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January 19, 2004

Islamicization, American style

My parents were moderate Muslims in Bangladesh. They wouldn't pray much, though they would go to mosque on the major holidays. I have two uncles on my mother's side who are "fundamentalists," and one uncle-by-marriage on my father's side who also would qualify as such.

In Bangladesh there is a tradition to have Bengali nick-names and Muslim (Arabic, Persian or Turkish in origin) official names. The former would be your general form of address among your family and friends, while the latter would go on official documents and would be the way you were introduced in polite company.

My mother and her first five brothers followed this tradition. Her youngest brother goes by the name "Mustafa," which is not Bengali. My father's father was a teacher of the Koran (in addition to owning some jute farms & cattle herds), so none of his children had Bengali names (my paternal grandfather himself was from an Urdu-speaking background, though he re-identified with Bengali culture and all his children consider themselves Bengali).

My younger brother and I have Bengali names and Muslim names (we were born in Bangladesh). My two youngest siblings (U.S. born) have only Muslim names, the atomization of American culture and the lack of the extended family making the idea of a Bengali nick-name seem outdated. When I was a child we would go to mosque only during major holidays. Recently I hear that my family goes to mosque (masjid) every Sunday, and my youngest siblings (they are pre-teens) go to "Sunday school."

Strangely, my family has become more orthodox in their Islam as they have assimilated to American culture. As their Bengaliness has been unmoored from their natal culture-Islam has allowed them to develop a new identity within a foreign matrix. It is true that my parents still have a South Asian identity, through Hindi film and social functions related to my mother's interest in Bengali song & dance, but they are Muslim Americans first and foremost.

I am obviously lost to Islam, as I suspect is my brother who is only 4 years younger than me, but my youngest siblings, born and raised in the United States, might not be! Strange....

Addendum: Though the secularization of the orthodox Jewry in the United States is common knowledge, the re-confessionalization of secular anti-religious Jews is not. I have read that levels of God-belief actually increased among Jews after their assimilated into American culture, as they formed a "Jew" to slot into the "Protestant-Catholic-Jew" trichotomy. My major point is that Muslims in the United States are re-organizing along Protestant lines, where my parents took Islam as a given during my childhood, they are engaging in pro-active indoctrination with my siblings, directly mimicking the church-going of their suburban neighbors. As has been noted before on this blog, French "Muslims" actually resemble French "Catholics" in their religiosity, a secularized majority and a devout minority. I think Islam in this country is going through a period of "Americanization." Some Muslims will become absorbed into the secular-bobo cultural complex, some will form their own Protestant-like Muslim denominations and some will probably find a genial liberal Islam. I think the the fact that Muslim immigrants to this country are selection biased for education means that more will shift toward "low tension" religious groups than might otherwise be the case.

Posted by razib at 12:35 AM