GREENWICH — In trying to explain the history and pillars of faith for Islam, not to mention its place in American culture, all within an hour, Martin Tran Nguyen, admitted he had "quite a tall order" ahead of him.
Nguyen sought to dispel misconceptions many Americans have about the religion in his talk before an audience of more than 100 at the Retired Men's Association of Greenwich on Wednesday morning.
"There is an immense diversity when it comes to who Muslims are," said Nguyen, an associate professor of Islamic religious traditions at Fairfield University. His credentials include a master's degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School plus a master's in history and a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies and history from Harvard University.
Of the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, the vast majority live in Pacific Asian countries, not in Arab countries as many incorrectly believe. Nguyen said 24 percent of the world's population identifies as Muslim, and only 20 percent of that number live in Arab countries.
"Think about how the popular imagination in America thinks," Nguyen said. "We think Arabs and Islam are synonymous, but only one in five of Muslims would identify as Arab. They are in fact elsewhere, mostly in the Asian Pacific region."
In the U.S., the Muslim population has grown in recent years from less than 3.3 million to 3.45 million, according to the Pew Survey for 2017. "That seems quite large," he said, "but it only represents 1.1 percent of the population in the United States and is smaller than the Jewish population."
It is the fastest-growing religion in the country, Nguyen said, but only 63 percent of the Muslims in the U.S. are immigrants. By 2050, the number of Muslims is expected to increase to 8.1 million in the United States, he said.
"That's not substantial when you take in the full population of the United States, but they are a growing demographic that is, in a sense, here to stay," Nguyen said. "This is not purely a Middle Eastern or purely Arab population. It is from all over, and most are coming from South Asia and elsewhere."
During his presentation, he talked about the commonalities of Islam and other religions, including how the teachings of the gospels, the psalms and the Torah are in the Qur'an; the pillars of the Muslim faith; the differences between the majority Sunni Muslims and the minority Shi'a; and the history of how the faith has developed and grown in America. Its roots are in the international slave trade, with many Muslims from Africa captured and brought to the Colonies.
Most of Nguyen's discussion focused on questions from the audience about several issues, including the violence put forth by terrorist groups such as ISIS.
"We haven't heard much from ISIS lately because they are in retreat and they are collapsing as a group," Nguyen said. "ISIS, when it was successful, was one of the most ultra-modern movements I have seen. They knew how to capitalize on social media. They knew how to terrify their target audience. They wanted to make themselves look more substantial and numerically frightening than they actually were. They put out horrific videos because they were trying to provoke who they perceived to be the enemy — the West."
ISIS reinforced the "terrorist image" for all Muslims because of the actions of a few, he said. And he noted that Muslims condemned the acts of ISIS and that more Muslims were victims of ISIS.
Nguyen also discussed the meaning of the word "jihad" and how it is used in the Qur'an.
"The word jihad is an interesting one because it appears in the Qur'an on several occasions, but the way it is used in the Qur'an is not its later meaning," he said. "We all think of jihad as holy war. That's the popular understanding of it. But the way it's used in the Qur'an it means a struggle. You can say, 'My jihad is trying to make ends meet. My jihad is getting a great education.' Muslims know jihad as ways through personal struggle reflected by face. The Qur'an never uses the specific word jihad to mean aggression or armed combat."
Though the Qur'an does talk about defending one's self, jihad is not meant to be used that way, Nguyen said. It has been used as propaganda by those who were in power to justify combat and in the current climate as a "way to reclaim glory and strike against oppressors," he said, which creates a muddied image of what jihad is.
A full video of Nguyen's remarks will be available online at www.greenwichrma.org.