DePaul prof: 'American Islam' is a difficult idea

by Tracy Landers | 5/6/02 5:00am

Professor Aminah B. McCloud, an Islamic legal expert from DePaul University in Chicago, opened Islamic Awareness Week last Friday evening with a sparsely attended but controversial speech about the relationship between Islam and the United States in the post-Sept. 11 era.

McCloud's honesty about the difficulties of creating an "American Islam" left little room for an optimistic vision of the future. Nevertheless, her deep knowledge of Islam, as a Fulbright Scholar, author of more than 20 articles on Islam and believer since her undergraduate career in the '60s, provided insight on a difficult topic.

She began by praising Dartmouth's efforts to create an environment in which Muslim students could practice an authentic version of their religious faith. Despite the much larger size of DePaul, she said they have nothing like the Pavilion dining hall.

Initially outlining the 400-year-old history of Islam in America, McCloud went on to discuss the multiculturalism that exists in today's growing Muslim population. While she said that all Muslims share a core set of disciplines and beliefs, she emphasized the diversity of Islamic people who co-exist in the United States. She used the example of Inuit Muslims to illustrate her point.

"Inuit Muslims in Anchorage, after 9/11, are combining old history with new events." These Alaskan Muslims do not see a difference between discrimination after Sept. 11 and the history of oppression on native peoples by the American government, McCloud said.

She said that the interests of this particular group of Muslims is different from those of Japanese or Middle Eastern Muslims, which explains why "everyone's gotten back into their ethnic corners."

Another barrier to the creation of an American Islam, according to McCloud, is the cultural gap between first-generation "old" Muslims and "new" Muslims who have begun to appropriate American ideals such as individualism.

"Individualism is certainly at odds with Islam, where the unity lies in the family," McCloud said. She said that the first sign of an Islamic family's shift toward cultural appropriation was sending their children away to college, a practice that does not happen in "old" Muslim households.

To solve these difficult problems, McCloud said, "there is going to have to emerge an Islam that looks like the Koran. Things have to go back to being in the categories to which they belong."

McCloud has devoted her life to the search for this unifying new type of Islam based on religious texts rather than culture or dogma.

"Right now my major focus is on finding out what the Koran really says," McCloud said of her academic research. Despite the difficulty of finding a common ground between Islamic faith and American culture, McCloud said that democracy and Islam are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

"It depends what you mean by democracy ... if democracy doesn't have God as its sovereign, Muslims won't choose democracy," she said, pointing out that America's democratic rhetoric "doesn't help us. We can't ask other people to practice our kind of government."

According to McCloud, another major obstacle to the incorporation of Islamic and American identities is the media representation of Muslims. McCloud took issue with the depiction of Muslim life as typified by "sand, hordes, dancing girls with baubles, the Kabala and harems." She said that this image has been perpetuated in hundreds of films and television shows since 1912.

"Americans aren't uninformed about Islam, it's just that the picture doesn't fit," she continued. At the same time, McCloud did not offer an example of how Americans could be better informed about the reality of Muslim life, and was pessimistic about the value of cultural education.

"What would telling people the tenets of Islam do?" McCloud asked, doubting whether non-Muslim Americans people would ever be able to accept Muslims despite the acquisition of accurate knowledge.

McCloud emphasized that Muslims shouldn't be defensive or apologetic about what happened on Sept. 11. At the same time, she said that most people in the United States have reacted to the events of last September with incredible apathy compared to how people reacted to past historic events.

"One of the things that has amazed me is that 9/11 has been widely spoken of as the most important event in modern American history, but we haven't paid even a fraction of the amount of attention [to Sept. 11] that we did to the Vietnam War."

"I accepted Islam as a freshman in college, at the time of the Nigerian Civil War. The Muslim students weren't complacent ... we were very vocal," McCloud said to show how times have changed.

McCloud's speech was sponsored by Al-Nur, the Muslim Student Association at Dartmouth, as part of their weeklong attempt to raise awareness of the Islamic faith in the context of Sept. 11 and the current war on terrorism.