IZ: Hopefully, inshaAllah, we plan to be working more closely to UC Berkeley, and to offer a program that integrates traditional Islam with the contemporary Western paradigms of study and methodology to try and bring about a dynamic fusion and synthesis between the two. That's our objective and we have started a curriculum that is based on those objectives. We're also excited to be offering a summer intensive Arabic program on the UC Berkeley Campus. We pray that Allah ta'ala gives us tawfeeq in that regard.
IF: What are your thoughts on indigenous and immigrant Muslims living in America?
IZ: There's definitely a stark divide between the indigenous and immigrant Muslims in the United States. An illustration of that is Islamic conferences: if you look at the ISNA, ICNA or MAS conferences, you will notice that the number of
African-American participants varies from 1 to 2 percent. That's it. For example, you look at a CAIR fundraiser where you're getting about 1 to 2 percent of
African-Americans show up. [Yet, they] make up about 35% of the Muslim community. The reason for that is that the issues that are being dealt with, talked about and advocated, are not relevant to the lives of the average, indigenous Muslim, primarily
African-Americans, but increasingly Latino, and even white converts.
On the other hand, if you look at the major African-American conferences, such as MANA (Muslim Alliance of North America), or if you even stretch the definition (of Islam in America) a little and you look at the Louis Farrakhan conferences, you see that 99 to 100 perecent of the participants are
African-American, with some Latino Muslims, and virtually no immigrants, Again, because there's very little relevance in those particular conferences, in terms of the agendas being pursued, for immigrant Muslims. Then you have a few joint efforts between the two groups, such as IMAN
(Inner-city Muslim Action Network) led by Rami Nashashibi in Chicago, where immigrant and indigenous Muslims are working together to try and bring resources
- both human and material - of the collective community to bear on addressing problems and issues of concern for the wider community.
I think that it's really important for both communities to realize that in numbers, there's strength. But unity has to be more than a slogan. There has to be relevance in the lives of the constituents of the various Muslim groups, or population. It's really important for us to sit down and look at the areas of common concern and how we can best share the available resources to impact the lives of the wider Muslim community
- regardless of their background - and to begin to address common concerns that are of interest to all of us. That's going to take the creation of a relevant agenda and visionary leadership. And, at a certain point, we have to recognize that there will always be differences that are going to lead to different emphasis. Therefore, naturally different degrees of relevance for various constituencies [will ensue] within the wider Muslim community.
IF: As a prominent scholar of the Muslim and Interfaith community, what are some of the obstacles, from your perspective, Muslims face in the U.S. as regards to assimilation?
IZ: I think the greatest obstacle Muslims face, in regards to assimilation, is attitude. Most (older) immigrants are coming from a perspective of being colonized by various European powers, or a
neo-colonialism perspective of being colonized in the sense of the new globalization, primarily by the U.S. On the one hand, the latter creates a very deep psychological barrier that works against integration. On the other hand, the approaches to Islam that have been very ideological create very stark, analytical and
movement-oriented categories that view America as the embodiment of kufr in some instances, and presents a view of Islam that's very culturally predatory, as opposed to being culturally assimilative, as it was historically. The latter attitude works against assimilation, both in the case of immigrants, who historically have been very insular and have been inclined towards looking back across the seas, to ultimately moving back there on the event of a crisis, such as September 11. However, that's starting to change with a lot of the younger generation..
In the case of converts, again, you have an oppressed people, generally-speaking, coming into a religion that has, in its recent history, experienced a tremendous degree of oppression. I think a lot of the converts are led to adopt attitudes of hostility towards the United States, in general, [such as taking] a very negative view of the society. As a result, in many instances, rejecting the fact that we're already assimilated and then rejecting the reality of assimilation; breaking ties with relatives, and even parents; looking at one's former community as kuffar, or antagonistic
non-believers. Those attitudes work against the reality of assimilation.
If you're a convert, you're already assimilated; you're part of a wider American family of
non-Muslims; you have relatives that are non-Muslims; you have neighbors and friends that are
non-Muslims; the people who you grew up with, before converting, and who have been an integral part of your life, are
non-Muslim. So, you're already assimilated. But, for a lot of us - and I include myself
- that reality of assimilation is sometimes rejected and one adopts the integrities and the priorities of the immigrant community, and in many instances, of the most
anti-assimilative elements in the immigrant community. I think that's a huge mistake that we have to begin to address and then correct if we're going to take advantage of the many opportunities that Allah (SWT) has given us in this society. In my opinion, that's the greatest barrier to assimilation. Once we can overcome that, we have enough creativity to figure out creative ways of how we can maintain our integrity as a Muslim community, while contributing to maybe even the salvation of the greater American project, not the more narrow American project to what was characterized, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to it, the triplets of racism, militarism and materialism. Certainly that's one of the great aspects of the greater American project, especially in these days and times, but there's also another project that argues for equality: respecting people; people advancing based on their merits and not advancing based on their religion, race, ethnicity, or other accidents of birth. That's why I think it's very important for us to take advantage of the opportunities we have because those opportunities might not be permanent.
IF: Islam is being actively exploited in the presidential race. What are your views and hopes about the race in general? Do you have anything specific to share with the Muslim community about the presidential candidates?