Is Being Muslim and Being American Incompatible?

Is being Muslim and being American exclusive of each other?

“The question itself is absurd,” said Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law and Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at ​Emory University. “Islam’ is a religion; ‘American’ is a political identity.”

An-Na’im addressed the topic, “What is an American Muslim?”, before an audience of more than 80 Franklin & Marshall College students, faculty and Lancaster community members on Sept. 21 in Stager Hall’s Stahr Auditorium.

An-Na`im’s lecture is the second event in F&M’s “Africa Worldwide” series, a yearlong examination of cultural difference, social justice, and global interdependence spearheaded by the Africana Studies Program. 

  • “Americanness is a shared resource, a shared identity, indicating primarily citizenship,” An-Na`im said. “My being Muslim has nothing to do with my being American.” Image Credit: Deb Grove

It’s important to consider “what” rather than “who” is an American Muslim, An-Na`im argued. In his view, anyone who identifies as Muslim is Muslim. That is the nature of Islamic faith and belief, such that every human being can have a personal understanding and expression of their religion.

This stance is central to An-Na`im’s view on the secular state. Although modern rhetoric has painted secularism as aggressively negative and anti-religious, he calls for a reclaiming of secularism as neutrality toward religious doctrine. This makes it possible to preserve religious belief for the people of the state. A secular state, An-Na`im explained, allows everyone to be the Muslim they want to be. If the ruling body dictates belief, then it is not a choice to believe. And if it is not a choice, it is not belief after all.

With this political view in mind, An-Na`im addressed the crowd as his fellow Americans.

“Americanness is a shared resource, a shared identity, indicating primarily citizenship,” he said. “My being Muslim has nothing to do with my being American.”

The tension remains, however, for Muslims in America to prove their patriotism because of these too-often-called conflicts of identity. They must frequently negotiate which parts of their identity should be shown, and which parts should be hidden, in daily life.

The title of An-Na`im’s latest book, “What is An American Muslim? Embracing Faith and Citizenship,” confronts this tension directly. He said it is possible to equally embrace religion and nationality.

“No identities are mutually exclusive, especially not a Muslim and an American,” An-Na`im said before taking questions.

E Marcovitz, a first-year student who just completed a gap-year in Israel, found An-Na’im’s lecture stimulating.

“There were many parallels in Dr. An-Na`im’s talk to conversations I’ve had in the past year abroad,” Marcovitz said. “I think that any religious or cultural identity could have been described tonight in similar ways. I would love to see even more dialogue about identities on our campus.”

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