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Isolation to IntegrationSome months back, at the ISNA/MSA convention at the Washington DC Convention Center on July 4, Yasir Qadhi, Dean of Academic Affairs at AlMaghrib Institute, Dalia Mogahed, Senior Analyst and Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, who also serves on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and Hatem Bazian, a professor and lecturer from California, gathered in a mostly empty room to give a breathtakingly open and refreshing discussion on their shared vision of the role, identity, and place of American Muslims in this land.

Dalia Mogahed opened the discussion by quoting some of the research findings of a Gallup survey, Muslim Americans Exemplify Diversity, Potential:

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* Muslim Americans are the most racially/ethnically diverse religious group in the United States. They are the only religious group to have no clear racial majority, with African Americans at 34% comprising the largest racial group.

* Muslim American women are one of the most highly educated female religious groups in the United States, second only to Jewish American women. Muslims are the only religious group that have a higher percentage of women with post-secondary degrees than men.

This is perhaps not unsurprising considering many young Muslim men harbor dreams of going overseas to study, always hoping Madinah will raise the entrance age limit, until the majority realize that the responsibilities of setting up a household and caring for a wife and children will take money, which is often easier to obtain with a solid degree from an institution of higher learning.

* About 80% of Muslims Americans say religion is an important part of their daily lives; only the Mormons have a higher percentage, around 85%.

Dalia Mogahed mentioned this fact in another context, as a reason why groups that wish to gain validity in the Muslim community resort to appeals to religious sensibilities in order to justify their actions.

* About 41% of Muslim Americans and Protestants say they attend religious services at least once a week, which is second only to the Mormons.

* By contrast, Muslim American youth (18-29) show the least level of civic participation amongst all of the religious groups, in that only 51% are registered to vote.

This past October, Yasir Qadhi and Dalia Mogahed once again shared the stage at AlMaghrib Institute’s IlmFest conference and reminded the audience that a message of social service and helping others is built into the fabric of our deen and is a recurring theme that permeates the early Makkan surahs in the Quran.

* Only 41% percent of Muslim youth (18-29) in the U.S. are considered to be “thriving” in relation to their current lives and life expectations for the next five years, which is the lowest percentage among all of the religious groups surveyed.

You can read the full report here: Muslim-West Facts Mission

Dalia Mogahed continued by saying that Muslim youth in the 18-29 age bracket have come of age in a post 9/11 environment, in which, for the last eight years, Muslims have been telling people “who we are not, rather than who we are” so it is no wonder Muslim youth are the group least likely to be considered or consider themselves to be “thriving” in America. Add to that the confusing messages coming from various spheres in the Muslim world telling us that Muslims should not live in western secular countries, or forcing us to justify our existence in, for many of us, the lands of our birth, justifying murder in name of some perverted “jihad”, telling us that to engage in society by voting or going into certain professions like law is akin to “kufr” and the list is numerous. Not to mention the esoteric discussions of aqeedah and emphasis on outward clothing styles largely ignoring the more pressing issues of lack of iman, laxity in performing salah, poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and substance abuse.

Mogahed mentioned that we as American Muslims need a three-fold paradigm shift in our discussions. First, to reframe the discussion away from Muslim Americans as being a “dangerous and malignant tumor” as many hostile commentators believe or the “benign tumor” that is inadvertently used as a defense by some friendlier voices. Our Muslim American community is not a tumor, neither benign nor malignant, we are citizens and an organic, vital, and integral part of the American landscape, that is here to stay and contribute our energy and talents to the wider society.

The other two false dichotomies, which Mogahed believes should be dropped by American Muslims are the immigrant/indigenous Muslim dichotomy and the domestic/global issue dichotomy, recognizing that “we are all American Muslims” and that the issues that are important and central to one segment of our community can and should be recognized as community issues. So that dawah to non-Muslims is not just an issue for converts, nor is the issue of flooding in Bangladesh, solely an issue for Bengalis, nor is the scourge of malaria, an issue only for sub-Saharan Africans.

Dalia Mogahed believes that coupled with the three-fold paradigm shift there should also be a behavioral shift. This shift in behavior can be manifested by Muslim participation in community service projects. Muslim Americans are the least likely to vote and the least likely to volunteer their time on a weekly basis for community service. To that end, Mogahed exerted the audience to “answer the call, the president’s call, the call of those in need, and the call of God” in serving our communities, through the United We Serve initiative to encourage Americans to engage in community service.

It was Mogahed’s hope that by the end of this past summer, by September 11, 2009, that there would be at least 1000 interfaith community service projects registered by Muslims as a catalyst for larger change and as a sign to the wider American community that their Muslim American neighbors are here to stay, need not be feared, and are vital contributing members of society. Research has demonstrated that when individuals know and interact with Muslims in their daily lives that negative impressions and feelings of bias decrease towards the community as a whole.

At IlmFest, Dalia gave an update on the final results of the United We Serve initiative. Out of 3003 multi-faith projects submitted by the entire council, 2279 of those were Muslim-led projects. Some of the other faiths groups, which are used to planning their schedules years in advance and have strong national hierarchical organizations, were not able to respond effectively within such a short time frame.

The ISNA/MSA convention was my first time listening to Dalia Mogahed and I was very impressed and motivated by her public speaking style. Her voice was strong, steady, and clear. It is rare to see a Muslim woman in proper hijab given such a prominent platform to speak particularly when many of the more conservative sections of our community are still debating whether or not a woman’s voice is awrah and women’s voices are barely audible if at all in many of our masajid and in the media that loves to give airtime to Muslim women that reflect a more liberal, usually hijab-less sensibility.

I think it is important for our western Muslim communities to give our sisters a platform to speak in our masajid and organizations and not pretend as though men can adequately address the concerns of women by simply asking their wives for their opinions. To that effect, I was impressed that at this past summer’s Ilm Summit, that both brothers and sisters were given the opportunity to give the evening wild card presentations and the after dhuhr and isha inspirational speeches to the entire student body. By the time, I attempted to sign up, all of the slots had been filled, which is good motivation for me to prepare and sign-up early if given the opportunity again.

I also think it’s time for our communities, particularly western communities, to have an honest discussion and healthy debate about these issues because clearly as the polling by Gallup and recent events demonstrate, our youth are confused about their religion and their Islamic and western identities. How is it that men that have had many female teachers, attended schools with both men and women, work in environments with both men and women, and shop at stores with male and female sales associates cannot be mature enough to listen to a woman in proper hijab give a talk to a diverse audience, or shudder that women be given equitable seating in a lecture hall or masjid? How is it that young men (admittedly a very small number) leave their families lured by the seductive attraction of jihadi groups in order to chase a fantasy, which more often than not lands them in jail during what should be their most productive years?

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