America's Muslim Ghettos

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By Salam Al-Marayati
Monday, August 15, 2005

Reports that the culprits in the London terrorist attacks were in fact homegrown British Muslim lads are reverberating throughout the U.S. Muslim community. They are forcing Muslims to focus on how to prevent such incidents in this country. The way to do this, it is clear, is to combat the Muslim-ghetto mentality that is proliferating in Western countries these days. This has so far been mostly a European phenomenon, but it could easily take root here.

The word "ghetto" comes from the name of the island near Venice where Italian Jews were made to live in the 16th century. A ghetto is a section of a city occupied by a minority group whose people live there largely because of social, economic or legal pressure. Make no mistake: British Muslims are by and large living under such conditions. And it should come as no surprise that residents living in isolated, homogenous pockets -- such as Leeds, where the suspects resided -- do not feel a sense of belonging to their nation or the West. Social and economic isolation of minority communities makes them more prone to political and religious radicalization.

Throughout Europe, cultural barriers separate Muslim ghettos from mainstream society. In general, European Muslims belong to the underclass. British Muslims are mostly Indo-Pakistani; French Muslims are largely Algerian, Belgian Muslims are immigrants from Morocco, etc. In many of these countries where Muslim populations are largely homogenous, the forces of isolation are stronger than the forces of integration, partly because of the socioeconomic status of Muslim communities throughout Europe and partly because of self-imposed isolation.

In the United States, it has been a different picture and a different reality. Because American Muslims are relatively more educated and affluent than European Muslims, they are typically far more interested in integrating into mainstream society. That American Muslims do not have a "ghetto problem" may be one reason U.S. officials consider al Qaeda more of a threat in Europe than within the United States.

But that doesn't mean some American Muslims don't find themselves on the fringes of society. While social forces in Europe may alienate Muslims, it is political forces in the United States that repel many. Although the vast majority of American Muslims do not live in economically depressed physical ghettos, many live in a psychological ghetto caused by the lack of acceptance they feel from their neighbors and colleagues, especially in the post-Sept. 11 era. This psychological ghetto may prove the largest challenge in the war on terrorism.

Those of the ghetto mentality experience a kind of self-righteous schizophrenia. Outside home and the mosque, they abide by the rules and work for their economic improvement. But elsewhere they fall prey to the extremist recruiters who present no more than a forgery of Islam. As American Muslim leaders, our aim is to neutralize the nexus of radical ideology with the ghetto mentality.

The challenge for all of us is to prevent the stigmatization of people who feel disowned by mainstream America. This social ailment should concern all of us Americans who want to see an end to the evil of terrorism and who wish to pursue the ideals of pluralism. It is both a law enforcement and a sociopolitical problem.

American Muslims can stem the tide of isolation by articulating a message of Islam that is American-based, not Arab- or South Asian-based. U.S. political leaders, from the president down to mayors, can do more to isolate the terrorists by embracing mainstream American Muslim communities, instead of isolating those communities by excluding them from serious conversations about the security of our country.

Muslim leaders in the United States, as in Britain, have established a partnership with law enforcement. That partnership needs national attention to illustrate that the walls of pluralism are impenetrable to the ideologies of hate. It is the turn of American Muslims, like other religious minorities in the United States before them, to overcome stigmatization by clearly demonstrating to all that America is home and that no foe, domestic or foreign, will change that.

The writer is executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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