Dr. Sherman Jackson | We’re American Muslims, Can’t Be Anything Else

If an American who’s awake and socially aware converts to Islam, he or she will encounter the cultural and intellectual imperialism of their fellow Muslims. Not only will you experience pressure to change your name but you will also be asked to choose between being fully American or fully Muslim as if the two are not compatible. An identity crisis is soon to follow but for many of us, it takes years to realize that we’re in it and climb out of it.

Photographer Mustafa Davis poignantly captures the sentiment through telling his own story in Who am I and How Did I Get Here, Reflections of an American Muslim:

But when Muslims tell us that we cannot be American because that means we support ALL things America… it means they are telling us we cannot exist. I will say that again… it means they are telling us that WE CANNOT EXIST.

They can always fall back on their rich cultural heritages (that are often mistakenly called Islamic cultures. They are not, they’re merely cultures where the majority of the inhabitants are Muslims). But I don’t have that luxury or ability. America is the only culture I have to identify with.

Telling me its not possible is pushing me into nonexistence. I don’t think people with such rich cultures and heritages fully understand what its like to not have that to fall back on.

This past weekend, I attended the United for Change conference in Washington DC, where Dr. Sherman Jackson gave the best speech of the night eloquently explaining the rhetoric so often used to confuse Muslims, particularly converts to Islam.

The following is mostly paraphrased from my notes and memory

Dr. Jackson explained that when many in the Muslim world hear us identify as American Muslims, they equate this identity with full support for unpopular aspects of American foreign policy. They mistakenly believe that American Muslims “identify with, condone, or want to whitewash” these policies. However, Jackson notes that “identifying as a Muslim American does not mean I go along or condone” the actions of the U.S. government.

Dr. Jackson points out that if an American Muslim offers condolences for the victims of 9/11, as we rightly should, we are immediately challenged by some Muslims and asked if we are equally empathize with the loss of thousands of lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In order to truly communicate with others we must respect their feelings, counsels Jackson, while not shying away from our principles and that which makes us unique. He told the audience that he prefers to say,”I’m Muslim American and I love my country, not the government, but as home.” “We don’t live in perfect countries or societies but they are our societies,” said Jackson so it’s “not fair to ask us to disavow our country due to its imperfect foreign policy.”

He advises that we not fall into the trap of believing that Islamophobia only affects Muslims because the Islamophobes are working against all of America, which has long been a multi-racial and multi-religious society. The “ambivalence” some Muslims feel towards being an American “feeds right into the rhetoric of the Islamophobes” who believe that being Muslim is incompatible with being a full citizen in Western lands.

But for Dr. Jackson, there is no contradiction between being both American and Muslim. “Islam has some universal values like modesty, generosity, sharing and caring but for these values to mean anything they must be concretized in time and space” thus the expression of these values are unique in each land.

According to Jackson, “some Muslims buy into the view of an essentialzed Islamic culture, which should superimposed upon every culture.” This sets up a false and harmful dichotomy leading one to question whether or not to accept Islamic culture at the expense of their own culture or vice-versa. Dr. Jackson believes a better and more accurate question to ask would be, whether or not one’s “cultural norms coincide with values recognized by Islam” because “Islam has always engaged cultures on the basis of values.”

This process of engaging local cultures has been the key to the spread of Islam across many different lands. If aspects of pagan Arab culture could be adopted into Islamic culture, then “many American values are also good and in accordance with Islam.” For Dr. Jackson, the American Muslim community “needs to get over this notion” that the merging of Islam with culture was only a “reality of the past.” Rather, this process of the religion engaging culture is also a “reality of today.”

We don’t have to commit what some have termed “cultural apostasy” in order to be Muslim. “We don’t all have to eat couscous, what’s wrong with grits?” said Jackson. One day, he hopes to see grits being served at Islamic Awareness week on-campus events.


  1. I face a similar problem with the term ‘British Muslim’. The Prophet Muhammed, sallalahu ‘alayhi wa salam, loved Makkah, even when it was overrun by idolatry and the evil that it spawned. He wasn’t afraid to call himself an Arab then. Insha’Allah, we will learn with time. 🙂

    1. Welcome Zabs, thanks for commenting.

      Our religion is so vast and its expressions diverse. I love to see the way different cultures understand and express their Islam. Hopeful for what our Western expressions will look like as we move out of the imitating other Muslim cultures phase.

      I remember there was a time when we couldn’t say that we loved our country, the land of birth and formative years without feeling embarrassed or adding all these caveats.

  2. Salaam!

    Go, Dr. Jackson, and go Blue! 🙂

    As the descendant of converts from the NOI, the Islam I first knew was African American Islam of the WD Muhammed variety. I definitely had a major identity crisis that continues once I met Muslims who were not black for the first time in high school and especially college, and I still struggle to find an identity that makes me compatible with life, finding a mate and not subjecting myself to spinsterhood…

    Which is actually the root of my crisis, hah! I’ve never felt compelled to change my name as my mother and half her family did in the 1970s, and I’m very comfortable being a unique Muslimah as long as I’m not guaranteeing for myself a life of solitude.

    Ah, life…

    Ws, ~Chinyere

    1. lol @ Go Blue

      I think there is someone for each of us, part of the hard part is first finding and being someone who we can happily live with.

  3. Good article. It’s important to realize that one can be European Muslim or American Muslim and that there is no contradiction in the terms. We shouldn’t feel uneasy about using such terms either.

    As I understand it Muslim Americans are facing troubling times, even I’m surprised at the open Islamophobia by important members of the public in power. I’m disgusted at the bigot that is Herman Cain who’s using the anti-Muslim fuel to run his campaign for the White House, calling for the ban for mosques and openly stating that he would not let a Muslim in his administration (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDXCwd65R5o). Perhaps he forgot as a black man he would barely have any rights had he been born earlier in America.

    1. Muslim Noise, thanks for stopping by, I get the feeling we may know each other through AlMaghrib or something. One of the speakers at the United for Change conference, maybe Hamza Yusuf, paraphrased that line by Dickens by saying this is the best of times to be Muslim in America…

      While politicians play with the politics of hate to advance their own nefarious causes, we’ve got a lot of work to do. I look at the world and I see my role to play in helping to make things better in whatever way I can.

    1. Cucumber, next time, insha’Allah, come with me! I would take couscous or desi food over grits any day of the week. I remember my first experience with grits was on a trip to Florida when I was 7 years old, not my favorite, they deceptively looked like oatmeal but my bowl ended up in the bushes.

  4. InshaAllah! I feel like a senior citizen sometimes because I go out so rarely.
    “They deceptively looked like oatmeal but my bowl ended up in the bushes.” LOL.

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