Muslim student group adapts to life in the U.S.

February 21, 2008

MSA U.S. & Canada logoThe New York Times has an interesting article about how the Muslim Students Association (MSA) there is adapting to life in the United States. Founded in the 1960s by foreign students who wanted to pray together, the chapters “were basically little slices of Saudi Arabia. Women were banned. Only Muslim men who prayed, fasted and avoided alcohol and dating were welcomed. Meetings, even idle conversations, were in Arabic.” The MSA was largely financed by Saudi Arabia and Wahhabi views presumably came along with the cheques.

The local culture and the growing number of American-born Muslims have over time influenced even an organisation like this. Now some MSA chapters have held barbecues, dodge ball games and other events where men and women could mingle freely. There are debates about whether this is proper, but the events happen. “As American Islam gets its own identity, it is going to have to shed some of these notions that are distant from American culture,” said Rafia Zakaria, a student at Indiana University. “The tension is between what forms of tradition are essential and what forms are open to innovation.”

(The article doesn’t say whether the funds still flow so freely from Riyadh, but after 9/11 that seems unlikely.)A Secular Age

That Islam changes and adapts, both in the Muslim world and elsewhere, is nothing new. The American experience is especially interesting, though, because U.S. society is both highly individualistic and tolerant of religious practice. I discussed this with an American imam last year. Islam is adapting to local cultures in Europe as well, but with more difficulty.

The MSA example seems like one that Charles Taylor could have included in A Secular Age to illustrate how religion changes and adapts but still persists even in a post-modern world. Not that he needed another example, of course — the book is already 874 pages long…

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