Date of Award

5-1-2015

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

Anthropology

First Advisor

Hill, Jonathan

Abstract

This dissertation addresses what it means to be a Muslim and an American and the challenges that some ethnically different American Muslims face in constructing American Islamic social identities. While practitioners of Islam profess anti-racist ideologies, the American Muslim community has a complex underlying hierarchy with sharp divisions between African-American Muslims, Euro-American Muslims, and various immigrant Muslim communities. In addition, the tendency to favor traditionalist interpretations of Islam, and the reduction of Arab experience as the primary way to experience Islam are conflicts internal to the Muslim community as well. This has created a division in the Muslim community between traditionalist and modernist approaches to Islam. The result of these hierarchies is that certain ethnic groups and religious sects are delegitimized by more powerful ethnic groups and sectarian communities, and separatist ideologies about Islam result. The goal of this research is to examine how American Muslims negotiate their identity both in the public sphere and within the Muslim community from which many often feel a sense of separation. In addition, I will review historic and current social strategies used by different ethnic constituents of American Muslims to define themselves as a unique and authentic sector of Islam. I begin by discussing the interrelations between Muslim groups in St. Louis then explore how stereotyping by both local and national media have contributed to divisions between ethnically and racially different groups of Muslims. I also explore the use of social media as a means of building community alliances and found that Caucasian Muslim converts were most active with other Caucasian and immigrant Muslims, which I later argue is part of an assimilation process that many Caucasian converts experience as part of the conversion process. I argue that this is very different than the experience of African American Muslims, most of whom do not change their culture as a result of religious conversion. I also investigate how sectarian differences impact racial segregation within Islam in an American context. I conclude that immigrant Muslims use alliances with Caucasian Muslims to boost their social standing, taking advantage of the effects of white privilege. The result is that the racial hierarchy responsible for creating white privilege is mirrored within a religious community that staunchly advocates for color-blind, non-discriminatory inclusion resulting in racial disempowerment, segregation, disenfranchisement, and black inferiority among American Muslims.

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