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Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2000 /29 Shevat, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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How Assimilation Can Work for Us

America's invincible pop culture will conquer Islamic fundamentalism here -- PARANOIA ABOUT ARABS AND MUSLIMS is not a recurrent theme in American society. But these issues usually only get serious attention when something terrible happens, such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing or a terror plot discovered by FBI agents last December, when they intercepted alleged bombers on their way into the country from Canada.

With that in mind, last week I had the chance to listen and speak to two of the country's leading experts on the subject of Islamic fundamentalism” Daniel Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based think tank, the Middle East Forum, and Yehudit Barsky, director of the American Jewish Committee's Division on Middle East and International Terrorism. They appeared at a local AJCommittee gathering.

The topic is important for a number of reasons.

The Muslim population in the United States is growing and will, demographers say, outstrip the number of American Jews sometime in the near future, if it hasn't already. With the number of American Muslims estimated at anywhere from 4 to 6 million, that means the old community-relations slogan which spoke of a nation of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, must now be expanded to encompass Muslims.

Understanding who American Muslims are should no longer be merely a subject for mass-media hysteria about terrorism. Rather, it requires a serious examination of how this expanding and diverse group will change America, and, in turn, be changed by it.

Both Barsky and Pipes speak of a split within the Muslim world. It is, they say, divided between two groups: fundamentalists, or "Islamists," who make up approximately 10 percent of Muslims around the world and in the United States, and mainstream Muslims.

Barsky says it is crucial that we understand the difference between Islamists and mainstream Muslims.

Mainstream Muslims, who make up the overwhelming majority of American believers in Islam, consider Christians, Jews and Muslims to be fellow monotheists. This population is no more a threat to American democracy than anyone else.

Islamists, Barsky says, tend to view the world as a field for jihad, or holy war, between Muslim believers and everyone else. Their ultimate goal, believe it or not, is to make America a Muslim nation. They may be a bit over-optimistic about their chances.

Another source of concern has been the large number of African-Americans who have converted to Islam via the hate-mongering Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam is actually very different in theology from mainstream Islam. That group, Pipes says, has tended to be a way station for converts moving toward mainstream Islam. Many join a Nation of Islam mosque only to later leave it for an orthodox version of Islam.

Pipes also points out that American converts to Islam appear to be largely uninterested in the political agenda of national Muslim groups that are virulently anti-Israel.

The problem, says Pipes, is that the national organizations which purport to represent Muslim interests are controlled by or identify with the Islamists.

Thus, in spite of the fact that groups like the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Council on American Islamic Relations have long records as apologists for vicious terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, they have become accepted in Washington and at the White House as mainstream players.

This has enabled them to launch a concerted attempt to silence those like award-winning journalist Steven Emerson, who point out the connections between Middle East terrorists and their American fundraisers. Any criticism aimed at Islamist extremism is falsely labeled anti-Muslim.

The case of Salam al-Marayati is instructive in this respect. Marayati, the leader of a Los Angeles-based group called the Muslim Public Affairs Council, had his appointment to the U.S. Commission on Terrorism revoked after critics pointed out the incongruity of having a man who had justified Islamic terrorism on such a commission.

Yet, many in the American media and even some in the American Jewish community have labeled those who attacked Marayati's appointment as anti-Muslim bigots. These same people also call for increased dialogue with Muslims like Marayati.

Barsky points out that Marayati's tactics are to support the infrastructure of groups that foster the next generation of violence like Hamas, right up until the moment they launch a terrorist attack. They then condemn the attack but not the attackers themselves.

Radicals and their more presentable fronts like Marayati are a serious problem that may, Pipes says, get worse in the next few years. Terrorists threats to Israel and the United States may escalate as resentment against Jews and the West festers among extremists.

But, there is, Pipes reports, a reason for optimism.

Islamism in the United States may well be doomed and the cause for its demise will have nothing to do with heightened security measures or even increased dialogue. The answer is assimilation.

Immigrants to the United States make up a large percentage of American Muslims. The second generation of Muslim immigrants will, like previous waves of new Americans, have a choice, in Pipes's words, to be an American that happens to be Muslim or the other way around.

The next generation of Muslim Americans will have the chance to create a synthesis of Islam and modernity in a free country, something that no Islamic nation has achieved.

It needs to be understood that the Islamists here in America are not medieval in their thinking. They are often modern, educated people. But they are also vulnerable to the allure of American pop culture and intermarriage with non-believers. In particular, the Muslim community has struggled with the very different approach American culture has to the status of women.

Pipes prediction is that, in the long run, many American Muslims who are on the Islamist side of the cultural divide will succumb to assimilation. No one can tell what the outcome of this process will be, but the odds are that the children and grandchildren of even Muslim radicals will ultimately find a way to join the mainstream of American society as well as mainstream Islam.

This same assimilatory process has been working to dilute American Jewish identity for over a century. That's why the American Jewish community is putting so much effort into combatting assimilation among Jews.

The irony is that while we work against assimilation in our homes, we may be rooting for it to triumph among Islamic Arab immigrants and thus diminish the threat from extremist ideologies that are incompatible with American democracy.

Rather than focussing on papering over unbridgeable differences about the Middle East, perhaps the goal for Jews and Muslims in this country should be to begin a dialogue about how to create vibrant minority religious institutions in a pluralistic democracy.

Assimilation into what was once called the "melting pot" of America is, we have learned, a double-edged sword. In our own quest for acceptance in mainstream society, many American Jews shed their identity. The question is, will the same thing happen to Muslims?

And if it does, will the implosion of one religious minority really be a good thing for other religious minorities?

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin