Husain Haqqani, a senior fellow and director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute and Pakistani ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2011, spoke to participants in an August 28 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) to discuss the experience of South Asian Muslims in the United States.
According to Amb. Haqqani, 20% of American Muslims are South Asian in origin and 35% of those born outside of the U.S. come from South Asia, with the largest segment coming from Pakistan.
The presence of South Asian Muslims in America began with a "trickle" of immigration in the early 1900s, but the "real flow" started after the independence of Pakistan and India in the 1940s. The South Asian Muslim diaspora grew rapidly in the U.S. during the 1970s and 1980s, when the U.S. sought to alleviate a shortage of doctors at home by opening its doors to foreigners with a medical degree. Attracted by the opportunity for greater income and freedom in America, these immigrants agreed to be placed in rural communities. Today there are some 52,800 American physicians from India and Pakistan, and 98% of the Pakistani doctors are Muslim.
The South Asian Muslim experience in America is remarkably diverse, with communities spanning all fifty U.S. states. "The only common factor is the faith," said Amb. Haqqani. "While that creates opportunities for coming together, it has limited utility as a unifier."
Among the success stories in the South Asian Muslim population in America are Shahid Khan, a Pakistani-born billionaire businessman and sports tycoon, and technology entrepreneurs such as Pakistani-American Safi Qureshey and Indian-born Frank [Shah] Islam.
South Asian Islam "has always been diverse," Amb. Haqqani explained. The Moguls, "the last large Muslim empire in India," made compromises with the majority of the population that remained Hindu, resulting in a "cultural syncretism" within Islam "where you did not essentially follow the letter, but more the spirit of the faith."
However, while most Muslims from South Asia assimilated into the American experience, the desire to preserve and pass on their Muslim identity led many to seek out religious schools for their children's education and mosques for worship. Beginning in the 1980s, imams and teachers in these institutions "overwhelmingly came from the Middle East" and brought with them a "more austere version of Islam." Consequently, "the younger generation was exposed to a more puritanical version of the faith."
"The younger generation was exposed to a more puritanical version of the faith."
Class differences also came into play, between the professionals and university educated who "have an intellectual desire to assimilate ... and have taken an oath of loyalty to the United States" and those less privileged who "have not realized the American dream." The latter were drawn to the Islamic centers and mosques where grievance is translated into radical ideology.
The "overwhelming majority of Muslims in America, both of South Asian origin and from other parts, are not part of organized religious life in the U.S., but those who [are] all ended up moving in one direction," said Amb. Haqqani.
Having left largely socialist countries and eager to escape to American freedom, South Asian Muslim communities mainly voted Republican for many years. Much of that changed after 9/11 when "the American discourse" did not make distinctions between "radical Islamists and regular Muslims." With mainstream America finding it difficult to "understand another faith's internal conflicts and divisions," the American Muslim community started "becoming more inward." More Muslims began to "change their politics ... [and] their original views about assimilation, and that is what we are seeing today," said Amb. Haqqani. Despite the enormous diversity of subcultures among Muslim sects and denominations, "at a political level, some people want to identify as a monolith."
In the U.S., this counter-assimilation trend is promoted by the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), which is part of an infrastructure built by Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist group in the Indian subcontinent and "the analog of the Muslim Brotherhood of the Middle East." ICNA works in tandem with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), an organization "which has its origins in the Muslim Brotherhood." Both of these organizations together run Islamic schools, Islamic charities, and Islamic centers that "focus on the political dimension of Islam rather than the spiritual one." The "emergence of a communitarian identity ... has been ... detrimental to the process of assimilation of America's Muslims of South Asian origin."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.