Categorizing Muslims, between Theory and Practice:  A Perspective from Portland, Oregon (2004)

Over the past two decades, Islam in America has been receiving increased attention by academics and policy makers. The great influx of immigrant Muslims since the early 1960s, as well the conversion to Islam by a large number of American natives, have significantly changed the religious and social landscape of America. Many earlier studies have treated Islam in America as an imported tradition that remains largely unchanged when it is relocated in the United States. However, a number of more recent studies have attempted to understand Islam in this part of the world as a tradition that has developed uniquely in an American context. While the study of Islam in America is still young, the increasing participation of scholars in this field has spurred efforts to develop more sophisticated understandings of American Islam as it participates in a changing American religious landscape.

One of the most influential studies during the 1980s on American Islam came from Yvonne Haddad and Adair Lummis. In their Islamic Values in the United States (1987), Haddad and Lummis classify American Muslims in relation to their place of birth, arguing that ‘in the most general terms, the Muslims of North America can be divided into two distinct groups: immigrant Muslims and indigenous Muslims’ (1987:3). Haddad and Lummis proceed to explain that in many cases, nationality is a major factor in determining the type of Islamic community in which Muslims participate, as mosques tend to serve primarily Muslims with similar national or —in the case of Arab Muslims — ethnic backgrounds. In fact, the authors argue that divisions according to nationality are often insurmountable, since many mosque communities they studied encountered problems when Muslims of different national backgrounds intermingled. Haddad and Lummis support these claims by giving comparative examples between Pakistani and Arab Muslims, who were the two most represented subject groups of the authors’ research.

While national differences evidenced by Haddad and Lummis account for some of the differences between immigrant Muslims, a number of scholars have recently attempted to account for the diversity within the ‘indigenous’ American Muslim category. Some scholars have reworked Haddad’s and Lummis’ categories by asserting the categories of immigrant Muslims, African-American Muslims, and converts (for example, Jane Smith 1999). This approach, which divides the category of indigenous Muslims, accounts for the increasing numbers of non-African-Americans who have converted to Islam in recent years. This approach reworks the category of ‘indigenous Muslims,’ which has often been limited to African-American Muslims. By explicitly delineating the Islamic experiences of African-Americans from those of other ‘indigenous’ Americans, scholars have presented an implicit critique of the idea that Muslims who share a national background engage Islam similarly.

Studies that have narrowed their focus on the experiences of African-American Muslims have often delineated distinctions along the lines of ideology. In African-American Islam, Aminah Beverly McCloud pointed to all Muslims’ common need to navigate the tension between the demands of the ‘asabiya, their local social group, and the ummah, the broader Muslim community. For McCloud the black nationalism of the Nation of Islam represents the ‘asabiya focus of African American Muslim experience while those associated with Warith Deen Mohammed represent the ummah-centered African American Muslim experience. Other approaches to African-American Islam have also argued for the division of the African-American community according to respective ideological identities, as communities that accept Islam as a universal religion should be distinguished from those who consider Islam a ‘particularistic’ religion oriented toward a particular group’s attempts to affect change (see Curtis).

Dale Eickelman, in ‘The Study of Islam in Local Contexts’ — and additionally in his collaborative work with James Piscatori, Muslim Politics (1996) —has emphasized the role of local contexts in shaping distinct forms of Islam. These works address various scholars’ attempts to account for the multitude of different interpretations of Islam and various Muslims’ attempts to assert particular identities as the most legitimately Islamic. Many scholars dismiss the idea of a normative or correct Islam by viewing Islam as a constantly reinterpreted ‘tradition’ (for example, Curtis), and elect to consider ‘competing visions of Islam’ that jointly comprise Islamic history (GhaneaBassiri 1997). In ‘The Study of Islam in Local Contexts’ (1982), Eickelman discusses various scholars’ successful attempts to argue that certain local contexts influence the form Islamic interpretations and institutions will take, as he argues for the need to develop sophisticated conceptions of these contexts in the study of these competing voices in Islam. However, Eickelman cautions that it is also quite necessary to recognize to acknowledge that most Muslims assume that there are ‘normative tenets’ of Islam that comprise a center of Islam common to all interpretations of it (Local Contexts:1). As a result of this tension between local contexts and the idea of a normative religious center, Eickelman argues that scholars must compose sophisticated analyses that employ ‘a notion of context wider than earlier anthropological concerns with specific village locales and more narrow than the Islam of all times and places sometimes invoked by scholars and believers with non-sociological views of religious experience’ (LC:11).

Kambiz GhaneaBassiri’s study of Muslim communities in Los Angeles, Competing Visions of Islam in the United States (1997), characterizes the context in which American Islam has developed in much the way that Eickelman urges scholars to treat the subject. GhaneaBassiri argues that the lack of official creed in Islam enables various ‘competing visions of Islam’ to emerge, though certain voices, which dominate discourse and are, thus, taken to be normative, shape the forms American Islam have taken. GhaneaBassiri finds, in his study, that American Islam is characterized by a lack of Islamic leadership and nearly widespread attempts by American Muslims to define Islam for themselves. In these Muslims’ attempts to form communities that play a role in American social and religious life, they organize along ideological lines that usually coincide with nation of origin. ‘Individuals with their own aspiration, needs, cultures, and levels of understanding have molded Islam to their specific context . . . similar contexts, however, may lead to similar understandings of Islam’ (12). The largest gap between ideological goals, argues GhaneaBassiri, remains that between immigrant and African-American Muslims. He argues that these groups’ inability to unite based on their differential experiences with the American context presents the largest roadblock to the realization of the unified American Muslim community to which many American Muslims aspire.

In New Faiths, Old Fears (2002), Bruce Lawrence draws the same conclusion, though he emphasizes the role of overlapping racial and class prejudices in the polarization of American Muslim communities as such. Lawrence argues that the unique American fundamentalist constructions of race, as well as the class-based prejudices that are associated with these constructions, have accounted for the manner in which American Muslims relate to one another. According to Lawrence, the American racial context places all non-whites into distinctly American categories of race that marginalize them. This context encourages members of out-groups to gain inclusion to the in-group by working hard to overcome respective racialized class prejudices, rather than to unite in breaking down such oppressive categories (2002:11). Efforts to gain inclusion require orienting interactions toward the in-group and limiting interaction with other out-groups. Moreover, the experience of different out-groups with the racialized class prejudices asserted against them leads to different engagements with religion and, as a result, different Islamic ideological identities. Thus, immigrant and African-American Muslims should work together, along with the rest of America, to break down such prejudices and genuinely celebrate differences free of prejudice.

In past scholarship, then, we see a shift from the non-American context to the American context. Beginning with an early model that emphasizes the link between one’s nation of birth and the Islamic identity s/he asserts, scholars shifted the focus to the particular Islamic identities Muslims construct. More recent studies have emphasized the role of the American context in constructing these identities, and have pointed to the American context to account for American Muslims’ trend to organize with others with similar national or ethnic identities. This paper attempts to engage the theoretical material above by presenting some examples of American Islam at the local level. It is based on research of the Portland Muslim History Project at Reed College during the summer of 2004. In particular, this paper explores Muslim religious and social identities in the Portland Muslim communities as part of an effort to clarify the strengths and limitations of some of the academic approaches just discussed.

I will argue that mosques in Portland construct certain religious and social identities that individuals may assert by participating in particular communities. These identities, as the literature on the subject suggests, tend to be oriented toward specific national, ethnic, or class identities, though they are not exclusive of those who do not share these identities. While many people attend particular mosques because of an ethnic or racial identity they share with the majority of the community of that mosque, others cross these lines to attend particular mosques that share their views on gender roles or on the social role a mosque should play in the larger American community. Because of this selective attendance at mosques, I argue that mosques assert particular religious and social identities that often draw community members of common backgrounds. Thus, while one mosque may draw Arab Muslims because of the large population of Arabs that attend that mosque, it is important to note that that mosque asserts a particular Arab identity, with particular attitudes toward Muslims’ role in America and particular conceptions of gender roles in American Islam, that may repel certain Arabs or attract certain non-Arabs. In this sense, identities of mosques are constructed on religious and social terms and sometimes unite individuals with different backgrounds and common goals, though, as GhaneaBassiri explains, ‘Muslims who have shared common experiences, such as immigration, racism, and being raised in the United States, tend to interpret Islam in similar ways’ (1997:12).

The second part of my argument is that Muslims in Portland have also begun bridging the gaps between various national, ethnic, and racial groups by establishing umbrella organizations that are unaffiliated with any mosque. These organizations cut across the particular identities of various mosques, enabling individuals to participate in a different identity based on uniting diverse constituents in Islamic social settings. The umbrella organizations unite various national, ethnic, and racial groups, as GhaneaBassiri and Lawrence have implored them to do, by creating an American social atmosphere in which Muslims of different backgrounds can interact. Thus, by participating in mosque activities at one time and the activities of an umbrella organization at another, individuals within the Portland Muslim community are able to participate in multiple community identities and, thus, to assert multiple public selves. This type of network of mosques and broader organizations allows American Muslims to address the unique challenges presented to them by the American context, enabling them to participate in communities that address their particular American racial needs and the common needs of American Muslims.

The Mosques of Portland

The research of our project covered three Sunni Mosques in the Portland area and one in nearby Vancouver, Washington that serve major populations. While the Shi’a and Ahmadiyya communities are important constituents of the Portland Muslim community, the small size of their communities have led to a situation in which each community’s needs have been met by a single mosque in each community. Since all Shi’is and all Ahmadis attend the only mosque for each respective community, individuals at these mosques choose to participate in these communities primarily because of their specific religious orientation and do not have the same type of choice between various mosque identities that the Sunni Muslims have. For this reason, the three Sunni communities in Portland are most relevant to my arguments, and I will discuss these three mosques. Moreover, while Shi’is and Ahmadis have participated to a limited extent in the umbrella organizations, these organizations are mainly comprised of Sunni Muslims, so I will make my argument with respect to those who attend the Bilal Mosque, Masjid as-Saber, and the Muslim Community Center.

I will characterize these three mosque communities in terms of their racial identities, their class identities, their conceptions of gender roles at the mosques, and their ideas of the role of their community within the greater Portland community. The Bilal mosque was founded primarily by educated and financially secure South Asian families, though a few Arabs were also active in the establishment of the mosque. The founders have remained the core of the management structure at Bilal and have worked hard to establish a community that is active in the larger Portland community, connecting their children to both Muslim and American. Masjid as-Saber is a largely Arab community of Muslims that asserts a Wahhabi identity. This identity kept them inwardly focused until September 11, at which point they received great local and national media attention and increased their official interaction with the American non-Muslim community. The Muslim Community Center emerged from the black exclusivist group the Nation of Islam, which converted to Sunni Islam in the mid- to late-1970s. Since the community’s conversion, its members have opened their doors to all Sunni Muslims, though the community is still, to a large extent, comprised of African-Americans.

It is important to note that, in my characterization of each community’s social and religious identity, I do not intend to present any community as monolithic or homogeneous. Each Muslim community in Portland is quite diverse, and individuals within each community obviously share different values and religious interpretations. However, each community has its leaders and most active members, and at each mosque dominant values and voices have emerged to construct an identity particular to that community. Clearly not all individuals who attend a particular mosque intentionally participate in this identity, though many individuals do.

Identity at the Bilal Mosque

The Bilal mosque attempts to assert a multi-cultural identity that includes members of all classes, though most of the leaders are South Asian and work highly skilled financially secure jobs with major national companies. The community is active in the larger Portland community and has made interfaith activities a central part of its identity since September 11. The mosque affairs are monitored by a Board of Trustees and a Board of Directors, each of which is comprised of the individuals that were most were most active in donating their time and money during the founding of the community. The community began in the early 1990s, when 10 or 15 families —mostly South Asian immigrants and their children and a few Arab families —gathered at one another’s houses for daily prayers. According to one of the founders who is now the President, this type of gathering rotation functioned as a test of the participating families’ need for a mosque and their commitment to the establishment of a community. After this core group grew to a critical mass, they took serious interest in the purchase or construction of a mosque. The community organized to purchase a house on a lot in Beaverton in a central location that was easily accessible to each of the core families. The community soon looked into the possibility of constructing a mosque on the land; according to one founder, a few members of the core group ‘paid big money in the beginning and contributed various services to make the construction of the mosque possible, and soon it was complete.

The core of active members drew up a charter for the small community outlining the community goals and the structure of its management. In establishing the Bilal community, the active members were adamant in their desire for an inclusive community that would treat all of its members equally regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, or gender. Leaders have asserted this equality as a main component the community identity by prescribing rules strict rules for the presentation of the khutba to avoid exclusion based on race or nationality: ‘The only language other than Arabic that can be used is English. Anyone who speaks in Urdu or something is forbade. Never asked again.’ In addition to providing equal treatment of people of all races, leaders have asserted gender equality as a central aspect of the Bilal identity by jointly enforcing policies of equal treatment in mediation of disputes between community members. One such dispute arose when the mosque purchased a trailer to provide more space for classroom activities and Juma prayers, since the community was growing beyond its capacity. When some of the regular attendees insisted that women pray in the trailer for Juma instead of in one of the primary rooms in the mosque, the leadership refused this opinion on the grounds that it challenged the central idea of equality within the community. Though those who disagreed were allowed to express their opinions, one of the founders recalls, it was clear they should leave the community because they disagreed with the values and the atmosphere it fostered. ‘People who view their version of Islam as stricter . . . they’ve kind of been pushed out of the mosque. We never tell anybody not to come, but they feel they don’t have as much influence anymore.’

In addition to laboring to foster equality for all members, the community has asserted itself as an American community in response to the Gulf War and, particularly, the events September 11, by becoming active in the Portland community in social work and interfaith work. One of the founders explains his realization American identity of the community’s children in response to September 11, a realization that has become central to the thinking of many leaders at Bilal and has influenced the active assertion of an American Islamic identity.

After 9/11, so [my daughter] was watching TV, and they were showing all these U.S. soldiers had been killed or attacked. And she says something like ‘will we win the war?’ … I was thinking in the back of my mind, she means ‘us meaning Pakistan and Afghanistan and Syria. But she wasn’t, she was thinking of America.

In an effort to establish this American identity, the community members hold bi-weekly meetings with the young adults to discuss American and Muslim politics in order to prepare their children to become future American leaders. After September 11, the Muslims at Bilal faced confusion over how to engage the non-Muslim American community, as members of the American public —and even the FBI —soon took a great interest in visiting the community. Led by the President and Amir of the mosque, who has been the primary leader in the community’s interfaith work, the community has asserted an active American identity by participating in more than one hundred eighty interfaith activities, as well as some community service programs.

Prior to 9/11 we didn’t give a shit… the outside world is the outside world, we don’t need you… and it was after 9/11 that, from 9/12, when these churches kept coming and they were concerned about us, they wanted to know about us and stuff like us. Then we said … we should have been doing this a long time ago. And we sort of started gingerly … and it picked up, and the slope is steady … and we’re loving it, frankly.

By responding to September 11 by making interfaith activities a primary function of the mosque, the community has asserted an outwardly focused identity within the Portland community.

The identity at Bilal for which I have argued justifies the focus on the American context of more recent scholars, such as the work by GhaneaBassiri and Lawrence. While the majority of the leaders are from South Asia, the community has had to manage the inclusion of the diverse population and competing religious interpretations. In this process, community members have worked hard to overcome differences that may stem from the national and ethnic backgrounds on which Haddad and Lummis have focused, uniting to respond to common desires for an American Islamic religious center. The community at Bilal has fashioned its identity in response to common challenges of American Muslims, most notably the challenges presented after September 11. Clearly, the community has become more cohesive as those with similar ideological views have united, while those with dissenting ideas of how to put Islam into practice in the American context have either left or become less active. The issue of identity at Bilal Mosque presents a strong argument for scholarly approaches that have put common ideological approaches to Islam in America at the center of their analysis.

Identity at Masjid as-Saber

The majority of the Masjid as-Saber community members are Arab, and the mosque caters to Arabic language and culture. In particular, the mosque community cultivates a Wahhabi identity that celebrates Arabic culture and is largely inwardly focused, though interfaith activities have increased since September 11, 2001. Masjid as-Saber began in the 1970s, when a number of students from abroad studying at Portland State University became active in the Muslim Student Association. These students often used a room at the PSU campus for their Friday prayers, but after they graduated they began to look for alternative locations. By the late 1970s or early 1980s, they set aside a house they designated as Masjid as-Saber, and by the early 1990s, the small community began formulating plans to purchase land and construct a mosque to become the center of a community in which to raise their children. After years of planning, Masjid as-Saber —or The Islamic Center of Portland —was completed and opened for use within the community. Since then, Masjid as-Saber has become the mosque that serves the largest population of Muslims in Portland, and the building is often overflowed during Juma prayers.

Most of the duties at the mosque are taken care of by the imam, who is the center around which the mosque revolves, and holds a salaried position. A Board of Directors, which is currently comprised of four men, also runs affairs at the mosque. The population that attends prayers at Masjid as-Saber is, like that of all the mosques in Portland, quite diverse. However, the majority of the leaders and a large portion of the community is comprised of native Arabic speakers; many of the mosque’s activities cater to these members. The mosque also cultivates an Arabic atmosphere by giving the first part of the weekly khutba —and the khutba at the Eid celebrations —in Arabic. This stark contrast to the approach to the khutba at the Bilal Mosque celebrates the Arabic language. In addition, I have been told that the weekly men’s study sessions are held in Arabic, and many signs posted on the premises are written exclusively in Arabic.

This Arab-centrism is central to the Wahhabi orientation with which many members of Masjid as-Saber explicitly identify. The Wahhabi value of exclusion of Shi’i Muslims has caused discomfort for some Shi’is who have visited the mosque. Similarly, severe attitudes toward Ahmadis assert Wahhabi ideals of exclusion, as attention to this strict exclusivity arose in 1992, when a member of Masjid as-Saber wrote an article in the mosque newsletter arguing that groups such as Ahmadis “must be fought or killed if they do not repent… since there is no Muslim country which will apply this … the least we can do is reject them as our friends. While the author of this article is no longer in the Portland community, this attitude seems to prevail at Masjid as-Saber, as the mosque has refused to participate in interfaith events in which Ahmadis were present. The mosque is closely affiliated with a cemetery in Corvallis, Oregon, outside of Portland, that adheres to strict religious interpretations that exclude many self-identifying Muslims. Masjid as-Saber helps arrange for the burial of deceased members of the community at the Islamic Cemetery of Oregon, which sets out strict criteria excluding all but Sunni Muslims. ‘To accommodate the need of Muslims to have an Islamic burial, Muslims in the State of Oregon in 1992 established The Islamic Cemetery of Oregon (ICO), a cemetery solely for the Muslims of Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama’ah [Sunnis].’ In addition to excluding non-Sunnis, the cemetery offers an Islamic interpretation that further promotes exclusivity, by decreeing that ‘women are forbidden from attending the burial.’

In accordance with values held by most Wahhabis, modesty is a central aspect to interactions at the mosque. At Masjid as-Saber, men and women have different entrances, as men enter in the front of the mosque and women enter through an unmarked entrance in the back. Men and women do not interact at the mosque, and they have architecturally separated areas that are not adjoined inside the mosque. Men and women at as-Saber dress modestly, as all women cover their heads. These values of modesty contribute to a particular identity that appeals to many Muslims in the Portland area, and has contributed to as-Saber’s growth into one of the largest and most cohesive Muslim communities in Portland. Clearly, the cultivation of Arabic language and culture has been a major draw for many Arab Muslims who wish to preserve an Arab identity. The community also consists of non-Arab Muslims, such as South Asians and American converts; Masjid as-Saber boasts that its community is made up of Muslims who were born in 40 different nations. The Wahhabi orientation of the mosque has often led the community to be inwardly focused, devoting much time to study sessions and social events, such as picnics, primarily for the community members.

However, after September 11, the mosque’s inward focus has been complicated by attention from the non-Muslim American community. Masjid as-Saber has come under great scrutiny from national authorities who have speculated about security risks in the aftermath of September 11. The community drew attention in 2002, when seven individuals who had been known to pray at as-Saber were arrested and later convicted on charges of conspiring to combat U.S. forces in Afghanistan. National attention increased on Masjid as-Saber when their imam was wrongfully arrested on terrorism charges. In response to this attention, the Masjid as-Saber community has turned both inward and outward. The community has helped organized the Arab Muslim Police Advisory Committee (AMPAC) to establish positive relationships with the local police, while it has increased the number of interfaith activities in which it participates. The community has invited religious groups from non-Islamic religious traditions to give presentations and to learn about Islam at interfaith events and Eid feasts as part of an attempt to disabuse the American public of its misconceptions about Islam. However, the community also seems to have become more exclusive, as a number of Muslims from outside the community have explained to us that they felt very unwelcome praying at as-Saber, and attitudes toward our project were sometimes negative. In the aftermath of September 11, then, the Masjid as-Saber community has turned outward to the American community in official capacities, while, at least some individuals, have turned inward on an unofficial level.

More than any other mosque in Portland, Masjid as-Saber has drawn attention after September 11, and they have had to restructure their identity to accommodate this change. These accommodations have included establishing many ties with local communities and, according to members of the community, becoming representatives of Islam whose duty it is to correct the American public’s misconceptions of Islam. The effect of September 11 on Masjid as-Saber’s identity clearly underscores the American context, while the national attention as-Saber has received is likely due to the type of American racial prejudices against Arab Muslims that Bruce Lawrence argues are a primary barrier to equality in America. The struggle to assert an Islamic identity based on modest dress and exclusion of many self-proclaimed Muslims takes a unique form in the American context. The community’s identity is shifted by the specific context of Portland, as it is compared by outsiders to other mosques in Portland, but is also shaped by larger contexts of American perceptions of Arab Muslims and Wahhabi ideals. The approaches of Eickelman, GhaneaBassiri and Lawrence underscore help us understand the manner in which this larger American context shapes the development of the community at Masjid as-Saber.

Identity at the Muslim Community Center

Over the past thirty years, the community has been very active in the Northeast Portland neighborhood where it has always been located, as its working class members have united to overcome financial struggles and to improve the local neighborhood. The leadership and members of the Muslim Community Center traces their roots in Portland further back than most other Muslim communities in the city, though their religious identities have undergone significant changes in its duration. The community began with a few members of the Nation of Islam gathering in the mid-to-late 1960s to pray and to accomplish various community-oriented activities. The community grew, and became one of the most active of the smaller Nation of Islam communities before Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975. By that time, the community had established a center for meetings, which also included a business, a schoolroom, offices, and apartments in which community members lived. However, in 1975, Warith Deen Muhammad became the new leader of the Nation of Islam and converted all the movement’s members to Sunni Islam. At this point, embarked upon a number of changes of location. ‘In the transition from Nation of Islam into . . . it was, at that time it was called the World Community of Islam, —it went through several names —that space was lost to us. And then at that point we became nomads. Urban Nomads.’ Moving from storefront to storefront, the community has grown more cohesive, as members have always volunteered to offer skills and service for the benefit of the community. The community has finally settled at a location on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd in Northeast Portland, where it has recently incorporated additional space to accommodate the increasing numbers of Muslims who attend prayers.

While the community has converted to Sunni Islam, it has remained primarily African-American. Nearly all the leaders, including the full-time Imam, the Amir, the Treasurer, and the women’s leaders are African-American; past imams and leaders have also been African-American. Most of the leaders are of the older generations in the community and were involved in the Nation of Islam. Although the community has moved beyond the Nation of Islam’s theology, the older generation is quite proud of their social accomplishments as part of that organization. The community keeps old records of the Nation’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, and a number of community members still refer to the NOI’s former leader as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad as a show of respect for his social accomplishments for the black community. Since the transition ‘into the Sunna,’ as community members refer to it, the community has remained followers of Warith Deen Muhammad, possibly the most prominent and internationally-respected black American Muslim. As a leader of the black Muslim community in America, W.D. Muhammad has maintained the focus on supporting black Muslims while opening his communities to people of all racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds. While the majority of those who attend the Muslim Community Center are black Americans, many others attend and all are welcome.

As members of a mistreated black community, the former Nation of Islam members in the community participated in the 1960s and 1970s struggles to gain rights for black Americans, and they have continued to actively work toward social justice. Members of the community have participated in marches against prostitution and drughouses in the local neighborhood, while others have participated in efforts to keep drugs out of their childrens’ local public schools. The Amir of the mosque has participated in drug counseling programs, while a former imam is very active in a prison ministry program to counsel prisoners from a spiritual standpoint. One of the active women in the community has been involved in the local Head Start program to educate underprivileged children. The community has always been active in its local community in Southeast Portland, a working-class neighborhood that is the most racially diverse area in Portland. The community as a whole participates actively in the neighborhood; it has worked to help struggling neighborhood residents, and representatives marched this year in the annual ‘Good in the ‘Hood Parade’ to celebrate the constituents of the NE neighborhood.

The community has increased their politically activity after September 11, as weekly announcements at Juma prayers will often include political rallies and other events which community members are encouraged to attend. The community has also maintained involvement in politics by inviting each of the local mayoral candidates during recent primaries to attend community potlucks to interface with the community. On other occasions, the community has sent individuals to represent the Muslim Community Center at Muslim community meetings with these mayoral candidates and other politicians or government officials. By participating in the local neighborhood, in local social justice programs, and in local politics, the Muslim Community Center has cultivated an active form of American Islam centered on involvement in local and American contexts. Since many of the community members are working-class black Americans who have overcome various struggles by embracing Islam, this form of American Islam is often oriented toward these experiences and overcoming any challenges they may present.

The experiences of the leaders, and many of the members, of the Muslim Community Center have clearly been shaped by their experiences as African-Americans. By the same token, the Muslims at the MCC have been quite active in shaping the American context by actively participating in programs and activities to ameliorate the neighborhoods around them. Their unique experiences within the American context have distinguished them from the Bilal Mosque and Masjid as-Saber, and given them a particular understanding of America. ‘Because we were the indigenous Muslims and many of us had come through the civil rights movement, we had an insight into American society that we needed to share with our brothers and sisters from other parts of the world.’

Religiously-Oriented Social Institutions and Multiple Public Selves: Identity at the Bosnian Cultural and Educational Center and the Masjid Abubakar

In addition to the three mosques discussed above, two other institutions have been created specifically to cultivate social cohesion among refugees and other immigrants from particular nations. The Bosnian Cultural and Educational Center and the Masjid Abubakar are explicitly oriented toward Bosnian and Somali immigrants, respectively. The significance of these institutions to this paper is that they each provide a part-time community environment in which its members may identify themselves differently than at one of the three mosques I have discussed. Whereas members of these institutions may embrace the identity one of the aforementioned mosques as an American Muslim, at these institutions they participate specifically as Bosnian-American or Somali-American Muslims. These centers provide the ability for their members to participate in multiple communities, then, and to assert multiple identities.

The Bosnian Cultural and Educational Center serves a Bosnian-American community that is largely comprised of refugees. The center was established in 2002 as a cultural center, but it plays both a cultural and religious role in the Bosnian community. As a geographical center of the community, the space is open Friday through Sunday for community socializing, group prayers, youth meetings, occasional lectures, potlucks, and language school. One of the founders and active members explained that the cultural center was established in response to the fear that Bosnian culture was disappearing within the new U.S. environment. The center allows a space to foster Bosnian language and culture, and, as a result, English is rarely spoken at the center. Individuals from the community of approximately 100 families take turns opening and closing the center on weekends. The community provides a space for Juma prayers and evening prayers on the weekend, but is not exclusively a religious center. The center provides a social atmosphere for Bosnian-born Muslims and those who are religiously involved often supplement their experiences at the center with participation in other Muslim communities.

In a situation similar to that of the Bosnian community, Somali immigrants, many of whom are refugees, began arriving in Portland in the late 1990s. After a few years, the Somali community had become so large that they established Masjid AbuBakar to be a gathering place for prayer in the community. The mosque serves as a center for the community based on common Somali identity. However, many of those involved in the Somali community regularly attend other mosques, most notably Bilal Mosque and Masjid as-Saber. By supplementing experiences at Masjid Abubakar or the Bosnian Center with prayers at another Mosque, members of these communites participate in multiple identities. Those who wish to cultivate Arabic culture and who wish to participate in Arabic language-based activities attend prayers and activities at Masjid as-Saber. By the same token, those who seek a more America-oriented Islam focused on interaction with non-Muslim communities may become more involved at the Bilal Mosque or the Muslim Community Center. The participation in multiple communities facilitates the participation in multiple identities.

Some members of Sufi orders in Portland also assert different identities by participating in multiple communities, as they often pray at one mosque or another. A number of members from Sufi communities in Portland pray at mosques for Juma prayer as any other Muslims. At one mosque at which Sufism is considered a dubious subject, accusations arose that one well-respected member of the community was Sufi. After some discussion, leaders in the community decided that —in order to avoid exclusion and to maintain its self-proclaimed ‘liberal’ identity —the community must judge individuals according to their actions and treat rumors about such matters as irrelevant. This policy assumes that if an individual has always behaved appropriately and Islamically to the best knowledge of community members, his/her personal endeavors are not the concern of the community. In this instance, the types of values to which community members appeal make possible the individual participation in multiple community identities. It is quite easy for individuals to participate in multiple communities and, in fact, many individuals and families do so.

Umbrella Organizations and Multiple Public Selves: ISGP and MET

Muslims in Portland also have the opportunity to assert multiple public selves by participating in umbrella organizations. These organizations provide a social setting outside of the mosque in which Muslims can interact with other Muslims whose particular goals or Islamic interpretations may differ from theirs. The establishment of these umbrella organizations to unite the Muslim community and to represent this ummah to non-Muslim America is a distinctly American response to the desire to create an Islamic social and educational environment in which to raise children. In response to GhaneaBassiri and Lawrence, who have underscored the importance of unity between immigrant and American-born Muslims, these organizations attempt to unite all local Muslims despite different backgrounds. While these goals have not been fully realized, as the participation of Shi’is, Ahmadis, and even African-Americans has been limited, the establishment of these organizations as attempts to unite Muslims in a social environment is a step toward overcoming such internal divisions within the Muslim community.

In the mid-1970s, a group of Muslim families began gathering to provide an Islamic social environment for their children to supplement the non-Islamic environment in which they engaged on a daily basis. The founders of the Islamic Center of Greater Portland (ISGP) hoped to connect their children to Islamic roots, providing a multicultural community in which to teach their children of their Islamic heritage. Originally comprised of four families who gathered at one another’s houses, the community grew quickly as more families moved to Portland for professional opportunities. In 1993, a group of ISGP members formed an offshoot group called the Muslim Educational Trust (MET) to fulfill desires for a full-time educational organization and to focus more on representing the Muslim community to non-Muslim Americans. ‘Most of the mosques have concentrated on trying to help the local people, giving them council . . . whereas as we are trying to bridge the gap between the Muslims and the outer community.’ Since 1993, MET has grown in community size and impact, while ISGP has remained active despite a reduction in the number of its activities. In the late 1990s, MET opened the Islamic School of the Muslim Educational Trust (ISMET), one of two full-time Islamic schools in Portland, to provide an Islamically-oriented school environment for children in grades K-12. Both ISGP and MET were designed to unite Muslims beyond particular mosque communities and to represent this more united Muslim community to non-Muslim American. ‘The goals and objectives obviously were to not only foster friendship and so forth amongst the Muslim community, but to actually reach out to the larger American community also.’ Each community has participated in dialogue groups, given lectures, and made presentations to non-Muslims on behalf of the Muslim community, in addition to extending invitations to neighbors to its own events.

ISGP events have always been social functions with an Islamic focus. At typical functions, members of the community gather to read topical passages from the Qur’an, after which women, men, and children socialize in their respective groups; social activities involve picnics, lectures, and sports and other games. Similarly, MET holds social events such as monthly potlucks, educational lectures, fundraisers, and other activities oriented toward creating a positive Islamic social environment. At one MET potluck earlier this summer, a prominent woman legal scholar spoke about similarities between Islamic and United States law, arguing that there is little conflict between the two systems. However, an argument erupted when one member of the audience reprimanded the speaker for not covering her head. Examples such as this one provide insight into the strengths and limitations of MET and ISGP; while the ability to gather Muslims from various communities is invaluable, inevitable complications ensue due to competing understandings of Islamic lifestyle. These tensions must be worked out in order to best present a united Islamic voice to the non-Muslim community. This event also elucidates another challenge these organizations must face, as few, if any, African-American Muslims were present at the event.

While participation from the African-American community is generally low, each organization encourages all Sunni Muslims to attend events.

We are united in this community, we are very tight, we all work together. We don’t really look at one community different as the other, but we know that one community just has a different style of doing things. One community is more engaged, while another community is more worried about the local members.

The ISGP community has taken pains to include the entire Muslim community by cultivating a diverse community that celebrates cultural difference. The current President boasts that ISGP organized the Eid celebrations last year at the Portland Convention Center, an event that united Muslims from at least 27 nations and many mosques across the state. Similarly, MET events enable Muslims from many different national and cultural backgrounds to socialize and to become part of a common community. By representing a broad spectrum of Muslims with different ethnic, national, and socio-economic backgrounds and interests, these umbrella organizations attempt to unite many members of various mosque communities in Portland.

Each of these organizations has tried to represent diversity in the ummah by diversifying its leadership. The MET leadership has been comprised of members from various mosques in the Portland area, including the former President who is the Imam of the Muslim Community Center. Despite his leadership, however, MET has struggled to incorporate members of the Muslim Community Center into the community. Similarly, the current leadership of ISGP is comprised of members from various countries and various mosque communities. The current board of directors includes Muslims who pray at each of the Sunni mosques in the Portland area, while past leadership has included an active Shi’i board member as well. As the current President of ISGP boasts, ‘We have members in all the centers, all the mosques. There are members in every single place.’ The Imam of the Muslim Community Center is also active in the leadership at ISGP, though this reveals another unfortunate trend; while particular individuals from many different mosques have participated in the umbrella organizations, it is often the same few individuals and not a large portion of the community that is participating. ISGP has also worked hard to include a larger number of Muslims from the Muslim Community Center, as the leadership paid for a table for the Muslim Community Center at the most recent Eid festival. ISGP and MET have both engaged mosque communities by organizing fundraisers and holding interfaith and social events on behalf of various mosque communities. ISGP holds Sunday School classes at Masjid as-Saber and ISGP have participated in presentations to schools about Islam at Bilal Mosque. By including members of various mosques in the diverse community of an umbrella organization, ISGP and MET allow those who attend their events to participate in a different ummah from that of their mosque.

This more diverse and inclusive ummah has become a central aspect of the educational atmospheres provided by these organizations. According to the President of ISGP, these organizations provide a setting in which American Muslim children can be provided with different Islamic backgrounds that comprise their religious and cultural roots. ‘I want to provide the children with an Islamic environment in spite [of the fact that] they are American Muslims.’ ISGP’s Sunday School to teaches children about the Qur’an and various aspects of Islamic life, while ISMET teaches students through full-time broadly focused American and Islamic curricula, based on textbooks from all over the world. ISMET provides a diverse curriculum to complement its multicultural atmosphere, as teachers and students hail from many different national, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. The first principal of ISMET, and one of the active founding members, is a member an African-American Muslim, though the majority of teachers are immigrants. One of ISMET’s goals is to represent a broad spectrum of the Portland Muslim community by drawing from various mosques in the city.

In the process of participating in these umbrella organizations, members of the Muslim community in Portland can socialize with other Muslims regardless of differing values and backgrounds. While participants in these activities sometimes represent their respective mosques, they most often participate independently in umbrella communities. The umbrella communities provide a social Islamic atmosphere in which individuals can assert a Muslim identity distinct from the particular religious identity they put forth at a mosque. While these organizations provide a more inclusive structure than any particular mosque, however, they do not unite all members of the Portland Muslim community, as African-American Sunnis participate to a limited extent, and Shi’is and Ahmadis even less so. While these organizations have not been created as arenas for religious debate, issues such as sectarian differences, or even modesty of dress, clearly affect social relations in a manner that is often inhibiting to interaction. These types of conflicts make it clear that, while the umbrella organizations attempt to avoid particular Islamic identities by uniting ideologically and racially distinct communities, a certain level of Islamic interpretations and identity must be asserted, as when planning rules for gendered interaction at events. These logistical problems must be dealt with in order for these organizations to be fully successful, but the attempts to unite an ummah of Portland are a significant step in the efforts to establish an American Muslim community.


This paper has argued that individuals in the Portland Muslim community assert multiple Muslim identities by participating in different communities. Particularly, the presence of both religious and religiously-oriented social environments allow for the manipulation of various goals and identities by oscillating between mosques, which unite Muslims with particular ideological views, and more inclusive umbrella organizations, which try to fuse together various different identities. To return to some of the literature on the subject, this paper suggests perhaps a re-appropriation of McCloud’s conception of the tension between ‘asabiya and ummah. McCloud discusses the tension between national goals —in the case she discusses, the Nation of Islam’s struggle for independence —and the universalistic goals of participating in a global ummah. The evidence in this paper suggests that Portland Muslims navigate a different tension. These Muslims accomplish particular goals according to their Islamic interpretations at religious institutions, and unite as Muslims to embrace common identification with Islam and to represent a joint Muslim community to the larger American Public.

This network of organizations provides a distinctly American response to the challenges of establishing a Muslim community in a non-Muslim majority nation. The Muslim communities of Portland discussed in this paper challenge the notion that scholars should categorize Muslims primarily according to their nation of origin, as the various mosques and, organizations unite individuals with common ideological leanings. However, an approach that uses ideological identity as the only criterion for categorizing the population overlooks the tendency for Muslims with common national, ethnic, or racial backgrounds to assert common ideological identities or to unite on these grounds. The best approaches to American Islam seem to be those that examine the intersection of particular ideological identities and racial identities within the unique American context. Both Kambiz GhaneaBassiri and Bruce Lawrence have done this, as they have each discussed the unique effects of the American context on the development of community among American Muslims.

The complex dynamics of the tension between religious and social American Islamic institutions complicate categorical approaches to the Muslim community, as we see that some of the scholarly attempts to categorize American Muslims overlook significant cooperation and commonalities. Within ISGP and MET, members are not separated by their status as immigrant or indigenous Muslims, or by various other distinguishing factors that could be the criteria for classifying community members. Rather, these organizations attempt to serve as umbrellas that incorporate the entire Sunni community, sometimes extending beyond it. The success of these organizations to include all Muslims is limited, as the organizations tend to draw large populations only from a few mosques, while small numbers of individuals from other communities may attend events. As Lawrence has argued, the gap between immigrant and African-American Muslims appears to be larger than that between particular immigrant groups. However, the creation of institutions specifically oriented toward uniting these types of gaps prove the unity of these communities to a greater extent than is suggested by much of the literature on American Islam. In addition to the umbrella organizations, South Asian social gatherings have unite Shi’is, Ahmadis, and Sunnis, while certain Prison Ministry projects have united Shi’is and Sunnis in social work. In these events, as with events at the Bosnian Cultural and Educational Center and countless other events in various communities, individuals and families socialize as Muslims, though Islamic interpretation is not the primary focus.

Any categorization of the American Muslim community must take into account both religious and social arenas for interaction and construction of American Islam. While many approaches have focused on Muslims’ diverse relationships to America as a divider, this paper has articulated at least a few instances in which Muslims with different backgrounds have formed united communities. The American Muslim community is distinct in its navigation of the tension between religious and social dynamics, and the possibility of multiple public selves that arises from this unique tension should be at the center of any examination of American Islam.

—Jonathan Grass, Reed College

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