee countries where they were persecuted minorities. Despite their ethnic differences, the ties between Jewish immigrants were strengthened by the widespread persecution and outright segregation they all experienced in their homelands. Conversely, many newly arrived Muslims are more inclined to identify with those of similar ethnic backgrounds, rather than with all fellow Muslims. As a result, Jews in the United States identify with their religious background first and ethnicity second, while many Muslims feel that their ethnic identity is more important than their religious identity (Mazrui 120). This tendency to identify along ethnic, and sometimes socioeconomic lines, only adds to the fragmentation that is already inherent in a religion that lacks the structure that comes with a centralized church hierarchy. In recent years, however, there has been a growing trend among middle class and professional Muslim immigrants towards a revitalization of the Islamic faith. These immigrants not only embrace their faith, but they also hope to form a universal Islamic community which includes all Muslims, regardless of their ethnic background.    

Although the majority of these newly arrived Muslims owes their economic success to the greater opportunities afforded by American society, many reject what they consider to be the immoral aspects of American culture in favor of more conservative Islamic values. In particular, “Muslims among those more recently arrived from Pakistan, feel that adherence to the formalism of a daily schedule begun and ended with prayer in obedience to God is the only way to keep Islam alive” (Haddad 22). Within the last twenty years, a number of organizations and institutions have formed in order to protect the rights of Muslim Americans and ensure that future generations will continue to practice their faith in an increasingly secularized society. At the heart of this initiative are Islamic Centers, which provide religious instruction and child care services to the community as well as a growing number of Muslim private schools. While the pressure on Muslims to assimilate is no less, and in some cases more than that of immigrant groups of the past, today’s middle class and professional Muslim immigrants have an economic security that eluded previous immigrant groups, and that security allows them to resist the pressure to adopt American culture and practices.

Conversely, there are those Muslim immigrants, who for reasons of economic security reject both their Islamic and ethnic backgrounds in favor of adopting mainstream American culture. Lower class Muslim immigrants feel that they can “compensate for their insecure economic situation by mooring themselves to the dominant culture which brings them closer to the mainstream and fosters a feeling of physical and psychological security . . . over their daily lives” (Goldwasser 304). As minority groups living in communities that are often ignorant of, and sometimes outright hostile toward, the Islamic faith, these individuals have chosen to reject all foreign associations, rather than define themselves by their faith alone.

While the migration of middle class and professional individuals to the United States from Muslim countries is a modern development, Muslims migrating to the United States is not a recent phenomenon. The first of five waves of Muslim migration began around 1875 and lasted until 1912 (Haddad 14). This wave was made primarily of uneducated Arab men from rural areas who came to the United States in order to escape the economic crises that accompanied the decline of the Ottoman Empire and European colonialism. Like their Italian counterparts, these immigrants were forced by their lack of education to take low paying jobs in America’s growing industrial sector. As a result, the majority of early Muslim communities were located in cities on the East Coast. This trend continued with the second wave of Muslim immigration from 1918 to 1922, which consisted mainly of relatives or friends of those immigrants from the first wave (14). As uneducated lower-class members of society, early Muslim immigrants tended to form close knit communities in the inner cities of the East Coast, such as the Palestinian community in Chicago in the early 20th century. However, these communities were based on ethnic rather than religious affiliation. While “immigrants in [this] period did not forget their religion entirely, other aspects of life seemed of higher priority to them” (Schmidt 111). This practice continued with the third wave of Muslim immigration from 1930 to 1938, which was also made up of relatives and friends of those in the first wave (Haddad 14).

Despite the fact that the Arab world constitutes “only slightly more than one third of the world’s Muslim population,” the first fifty years of Muslim migration to the United States was dominated by lower class Arabs (Brown 9). One reason for this phenomenon was the immigration quotas that prevented South Asian Muslims from immigrating to the United States in large numbers prior to 1965. However, the period immediately following World War II saw a significant increase in the number of Southeast Asian Muslims from India and Pakistan as well as Muslims from Eastern European countries. The increase has continued into the present day, despite the increase in non-Arab Muslim migration, Arab migration to the United States remains strong due to political upheaval in much of the Arab world. This upheaval was only compounded by the 1967 Six Day War in which a coalition of Arab forces led by Egypt under President Nasser was defeated by the Israelis.

Unlike their 19th century counterparts, Muslim immigrants “since the middle of the century have been educated professionals eager to enjoy the economic and political advantages of the United States” (Haddad 14). Newly arrived Muslims, especially those from the Arab world, were the beneficiaries of a program of secular nationalism that swept most of the Islamic world in the early part of the 20th century. Many nationalist Muslim states promoted higher education for all citizens regardless of their socioeconomic status. For example, in Egypt under President Nasser’s populist-authoritarian regime, “the number of students enrolled in primary education per thousand of population increased by 234 percent, and the number of students enrolled in higher education rose by 325 percent” (25). The majority of Muslim immigration in the past fifty years, therefore, can be characterized as well educated middle class professionals from a variety of countries in Europe, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Among the Muslim communities in the United States, Chicago is one of the best examples of the transition from isolated lower class Arab immigrant neighborhoods to an influential Muslim middle class made up of a variety of ethnic groups, including a significant number of African American converts. Some of the first Muslims to settle in Chicago came as part of the Columbian Exposition in 1893 (Schmidt 16). The majority of these early Muslim immigrants were Palestinian or Lebanese men whose goal “was to amass as much wealth as possible in the shortest time and then return to the homeland” (Husain & Vogelarr 232). Although these early immigrants continued to practice their religion, Islam was not their highest priority. Many of these individuals even made attempts to assimilate into American culture by marrying non-Muslims, and for the most part, blended into the American melting pot (232).

Due to immigration quotas, many Southeast Asian Muslims were barred from coming to the United States. As a result, Arab-Muslims constituted the majority of Muslim immigrants in the Chicago area until immigration quotas were relaxed in 1965. However after 1965, “many professional and skilled workers migrated to the United States [and] many of Chicago’s present day South Asian Muslims came during and after that period, settling in suburban neighborhoods” (Schmidt 23). Over a hundred years of Muslim migration to the Chicago area has produced a community that is both ethnically and economically diverse.

Although “ethnic affiliation within the Chicago Muslim community [is] still running strong” (59), some members of the community are actively involved in programs that focus on the universality of Islam, rather than ethnic differences among various Muslim groups. However, these programs have not entirely erased the reality of ethnic and socioeconomic differences within the Muslim community. For example, “even though African Americans are active in various immigrant mosques and organizations, Muslims of immigrant background often voice skepticism when African American Muslims independently interpret Islam according to their communal experiences and history” (28). A distinction, therefore, is made between converts to Islam and those who were born into the faith. Furthermore, the fact that Islam, like Judaism, lacks a centralized church hierarchy leaves the religion open to interpretation, only increasing the differences between various Muslim groups. As a result, two opposing groups emerge in the Chicago Muslim community. On one hand are groups located among lower class Muslims in the inner cities whose goal is not only to incorporate Muslims of all ethnic backgrounds, but also to invite non-Muslims to participate in community events and programs. On the other hand, there are groups made up primarily of middle class Muslims professionals whose institutions, such as Islamic private schools, effectively restrict their interaction with non-Muslim as well as Muslim groups whom they feel do not promote proper Islamic values. As a result, even those groups that wish to promote a more universal ideal of Islam are still affected by the debate over religious versus ethnic identity.

The struggle between religious and ethnic identity is indicative of the conflict between the immigrant generation and those who are second and third generation Muslim Americans. While many immigrants “speak in nostalgic tones about the country they left behind, their children may speak of the ethnic home of their parents with some disappointment and even resentment” (114). It is no surprise then that an organization like IMAN or the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, which promotes Islamic values as a means to keeping inner-city youth away from drugs and gangs, was created in 1994 by Muslim students at Depaul University. As an extension of the local Islamic Center which serves as both a meeting place and a community outreach program, IMAN could draw on the support of Chicago’s inner city Muslim community, providing religious instruction as well as an after school program (45-46). By promoting Islam as a religion whose values can be imitated even by non-Muslims, IMAN promotes the idea of a universal and inclusive Islam, rather than creating divisions based on ethnicity and, in the case of non-Muslims involved in the program, even religious affiliation.

However, not all Muslim groups wish to promote the inclusive message of Islam that IMAN embodies. For example, in an attempt to present “Islam as a social movement, transcending borders of ethnicity, violence and poverty for those living in the surrounding neighborhoods” (115), IMAN has held a festival for several years called “Taking it to the Streets.” Although “Taking it to the Streets” was deemed an instant success by those who participated in the ceremony, several Muslim groups, especially Arab Muslims who lived in the suburbs, declined participation in the event. The absence of these groups was not only indicative of the division among ethnic groups, but also among Muslims of differing socioeconomic status. By not participating in an event sponsored by inner-city Muslim organizations, middle class Muslims “might devalue the needs and activities of other Muslims by claiming that they did not practice Islam correctly” (59). By adopting a more universal message, the middle class Muslims of Chicago’s suburbs felt that IMAN presented a more flexible vision of Islam, which went against their core values. For example, middle class Muslims claimed that members of Chicago’s inner city Muslim community in which IMAN was based engaged in activities that went against the basic tenets of Islam, such as selling liquor and lottery tickets in their businesses and donating the profits from these unseemly activities to the local mosques (59). Given the activities of some of its members, middle class Muslims felt that the message that groups like IMAN promoted was a corruption of the Islamic values they struggled to promote through their own community programs.

Although middle class Muslim immigrants in the suburban Chicago area may make distinctions between Muslims of differing socioeconomic status, many of these same individuals overlook ethnic differences in favor of forming communities and institutions dedicated to the preservation of Islamic values. One of the most prominent examples of this movement is the establishment of several private Islamic schools in the Chicago area. These schools appeal to middle class Muslim parents who “wanted their children to learn Islamic standards and get acquainted with the normative scriptures, traditions, and language of the Qur’an” (63). Islamic private schools not only promote Islamic values, they also provide an environment in which Muslim children can learn about and practice their religion without fear of discrimination by non-Muslim students. Furthermore, Islamic schools provide a sense of community that many parents feel is absent from American public schools.

The development of Islamic schools in the Chicago area is indicative of a “utopian hope for the future, where competing voices of doubt and hypocrisy . . . [are] to be silenced through the unification of the umma” (75), an idea that many middle class Muslims wish to promote. Parents hope that the close knit communities formed within these schools will protect their children from falling prey to American culture, which they feel would lead to a corruption of Islamic values. However, as professionals reaping the rewards of the American economy themselves, these parents understand the need for their children to receive a comprehensive education that will allow them to compete in the real world. Islamic schools in the Chicago area, therefore, are a synthesis of American educational standards and Islamic values. While Islamic schools may promote a message that transcends ethnic differences in favor of a universal form of Islam, the private nature of these schools makes it impossible for them to transcend socioeconomic differences between inner city and suburban Muslim communities.

Even though the dominant trend in Chicago’s Muslim community is one of a transition from an ethnic to a religious identity, the impetus behind this trend was sparked by those very ethnic differences. The flexibility inherent in a religion without a specialized hierarchy of authority allowed for different interpretations of Islam among different ethnic groups. While there is a “tendency to consider the Middle East both as the homeland and heartland of Dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam)” many early Muslim immigrants from the Arabian Peninsula practiced a more secularized version of Islam (Brown 10). However, the relaxation of immigration quotas after 1965 resulted in an influx of Southeast Asian Muslims, especially Pakistanis, in the Chicago area. Whereas many Arab Muslims tended to practice a less restrictive form of Islam, Pakistani Muslims tend to be stricter in their observance (Haddad 14). This emphasis on religion among Pakistani Muslim immigrants translated into a greater emphasis on religious rather than ethnic identity and has prompted the creation of institutions like the Islamic private schools. As a result, the increase in immigrant groups who are more devout in their observation of Islam has led to a greater emphasis on religion within the community as a whole. In addition, the increasing prominence of Islamic fundamentalist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world, has influenced the latest wave of Muslim immigrants to the United States.

While the majority of Muslim immigrants in the Chicago area voluntarily migrate to the United States in order to benefit from greater economic freedom and employment opportunities, many Sub-Saharan African Muslim immigrants come to the United States as refugees fleeing genocide or unbearable living conditions. The circumstances under which these individuals migrate to the United States influence the way in which they perceive themselves and practice their religion once they arrive on American soil. These circumstances have caused two very different reactions among foreign born African Muslims. On one hand, there are immigrants, such as working class Eritrean Muslims in Durham, North Carolina, who for reasons of economic security reject both their religious and ethnic background in favor of adopting mainstream American culture (Goldwasser 302). On the other hand, there are immigrants, such as the Sierra Leonian Muslims, who look to a greater community of Muslims from a variety of ethnic backgrounds for support while still maintaining a separate ethnic identity (D’Alisera 9).

Unlike today’s professional middle class Muslim immigrants, many Muslims from Africa come to the United States with little education or marketable skills. Their lack of education forces these immigrants to work long hours in low paying jobs. For example, Eritrean immigrants in Durham, North Carolina are often forced to work under conditions which prevent them from practicing the required prayers five times a day or to attend Friday afternoon prayers (Goldwasser 305). Their limited job skills also mean they sometimes have to take jobs that go against fundamental tenets of Islam, such as working as a bartender serving alcohol, in order to make a living. Eritrean immigrants tend to identify with mainstream American culture since the lack of economic security prevents them from observing Islamic religious practices correctly. In addition, many of these immigrants perceive their lack of success in America as directly related to their foreignness, which prevents them from getting higher paying jobs. As a result, these immigrants tend to downplay their ethnic and religious heritage in order to advance in American society. However, unlike immigrant groups of the past, these African Muslim immigrants see their assimilation as a temporary situation. Although they may send their children to public schools and encourage them to speak English rather than their native language, these immigrants realize “a college education, which will help their children find a secure jobs is . . . one way to ensure the maintenance of this Muslim identity” (306). Eritrean Muslims, therefore, view their Islamic identity as an impediment to their economic security but also hope that their children can integrate that same identity into their lives as they achieve greater economic security than their parents.

The level of economic security within the Muslim community directly relates to the level of religious observation among its members. While low socioeconomic status prevents Eritrean Muslims in Durham, North Carolina from practicing their religion as they would normally, middle class and professional Muslims in the same area make an effort to integrate their religious identity into their everyday lives. For example, the more flexible schedule found in the medical and academic fields allowed many Muslim professionals to take their vacation during the month of Ramadan so that they could fast without it impeding their ability to work (308). The greater emphasis on religion, furthermore, crosses ethnic lines, with middle class Muslim immigrants from Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bangladesh and Dubai all choosing to remain on the cultural margins of society in favor of promoting an Islamic lifestyle (302). While many Eritrean Muslims are forced to take jobs that conflict with their religious practice, middle class and professional Muslims in the very same community feel secure enough in their position to resist the pressure to assimilate into American culture.

In direct contrast to Eritrean Muslims in Durham, North Carolina is the Sierra Leonian Muslim community in Washington D.C. Rather than lose their Islamic heritage by migrating to the United States, “migration enables [Sierra Leonian] Muslims to reflect on the ways Islam has been understood and . . . many find themselves questioning for the first time what it means to be Muslim” (D’Alisera 11). Sierra Leonian Muslims maintain a variety of community ties based on both religious and ethnic backgrounds. One of the most important aspects of the Sierra Leonian community in Washington D.C. is its ability to “relocate themselves through expressive representations of homeland. These expressions form the boundaries . . . [that] provide a means by which people recognize the identities, places, and realities that separate them from the perceived American Other” (42). However, that is not to say that these identities remain separate from one another. Rather, their recollections of their homeland and their traditional ways of practicing Islam influence the way in which they perceive the multi-ethnic Islamic community in which they live.

The rich ethnic diversity of Washington D.C. provides Sierra Leonian Muslims with a unique opportunity to experience the varied nature of Islamic practice in the United States. Like the Islamic Centers in Chicago’s inner city Muslim communities, the Islamic Center in Washington D.C. acts as a meeting place for a variety of Muslims in its quest to create a more universal form of Islam. Completed in 1957, the Islamic center in Washington D.C. “represents the breadth of the Islamic world . . . [and] the congregation reflects sectarian as well as cultural and national diversity” (62). Even traditional Friday afternoon prayers at the Islamic Center give Sierra Leonian Muslims an opportunity to interact with Muslims from diverse ethnic backgrounds (58). Faced with the sheer variety of Islamic practice at the center, many Sierra Leonian Muslims have begun to reconsider more traditional indigenous forms of Islam.  

While many Muslim immigrants have benefited from increased educational opportunities in their homelands, gaining a greater understanding of their faith in the process, Sierra Leonian Muslims feel that their grasp of Islam is inadequate. Given this sentiment, their limited religious knowledge is “central to why and how these Sierra Leonians continually redefine themselves as Muslims” (65). Contact with a multi-ethnic Muslim community has caused many individuals to rethink their own distinctive form of Islam and they “strive to redefine their own Muslim identity in relation to an imagined dominant ‘other’” (64-5). Given what they feel is their inferior status, Muslim immigrants from Sierra Leon living in an urban center like Washington D.C. take ideas from other Muslim groups, while also making a distinction between themselves and other ethnic groups, such as the South East Asian and Arab Muslims who also gather at the Islamic Center. Rather than allow ethnicity to limit their understanding of Islam, Sierra Leoinan Muslims emphasize the importance of learning how to practice Islam correctly regardless of ethnic differences. In her study on Sierra Leonian Muslims, D’Alisera argues that “in the case of many Sierra Leonian Muslim . . . an idealized Islam rooted in part in the metanarrative of global Islam, one that often conflicts with indigenous customs and practices ‘back home’ transcends location” (10). As with growing numbers of Muslims in Chicago, many Sierra Leonian Muslims view the tenets of Islam as universal.

Unlike immigrant groups of the past, many Muslims immigrants not only embrace their religious identity, they also openly resist societal pressures to assimilate into American culture. Three main factors contribute to the revitalization of Islam in Muslims communities across the United States. Among these factors, the increasing number of middle class Muslims migrating to the United States has had the greatest impact on the Muslim community at large. As with other ethnic and religious immigrant groups since 1965, recent Muslim migrants are unusual in the history of American immigration for the unprecedented number of professionals who are migrating to the United States in search of upper level positions in academic and professional fields. The flexibility inherent in these upper level jobs gives Muslim immigrants the freedom to practice Islam without fear of compromising their economic security. These upper class Muslim immigrants “use their socioeconomic status to preserve their Islamic heritage and thereby choose to remain on the cultural margins of society” (Goldwasser 312).

Nevertheless, greater economic security alone cannot completely account for the revitalization of Islam throughout the world. Rather, the secularization of many Muslim countries beginning in the early 20th century and reaching its peak in the fifties and sixties in conjunction with greater educational opportunities contributed to the revitalization of Islam. Increased education resulted in a greater interest in Islam, while the failure of the nation state to fulfill its promises in countries like Egypt caused many Muslims to look back to their religion for a solution to their problems. More recent Muslim immigrants, therefore, were already more devout than their earlier counterparts, while their higher socioeconomic status gave them the freedom to practice their religion. The flexible nature of Islam, with no church hierarchy, allowed immigrants to form their own universal form of Islam that transcends ethnic differences and traditions. Although Muslim immigrants, like immigrants of the past, could choose to identify with an ethnicity rather religion, many Muslim immigrants today seek to form a community based on shared religious ideals rather than ethnic identity.

Works Consulted
Brown, Carl. Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 


D’Alisera, Jo Ann. An Imagined Geography: Sierra Leonian Muslims in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Goldwasser, Elise. “Economic Security and Muslim Identity: A Study of the Immigrant Community in Durham, North Carolina.” Muslims on the Americanization Path. Ed. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and John Esposito. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck and Adair Lummis. Islamic Values in the United States: A Comparative Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Husain, Asad and Harold Vogelaar. “Activities of the Immigrant Muslim Communities in Chicago.” Muslim Communities in North America. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Mazrui, Ali. A. “Muslims between the Jewish Example and the Black Experience: American Policy Implications.” Muslims’ Place in the American Public Square: Hopes Fears and Aspirations. Eds. Zahid Bukhari et al. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2004.

Schmidt, Garbi. Islam in Urban America: Sunni Muslims in Chicago. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.

“The Complexity of Belonging: Sunni Muslim Immigrants in Chicago" Muslim Minorities in the West. Ed. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Jane I. Smith. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2002.

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Student spotlight: an essay by Jamie Poulin