Saturday, April 21, 2007

Dearborn: Promise & challenge for Islam in America

Written by Dawud Walid

Although Dearborn, Michigan, the epicenter of Arab culture in America, contains much promise in regards to its expressing and shaping the image of Islam in Michigan and America at large, its predominant ethnocentric face, which overshadows its Islamic character, is a major challenge that must be addressed in a delicate manner.

Due to immigration primarily resulting from the Lebanese Civil War and Operation Desert Storm as well as the renewal of Shi'i identity from the Iranian Revolution, Dearborn's Islamic community has not only grown in sheer numbers but has also seen a marked increase in youth and young adult participation within the Islamic centers. Moreover, the growth of Islamic centers from four to thirteen in the Dearborn area over the span of two decades is further proof that Dearborn's Islamic face has grown from a small patch in a large quilt to a large, essential portion of the quilt.

With these promising developments of increased visibility of Muslims and the growth of youth activism, there are, as with other communities, problematic areas that need to be addressed. Just as there is promise for the community's future, there are real inward threats to its longevity and progression.

Problems and solutions

For starters, many within the community have confused their ethnic identity of being Arab with their Islamic identity. This is the double-edged sword of having a community that primarily connects or equates their ethnicity or culture with being a "good Muslim," which other communities in Metro Detroit have done in the past including Turks and Albanians. Obviously, the activity of the Turks and Albanians within the Metro Detroit Muslim community is so miniscule that one who is not familiar with history would find it hard to fathom that there were significant numbers of Muslims here within these demographics.

Referring back to the Arab nationalistic mentality, which is a modern holdover of the days of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, it is not only a barrier for many in applying themselves to actually learning the basis of Islamic theology and practices, but it is also a barrier in regards to strengthening the bonds with on-Arab Muslims to a degree as well as promoting Islam and working on social justice issues with non-Muslims. When the community's primary focus is the Arab world, it further perpetuates the notion by many non-Arab Muslims that Arabs favor a form of Islam that is chauvinist, as previously observed by Bani Umayyah and that other areas of the Muslim world and even the affairs within American society are inferior concerns, secondary at best. This is not to say, however, that one's culture should be neglected either.

The major point is that others' perceptions in regards to this mentality actually alienates others from forming partnerships with the community and turns off those who are interested in Islam and still hold their own ethnic culture in healthy esteem. This is because many within Dearborn have little interaction with Muslims outside of Dearborn that are non-Arab and they are content to stay in their Dearborn cocoon because most of their needs are met within it. This outlook towards the world is unknown to many within Dearborn, which is also another symptom of the problem itself.

At a rudimentary level, the outward perception for many is that the majority of the community emphasis is either skewed or it has a fundamental lack of Islamic knowledge, not in rote rituals and observance of holidays, but in the deeper understanding of the objectives of Islam and its application. Hence the key to fixing this problem or perception, even if it is a fallacious one, is Islamic education.

Dearborn Muslims must invest more money and time into supporting Islamic education, which includes investing significant funding to cultivating home-grown, qualified Islamic instructors. Qualified instructors are needed in not only disseminating knowledge from classical texts but also in teaching the community within the scope of applying this knowledge based upon cultural literacy of the American society. With the majority of Muslims in Dearborn having the "cultural Muslim" mind and racing towards materialism, the community leadership's first priority must be establishing a full-time Islamic high school and creating better marketing plans to attract the youth to learning about Islam.

With Islamic education and an adjustment of priorities, Dearborn's Islamic potential is vast. Once the majority begins to see itself as a spiritual body firstly, then an ethnic body with material needs secondly, all other challenges can be approached in a sounder way, producing better results for the community and Islam as a whole in America.

And surely Allah (SWT) knows best.

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