Contextualization and Periodization of Muslim Civic and Political Activities in Portland, Oregon (2004)


Muslims in the United States were for many decades all but ignored socially, and totally ignored politically. But events of the past forty years have been witness to a increased interest in the religion of Islam and its adherents. Large numbers of immigrants from Muslim countries increased the size of the American Muslim community. The Persian Gulf War brought Muslims into the media spotlight. Finally, the events of September 11th, 2001 and the destruction of the World Trade Center made popular sentiment turn against Muslims, and paved the way toward legislation that has targeted Muslims as potential enemies. These events in American history have helped to stimulate both civil and political action from Muslims in the United States. The following paper examines the development of civil and political activity of the Muslim community in Portland, OR. My argument has two parts: First, Muslims in Portland have undergone a series of changes in the way they engage in civil and political processes, becoming more effective in focusing their civil activities to gain political power. Second, these changes are best viewed as developments in a periodization marked by three major events involving the United States: The Immigration Act of 1965, the Persian Gulf War, and the events of September 11th, 2001.

Between Civil Society and Politics

Let us set out our terms in which we will talk about Muslim civil and political involvement. “Civil” and “political” are terms that are thrown around in a variety of contexts, used in a variety of ways. In order to make clear precisely what we mean when we say civil society, I offer the following definition from the Center for Civil Society based at the London School of Economics:

Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organisations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organisations, community groups, women’s organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trades unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy group.[1]

There is an important distinction to be made between civil society and general society. The point of departure is that in a civil society, the community functions in at least semi-organized blocs, rather than as individuals or very small units. Two people discussing issues of social unrest is not part of civil society. But if those two people create a forum for an open community discussion of politics, that is civil society. If that group circulates a petition to affect social change, that is civil society. Further, civil society encompasses issues of public concern, such as healthcare, education, civil rights, and social policy. As the definition states, civil societal groups are made up of concerned citizens united for a common cause.

An especially difficult aspect of dealing with civil society versus political participation is that, as mentioned above, the lines separating politics and civil actions are blurred, frequently beyond recognition. For the purposes of this paper, we will simplify our terms and allow political participation to refer only to that arena which is directly involved in government. This includes voting, lobbying, running for office and officially endorsing political candidates. Though this is a very narrow interpretation, for the sake of clarity I will use it in the following discussion. I hope to show that the activities of the Muslim community in Portland have undergone a series of developments which have brought them out of exclusive engagement in civil society, and increased their political participation.

The Problem of Identities

There has been a great deal of research and theorizing regarding the Muslim community in the United States. The most convincing work I have come across so far has been that of Ali A. Mazrui, chair of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. I choose to briefly examine his work because he deals with multiple identities of Muslim in the United States. He writes:

From the point of view of response to public affairs, Muslims in the United States respond to the emotions, pulls, and sentiments of their own national origins…Second Muslims also act in response to their racial identities, given the race conscious nature of American society…Third, U.S. Muslims try to influence policy as Muslims per se…Fourth, American Muslims may also act, quite simply, as Americans, as concerned or patriotic U.S. citizens…[2]

Essentially, Mazrui’s claim is that Muslims claim membership in different group identities depending on the issue at stake. However, though I agree that there are multiple ways in which Muslims in the United States respond to a given situation, I believe that I differ methodologically from Mazrui. He seems to say that Muslims respond to various public issues through different identities simultaneously. This means that where the issues of abortion comes up, Muslims may indeed respond via their religious identity, but where issues of taxes are concerned, Muslims may respond via their identity as U.S. citizens. What I hope to develop in this paper is the idea that the various identities are better viewed through a system of periodization. Thus it is true that Muslims respond to different issues through different identities, but that different issues take precedence depending on the social environment in the United States. Taxes and abortion will always concern Muslims, but the roles they take on in the sphere of civil society and the roles they take on politically will be shaped by the matters most pressing at the time, which we can see change through the periodization I have set forth in this paper.

The development of Muslim civil and political involvement can be looked at as a three-phase process. In the period prior to the Gulf War, Muslim political participation in Portland was for all intents and purposes non-existent. Muslim community networks were built with the goal of promoting and providing an Islamic way of life for Muslims in the U.S. These groups are correctly seen as functioning within the realm of civil society. Political involvement was lacking. A common theory for why this was the case is that as Muslims in a non-Muslim country, many questioned whether participation in a system of non-Muslim government was even permitted.[3] It is also important to realize that at this time Muslims were relatively new to the United States and thus to its political system. Many immigrant Muslims came from countries where political involvement or opposition to government policies frequently resulted in economic devastation, imprisonment, or death. Consequently, people who fled these regimes were not anxious to become involved in any activity that had, in their experience, led to mistreatment by the ruling party. For these reasons, the nascent Muslim community learned to participate in an innocuous way that allowed for greater social participation without conflict of interest in the surrounding community.

The second phase began in the 1990s after the Gulf War ended. Muslims in the United States were thrust suddenly into the media spotlight during the Gulf War. The United States was at war with Saddam Hussein’s military regime, which happened also to be a Muslim-majority country. Even after the war had ended, those who even looked like a part of the enemy were scrutinized by their American neighbors as, at worst, potential traitors and, at best, as complete foreigners. The influx of Iraqi refugees, those who had risen up in opposition to Saddam Hussein’s regime, increased the attention Muslims in Portland and elsewhere received, not necessarily for the better.[4] The negativity American Muslims felt as a result of that war helped to change the nature of Muslims’ civil and political activity. The 1980s question ‘Should Muslims participate in the politics of a non-Muslim nation?’ changed to ‘How can Muslims effectively participate in the political process of the United States to affect positive change for the country as a whole?’

In the third and present phase, that question remains the same, but the way in which Muslims in the United States are involving themselves in American politics has changed from the activities of 1990s. This dramatic change takes place after September 11th. Now, Muslims in Portland have found ways to engage in political activity not only through their own efforts, but also by joining forces with other faith-based groups, as well as secular organizations. In so doing, they have increased not only their political reach, but gained a foothold on the political platform already built by these more established groups.

As will I will show throughout the following discussion, I have chosen to view these changes in political activity as a distinctly Muslim activity, rather than one based on ethnic origins. As Muslims in Portland began to feel their Muslim identity threatened, either by the community at large or by local law enforcement, it became apparent that they much rally around the cause of promoting understanding and tolerance, by asserting their rights as citizens to live free of harassment and exercise their freedom of religion. This meant that whether immigrant or native, Iranian, Palestinian, African-American, or Caucasian, Muslim civil and political engagement began to converge from what, in the 1970s and 80s remained a largely fragmented community, into a united force which can wield social and political power.

For Muslims, By Muslims: Pre-Gulf War Muslim Organizations

The two decades of the 1970s and 1980s seem an appropriate starting point for establishing a chronological view of American Muslim political participation. Though the wave of emigration from Muslim countries to the U.S. began in the 1960s, visible participation in American Society did not begin until these later decades. One scholar refers to this as the “shift from self-imposed alienation from U.S. culture to tentative experiments at political participation”.[5]

In 1970s Portland, the Muslim community was at best very small and very fragmented. There was no real social network, no place to meet. The families who arrived in the mid-seventies said that they never saw other Muslims on the street. Families prayed in their homes, maybe with one other family, frequently by themselves. Mosques did not exist. Halal markets did not exist. The immigrant families mostly kept to themselves and those who shared a common language.

The community began to grow. The passing of the Immigration Act of 1965 allowed larger numbers of immigrants coming to the United State from all over the world, a great many of them Muslim. Educational programs,[6] too, attracted students from Middle Eastern and South Asian countries to study in the United States, and some of those graduates moved to Portland for work at Intel and other corporations. In the late 70s and into the 80s, young families began to have children and the community continued to

Though there were more Muslims, the community could not really be described as cohesive. The immigrant Shi‘is had begun praying together, as had the immigrant Sunnis, using houses and community centers as makeshift mosques. Members of the Portland’s African-American Muslim community had only just converted to traditional Sunni Islam at the behest of Warith Dean Muhammad, which was a significant change from the from the teachings of his father, Elijah Muhammad, leader of Nation of Islam. A former member of Nation of Islam described the movement “primarily as a nationalist movement”. The African-American community, therefore, was adjusting to becoming a Muslim community, and one that was very different from the Middle Eastern community. The challenges which faced each of the various Muslim groups around Portland were quite different, so it follows that each found various ways to improve their situation.

Among the immigrant Muslims, it became apparent that some sort of social organization was needed for people of the same religious background. In the mid-seventies, about five families got together and began to organize meetings, held in one another’s houses and, as interest increased, in local churches and community centers. The focus was primarily on social activities which would bring the community, regardless of sect or ethnic background, together in a way that they could meet other Muslims and establish a close-knit group of Muslims in Portland. They officially registered as Islamic Society of Greater Portland (ISGP), a non-profit organization, in 1984.

In the beginning, ISGP’s activities were focused more on activities for the adults. One of the founders of ISGP comments that “the reasons for founding [ISGP] was to serve people of the same religious background, which was needed on a social and a religious level, and the second reason was for the children…at that time we had children who were growing, and we needed to provide education for their benefit.”[7] Education focused on study of the Quran and Hadith. Members also organized children’s classes to provide Muslim children with an understanding of their religious heritage. The children’s classes, held once or twice a week, not only introduced children of various ethnic backgrounds to one another, but also their parents, who would come to socialize and sometimes for religious teachings while their children were in class.

Interviews with various past and present leaders of ISGP have emphasized the social aspect of ISGP. Besides the children’s classes, ISGP organized picnics and barbecues for the community, as well as large Eid celebrations at the end of Ramadan., which in recent years has drawn guests from the non-Muslim communities around the Portland area. ISGP was formed by Muslims who were relatively new to Portland, and frequently to the United States, as a place where Muslims of all different cultural backgrounds could come together and learn how to be part of the small and relatively new category “American Muslims”. A former president of ISGP describes this clearly:

“Pretty much all of us that belong to ISGP are immigrants. We have a culture difference. We’re all American Muslims, but we all have this need of belonging to people of our kind, just a comfort level. When new people come [ISGP is] a very good platform for people to come and get to know people…everything is so new that coming to an organization where people speak the same language that you do, or wear the same outfits that you do, or were born in the same city as you, there’s a comfort level there, and there’s a sense of belonging which makes people a lot more comfortable.”[8]

There has been no mention that the African American Muslim community attended or participated in the activities of ISGP during the late seventies and eighties. The community had converted to Sunni Islam in the mid-70s from the Nation of Islam. It seems, however, that though they were Muslims, the challenges which faced them faced the entire African-American community, not just the Muslims. Especially in the middle and late 1980s, the African-American communities were struggling with gang warfare in their neighborhoods, as well as drug trafficking and prostitution. African-American Muslims were concerned and worked for change in these neighborhoods. They approached young males, especially those who were involved in drugs and gangs, inviting them to meetings. They coordinated community watchdog groups to protect school children from drug dealers who frequented the area. They marched down areas with notorious prostitution in protest of the crumbling of society’s morals. In 1988, a Muslim couple began an Islamic preschool in their home. For older children, African-American Muslim families would gather each week during the summer to reinforce their faith and allow them to meet other children in the community and learn about their faith.

Notice that these meetings, though separate, served the same purpose: social interaction and education for people of a common background. The religious background of the African American community was not the same as ISGPs members, because of their ties with Nation of Islam. Notice also that the types of activities that African-American Muslims participated in at this time sought to alleviate social ills affecting the Black community.[9] It would not have made sense for immigrant Muslims to protest gang violence within their community, because it simply did not occur. Likewise, African-American Muslims were not lacking a cohesive community. They had grown up in the United States, they spoke the native language, and they had developed social ties regardless of religious orientation.

What is important to note in the preceding discussion is that each of the two Muslim communities were engaged primarily in organizations and activities which dealt with issues faced by their respective cultural communities. In the period preceding the Gulf War, very little was known about Islam or Muslims by the greater Portland community. There was no reason for Muslims to feel threatened because of their religion, so there was no reason participate in civil or political activities through a specifically Muslim identity.

This is consistent with Mazrui’s theory of multiple identities of American Muslims. In the face of issues that faced their cultural community, Muslims responded through a cultural identity. This meant that African American Muslims responded more as African Americans than as Muslims. As demonstrated earlier, immigrant Muslim became a sort of cultural category, so while they may have had different experiences prior to moving to the U.S., the commonalities of being immigrants with somewhat similar experiences provided a basis from which to build an identity.

The difference between Mazrui’s claim and the position taken in this paper is a difference between a sociological approach versus an historical approach. Whereas Mazrui seems to suggest that American Muslims will simultaneously respond to various issues on the basis of competing identities, I argue that these identities change over time based on the priority of issues. It is not that an identity becomes extinguished, or exists exclusively at one time and not another. The preceding discussion of the African American community helps clarify this. There is very little to indicate that African American Muslims were acting in a way that emphasized their Islamic faith. It is my belief that this is because they did not perceive themselves under attack as Muslims, but they did see serious social problems facing the larger African American community in Portland. During the period that this threat was given priority as the most severe problem facing their community, they responded as African Americans, not as Muslims. The scrutiny and negative attention given to American Muslims following the Gulf War, however, suddenly switched the priority of the problem. It is not that they stopped responding to problems within the African American community, but that they switched the focus of their civil and political activity to issues facing the Muslim community in Portland.

Islam 101: Post-Gulf War Muslim Organizations

The 1989-1991 war with Saddam Hussein’s military regime in Iraq made “Islam” and “Muslim” frequently heard terms. What those terms meant, however, was poorly understood. A cloud of suspicion and scrutiny settled over Portland’s Muslims. The need to combat the negative images and stereotypes about Islam and its adherents appeared. Creating pathways of cross cultural communication and cooperation was imperative. The Muslim organizations formed in Portland in the post-war 1990s reflected such a need.

The social organization known as ISGP had grown in membership and scope during its first ten years. But the educational efforts had declined, in part because the various mosques established in the late 1980s provided weekend classes for children. There was a Sunday school run out of Masjid as-Sabr, the largest Sunni mosque in Portland, and many people sent their children there for development of their Islamic education. The problem was, however, that the children were not the only ones who needed or desired education. A great many adults in the Muslim community lacked a sound knowledge about their faith. Many had been raised Muslim, but as with any religion this did not necessarily mean they had a deep understanding of what Islam is. Others were converts, brought up in an American society that, especially at that time, was unfamiliar with Islam.

The Muslim Educational Trust (MET) was founded in 1993 by people involved in ISGP. The membership of MET was intentionally diverse, in order that the organization should reflect the great diversity of the Portland Muslim community itself. Muslims from several communities became involved, attending the monthly potlucks, as well as various other events sponsored by the group. MET was meant to be the educational component of ISGP, focusing its efforts entirely on educating the Portland community, Muslim and non-Muslim, about Islam. It was deliberately designed as a multi-cultural educational center, in the hopes that it would attract communities from all over Portland (which are to a large extent, as in any big city, designated along cultural or ethnic lines). MET established Islamic School of the Muslim Educational Trust (ISMET), a full-time school that provides Islamic education up through high school. ISMET provides education for Muslims. However, the founders of MET were also determined that it provide the non-Muslim community with education about Islam. MET’s mission statement reads:

MET is dedicated to the betterment of our society, and strives to achieve its purpose through education in the broadest sense, through cooperation and networking, and through programs which benefit both Muslim and non-Muslim people of the greater Portland area.[10]

To achieve this mission, MET established its headquarters at Portland State University, centrally located in downtown Portland, as a neutral place that was neutral from which to engage all members of the Portland community. MET established a speakers bureau to speak to churches, synagogues, school and colleges about Islam and Muslims, as a way to educate the greater Portland area about the Muslim community. Also, by coordinating with various departments and student groups at PSU, MET has managed to bring lecture series and public forums on issues regarding the Islamic world, such as the status of Saudi Arabian women or the Iraq War.

The African-American Muslim community became very involved in the activities of MET. The involvement of diverse Muslims communities in a single organization which was meant to “present” Islam to the surrounding non-Muslim community was, in large part, a result of the sudden media attention and social discord that existed as a result of post Gulf War prejudice against Muslims. Prior to the Gulf War, there was little need for Muslims to feel threatened on the basis of their religion. Faith in common was not enough to make Muslims from all over Portland organize themselves into a united front. Muslims in Portland participated in civil society via their cultural identities. It would have made very little sense for African-American Muslims to concern themselves with the difficulties of living in a new country; likewise the immigrant communities were not experiencing the same problems with drugs and gangs. However, when prejudice and mistrust began to focus on Muslims because of their faith, it was necessary for Muslims to participate via their religious identity. Thus not only do Muslims develop new ways of participating in civil and political activities, but this development can clearly be seen as a periodization of events such as the Gulf War which affected the Muslim community in Portland and elsewhere. Previous concerns continue to exist, but the way in which Muslim in Portland engage with the surrounding community has changed depending on what is perceived as the biggest threat at a given time. It is entirely possible, even probable, that when (if) Muslims stop being targeted because of their religion, they may very well change the ways in which they engage in civil society and/or politics, thus changing their identity in yet another periodization.

Ambassadors of Islam: Post 9/11 Muslim Organizations

The impact of September 11th, 2001 on Muslims’ political engagement cannot be overestimated. Public animosity towards Muslims as well as government sanctioned profiling and spying by the FBI became the norm. The Muslim community of the United States was under attack politically as the government took aim at the community through mandatory registration for Muslim males and infiltration of mosques accused of promoting terrorism and anti-American sentiment.

Portland’s Muslim community came under public scrutiny immediately following the 9/11 attacks. The infamous Portland 7 case grabbed national headlines as a group of Muslim men from Portland’s Sunni Masjid as-Sabr were arrested on charges of attempting to assist the Taliban in fighting the U.S. Army. Not only that, but less than a year after those arrests, the Imam of the same mosque was arrested at Portland International Airport by the Portland Joint Terrorism Taskforce on the grounds of a sealed indictment. Rumors that he had funneled money through the mosque to terrorist groups further stained the image of Masjid as-Sabr and outraged the community as they began to feel their civil rights erode.

The felt threat to this community, however, did not only spur reaction from Muslims themselves. A wave of interfaith activity begun by various Christian and Jewish communities around Portland created a whole new arena in which the religious identity of Muslims could play out in the civil societal context. What is fascinating about this interfaith dialogue is that it has become a political tool. The Jewish and Christian community of the United States are well represented at the political level, Portland being no exception. Interfaith dialogue existed prior to September 11thgrew from an initial show of outreach and solidarity from other faith-based communities to a platform from which people of faith, especially those from the Jewish and Christian sectors who were better represented, could call for reform of policies which targeted Portland Muslims. Muslim leaders were accompanied by Jewish and Christian leaders when they were interviewed by the FBI as a way to ensure they had witnesses to their interviews. Groups such as the Institute for Christian-Muslim Understanding began as a way to open pathways for Muslims and Christians to understand one another. Though not a political group itself, it is representative of the type of interfaith activity which has now grown into a fight against prejudice and bigotry. In May of 2004, the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, an annual event, uninvited a Muslim leader from Bilal Mosque. But as proof of the sort of effect interfaith dialogue has had on the Portland community, the mayor of Beaverton said he would decline to go; various others spoke out against the injustice; and in a newspaper editorial, Reverend Roger Reynolds wrote that the Mayor’s Prayer’s Breakfast should be a place in which people of faith unite for the common good of the community, and that it should include all people of faith, not just Christians.[11] Assuredly, the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast does not fall within the political category. But the ability of Muslims to affect people involved in the political sphere, such as local mayors, is a result of the sort of community involvement the post-9/11 community has achieved. It is not only Muslims looking out for Muslims now. Other people are actively seeking out the community to offer support and assistance. In the months following 9/11, the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union offered free legal representation to any Muslim contacted by the FBI, and has again extended this offer as the second wave of interviews gets underway. The ACLU has actively opposed the erosion of civil rights due to the U.S. Patriot Act passed just after 9/11, an act which has so far succeeded only in trespassing on the civil rights of Muslim citizens who have ultimately been cleared of terrorist charges.

The ACLU still falls within our definition of a civil societal organization. What is different in post-9/11 Portland is that non-Muslim groups, faith-based and secular, are reaching out to Muslims and paving the way for highly effective efforts at change in both the civil and political arenas.

In November of 2002, then Chief of Police Mark Kroeker invited members from the Muslim community in Portland to establish the Arab/Muslim Police Advisory Committee (AMPAC) to create a relationship of trust between the Portland Muslim community in the police. Especially following the post-9/11 wave of interviews and detainment of Muslims, relations between government agencies and Muslim communities were not good. In Portland, the recent arrests of the people later to be charged in the infamous Portland 7 case had been arrested only a month before. Members of the Muslim community said that the idea for an advisory committee had been posed even prior to 9/11, but that the events of the preceding year had provided a strong impetus to create the committee.

The goal of AMPAC was to have a broad representation of people in the Muslim community. People from different mosques and Islamic groups attended the monthly meetings to voice concerns of their communities to police. Again, as in MET, AMPAC became a place where Muslims from the immigrant communities, as well as from the African American community, came together for the common cause of protecting and promoting their faith. Issues raised have included everything from cultural sensitivity to the dress or behavior of Muslim women to the Joint Terrorism Task Force (a group created to assist the FBI with investigation but which has raised civil rights concerns among Muslims and non-Muslims alike).

As with the relationship established with the ACLU, the Portland Police Bureau reached out to the Muslim community first, and established a relationship that benefited both parties. What is interesting here, just as with the actions of the ACLU, is that this outreach paved the way for members of the Muslim community to become involved in the political process. The Muslim community suddenly has a great many more resources available through these two civil organizations. Furthermore, having a working relationship with two groups long established in the civil and political spheres provided a platform from which Muslims could make demands for their rights and make heard their views on issues like civil rights. Currently, the ACLU has filed a joint lawsuit against John Ashcroft on behalf of several Muslim groups across the U.S., one of which is Masjid as-Sabr, the Portland mosque which has been under surveillance since the Portland 7 arrests. The police liaison to AMPAC has facilitated meetings between Portland Muslims and the FBI, as well as the Port Authority police. The Muslims on this committee are working towards establishing a training program for police trainees on cultural sensitivity and understanding religious diversity, in the hopes that it will further improve interactions between the police and the Muslim community, providing a feeling that both sides are looking out for the common good of the Portland community as a whole.

The African-American Muslim community has been very active in arranging meetings local politicians or political candidates and the Muslim community. During the Summer of 2004, at least three mayoral candidates attended monthly potlucks at the Muslim Community Center (MCC), the predominantly African American mosque. The Imam of MCC has attended meetings and events with imams and presidents of other mosques to ask questions and to make sure that mayoral candidates take into account the ten to fifteen thousand Muslims in the Portland area. A leader at MCC explains, “[We are] trying to position ourselves with those in authority. I think Muslims in this country are going to see more and more that everything is political. You have to be involved if you want to change something. I think that we’re becoming more and more aware and making more and more of an effort to become involved politically, to be able to influence decisions, so this meeting is just an extension of that”.[12]

The most recent endeavor into the realm of politics has come in the form of the Oregon Muslim Citizens Alliance (OMCA), a group which is less than six months old. One of the men who has helped establish this group states the purpose of OMCA as follows:

It is to empower the political engagement of the Muslims…because historically the Muslim immigrants get too busy with their own lives, they don’t engage with the political process, they don’t vote. Most of the immigrants come from countries where there is no democracy, there is no civil rights…We come here for various reasons, and one of them is to have a better life from a political perspective, to have freedom, and to come here on not exercise that freedom kind of defeats the purpose…We want to educate the community that this is a value, in exercising this. First of all, you are getting your opinion out…you can speak about it by your vote. And also, to protect yourself, for example when laws are passed that are detrimental to your social and civil rights, one way to do it is to engage in the political process, you can talk to the politicians, you can tell them that ‘I am concerned about this’. The politicians will only listen to you if you vote. The purpose is to educate people. Some people don’t know how to vote. There is a lot of confusion, a lot of people are scared, and some people are not knowledgeable enough.[13]

OMCA draws on members of all the Muslim communities around Portland. They do no wish to become associated with on political philosophy or one ethnic group or religious sect. Instead, the purpose is to create a Muslim community that understands their rights and duties as American citizens, and that become a political force to be reckoned with, one which is strong enough and involved enough to make it imperative that politicians pay attention to the Muslim vote. “The reason we are Oregon Muslim community is because we have a similar concern for our civil rights…and our point of view on social issues…we are not going to taint it with any religious philosophy.”[14] It is not about religion, it is about politics. Further, it brings members of different communities together regardless of religious beliefs. It is not about who is more religious, or whose religious beliefs are more true. But it has the potential to create an understanding among the community which will unite them in a way which is politically and socially powerful. Members of the new organization say that before these meetings, different group may not have associated with each other more than a couple of times a year for major holidays. Now, the monthly meeting provide a way for the immigrant community to hear the concernes of the African American community and vice-versa. They discuss issues that affect various group within the Muslim community, and become more aware of various political issues which may affect the community.

OMCA, though still very new, has the potential to become a strong group which holds political sway. It is, to my knowledge, the first Muslim political action group in Oregon, one which does not use religious philosophy as a basis for political involvement, but rather defines its community simply as American citizens who happen to be Muslim, and who desperately need political representation to protect themselves. It may prove quite valuable in the coming national election, as well as the upcoming mayoral election in Portland.


The Muslim community in Portland is, of course, only a small section of the American Muslim community. The development of civil and political activities of the community has been shaped by its social context. However, a cursory review of national groups which have developed over the past forty or so years has revealed what seems to be a similar pattern. The Muslim Students Association of the 1960s, Islamic Circle of North American and Islamic Society of North America of the 1970s and 1980s, Council on American-Islamic Relations of the 1990s, and the American Muslim Voice of the post-9/11 era, all are national Muslim groups which appear to have a similar trajectory to that of the Portland Muslim community. Moving from rather isolated civil activities which involved only Muslims to more political activity which continues to try to bridge the gap between American Muslims and the surrounding society, the national pattern of Muslim social change seems similar to those changes which have taken place in the microcosm of Portland. Further research into these national organizations may show how periods of social change affect the development of identities of various social groups, be they ethnic, racial, or religious groups. In regards to American Muslims, understanding other Muslim communities in the U.S. may reveal how and why Muslims in the United States are becoming more powerful politically. For Muslims themselves, political engagement may be the only way to change government sanctioned discrimination and legislative targeting.

[1] “CCS Report on Activities: July 2005-August 2006,” Center for Civil Society, London School of Economics. [Editor’s note 2016: This report now available for download at]↩︎
[2] Mazrui, Ali A. “Muslims between the Jewish Example and the Black Experience” Muslims’ Place in the American Public Square: Hopes, Fears, and Aspirations 2004 Altamira Press. ↩︎
[3] “American Muslims in U.S. Politics: Challenges of Political Participation” Media Guide to Islam; also see Mazrui’s discussion of this question on pg. 120 in “Muslims between the Jewish Example and the Black Experience.” ↩︎
[4] January 12, 1991 “Students from the Middle East Keep a Low Profile”, The Oregonian; April 11, 1993 “Portland’s Muslims Explain Their Faith” The Oregonian. ↩︎
[5] Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck “Maintaining the Faith of the Fathers: Dilemmas of Religious Identity in the Christian and Muslim Arab-American Communities” The Development of Arab American Identity 1994 pg.75. ↩︎
[6] For instance a number of Saudis studied at the University of Portland through programs provided by Saudi Aramco. ↩︎
[7] Interview with Portland Muslim History Project, July 1, 2004. ↩︎
[8] Interview with Portland Muslim History Project, July 26, 2004. ↩︎
[9] Durbin, Kathy “Muslims Change Their Focus” The Oregonian December 25, 1988 ↩︎
[10] Reynolds, Rev. Roger J. “ Religion Today: Let Event Embrace City’s Diverse Faiths” The Oregonian May 13th, 2004. ↩︎
[11] Interview with Portland Muslim History Project, June 15, 2004. ↩︎
[12]Interview with Portland Muslim History Project, August 4, 2004. ↩︎
[13] Interview with Portland Muslim History Project, August 4, 2004. ↩︎