Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
May 31, 2000 | Muqtedar, M. A.
ISLAM IN AMERICA: American Muslims and the Moral Dilemmas of Citizenship
The demonization of Islam in mainstream American media compels Muslims to become sensitive about their identity. All their activities are motivated by this identity and geared toward defending their faith from a perceived American assault. They rarely, if ever, get opportunities to live as American citizens endeavoring to maximize liberty, equality and prosperity.

Similarly the negative image of America in the eyes of most Muslims, a consequence of its foreign policy in the Middle East, elicits paradoxical responses from American Muslims. America’s prosperity and freedom attract them and, once they are here, its policies and its attitudes toward Muslims and Islam alienate them. Becoming American citizens presents an unusual moral dilemma for American Muslims. They love to live in America, while many of them love to hate America.
I once asked the president of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) at one of his talks in Washington, DC to spell out the obligations of naturalized Muslim citizens to their new country — America — keeping in mind the Qur’anic injunction (Qur’an; 9:4) that promises made must be kept (pacta sund servanda). While asserting that he was not an Islamic scholar and therefore unqualified to give an authoritative answer, the president of ICNA proceeded to give an interesting reply.
He said that, in the opinion of many scholars whom he had consulted, becoming a citizen should be understood as signing a treaty between a Muslim individual and the United States. Therefore all Muslims who make this compact with the U.S. are obliged to fulfill their obligations as proper citizens, obey the law, pay taxes and so on. He also recommended that since the U.S. has offered the option to decline military draft to new citizens, Muslims could take this option to save themselves moral dilemmas if called to fight against Muslim states. If for some reason, he said, Muslims do not like the society of the United States they must terminate their treaty and leave.
However, he added, “of course Muslims are not obliged to obey laws and policies which are specifically against Islamic beliefs.” He also recognized the opportunity for dissent and change that the U.S. constitution provides its citizens and recommended that Muslims avail themselves of this opportunity.
To most Muslims in the audience, the answer seemed rational, sensible, and even enlightened. Nevertheless, I am personally not very satisfied with his analysis. When Muslims become naturalized citizens they do not inform the U.S. government that their acceptance of U.S. citizenship is conditional. They do not make it clear to the U.S. that they will remain good citizens as long as no explicitly anti-Islamic law or policy is legislated or implemented.
I am sure that the U.S. government would not agree to any such conditions, since after all it is the Muslim individual who is seeking association (citizenship) and not vice versa. Thus many Muslims who see Islam and the U.S. in a state of conflict have enormous problems in beginning to think of themselves as American Muslims.
They want the prosperity and the freedom of America, but not its foreign policy or its liberal culture. And Muslim leaders who oppose political assimilation without opposing naturalization inadvertently place Muslims in a morally delicate situation.
There are no simple solutions to this moral dilemma. It will have to be resolved at the theological level. Changes in American attitudes and policies toward Islam and Muslims will also be helpful in this transition to citizenship within the mind of each American Muslim. The theological discussion will have to take American Muslims beyond the dar-ul-Islam (house of peace) and dar-ul-harb (house of war) dichotomy.
The disappearance of the institution of the Caliphate, the emergence of many Muslim states — articulated as Islamic (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Afghanistan) or as secular democracies (Turkey, Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia) — and the rapid globalization of the nation-state as a result of decolonization have allowed many new terms to be invented within Muslim discourses on international relations.
These are words like dar-ul-aman (house of order) and dar-ul-kufr (house of unbelief). The term dar-ul-aman emerged in the context of Muslim politics in India.
India, which is a secular democracy and allows Muslims complete freedom to practice their religion and live by Islamic shariah (law), cannot be labelled dar-ul-harb since it is not hostile to Islam. Since it does not have any specific treaties with obligations to Muslims it does not qualify as dar-ul-sulh (house of treaty) or dar-ul-ahad. So, increasingly, Muslims have begun to refer to India and such countries as dar-ul-aman, house of order, where there is peace and tolerance and freedom of religion. But this term has been restricted to India in its use, perhaps because of its subcontinental origins.
Dar-ul-kufr is a state or territory which is predominantly non-Muslim but which neither has a treaty with Muslims nor is at war with them. The West has often been referred to as dar-ul-sulh, and by some as dar-ul-kufr depending upon political contingencies.
Those groups who wish to emphasize conflict between Islam and the West choose to describe the West as dar-ul-kufr, and those who choose to emphasize the peaceful and cooperative relations between Islam and the West call it dar-ul-sulh. These terms are also used in similar political discourses with respect to America.
Many American Muslims, particularly the African-American Muslims, are proud to be American citizens. They are indigenous to America and Islam has given them the dignity and self-esteem to make their lives meaningful, even as they struggle against racial discrimination.
Immigrant Muslims who share their sentiments are grateful for the opportunity that America has given them to prosper and practice their faith. They believe that America is dar-ul-sulh and that America, in many of its practices, is much more Islamic than many contemporary Muslim states.
Some immigrants, however, are of the opinion that since this is a country where Islamic shariah is not applied, it is dar-ul-kufr, the house of unbelief. In my opinion this position is held by a minority of Muslims (from both indigenous and immigrant Muslims), but this minority is more active in Muslim politics and has a disproportionate impact on the American Muslim discourses.

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