In U.S., An Islamic ‘Melting Pot’ That Bridges Sectarian Divide

In U.S., An Islamic ‘Melting Pot’ That Bridges Sectarian Divide

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Editor’s Note: Renewed fighting in Iraq, led by ISIS, has sparked concerns over a wider sectarian conflict in the Middle East. But in the United States, the diversity of the Muslim community seems to bridge sectarian and ethnic divides, a message that could resonate within the global community. Dawood Yasin is the dean of student affairs at Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts university in the United States. A convert, Yasin spent several years studying in the Middle East, including Syria. He spoke to NAM editor Peter Schurmann.

What’s your sense of how young Muslim Americans are responding to the sectarian conflict in Iraq?

I took a group of about 35 students hiking this weekend. We had a long time together … we did an 11-mile loop. And to be honest, I didn’t hear it in any of our conversations.

What does that mean?

On one level, it raises a flag, but on another level, I think it speaks to the kind of bludgeoning that has happened with this age group in particular. Millennials are coming of age in the shadows of post-9-11, so it’s a reality that they know.

I converted in 1996, so I am aware of American foreign policy that doesn’t have this relationship with Islam … one that is constantly having to be vigilant against extremism and Islamic militancy. When an individual or a group carries out some horrendous act and claims it is Islam that motivated them … these young people almost feel there is a burden placed on them as a result of these people’s actions. And to have this happen over and over again … that’s what I mean by growing up under the shadow of 9-11.

How do sectarian differences play out in the American Muslim landscape?

The year before last, I co-led a trip to Mecca … We had a group of about 85 mostly undergrads from Yale, NYU and a few other schools in the Northeast. As we made our way into the sanctuary, people were kind of looking at us, because you can identify groups as they enter into the sanctuary to perform their rituals. You know which group is from Africa, or Indonesia, or Turkey. We were all of those groups together, and within our group we were Suni and Shi’a. For me, that’s the reality of this younger generation. The reality of America as a melting pot is more of a reality than any type of sectarian dogma that would be divisive for generations that have lived separate from each other elsewhere.

Is that a uniquely American aspect of Islam?

I think it is... In the states, you have everybody. So when you come to Friday services, such as those at the mosque I was imam at in New Haven, Connecticut, almost every ethnic group was represented. So that is something that is really unique to Islam in the United States that one does not see in other places.

Is there a message that can come out of the American Islamic experience that can address the sectarian rift now roiling the Middle East?

I think that a lot of times, sectarian tensions are also ethnic. I look at a group of people that were from completely opposing social and economic standing inside the early years of Islam and I see the egalitarianism that existed there. A person could be raised to a position of leadership over another who otherwise may have had an ethnic advantage. This moves us away from much of the nepotism we still see in other parts of the world. It’s a message that I understood and understand as part of the prophetic model of us being a global community regardless of where we are from or what our lineage is.

How do teachers at Zaytuna handle sectarian differences?

We follow Sunni doctrine at Zaytuna, but this is a marketplace of ideas. That is what a liberal arts education is about. We don’t shy away from conversations that some institutions may not be comfortable with … [such as] saying there is a Shi’a position that exists that is valid with regard to law that people need to take into consideration.

Why this happens is because we are divorced from political realities in these other countries. We’re not dealing with the Iran-Saudi power struggle, or the Iran-Egyptian power struggle. It’s not purely doctrine that is separating these people.

You spent time studying in Syria. How do you read current events there and in Iraq?

A lot of this is blowback from failed [U.S.] foreign policy decisions. Additionally, when you have authoritarian dictatorships of the kind Saddam Hussein represented, and you have the type of repression of the Shi’a that existed after, there are going to be reprisals. But when we talk about this porous border [between Iraq and Syria], let’s not forget that there were 1.4 million refugees in Damascus that were Iraqi. I’m not convinced there is this outpouring of Sunni fighters that are flowing into Baghdad from other countries to join ISIS. 1.4 million offers a pretty large recruiting pool.

What’s your response to the lure of extremist positions such as those embraced by groups like ISIS?

What we are seeing globally [in terms of this extremism] is not because of Islam, but because of an absence of Islam. We are dealing with a level of religious illiteracy that causes this type of extremism. When you know law, [justifications given for these positions] don’t make any sense at all. There are rulings that say if a person apostates from Islam and doesn’t raise arms against the state, they cannot be executed. Is anyone talking about that? If they are a woman, they cannot be executed. If they are a convert to Islam, they cannot be executed. When you take these cherry-picked sources of law, the outcome is this complete insanity that we are seeing right now.

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