America’s Muslims

Amir Hussain, who was born in Pakistan and grew up in Canada, is professor of theological studies in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. He was the first Muslim to be editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the premiere scholarly journal for the study of religion. Hussain’s role as editor also made LMU the first Catholic university to host the journal. Hussain speaks widely about Islam and Catholic-Muslim relations. He is the author of six books, including his most recent volume, “Muslims and the Making of America” (Baylor University Press, 2016). He was interviewed by Emily Lundquist, a graduate student in the College of Business Administration.

What compelled you to write your book “Muslims and the Making of America”?
The book really challenges narratives that say, first, that Muslims are newcomers to the United States and, second, that Muslims haven’t contributed anything to what it means to be American. If you look at American Muslims, people like me, you see we’re an American success story.

Having spent your formative years in Canada, do you observe Muslims being treated differently in Canada vs. in the U.S.?
Yes, there are some interesting differences. Muslims are more integrated into the body politic in Canada, but that doesn’t mean they’re wasn’t racism and other issues. In Canada, the majority of Muslims is South Asian: people like me from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, because of the colonial connections with the British Empire and the commonwealth. In America, at least a quarter of American Muslims are African American, a third are South Asian and a third are Middle Eastern.

How concerned are you about the impact of rhetoric that’s been used in discussing Muslims, particularly in the recent presidential campaign? We’ve seen spikes in hate crimes, most notably towards Muslims and Jews.
It’s important to remember that when the FBI’s stats came out a couple weeks ago, more than half of the anti-religious hate crimes committed were committed against Jews. In a surprising way, the election has brought Jews and Muslims together. For example, the American Jewish Committee for the first time created a task force with the Islamic Society of North America.

The rhetoric we’ve heard feeds into the notion that says Muslims are a dangerous kind of fifth column that’s out to destroy America, whereas the reality is that Muslims are an American success story. The worry is that Mr. Trump has people advising him, such as retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who has said that Islam is not a religion but an ideology and thus not protected under the First Amendment, and Kris Kobach, who came up with the idea of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. [NSEERS was initiated during the Bush administration and suspended in 2011 by President Barack Obama.] Some 82,000 people were registered in that system, none of whom were convicted of terrorism-related charges. On the other hand, Mr. Trump does a lot of business in the Muslim world. There’s a Trump Tower in Istanbul. He’s built a golf course in the United Arab Emirates.

Moving from the macro to the micro level, have you noticed an increase in hate crimes or incidents in the L.A. area, at LMU, or involving nearby mosques?
Not personally, but, absolutely, things have happened — hate letters sent to mosques in the area, for example. Things have been good at LMU so far, and I’ve been impressed by the administration. Lane Bove, the senior vice president of student affairs, has really taken the lead in this. A year ago, the Muslim students on campus wanted to start a regular Friday afternoon prayer service. We’d go to the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City, the closest mosque to LMU. But for students it’s sometimes difficult to find the time to get there. So we now have space to do it here. This semester we set up an office of Muslim Student Life, and the university has been incredibly supportive.

But some students, of course, are worried, especially the international students. I spoke at a conference on religion this past September in Montreal where I said that monitoring mosques doesn’t work, because the radicals aren’t going to the mosque. The interesting thing is that if you talk to law officers, they’ll say exactly the same thing. We’re privileged here in L.A. with the King Fahad Mosque: The L.A. County sheriff, the regional head of homeland security, and an FBI assistant director have visited. You want people talking with law enforcement, and you want police officers literally to be peace officers, where the community can come talk to them rather than feel distrust.

If we have to assume that hate crimes against Muslims are going to be a fact of life, how do you see your responsibility to respond?
Before 9/11, I would give a public talk about Islam at a local library or church group maybe once every two to three months. Post 9/11, I did that literally every three days, and that was a good thing. I wrote in the book about a moving experience in October 2011 at the Rotary Club of Simi Valley, with white very conservative, Christian folks who weren’t prejudiced at all. They were very curious and wanted to know who are Muslims, what’s happening, what are the issues. Those public presentations have been part of my role since 9/11. I’m the advisor to the Muslim Students Association here on campus. We have at least 160 self-identified Muslim students. I work with them to make sure that they feel safe.

For people who want to reach out and engage with the Muslim community, what resources are available?
It’s easy in Los Angeles, as there are a lot of Islamic centers and mosques. Whenever I speak across the country in places that don’t have a large Muslim population, people say, “I’d love to talk to Muslims but there’s no mosque in my neighborhood.” So I ask, is there a hospital? Because there are probably some Muslim doctors. Is there a chamber of commerce? Because some of the businesses are probably run by Muslims. Is there a university? Because there are probably Muslims who work in that university. It’s really about making friends, talking to people. That’s both a difficult and important task: making those connections.

Now that you have finished the book, what is next for you?
Next semester, I’m teaching an honors-level theological inquiry class that will look specifically at Islam and Christianity. Next summer, I’ll teach a graduate class on modern Islam. I also have been tapped by Oxford University Press to be the general editor of a new two-volume encyclopedia of Islam in North America. My first task was to assemble a group of phenomenal scholars who will be the associate editors. You probably wouldn’t guess that after that assignment my next project is writing about Hank Williams, country music and Christian theology.