Changing Visions of Ourselves > Between Two Worlds

Los Angeles

Sarah Eltantawi

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Former Policy Director, Muslim Public Affairs Council

The Muslim community is very diverse – ethnically, in terms of immigration patterns, and also in their political orientation. The first American Muslims trace their arrival back to the slave trade, their descendents in the African American community represent a solid core of indigenous Muslims.

The first big wave of immigration came in the 1920s, from Syria and Lebanon. Most of these immigrants were Christian, some were Muslim.

The largest wave arrived in the 1970s, from the Arab world and South Asia – people who came here as professionals. The founders of MPAC were their children. Now, there are new waves of immigration, mostly refugee-based.

Each segment of the community faces different challenges, and has a different orientation to their identity as Muslims. One of the main problems we face is that indigenous and immigrant Muslims have different cultures that come out of that.

In Islam, especial Sunni Islam, there is no clergy, no centralized religious authority. There is a tremendous diversity in how people interpret the meaning of their religion. In that way Islam is similar to Christianity – it’s very diverse.

Some believe Muslims should not vote in elections – they represent a small minority. We aim to put forward the vision that Muslims should be full participants in society, in every area. We did not come together in opposition to anyone, so these differences of orientation are not obvious.

MPAC started in LA. It grew out of the Islamic Center of Southern California – many of today’s activists came out of their youth group.

We place a premium on trying to forge a different identity, to reconcile being American and being Muslim. Our mission statement talks about how the American Muslim community is a sharp and vibrant part of American pluralism. We can be involved as a community in responding to injustice and community service. It might seem very basic, but it’s not.