Islam in America: The Stories We Don’t Hear
Madison Stuart ’17 reflects on her experiences during the CentreTerm course “Islam in America,” taught by Assistant Professor of Religion Matthew Pierce, which involved a 10-day road trip across the United States, meeting with Muslim leaders, scholars, activists, politicians and artists in Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
At the start of January, as several inches of snow dusted the campus and friends began posting pictures of warm adventures in Thailand and Israel and Ghana, I found myself seriously regretting not spending my senior CentreTerm abroad. However, after returning from what seemed like a month-long trip, I believe I could not have had a more enriching—or timely—CentreTerm experience.
I have had the opportunity to study abroad twice while at Centre, but the Islam in America course encouraged a different kind of global citizenship, one that hits much closer to home. Our class engaged firsthand with educated, patriotic, peaceful Muslims, reminding me how important it is to absorb the stories of those who might otherwise remain unheard in America today. In this way, it seems that the stories we don’t hear—about Muslim state representatives, high school principals, lawyers—shape our understanding just as much as the stories we do hear.
Throughout the trip, I was amazed by the rich diversity of Islam in America. In Herndon, Va., right outside our nation’s capital, the International Institute of Islamic Thought introduced us to their mission of reviving and reforming Islam within a progressive, modern context. In Senator Mitch McConnell’s office in the Capitol Building, staff member Moon Yousif Sulfab emphasized that the foundations of Islam and American conservatism are united in their strong connections to the past and tradition.
We met Sufi Muslims who viewed Islam as more of an introspective and personal spiritual experience, and Sunni Muslims who viewed Islam as a more community-oriented social religion at the core. Many highlighted the backlash of Islamophobia that occurred after 9/11, yet others fondly recalled the outpouring of support they received from their communities after the attacks.
These are just a few examples of the depth and complexity of our meetings, each of which shed light on the human experience of Muslims in America. The Pew Research Center in D.C. translated this complexity into more concrete terms. Besheer Mohamed, a senior researcher at Pew, presented data from a 2016 poll showing that 39 percent of Americans said “about half” of American Muslims were anti-American. This illustrates what our class identified as a missing link in the understanding many have of American identity: the assumption that one’s Muslim identity is somehow at odds with it.
However, Pew’s data also shows that Americans who personally know a Muslim are significantly less likely to feel that Muslims are anti-American. Everywhere our class went, we were welcomed with open arms, and more than that, our questions were welcomed—from the most basic questions about Islam to more theoretical and personal queries about the intersection of Muslim/American identity. In several of our meetings we discussed the “aha” moment that occurs for non-Muslims when conversing face-to-face, watching a basketball game, enjoying a meal or playing music alongside a Muslim person: the sudden realization that they are just like me.
For me, one of the most powerful reversals of perspective came from Hanadi Doleh, program director for the Park51 Islamic Community center, more controversially known as the “Ground Zero mosque” project. Ms. Doleh, a Brooklyn native, responded to those who criticized the location in New York City: “Why not here? This is the place where my faith was hijacked.”
Undoubtedly, my experience was uncomfortable at times; when observing prayers in a new mosque or asking questions about sensitive topics. But I feel that this discomfort is an essential part of growth, a critical step in reaching that empathetic epiphany. I hope to translate my experience of Islam in America into action by continuing to ask questions, accept difference and appreciate the multifaceted and rich nature of American identity.
by Madison Stuart ’17
February 14, 2017
Photos contributed by Assistant Professor of Religion Christian Haskett and Griffin Mason ’18