For Claiming Williams Day last Thursday, Zareena Grewal delivered a lecture about the struggles the Muslim community faces in the United States. Grewal, who is an assistant professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale, spoke about the political, social and individual expressions of American Muslim identities, particularly among youth.
The topics of Grewal’s lecture coincided with those explored in her recently published book, Islam is a Foreign Country, which follows the journeys of American Muslim youths who travel in global, underground Islamic networks. Grewal referenced her book throughout the lecture to pose questions about the presence and position of Islam in American culture. Some of Grewal’s most probing questions inquired after contemporary definitions of American Muslims’ roles in society. Over the course of her talk, Grewal returned to a central query: What does it mean to be Muslim and American? Who has the authority to speak for American Muslims, and what are the effects of those politics?
Grewal focused on the concept of citizenship for American Muslims. “I think often about the difference between legal citizenship and social citizenship,” Grewal said. “Social citizenship means being recognized, being accepted by the community.”
A part of this challenge of defining what citizenship means for American Muslims deals with the influence of the media. According to Grewal, the American media has failed to educate the American public properly about Islam and its role in this country.
“There’s a total disconnect between media conversation about reforming Islam and what actually is happening in this community,” Grewal explained. While there is a sizable body of stories on this subject sympathetic to the complexities of practicing Islam, according to Grewal, the majority of them teach the American public to recognize “good Muslim citizens and bad Muslim citizens.” This reinforcement of stereotypes distracts the public from issues that are actually plaguing the community and does not provide, in Grewal’s opinion, “sufficient background into the issues” to allow the public to craft well-substantiated, well-informed opinions.
According to Grewal, it is this inappropriate simplification of American Islam into “good” or “bad” that makes it so difficult for American Muslims to define and develop a version of citizenship in America on their own terms.
The media is not alone in its tendency to create definitions of American Muslims that reiterate stereotypes and oppressive situations. According to Grewal, the problem also exists internally in the politics of the American Muslim community, specifically in the division between progressive and conservative ideas of Islam. This rift further complicates the process of developing a unified voice that represents all American Muslims, as the range of opinions are sometimes in conflict with each other. The division works against creating a voice that the actual American Muslim community can support, and thus the American public often focuses on specific problems, such as feminism in mosques, instead of larger debates such as those concerning counter-terrorism.
Grewal concluded the lecture with a final overview suggesting that the reform of Islam could be used as a counter-terrorism tool. In some ways, the discussion of Islam reformation in America has posed interesting debates and potential solutions, but it has also contributed to the “victimization of Muslims through the fight against fundamentalism.” She said there is a collective guilt among Muslim Americans for not stopping fundamentalists and giving attention to such a variety of reform ideas throughout their community; Muslim Americans believe the conversation regarding this topic has become broken and inefficient.