Facing Tough Realities of Muslim Minority Communities in the West

April 5, 2013

A great Islamic reformer, Muhammad Abdu, provided a profound quote that to this day is not appreciated enough by analysts on and activists in Muslim public affairs.  When he returned to Egypt from France, he said, “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.”  

The difference now from the time of Abdu more than 100 years ago, of course, is that more than 50 million Muslims reside in Europe and the United States, along with Australia, South Africa and Singapore. Last week, MPAC President Salam Al-Marayati and Haris Tarin, DC Director, traveled to Paris, France for the first international Muslim Minorities Colloquium hosted by the World for All Foundation. Founded by Ebrahim Rasool, currently the South African Ambassador to the U.S., the foundation convened an impressive array of Muslim leaders from over 20 countries to share their experiences in dealing with civic, political and social integration in their respective societies.  

There is the aspiration of Muslim minorities contributing to their societies while remaining connected to the larger ummah (Muslim community). The term minority simply means that Muslims numerically are not the majority. In fact, many Muslims at the Colloquium believed that the path to securing our rights is through serving humanity and taking on more civic responsibilities.  

Muslims in the West can offer an alternative to negative news from Muslim majority countries rather than being shaped by them. However, the space for mainstream Muslim communities is narrow on media airwaves as coverage is pegged to two overwhelming challenges: Islamophobia and religious extremism. 

This will necessitate critical thinking, a Quranic mandate. As Muslims in the West, we have to take responsibility and speak up when Islamic groups adopt practices and policies that run counter to the mission of service to humanity and liberation. As Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahda (Renaissance) Movement in Tunisia stated at the Colloquium, Muslims have departed from the path of liberation to the path of conquest, and they must review their own religious texts to return to the essence of Islam that can take people from darkness to light. 

The challenges facing Muslim minority communities are vast, as are the opportunities. Among the chief concerns raised were the violation of women’s rights as a violation of Islam and sectarian fratricide that is on the doorstep of every Muslim community, including Muslims in the West.

If we fail, then the Muslim presence in the West will be viewed simply as a transplant of Eastern cultures into Western society. Consequently, fears in the West about being caught in a chokehold by alien customs will be inevitable. But if we surpass these challenges we face and offer an alternative to the extremist discourse on Islam, then we create a place for ourselves in Western societies as an enriching and invaluable element within our societies’ religious and social pluralism. That is the hope of the delegates who participated in the Colloquium. That is the aspiration that can help complete the thinking of Muhammad Abdu; so that where there are Muslims, we can then know what Islam is.

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