I believe this is good for Islam. As I have watched Islam grow and change in this country since I arrived here 46 years ago, I have pondered the experience of previous immigrant faith groups as a guide to the future of American Muslims. Catholics had to face brutal discrimination and the occasional riot in an overwhelmingly Protestant country. Eastern European Jews confronted religious prejudice from both Catholics and Protestants.
With Catholics and Jews, the discrimination issue was the same. Stories circulated that this religious group was plotting to take over. Protestants were certain that Catholics were plotting to turn America over to the pope. A political party, the Know Nothings, was created in the 1840s to try to stop Catholic immigration. Christians feared Jews were taking over the economic levers of the nation. At the start of World War II, some Jews were barred from entering the United States.
Now, as Muslims enter America in significant numbers, we hear the same kinds of stories. Anti-Muslim voices insist that Muslims are plotting to make the United States an Islamic state under sharia law. Some oppose the construction of mosques. Nothing exemplified this as much as the opposition to my proposed construction of a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan. This center was to be a symbol of religious inclusion and reconciliation. But shrill critics insisted it was a "victory mosque" to mark the destruction of the World Trade Center.
But if history is any guide, this discrimination will pass. After all, today six of the nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court are Catholic and three are Jewish. There are no Protestants. And hardly anyone notices.
What may be even more interesting is how living in the United States will affect Muslims. As Islam expanded around the world, Muslims adapted to the surrounding society. Arabs, Iranians, and Pakistanis are seen as typical Muslims, although their faith is steeped in tribal traditions that predated the Prophet Muhammad. Further, Muslims coming to America are also from Africa, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia, where the faith has adopted other traditions.
Muslims in America will adapt again. The American Muslim community must invest in creating our own homegrown scholars and imams, who have lived what their communities are going through, who can relate to their experience and can provide leadership and help our people understand what is eternal in Islam and what is contextual. God himself states in the Quran that he sent his messages to different communities through prophets who spoke to the community in their own language.
Muslim clerics coming from other countries can't do this for their American flock. We Muslims must figure out who we are in America, this most modern and fast-changing of countries, with the most vibrant, powerful - and at times coarse and threatening - popular culture in the world. Like many groups before us, we are embracing what is good about America while holding on to what we think is good about Islam.
We also have the opportunity of incorporating the best of American governing principles into sharia law. Then perhaps this American form of Islam will have some influence in transforming the countries from whence we came.
Given the chance, this Americanization of Muslims will have a profound, positive impact both on their adopted country and on their native ones. It is a movement we must nurture.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf will be speaking at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Lehigh University, Packard Lab 101. For more information, visit www.lehigh.edu/international/ or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. For more about Cordoba Initiative, visit www.cordobainitiative.org.