A woman stands outside of a mosque. Photo courtesy of Asim Bharwani/Flikr

Let’s Stop Talking About Being Muslim in America

It’s the identity crisis everyone loves to dish about. It’s like the cronut fad, except it came into being years and years ago – and yet we still enjoy getting a taste of the topic.  A glimmering thread, it is prevalent across the conferences, seminars, jummah lectures and fundraisers taking place around the United States. We as a community just can’t seem to move past the topic of being Muslim in America.

I’m here to say that we need to move forward.

The identity of my generation, the Muslim American identity, was formed amidst games of mosque hide and seek and dinners that both burnt and soothed my tongue. I grew up thinking that being Muslim in America was a natural thing, that our collective history and community were as ingrained in the cultural fabric of the United States as sliced bread.

It was not until I attended my first discussion on the struggles and unnaturalness of being Muslim in America that I first realized that our identity was not as mundane as I once thought. There was a shift in my paradigm that day: suddenly, it wasn’t about living life as a Muslim American. Now, it was about how I was supposed to consolidate the two identities. It was a crisis foisted upon me, and one I grew familiar with among those of my generation.

Granted, there is some basis behind the seeming uncertainty of being Muslim in America. This basis applies, really, if you grew up Muslim elsewhere, and came to America later in life. But it is not a reality for the Muslim youth growing up in America today.

We have failed, time and again, to recognize that the identity of Muslim Americans today is not the identity of Muslims immigrating to America ten or fifteen years ago. No longer is the community mentality of returning back “home” to contribute to the infrastructure and life there – rather, it is a mentality of living and contributing to America’s society, culture and understanding as an American.

Ultimately, the issue at hand is not the discussion of being Muslim in America. The problem is the thought surrounding the discussion, an idea that it is not possible to consolidate the two identities – Muslim and American – in our community today. Although it might have been integral to confront in the community initially, it has reached a point where we are continuing still to overemphasize the topic, a decision that overshadows the real issues our community faces, point blank. The overshadowing serves, then, to validate the premise of mutual exclusivity between the two identities, throwing the Muslim American identity of many today into paralysis and confusion, as they suddenly are faced with the need for reconciliation between the two. We push ourselves two steps back by throwing identity into the way of oncoming traffic, and it only serves to harm rather than help us as a community.

This is not a plea for nationalism. This is a statement of acceptance, of comprehension, and of action. Recognizing that my identity is one, like the identities of so many Muslim Americans across the country today, that was sculpted and rooted in the Muslim American community is not an abandonment of my cultural heritage. Yet I reject the paralysis that arises when I am told that my identity as a Muslim American is not a natural one.

A woman stands outside of a mosque.  Photo courtesy of Asim Bharwani/Flikr
A woman stands outside of a mosque. Photo courtesy of Asim Bharwani/Flikr

The paradox is this: the telling comes not from those outside our community, but rather, from those within – present in the form of lectures on how to be Muslim in America and Friday khutbahs lacking a recognition of the reality in which we reside. Acknowledging the seeming dichotomy between the two identities through talks that are rooted in “back home” mentalities serves not only to create isolation from the existing faith communities for those who grew up in this country, but means further that we are not given the space to celebrate, to breathe, and to grow in our understanding as Muslim Americans.

Frankly,  as a community, we have so much more to tackle ahead of us. Identity should be the least of our worries, and should be an accepted thread in the fabric of the Muslim American community.

However, this development can only take place once we come to terms with who we are as a collective community, culture and all. Only then can we begin to focus on more salient issues, like the problem of mosque attendance, race, arts development, and mental health stigmas.

We cannot expect to move forward as a community if we remain intent on creating identity confusion and division. Let’s move past approaching the topic of being Muslim in America as though we just stumbled upon the issue.

We are Muslim Americans. Now, we just need to figure out what lies ahead for our community.


  • Most Viewed This Week on TIM

  • Latest comments on TIM

  • About the autor
    Laila Alawa

    Laila Alawa is a cultural pundit, social entrepreneur​ ​and digital strategist. She is​ ​the founder and president of Coming of Fait​h​,​ ​LLC, ​associate editor at The Islamic Monthly, manages nonprofit communications and media outreach,​ ​and​ ​​regularly​ ​​writes columns for The Huffington Post, ​Mic​, Patheos.com​ and The Guardian.​ ​​To learn more about her work, visit her at​ ​www.lailaalawa.com.

    Latest at tim

    See our Current issue

    Join our Newsletter

    Enter your e-mail address below to receive periodic updates from The Islamic Monthly.

  • Follow us on

    • Brotherman7

      When you identify the paradox: Muslims were in America before you flew in before your plane landed, in America black people are the Muslims that established Islam here, immigrants wanting to assimilate into white society, then you have understood some aspects of the issue.

    • Tara Tahira Renae

      sorry this article was simply awful!

    • Ridwan Sheikh

      Not sure about your premise. That somehow Muslim identity is
      holding us back from advancing as an American. It is Islam which should dictate
      our lives, not society. Balancing deen with duniya is what being a Muslim is about.
      Isn’t it better to embrace that, instead of seeing it as a problem, which you
      highlight in your article?

    • Zanne

      Yes, I think I see where this article is going…but I also think that with the absolute onslaught of negative media portrayals of Muslims (old news, I know . . .) we do need to keep talking about our identity as Muslims here.

      For example: I’m Canadian rather than American, and just recently our province of Quebec had a furious long series of debates over whether or not people would be allowed to wear religious symbols at work. (This would affect Sikhs and Orthodox Jews as well as Muslim women wearing hijab, but was pretty clearly targeting Muslims primarily, given that much of teh rhetoric surrounding these discussions focused on Muslims). The debate was framed in terms of identity and who was “Quebecois enough”. Muslims — some recent immigrants, some second- or third-generation, and some in Quebec since looooong ago — were vehement in saying they did NOT feel there was any disconnect between being Muslim and being Quebecois. However, other people clearly DID feel that these identities were or should be in conflict and mutually irreconcilable.

      In light of the Quebec conflict, should there not still be some discussion around what it means to be Muslim in predominantly non-Muslim countries? Obviously a lot of non-Muslims think so. Maybe it’s our duty to respond and keep the conversations going, until we all get to a mutually respectful and amicable understanding.

    • Farhaj

      Great piece. My personal wake up call came when I saw my cousins rooting for the USA in the World Cup against Egypt or some other Muslim country 4 years ago. I thought I was going to be the only one, and was very happily surprised at what was going on. These millennials don’t plan on changing their identities to reaffirm any sizable support for their parent’s “homeland” ever. They can wear three hats, and hapily be: Muslim-insert foreign country here-American if they desire. But at the end of the day they will always always always be asked, “where’d you come from originally”. “Chicago” is an answer that just will not suffice. Gen-x’ers are a tad different though; We can go either way. But my cousins and Mosque friends and I aren’t going anywhere.

      “USA! USA! USA!” indeed.

    • Bruce Wyner

      Since 9/11 the growth of mosques in America is up 75 percent.Americans need to demand that the door to America is closed to muslims before suicide bombers begin appearing in our streets Europe is on the verge of exploding riots have become the norm by muslims making demands reports of sharia police walking the streets of France enforcing sharia law.Islam is a plague that needs to be eradicated from the world.America wake up and get your head out of your computers, tv, s and I phones before its to late.