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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This dynamic can be a source of tension and conflict, which are invariably exacerbated by the diversity of the congregation. Because Shia and Sunni tend to worship separately, this sectarian divide does not typically trouble mosques here. But social class antagonisms do arise​—​for example, between successful doctors and struggling cab drivers. And disagreements emerge between more established Muslims who have invested time and resources in the mosque and recently arrived immigrants who take it all for granted and, in addition, have divergent understandings of Islam.

The sharpest divides may arise from linguistic, ethnic, and racial differences. These could involve disagreements over the different madhabs, or schools of Islamic jurisprudence. And so, Arabs and South Asians tend to establish their own mosques. Nevertheless, most mosques have mixed congregations with a variety of languages and cultures from around the globe. Then there are racial divides, especially with regard to African-American Muslims. And quite apart from religion, Muslim immigrants bring with them from their home countries different political orientations and agendas.

In such contexts, leadership is not easy to exercise. Whoever is “in charge” is likely to be cautious and risk-averse. Of course, what looks cautious from inside may look outrageous from outside. Thus, one imam relates that it would be “career suicide” to denounce the violent Islamist Sayyid Qutb to his members​—​even as this same imam preaches tolerance to his congregation and beyond. Conversely, it is easy and useful for imams and other Muslim leaders to attack the war on terror, the Patriot Act, and other such policies on which there is nearly unanimous opposition.

One final factor that weakens and even compromises Muslim-American leaders is the longstanding and pervasive presence of the Muslim Brotherhood here in the United States. Most of the major national organizations and their leaders either have direct ties to the Brotherhood or come out of that milieu. Yet habituated to what Alison Pargeter calls “a culture of concealment,” those involved routinely deny any such affiliation. This understandably engenders distrust among non-Muslims and enrages some, who then exaggerate the significance of such ties. Muslim-American leaders end up expending a good deal of time and energy denying the obvious.

But such dissembling also has a negative impact internally. For the Brothers also conceal their activities from their fellow Muslims, sometimes even their own families. Countless mosques have been riven by conflicts over clandestine Brotherhood efforts to take over boards, and the memories of such battles die hard.

The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, where Suhaib Webb is the imam, is a case in point. The ISBCC is explicitly and officially managed by the Muslim American Society (MAS). But what Webb and his many non-Muslim supporters refuse to acknowledge is that MAS is the American branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. To knowledgeable observers inside and outside the community, this is simply incontrovertible. This lack of candor on the part of Muslim leaders understandably arouses anxieties among many Americans about their loyalty to this nation. Yet perhaps an even more pressing question is how such deception further undermines the leadership needed to guide their own people forthrightly and authoritatively​—​especially troubled and turbulent Muslim-American youth.

Peter Skerry teaches political science at Boston College and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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