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Potage of Civilizations

Muslim Minorities in the West: Visible and Invisible. Yvonne Haddad and Jane Smith (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002)

Emrah Sahin, 21 April 2009

The 1893 Columbian Exposition in
Chicago bemused visitors with its
unique Middle Eastern Cairo Street. But
the representation of Islam did not get a
warm reception— the audience likened
the Islamic call to prayer to the noise
of a dogfight! Even in the twenty-first
century, the Western media struggles
to face reality: Muslims, far from being a
mere sideshow, comprise a remarkably
large part of those who immigrate to the
West. Since the 1960s, Muslims in the
West have progressed steadily from
the realm of the “invisible—newcomers
to new lands with little public voice of
recognition— to more visible modes of
participation in the structures of the
societies of which they are not a part.”

Muslim Minorities in the West aims to
examine what kinds of issues present
themselves as Muslims assume their
legitimate places in Western societies—
societies that may or may not be eager
to acknowledge either their presence or
their demands.

Muslim Minorities splits into three parts:
the American experience, European
experience, and the experience in areas
of European settlement. Each traces the
pushing and pulling factors that caused
the Muslim immigration, the similarities
and differences in the newly formed
Muslim minority communities across
time and space, and the choices they
confront in the West. Muslims, especially
in Europe and the US, have recognized
the disparity between their communal
values and the individualistic values
of their host countries. To reconcile
and resolve the dilemmas of identity
and citizenship, the Muslim minorities
constructed a hybrid identity composed
of elements both transplanted from their
country of origins and their Western
environment.

First, the roots of a visible Western
Muslim community were established.
Then it precipitated a communal
acculturation, to varying degrees, and
a solid transition into host governments
and cultures. Today, the extreme hostility
toward Muslims is, the book argues, in
the process of transforming itself into an
acceptance and recognition of Islam as
an integral part of Western civilization.

The historical and sociological analyses
in the book are particularly informative.
For instance, the case of Metropolitan
Detroit, which is “home to what is
perhaps the largest Arab community
outside of the Arab world,” convincingly
concludes that Muslims there are far
more interested in keeping religion out of
State affairs. However, as the chapters
accumulate the book’s successive
findings seem to grow more complex
and less conclusive.

There are three major shortcomings.
First, the paradigms that define the
recent scholarly research in immigration
and religion are either not included or
are sacrificed for the book’s implicit
objective in vindicating the communal
complexity and goodness of Muslims.
For instance, the chapter on the Turks
in Germany starts by discussing
Huntington’s civilization-clash thesis,
but then goes on to explain that the
Turkish experience in Germany cannot
be reduced to arguments that the East
and West are incompatible.

Second, the book risks robbing some
groups of such sui generis characters
fed by their multifarious ethnicities,
micro-cultures, and idiosyncrasies.
Although Islam has played a binding
role for Western Muslim communities,
those who constitute said communities
are heterogeneous and their sect and
region of origin (not just the country) also
contributes considerably to changing
Muslim identities in the West.

Third, the groups under study seem to
have been chosen based solely on the
scholars’ areas of interest and their
ability to fit within the book’s central
thesis; a more complete picture could
have been drawn by adding the Muslim
minority groups that have recently
mushroomed in the urban and industrial
neighborhoods in, say, the United
Kingdom or Italy.

Muslim Minorities in the West, its
shortcomings notwithstanding, offers
a fascinating and essential read on
how Western Muslims came to define
themselves and how they were/are
perceived by their host state and
mainstream society. It is a good reminder
that the legacy of their experience on
Western soil needs resuscitating, not
only in order to do them justice, but also
for a better appreciation of the blessed
diversity we cherish here in the West.

Emrah Sahin is a PhD candidate
at McGill University Department of
History.