The past decade has seen a steady rise in civic and political engagement within the Muslim American community. The attacks on September 11, 2001, served as a wake-up call for many Muslims to understand and engage on the topic of civil rights and civil liberties, as infringements on both intensified.
I remember the time after 9/11, when so much fear existed in my community about possible backlash against it. Instead, I found an opportunity to get ahead of the obvious rise in questions and curiosity about Islam and Muslims. This led me to churches, libraries, and a host of venues where hundreds of people came to learn that their Muslim neighbors were as American as they were. They shared the same concerns as other parents, students, workers, and people who were worried about the economy, health care, their children’s education, and what the future held. While many of the conversations from that time were so healthy, honest, and healing, there was a lot of work to be done, especially when government policies and suspicions among many people seemed to insist that Muslims were a problem.
“THE ATTACKS ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, SERVED AS A WAKE-UP CALL FOR MANY MUSLIMS TO UNDERSTAND AND ENGAGE ON THE TOPIC OF CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES, AS INFRINGEMENTS ON BOTH INTENSIFIED."
As the community felt that it was being viewed as a security risk, Muslim Americans studied and explored America’s vibrant history of taking on causes that combat discrimination and bigotry. Although initially sparked by a sense of self-preservation, Muslim Americans felt their new reality was a much needed push into several contemporary debates, even those that did not immediately impact their own community.
In the years following the 9/11 attacks, Muslim Americans have faced increased discrimination and negative public perception occurring in civil society as well as within the political arena. Several states have attempted to pass legislation that targets Muslim communities under the guise of preventing the official recognition of Islamic sharia law. Despite being unconstitutional as a violation of the free exercise of religion, many legislators remained undeterred in making the effort. But those same politicians also appeared to draft bills that adversely impacted other Americans on the basis of race (voting rights), ethnic communities (anti-immigration), women (reproductive rights), and sexual orientation (anti-LGBTQ).
Many Muslim Americans inferred that such a comprehensive legislative agenda meant that they were not alone as a marginalized and targeted community. This agenda led some not only to empathize with other affected communities but to also seek to build coalitions under the premise that there is strength in numbers, particularly given the relatively small size of the Muslim population in America.
According to the 2020 US Religion Census, roughly 4.45 million Muslims live in America, or slightly under 1.5 percent of the total population. Coalition building helps explain the high visibility of Muslims in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, but it also created connections of issues; for example, when BLM and Palestinian Solidarity events merged.
"WHILE MANY OF THE CONVERSATIONS FROM THAT TIME WERE SO HEALTHY, HONEST, AND HEALING, THERE WAS A LOT OF WORK TO BE DONE, ESPECIALLY WHEN GOVERNMENT POLICIES AND SUSPICIONS AMONG MANY PEOPLE SEEMED TO INSIST THAT MUSLIMS WERE A PROBLEM."
When the Trump Administration enacted the so-called Muslim travel ban, many groups for whom Muslims had given their support returned the favor by joining demonstrations and lawsuits that challenged the executive order that banned entry to the US from a host of Muslim-majority nations.
Of course, debates exist within the Muslim American community as to whether coalition building has its limits. This has been particularly pronounced on the matter of LGBTQ rights. Islam, like most religions, labels homosexuality as a major sin. At the same time, confusion exists, as with other faith communities, about sexual orientation as an identity category and whether the mere self-identification with a certain sexual affinity is acceptable within the public sphere.
After the 2015 US Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges, which permitted same-sex marriage, many Muslim Americans objected to the decision and regarded it to be against their religious sensitivities. This opposition has intensified in some quarters over the past eight years, especially due to concerns that new laws that expand LGBTQ rights might infringe on Muslim communities and particularly Muslim entities like mosques and Islamic schools.
"WHEN THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION ENACTED THE SO-CALLED MUSLIM TRAVEL BAN, MANY GROUPS FOR WHOM MUSLIMS HAD GIVEN THEIR SUPPORT RETURNED THE FAVOR BY JOINING DEMONSTRATIONS AND LAWSUITS THAT CHALLENGED THE EXECUTIVE ORDER THAT BANNED ENTRY TO THE US FROM A HOST OF MUSLIM-MAJORITY NATIONS."
In addition, the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court decision that overturned 1973’s landmark Roe v. Wade abortion case has been conflicting for many Muslim Americans, as Islamic law, while discouraging abortion, nonetheless is far more permissive than the restrictions that Dobbs and a host of state laws have imposed. The more conservative members of the community have accepted the limitations even when they restrict what their religious tradition allows, while those who prefer to self-regulate within a broader, deferential legal framework have been disturbed both by the judicial landscape as well as the fundamentalist people in their own community. Many among the latter have sought alliances with like-minded advocates for greater reproductive rights, in part because of their belief that progressive causes are compatible with their Islamic values and also because they see current restrictions as being violations on their religious freedom.
The balancing act between social conservatism and supporting progressive causes is a phenomenon hardly unique to the Muslim community in the United States. Despite its relatively small size, the community has embraced that quintessentially American spirit of activism and civic engagement while showing its own internal diversity. Far from being a monolith, the Muslim community shows that it is one among many faith groups that navigates its own religious and social imperatives with sincerity in caution, care, and compassion.
Saeed Khan is associate professor of teaching in Near East and Asian Studies and Global Studies at Wayne State University–Detroit, where he is also a research fellow in their Center for Study of Citizenship. Khan has contributed to media agencies such as Al Jazeera, C-Span, NPR, Voice of America, and the National Press Club. He serves as a consultant on Islamic and Middle East affairs for the BBC and the CBC. Khan founded the Center for the Study of Trans-Atlantic Diasporas, a policy center examining ethnic immigrant groups in North America and Europe. He is also the host of the Deadline Detroit podcast The Week That Was.