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American Muslims should move beyond minority politics, says An-Na'im

It's time for American Muslims to tell their stories, says Emory Law's Abdullahi An-Na'im.

Fortunately, An-Na'im's latest book, "What is an American Muslim? Embracing Faith and Citizenship" (Oxford University Press, 2014) provides a new blueprint for how American Muslims can do that.

For An-Na'im, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law and a widely known scholar/activist on Islam and human rights, the key is to move beyond minority politics, or notions of majority and minority that create hierarchies of "Americanness."

"Citizens of the United States identify with such a wide variety of identities—racial, cultural, political, religious," writes An-Na'im in the book's opening, "that there is no fixed or permanent majority or minority."

Instead, An-Na'im argues that American Muslims should engage in the civil and political life of the country as citizens informed by their faith, rather than as a community separated by religion.

How do Muslims see and talk about their lives as American citizens? In research for the book, An-Na'im reached out to almost 500 different centers, organizations and individuals. He asked questions covering both negative and positive aspects of living and practicing Islam in the United States, and received feedback on a wide variety of topics, from stereotyping and prejudice, to freedom in practicing their faith.

"Many American Muslims said that the United States is a place where their religious beliefs and practices could flourish because of their freedom to agree or disagree with their fellow Muslims," says An-Na'im.

As one respondent said: "You have the right not only to study Islam in whatever form you want, but [also] to practice how you believe!" You cannot do this in Muslim countries because you have to conform."

"These American Muslims saw the United States as a place where they could live by their convictions, while critically re-examining their tradition, engaging in debate, and re-imagining both their individual beliefs and community affiliations," says An-Na'im.

He points out in the book that "Catholics, Jews and Mormons have all re-imagined their communities over time" and that the re-imagining will come about by "agents of social change."

"By this term I mean those motivated and engaged social actors who take the initiative in seeking to influence the direction of change in favor of individual freedom and social justice, instead of being passive subjects of change," writes An-Na'im. "I mean local actors who realize that God's purpose in this life is achieved through the agency of human beings."

"What makes the United States an excellent place to be a Muslim is the unique combination of freedom of religion and freedom from religion," says An-Na'im. "This creates a space for believers to engage deeply with their tradition and their community."

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