It is no secret that Islam and Muslims remain largely misunderstood in the West, including the United States. This is baffling considering that one study after another reveals that American Muslims are largely integrated on a number of levels in American life.
We are more affluent than the average American, more educated, and more likely to enjoy successful professional careers. Mayor Daley has a running joke, “who’s your doctor,” a reference to the large number of American Muslims in the medical profession. We enjoy a growing number of lawyers, teachers, and academics. As students, we are highly represented on college campuses, among the highest representations in fact.
We are socially integrated: we live in urban and suburban neighborhoods, in poor, middle class, and wealthy areas. We are the nation’s most racially diverse faith demographic: Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians, Arabs can be found praying side by side under the same masjid roof. In short, we are hardly the picture of the disenfranchised or ghettoized group that some Muslim communities happen to be in parts of Western Europe.
So what gives?
Well despite the above, there remain two virgin areas that are crucial to our full integration and in which we are still largely viewed as foreign objects.
The first is somewhat obvious: we remain politically marginalized. The recent election of the first two Muslims to Congress, U.S. Representatives Keith Ellison and Andre Carson, undoubtedly represents a major milestone towards the reversal of this long-standing reality. The recent appointment of three Muslim advisors to President Obama represents another.
But other indicators have not been so promising. American Muslims are generally deemed as caustic by both Republican and Democratic campaigns come election time. Incidents like the Mazen Asbahi affair coupled with the overall poor access American Muslims and their institutions have to the Washington hallways of power and influence is a sobering reality that there is still a long way to go.
The second front is less obvious, though arguably more crucial to our full and healthy integration into the consciousness of America, and that is pop culture. Let’s face it, Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Cosby single-handedly did more for the image of Jews and Blacks in the minds of average Americans than say Abe Foxman or Jesse Jackson. The same goes for the likes of Oprah, Denzel Washington, Larry King, Woody Allen, Maya Angelou, Isaac Asimov and scores of others. The fact is: most Americans are not swayed by special-interest groups as they are by familiar faces and voices that make a welcome entry into their daily lives, bringing them fun and food for thought In the process.
We cannot continue to horde our children into medical, engineering and law schools if they exhibit a burning desire – and requisite talent – to pursue the arts. After all, American Muslims as a group will only retire the label of the “other” when we start producing the next great American novelists, columnists, filmmakers, TV personalities, artists, comedians, etc. There is good news.
The first phase of this movement has begun thanks to a vanguard of risk-taking pioneers. While Muslims have enjoyed a level of prominence in Hip Hop and various sports, we have recently witnessed a Muslim debut into a host of other cultural fields. Comedians like Azhar Usman, Maz Jobrani, and Dean Obeidallah have broken into the mainstream and challenged misconceptions along the way as only they could. More Muslims are emerging as mainstream columnists, authors, media commentators, documentarians, and filmmakers. relatively scarce cultural contributions relative to our affluence and integration can be primarily attributed to taboos long held by Muslim parents and educators vis-à-vis the arts.
My hope is that more parents consider the example of Mr. and Mrs. Bagewadi. They recognized in their son, Zeshan, a God-given talent for singing and writing music. They followed their astute observation with an admirable determination to afford their son the professional training he deserves. A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to witness the culmination of many years of their investment in Zeshan as he showcased a beautiful and meaningful form of music and singing in his senior recital at Northwestern University. Zeshan wowed the packed auditorium with his Ghazal in Urdu and Opera in French, Spanish, Italian, and German. I have no doubt in my mind that Zeshan will evolve into a global name in a matter of a few years, and with him a boost to the image of Muslims.
So there you have it, the two beckoning frontiers of tomorrow: political enfranchisement and cultural contribution.
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