“Indy Star”: What’s American about American Mosques?

Originally published in the Indianapolis Star, Feb. 18, 2018:

Almost half of Americans say that they go to one every week.

It’s where Americans often get married, introduce their kids to the community, mourn their dead, raise money to assist those in need, organize community service, and even negotiate business deals.

It is, of course, the religious congregation, and as Alexis de Tocqueville indicated in his two-volume magnum opus, “Democracy in America,” it has been America’s irreplaceable voluntary association.

De Tocqueville said that voluntary associations were civic institutions that nurtured American democracy. They brought together Americans to work for the common good, challenging our tendencies toward social isolation and extreme individualism.

Even today, as the number of Americans who do not belong to a religious congregation increases, Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist associations, and Sikh gurdwaras, along with other religious congregations, remain America’s most popular philanthropic institution.

There are at least 2,100 mosques around the country, totaling 1.1 percent of all religious congregations in America. About 43 percent of Muslims surveyed last year by the Pew Research Center say that they attend one every week — this is slightly fewer than the number of Christians who say they go to church on a weekly basis (which is 47 percent).

Though Muslims have been present in North America since the colonial era, they did not begin to organize formal congregations until after the Civil War. At first they rented space or repurposed other buildings for their communities.

Then, between World War I and World War II, they erected purpose-built mosques from Massachusetts to North Dakota.

Muslims have been building mosques in America for almost a century now.

The first purpose-built mosque in Indiana was likely the Asser El Jadeed, or New Generation, congregation erected in 1931 in Michigan City by Syrian and Lebanese immigrants. Though some Sunni Muslims attended, the mosque was predominantly Shia—the sect or “denomination” of Islam that represents 15 percent or so of the world’s Muslim population.

During this era, different groups of African Americans, South Asian Americans, and white Americans also founded and supported a variety of Muslim congregations in Indianapolis.

As the number of Muslims in America increased — they are currently 1 percent of the U.S. population — so too has the number of mosques.

The rise of the mosque as the preeminent religious institution among Muslims in the United States reveals how the structure of Islamic religion has become typically American.

In both American Christianity and American Judaism, the religious congregation was a primary pathway toward the integration of both racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants into American civil life. From Irish and Polish Catholics to African American Baptists and Reform Jews, the congregation served as an institution where historically marginalized populations could learn essential information and skills necessary to navigating the American economy, culture, and society.

The mosque serves that function today for Muslim Americans. In a 2011 survey, 98 percent of all mosque leaders said that they taught their congregants the importance of participating in American institutions outside the mosque. This attitude is evident among central Indiana’s Muslim congregants who reach out to non-Muslims through a prison re-entry program, numerous food pantries, inter-faith dialogue, building houses for poor people, and the establishment of private schools open to all, among other efforts.

Mosques, in sum, are the places where Muslims go to participate in American civil society. That participation benefits all of us.

When we choose to support our neighborhood mosque — no matter what our religious identity or lack thereof — we help ourselves.