It Wasn’t Meant To Go This Way

The above seven words say so much about the state of Islam in the world today. More immediately, they describe a despondent viewpoint of Muslims in Switzerland, who, after having high hopes that the Swiss would embrace them as one of their own, had that hope dashed on the rocks in a vote of 57% majority against the construction of minarets in their country. As many have felt, this vote had more to do with the rejection of Islam as a valid religious expression in Switzerland than anything to do with architecture. And while I empathize with the Muslims in Switzerland, I also find this moment highly prophetic. In many ways, I see the issues that European Muslims face a presage to the reality that Muslims in America will face if we do not act while we still have agency to do so. I do not want our children to utter those same seven words.

In order to take stock and lesson from this major roadblock for Muslims in Europe [the ramifications stretch far beyond the borders of Switzerland – just ask any of the Muslims in France as to how they’re reacting to it] the first step will be to analyze what the hardships were/are [and thus, what they may be/are for American Muslims] for Swiss Muslims and what they might have done differently [what might we do/not do]. Some of my first thoughts drift towards what inroads did Swiss Muslims make, in their efforts to navigate Islam in the Swiss cultural and social landscape. Did they attempt to broker an accord that would have allowed them to see themselves as validly Muslim [as well as the Swiss seeing them as validly Swiss] and Swiss? Pre-9/11, did this discourse did not seem to occupy European or American Muslim imaginations to any great extent. To be fair, this process is not wholly in the hands of Swiss Muslims. The Swiss themselves play a key part in for who they open their cultural doors to or not. And yet, I feel there is a self-applied stigma amongst the Muslims that being Swiss or European is somehow innately un-Islamic. This mentality relegates Swiss Muslims to the fringe – often to live a xenophobic experience – where they are incapable of playing any important role in society. The specificities of this argument at too numerous to delve into here but the proofs are readily accessible for anyone wishes to read deeper.

In this inquiry on inroads, we have to ask how are such inroads made and who paves them. Who is best skilled for such a job? In a conversation I had with a brother the other day, he lamented that as a father, he failed to inculcate his children with the tools, agency, and autonomy to navigate their lives as second generation Muslims in America. As a result, his children have grown up not only not practicing Islam, but having an aversion to it. They perceive it as a foreign enterprise or country club, where their membership was either denied or not offered in the first place. Similarly, many young Muslims in Europe have bemoaned that they do not feel a close kinship with their religion because the method in which it is preached and propagated leaves them feeling like second-class citizens. The old guard speaks Arabic or Turkish or Urdu while the new generation speaks French or German, or English. A classic generational divide that has real consequences for the survival of Muslims in Europe.

I believe there is a tremendous lesson to take from this; a lesson not simply to catalog and file away, but to use a call to action for Muslims in America. In a private conversation, one of the top Muslims scholars in America estimated that Islam in America has at most, fifty years, perhaps less, to indigenize and find its footing before it is washed away by the tide of the demands of the dominant culture. Looking towards the European model, those words certainly seem to ring true.  Islam in Europe is a a teetering point – will it stay or go? We can see that if the very difficult challenge of making Islam valid and relevant in its environment – be it America, Europe, or anywhere else, is not met, European Muslims cannot hope for any longevity in their predicament.

The title of this post is a quote from a recent article by Tariq Ramadan, one of Europe’s most popular scholars on Islam. In his article, he continues the conversation and states that Switzerland is, “the land of my birth”. And while Ramadan may identify as Swiss, how many of his other co-religionists in Switzerland identify in the same manner? For that matter, in Europe as a whole? This crux of identification is one of the most important dilemmas that Muslims the world over have to contend with in modernity. This is something that both American and European Muslims are having tremendous difficulty articulating. I see this as especially pertinent to American Muslims, where indigenous Muslims struggle to see themselves as legitimately Muslim in the face of foreign-born expressions of Islam, and immigrant Muslims scramble to appease the dominant culture without loosing their religion. Will American Muslims cooperate to find a middle ground or will they continue to play high-stakes winner-take-all chances?

Going back to Ramadan’s article, he sites some of the issues being related to the invisibility of Muslims in Swiss society [read Europe for the purposes of this article]. I would challenge this observation in that it is not simply the invisibility of Swiss Muslims but rather the Swiss may not like what they see. Again, I acknowledge that this decision is not wholly in the hands of Swiss Muslims but it does beg the question of how non-Muslim Swiss see Swiss Muslims and how that can be analyzed for the betterment of Muslims in Switzerland. It would be grievous, not to mention complete dereliction of duty, to conclude that what the dominant culture thinks of Muslims is frivolous or inconsequential. The challenge is to meet this test with a creativity and intelligence that has the dignity and longevity of Muslims as its chief and primary concern, not simply blaming the European [read American as well] populists as failing to, “assert that Islam is by now a Swiss and a European religion and that Muslim citizens are largely ‘integrated’.

I pray we can learn from this, that we can take the opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing and how good we have it. And believe me, we have it good compared to our European cousins. May God make it easy for all of us. Amin.