Today’s Muslim Americans: Middle class and mostly mainstream

A short time ago, I did an interview on talk radio about my new book, which focuses on how Christian colleges can equip their students to dialogue about their faith and foster better relationships with their Muslim friends and neighbors.

Despite being on the program, talk radio is not tops on my list of programs that satisfy my need to know the news of the day. But in the interest of promoting my book, I decided to do the interview.

The gentleman who conducted the interview, a veteran talk radio host and Fox News contributor, voiced his fear of Islam by stating that — this is his statement — 70 percent of Muslims embrace sharia law. He feared that because there was a growing number of Muslims in America, and most of them embrace sharia law, Muslims would subvert the American dream.

When I speak of the American dream, I am referring to America as the land of opportunity that seeks to advance liberty, equality and democracy. Things like class or social status or race should not hinder one from pursuing this dream.

The talk radio host brought up the term sharia law, but how many of us know what it means?

Typically, American Muslims see it as the law given by God to govern the Muslim community and non-Muslims are not bound by it. There are, however, Muslim countries that do not embrace what the U.S. understands to be the separation of church and state. Instead, they make sharia law legally binding for all citizens.

But, despite what the radio talk show host said, this idea doesn’t reflect the thinking of most American Muslims.

This law system regulates such things as what food one can eat and how it is to be prepared, how one spends their money, and how husbands and wives are to relate with one another, among many other things. In short, the law system regulates how Muslims are to behave in everyday life.

Is the fear of the talk radio host well-grounded? I think not. I do not think that Muslims in America want to subvert the American dream, nor do I think that Muslims who enter this country via immigration do so either. For them, this is the land of opportunity.

To counter this fear, I will offer both an historical and statistical analysis to show that most Muslims are mainstream and middle class and do not want to subvert the American dream.

When I speak of middle class, I am referring to the group of people sandwiched economically between the upper class and working class. These individuals typically value family and education, and adhere to certain standards such as hard work, self-discipline, and maintain a social network that is also middle class. They want to maintain this ideal rather than subvert it with another way of doing things.

Since a strong middle class constituency exists in the Muslim community, how was it constructed? There have been three waves of Muslim immigration in America. Each wave represents an economic contribution made by people with Muslim backgrounds.

The first wave came by way of slavery, as the first Muslim to set foot in America was a man named Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, an African slave, who arrived in America sometime around 1730. He was the first of many Africans who were brought here via slavery. Of the many slaves who were forced to make America their new home, as many as 15 percent of them were Muslim.

Roughly a century and a half later, around 1878, the second wave of immigration of Muslims took place. This motivation came by way of the auto industry, where immigrants from the Middle East, hailing mainly from Lebanon and Syria, came to America with the purpose of staying here for a short time. Their goal was to make enough money to put them in a better place financially so they could take their newly acquired wealth back to their home country.

However, economic hardships in America would not allow them to do so. In effect, the Arabs who emigrated here stayed here. Many, but certainly not all of those who stayed, were Muslims. This wave of immigration began a shift where Muslims pursued the American dream.

The third wave of immigration came by way legislation. In 1965, Congress passed a law called the Hart/Cellar Act, which dramatically changed the game as we know it.

Previously there was a quota on how many people could emigrate to America who were not from Northern European countries. Edward Curtis, one of the premiere voices in Muslim American studies, says nearly 2.8 million people from Muslim-dominated countries made America their home.

During this time period, the U.S. went from an industrial economy to a post-industrial economy to what Peter Drucker calls a knowledge economy. In a knowledge economy, the system is more global and interconnected and relies on a certain level of expertise that wasn’t true of the economic systems that preceded it, which were primarily labor intensive.

To meet this need, this wave of immigration brought tens of thousands of already highly qualified workers that were essential to the American economy. Some were students who went to school in America and later found employment here, while others brought their already honed vocational skills and immediately began to contribute to the American economy. Muslims made a strong contribution in this respect.

When one looks at the study done by Pew Research, one finds a completely different narrative at play than the one echoed by the talk radio host I mentioned previously. Pew’s comprehensive study done in 2007, “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream,” found that many Muslims were in fact middle class and held to middle class values.

The study also found that many Muslims have assimilated quite well into society. Nearly three out of every four believe if you work hard, you can get ahead in life. Furthermore, most do not see a conflict between being an American and a devout Muslim. In others words, most Muslims hold to many of the same beliefs as you and me.

Consequently, there needs to be a paradigm shift regarding what many Americans think is the typical Muslim. As the title of the Pew study suggests, Muslims are middle class, and mostly mainstream.

Tim Orr, D.Min. is an adjunct faculty member in religious studies at IUPUC, where he has served for over eight years. He is the author of two books. His latest book is, “Islam Rising: How the Christian College Can Equip the Next Generation.” He can be reached at tmorr@iupui.edu.