The Common Good
February 2009

Balancing Tradition and Pluralism

by Daisy Khan | February 2009

An interview with Muslim leader Daisy Khan.

Daisy Khan spent 25 years as an interior architect for Fortune 500 companies before turning her prodigious talents to working on behalf of Muslim empowerment and interfaith understanding. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Khan and her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, became engaged in countering the suspicions raised against Muslims in America, which led to the founding of the American Society for Muslim Advancement. Since then Khan has launched the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity in response to the marginalization of women in Muslim communities and Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow to cultivate an international network for young Muslims working to improve their communities. Daisy Khan visited Sojourners in September 2008 and talked about the struggle to make Islam an American religion.

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The struggle of Muslims in the United States is the same as that of all religious groups: a desire for acceptance. Take, for example, American Cath­olics and Jews, long considered outsiders, but now generally existing within the mainstream of American society. This process is already underway with American Muslims, and it will only continue. I have learned from these other faith groups—from their courage, wisdom, and perseverance, as well as their love for both their faith and their country.

Just as our nation has transformed from a “Christian” nation to a “Judeo-Christian” nation, we must now recognize our commonly shared Abrahamic ethics and embrace Islam as an equal member of this Abrahamic ethical tradition.

Islam is becoming an American religion, and this represents a victory for all Americans who cherish our nation as a beacon of tolerance and acceptance of all traditions.

ISLAM IS NEITHER Western nor Eastern. It is confined neither by geography nor history. There are, however, certain unique elements of Islam as practiced in the Western context. Given the tradition’s singular history of cultural adaptation, of taking the best of a culture and rejecting the worst, this represents nothing novel. In the context of the U.S., I envision an authentic American expression of Islam thriving within our pluralistic society without compromising its essential values and beliefs. This “American Islam” cuts across cultural boundaries, carving an identity that combines the best of what it means to be “Muslim” and “American.”

I firmly believe that the core values of Islam—faith in and obedience to the Divine, reverence for individual rights and communal well-being, compassion and justice, respect for pluralism and diversity—are entirely resonant with American values.

Muslims must adopt those cultural expressions and practices that do not contradict our basic religious principles. Of course, those that do violate our faith, we cannot accept. Whether in Egypt, Persia, the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia, or today in the West, Islam has consistently retained its essential values, its core of orthodoxy, while adapting and benefiting from local contexts and cultures.

OUR COUNTRY WAS founded as a shining beacon of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For many Americans, this ideal proved true.

Many other Americans, however, only lived in the shadow of this beacon. Religious women courageously stepped into this arena and shook up the status quo. Driven by faith to fight for their freedoms, women such as Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, and Amelia Boynton Robinson led some of our country’s most extraordinary large-scale political and social changes, including the abolitionist, suffrage, and civil rights movements.

Muslim women are now contributing to this remarkable legacy. Of course, Muslim women are active in all sectors of American society. However, the passionate, courageous, and dynamic Muslim women who have dedicated their lives to the causes of justice and equality, fighting for the rights of Muslim women, are contemporary inheritors of this great American legacy of women’s faith-based activism.

The Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity (WISE), which I founded in 2006, represents just one example of American Muslim women, as well as Muslim women from around the globe, contributing to the public discourses on gender and religion.

WISE utilizes the teachings of Islam—both as justification and inspiration—to challenge gender-based inequality and to empower Muslim women to make dignified personal, family, and career choices. Drawing in partners from within and outside the Muslim community, it has energized a global, inclusive movement of Muslim women that is capable of transforming the lives of women in numerous contexts. The American women of the WISE movement now walk in the giant footsteps of our earlier Christian sisters: Tubman, Anthony, and Robinson.

NOW, AS MUSLIMS continue to find our way in American public life, we ask Christians to respect and support us. We ask them to consider us citizens, allies, and brothers and sisters in faith, rather than strangers, enemies, or competitors for devotees. Hear us and help us tell our story.

Our stories, struggles, and joys are not so different from one another. We seek to balance tradition and belief with contemporary realities and social conditions. We are uncomfortable relegating our faith to the fringes of our lives. We seek a compassionate, justice-driven, pluralistic expression of our religion.

In contemporary American society, any religious person can feel the burden of popular culture’s largely negative attitudes toward his or her beliefs, often regarded as backwards, intolerant, and steeped in ignorance. This is especially true for Muslims. Ensuring a positive place for religion in American society is a shared concern for all people of faith.

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