Islamic leaders, scholars worry that American Muslims are too integrated into American culture

Conservative American Muslim leaders are more likely to be concerned about a creeping liberalization in their own ranks than about promoting Sharia law or some other political issue, writes Mustafa Akyol in the New York Times (February 18). He writes that there is concern over a new genre of Muslim bloggers and writers who are seen as challenging or outright rejecting the traditionally normative Islamic view on social issues and Muslim life and espousing a form of “liberal individualism.” According to Butheina Hamdah, an academic, this attitude is seen among American Muslim women for whom the hijab is becoming a mere “cultural marker of identity” and losing its “deeper theological dimensions.” She argues that these younger Muslim women are embracing feminist notions of “bodily autonomy” and “individual choice.” Akyol himself sees this liberal trend clearly reflected in the “skyrocketing acceptance of gay marriage, which, as a 2017 poll showed, is now stronger among American Muslims than among white evangelical Christians. It is also reflected in the pro-L.G.B.T.Q. stance of two new Muslim congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.” Akyol observes two distinct lines in this trend toward American values. One is a form of social liberalism embracing these modern currents, spearheaded by small groups such as Muslims for Progressive Values, while the “other, larger line is a political liberalism that accepts a pluralist framework for society while preserving its own social and moral conservatism.”

Akyol cites Jonathan Brown, a convert to Islam and scholar of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, who theorized the latter approach when “he accepted gay marriage of non-Muslims by making an analogy to traditional Muslim empires’ noninterference in what he called ‘incestuous Zoroastrian marriages.’” According to interfaith leader Eboo Patel, concerns about Islamophobia after 9/11 and particularly in the Trump era required the American Muslim community “to show that it really fits America. Hence, the center of gravity has shifted from ‘traditional Muslims,’ whose authority derives from knowledge of religious sources, to a new group of media-savvy ‘social Muslims,’ whose strength is interpreting the Muslim experience for the broader society.” But unexpectedly, the progressive narrative of these “social Muslims” is now having an impact on the whole American Muslim community. “Once you invoke diversity as a value,” Patel writes, it is hard to deny a place to “gay Muslims, Shia Muslims, non-hijabi female Muslims, less-observant-than-you Muslims.” Akyol concludes that the challenge for the American Muslim community is to adhere to political liberalism in the public sphere and social conservatism at home or at the mosque and to carry out a liberal reinterpretion of its traditions without losing itself.