The Magazine

Problems of the Second Generation

To be young, Muslim, and American.

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By PETER SKERRY
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Since 9/11, Muslim leaders have shown a remarkable​—​and largely unnoted, or disbelieved​—​willingness to adapt to America. Indeed, these leaders have been busily reconstructing an anodyne version of Islam that conforms to the American civil religion. Yet once again, they are leading the faithful into various double-binds.

So today Muslim Americans are being reassured that it is permissible​—​even desirable​—​to have non-Muslim friends. And that it is okay to attend business lunches where non-Muslim colleagues drink alcohol. And that it is definitely a good idea to vote and get involved in civic and political affairs.

Other topics are addressed with discretion. Explicit displays of Islamic triumphalism are now rare. The topic of intermarriage with non-Muslims is typically avoided. Controversial political issues get finessed. Since 9/11, Muslim Americans have learned to be much more discreet about their views on Palestine and U.S. support for Israel. Much of the energy concerning such issues has been rechanneled into opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq or to the Obama administration’s reliance on drones.

Similarly, Muslim Americans feel free to indulge their vehement opposition to profiling at airports and to the Patriot Act. As for domestic policy, Muslims can be heard voicing support for efforts addressing racial and gender discrimination and for comprehensive immigration reform. More generally, they support social welfare programs, including Obamacare.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. This is the Democratic agenda, which over the past decade Muslim-American leaders have visibly embraced. But this has meant their virtual silence on an array of social and cultural issues on which Muslim opinion continues to diverge from that of their newfound allies. Unlike before 9/11, when Muslims were lining up with Republicans, their leaders are no longer outspoken about alcohol abuse, drugs, gambling, pornography, and abortion.

Gay rights is the one cultural issue on which Muslim-American leaders have taken a U-turn, and it sustains my point that they are not well positioned to speak forthrightly and authoritatively to their own people, especially to questioning youth. Twenty years ago, these leaders condemned homosexual rights as an aspect of American society that justified withdrawal from the mainstream. Today, Muslim leaders are hardly barnstorming for gay rights, but they have ceased condemning homosexuals and homosexuality and have embraced tolerance.

A prime example of this shift is William Suhaib Webb, imam of the controversial Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. A few years ago Webb emphasized Islam’s condemnation of homosexuality to an audience of young Muslims. With regard to gay marriage, he asked: “Why are we so quiet? We have something to offer society, and we should ask America nicely what has happened to your values in 40 years?” Yet in a Boston Globe interview last month, Webb said that with regard to gay marriage he had made “mistakes” and was reluctant “to start arguing about other people’s liberties,” claiming that the Constitution guarantees the right of everyone to get married.

Such bold revisionism has to alienate as many Muslims​—​including young people​—​as it gratifies. But such U-turns are undoubtedly easier for a handful of leaders, like Suhaib Webb, whose skillful use of the national media has permitted them to reach beyond the confines of a given mosque or local Muslim community. Indeed, in most such contexts it is seldom clear who the leaders really are. To be sure, this dilemma is endemic to Sunni Islam and can be traced to its decentralized, non-hierarchical structure. Yet in America, with Muslims from around the globe struggling to coexist in self-governing mosques, leadership is all the more problematic.

In most mosques here, leadership is up for grabs. Contrary to what non-Muslims think, imams are not necessarily in charge. They are typically foreigners who understand Islam but lack specific knowledge about American culture, society, and politics. Their command of English may also be limited.

The imam gets hired by the mosque governing board. In most countries mosques are subsidized by the state, but here they are self-supporting voluntary institutions. So the board’s other major responsibility is the institution’s financial viability, and it tends to be dominated by key donors, invariably affluent professionals​—​stereotypically, Pakistani doctors and engineers. The most assertive or most generous member is likely to be board president, who may easily overshadow the imam and become the de facto leader of the mosque.

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