May 3, 2011Dalkayaga@gmail.com
One group of Americans has special reason to cheer the news of Osama bin Laden's death: Muslim-Americans.
Before the horrific attacks of 9/11, most Muslims in this country were known to their neighbors primarily as parents, neighbors, co- workers and students. But in the years since then, Muslim-Americans have felt increasingly marginalized, disenfranchised and trapped. The events of 9/11 forced on them an identity that took precedence over their other identities. They became Muslims first and Americans second, with many of their fellow Americans viewing them apprehensively.
In other words, one of bin Laden's ugliest legacies was to cause Muslim-Americans, who number in the millions and overwhelmingly share the same dreams and loyalties as their neighbors, to see their identities as Americans threatened by their religion.
The situation has been particularly difficult over the past decade for second-generation Muslim-American youth. Many of them have grown up in this country immersed in popular American culture yet surrounded by suspicions that their faith rendered them somehow un-American. In response, some of these alienated young people developed romanticized ideas of the homelands their families left behind. In a very few cases, they returned to Pakistan, Somalia or other troubled regions to join the terrorists.
As someone who has carried out extensive research on the Muslim- American community, I hope the death of Osama bin Laden will help restore the ties that bound it so tightly to the rest of American society before 9/11. By all accounts, Muslim Americans then were prospering and well integrated. They were -- and remain -- highly educated, politically conscious and fluent in English. On average, they share similar socioeconomic characteristics with other Americans, with one in four earning $75,000 or more annually and holding at least a bachelor's degree.
Not all Muslims share these average traits. Just as with other American communities, there is considerable diversity among them. Some Muslim-Americans live in poverty with poor English language skills and few resources to improve their situation. Some are politically active, although most are not. Some attend a mosque on a weekly basis and pray every day, while others don't engage in either practice. Even among those who are most devout, sharp distinctions exist between those considered "good Muslims" and the much smaller numbers who might fairly be called Islamic extremists.
Many U.S. Muslims emigrated from countries in the Middle East that are now targeted in the war on terror. But we cannot make generalizations about whether they came here to pursue their religion and politics more freely, or to not be religious at all. They are no more monolithic than Christians who emigrated to the United States from Europe and are now Episcopalians, Methodists, Catholics or fundamentalists, or perhaps atheists or converts to some other religion. Monolithic Islam does not exist here.
While the flames in bin Laden's Pakistani compound are still warm, we should extend our celebration to include a commitment to renew our common identity as Americans. The mass murderer who died this week never spoke for Muslim-Americans, too many of whom have nonetheless been forced to live in his shadow for something they didn't want or believe in. It is past time for them to join their fellow citizens in the sunlight as full members of the American community.
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