One Method Does Not Fit All: Case Studies of the Muslim Diaspora

by Caitlin Roam

Although the Church has made great strides in developing a multitude of effective mission strategies for engaging Muslim people around the world, there has been relatively little work done in relation to the Muslim diaspora living in the West. The same strategies and methods used in the Muslim world are not relevant in a Western setting for a number of reasons.

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WE HAVE GREAT CAUSE FOR CELEBATION! God is drawing Muslims from around the world (including many countries where Christians cannot go) to the West. There are now nearly 3.5 million Muslims in North America (Pew Research Center 2013), a figure that is rapidly increasing. Muslims are no longer a world away; they are next door. While Muslims come to North America for a variety of reasons, the Lord has done this that he might call them to himself, and use his Church to do so.

Although the Church has made great strides in developing a multitude of effective mission strategies for engaging Muslim people around the world, there has been relatively little work done in relation to the Muslim diaspora living in the West. The same strategies and methods used in the Muslim world are not relevant in a Western setting for a number of reasons.

A primary challenge in reaching North American Muslims is the sheer diversity of the Muslim diaspora (Bongoyok 2011, 199-210). While they may be united by a common faith, the Muslim population in a single American city may represent dozens of countries and hundreds of languages, and be radically dissimilar in culture and religious practice. These differences are amplified by the act of immigration itself, which affects social and cultural norms to a significant degree. Thus, it becomes not a question of developing a strategy, but rather strategies.

In this article, I explore the diversity of the Muslim diaspora by presenting four case studies, each intended to represent a type of Muslim immigrant in North America. These categories are intended to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, and are certainly not exhaustive. After each case study, I briefly discuss missional implications.

#1: The Nominal Folk Muslim

For many immigrants from Muslim backgrounds, a move to the West becomes an opportunity to separate oneself from the oppressive regulations of life in an Islamic country.

These individuals often break completely with the Muslim faith, adopt Western styles of dress, and abandon any sort of religious life. Such a break from tradition can also mean a break from the Muslim community, which may push the individual even further from the faith. These individuals may stray so far from Islam that they no longer identify themselves as Muslim at all. However, while these immigrants may appear Western in behavior and thought, they often retain the holistic, Islamic worldview that leaves them at the mercy of the spirits. When crises arise, these wayward Muslims turn to folk Islam as their only protection from a world of danger, seeking short-term, pragmatic solutions to supernatural problems.

Case Study: Ahmad
Ahmad moved to Chicago with his brother in the 1990s. The young adult brothers came without their parents, who remained in Pakistan. Neither Ahmad nor his brother felt a personal connection to their Muslim faith and used their newfound freedom in the States to break free of the Islamic restrictions that had been mandatory in Pakistan. Ahmad became familiar with the sins of the West, regularly enjoying pork, alcohol, and women. He found a career in supplying cigarettes, snacks, and novelty items to convenience stores. After a decade as an American bachelor, Ahmad was ready to marry. His parents arranged a marriage to a young woman who desired to move to America. I met them when I moved into the apartment across the hall from theirs. From my first encounter with Ahmad, it was clear that Islam was not a primary influence in his life, made evident by his shaking my hand and promptly offering me a beer. As our relationship progressed, it became clear that Ahmad and his wife, though culturally Muslim, felt disconnected and ostracized from the Muslim community in our neighborhood. Ahmad frequently expressed (in colorful language) his frustration with our neighbors’ “obsession” with religion.

One evening at a backyard barbecue, Ahmad and his wife told me that they had seen spirits in the wooded area behind our apartment building. Weeks later, Ahmad stopped me to tell me that a “ghost boy” had been terrorizing his wife. When I offered to pray over their apartment, he informed me that he had already contacted an imam who was coming to cleanse the space. A few weeks later, Ahmad knocked on my door to tell me that he was moving. The imam had deemed the apartment building unlivable, due to the number of “Hindu spirits” that were haunting it. He and his wife moved into a Pakistani neighborhood in Chicago a few days later.

Beyond Ahmad
Starting a movement of nominal Muslims coming to faith in the West might be particularly challenging due to the fact that many of these people have walked away from the very social networks through which a movement might flow. Therefore, the community in which they came to faith might be the most comfortable place for them to remain. As the nominal Muslim has intentionally rejected Muslim culture, a culturally appropriate expression of church may look decidedly Western for them. As outsiders, evangelism within the mainstream Muslim immigrant community may be a challenge.

In the same way that community played a major role in their coming to faith, it must be central in their discipleship and growth. Perhaps the role of Christians in the new believers’ lives is to prayerfully walk alongside and encourage them, allowing the Holy Spirit to shape them and reveal how to follow him in obedience.

#2: The Traditional Muslim

Every immigrant arriving in America has choices to make in regards to assimilation. Each family and individual must decide (consciously or subconsciously) how much of their own cultural values to retain. Many will choose to assimilate a great deal, adopting Western dress and behavior, while others will choose to retain their culture, often living in enclaves of immigrants from similar cultures.

For some Muslims, immigration to America is a catalyst for revival and rededication to Islam. The trauma of immigrating alone can be enough to cause some to reexamine their life and faith, while others experience a negative encounter with an American that pushes them deeper into Islam (Poston 2001, 3-19). These Muslims retain a strong sense of cultural and religious identity, and typically practice a mainstream form of Islam.

Community flows out of the mosque, and many may try to live as near to a mosque as possible. These immigrant communities will establish grocery stores and service companies that allow them to function in many of the same ways they did in their home country.

Case Study: Rafia
Rafia moved to the Chicago suburbs from India while she was still a young child. She and her older brothers were educated in a private Islamic school that was mostly comprised of South Asian Muslims and her family attended the mosque associated with the school. Her parents were able to provide a comfortable middle-class lifestyle for their children, and Rafia enjoyed the attention and adoration of being the only daughter.

I met Rafia while we were both working in the registration office of a community college. We were similar in age and became friends while working side by side. We regularly spoke of matters of faith, and she often used my cubicle for her prayer times. She once shared with me that her family had not been overly religious in India, but had found a renewed zeal for Islam upon arriving in America. When they first arrived, her family had extreme culture shock, especially with regard to American morality (or a perceived lack thereof). Additionally, they experienced racism and hatred from their American neighbors, which pushed them into the open arms of the Muslim community.

Once involved in the mosque, their faith became galvanized. Rafia began to wear a full hijab rather than a loose head scarf. She eventually began wearing a solid black abaya. In looking and acting like devoted Muslims, Rafia’s family found identity beyond that of “immigrant.”

Beyond Rafia
Perhaps of all the other Muslim immigrant groups, traditional Muslims are most suited to a movement of Muslims coming to Christ. Although they may be the most resistant to the gospel at first, the natural extended family networks remain intact, which allows the gospel to travel by the witness of believers within those networks. The traditional Muslim is also likely to be involved in a mosque community, which could provide another network for the gospel to travel (Trousdale 2012, 110-113; Diaz 2010, 155-162).

As persons deeply connected to tradition and culture, traditional Muslim immigrants may desire to express their faith in Christ in distinctly Muslim ways, although this should not be presumed by those discipling them.

It is important not to extract the believer from his or her sociocultural community for a number of reasons. The new believer likely plays a pivotal economic and social role in his or her family, the loss of which could be devastating. For example, a young man who comes to faith may be a primary provider and most capable English speaker in his family. If he were to come to faith and abandon his social network for a “Christian” one, his family would be not only spiritually and culturally betrayed, but also financially handicapped.

Extraction may be avoided and movement fostered by engaging entire families rather than only individuals. The collectivist nature of Muslim cultures requires that the group be considered over the individual, and trust may be best built in the family home (al-Ghazali 1989, 198-200). When a Christian engages an entire family rather than one individual, the family may be less resistant to an individual coming to faith than if the entire relationship is conducted outside the home and away from the family. Trusting Christ will be more natural when the family is aware of the presence and witness of a Christian (Trousdale 2012, 88-90).

#3: Refugee Muslims

Each year, thousands of refugees arrive in the United States having fled war, persecution, and violence. They come to this country with few, if any, possessions and are often haunted by past traumas. Due to the unplanned and unexpected nature of their relocation to the States, they often lack the language and cultural skills to succeed in America. They may also struggle to find community, as there may not be large numbers of others from their country resettled in the same area. For them, the daily struggle to survive and thrive in the United States can be overwhelming, even years after resettlement. The refugee’s many needs present excellent inroads for the gospel through service, community, and above all, love.

Case Study: Fatima
In the months after the United States invaded Iraq, numerous government agencies and private companies moved into the country and hired Iraqi civilians to staff their operations. Radical militant groups fighting against the Western occupation targeted national workers as traitors and began issuing death threats to any who could be identified. Such was the experience of Fatima’s husband. Two years after his employment with a U.S. government office in Baghdad ended, he narrowly escaped a drive-by shooting. A short-time later, a neighbor warned him that he was on a list to be executed in the coming weeks. He immediately fled to Syria, and was joined by his wife and sons three months later.

After a short time in Syria, the family’s application for resettlement as refugees was expedited by the United States government, and they were settled in Chicago. Life in America was harsh and difficult. Fatima and her husband had been fairly wealthy in Iraq, and had enjoyed a living situation far beyond the poorly maintained two-bedroom apartment that was now home. The entire family had experienced a great deal of trauma as the result of seeing their neighborhood turned into a literal war zone, neighbors killed, and their own lives threatened. The Iraqi Muslim community in their Chicago suburb was nearly nonexistent, and they struggled to learn American culture and language.

None struggled so significantly as Fatima, for whom the constant fear of losing her husband and children had taken years off her life. Memories of U.S. bombing raids, gunshots, car bombs, and missing family members literally haunted her dreams. While in Syria, she completed a ritual at a mosque, which she credits with strengthening her faith and healing her of debilitating pain. In America, Fatima retains a strong Islamic identity, yet does not regularly practice her faith. She is receptive to Bible stories and prayer, but has shown no interest in placing her faith in Christ.

Beyond Fatima
Beginning a movement among refugee Muslims will be difficult due to the sheer diversity among the population. Refugee Muslims in a single area may represent a number of cultures, languages, and backgrounds. There may not even be a sufficient number of refugee Muslims to constitute a movement. However, they may be able to share with the greater refugee population as they hold a common experience of forced resettlement.

Because God has brought Muslim refugees to the West without their express choosing, it should be expected that God has significant plans for those who come to faith in Christ. Yet it remains to be seen exactly what those plans may be. Christians who walk alongside these people should prayerfully nurture them into seeking the Holy Spirit’s plan for them and others like them.

#4: Next Generation Muslims

An often forgotten segment of the immigrant population are children and teens who immigrated at a young age. While the children may look like their parents, they often feel more comfortable in American culture, creating a rift between parent and child. This tension can be exacerbated by language learning, as young children often learn a second language more quickly than their parents, and may begin to prefer it over their parents’ native tongue. Furthermore, while these children may feel more comfortable in American culture than their parents, they often feel like outsiders in that world as well. They must daily navigate life as individuals caught between multiple cultures.

Case Study: Ubaidah & Hafsa
Ubaidah and Hafsa moved to the United States from Pakistan when they were quite young. Their parents moved to America so that they could send their daughters to a good school without the fear that they would be attacked for seeking an education. Upon arrival, they moved into a heavily Pakistani community, and both parents began working in a factory. Eventually, the girls’ father took work in an Indo-Pak grocery store. The girls were sent to public school, where they quickly made friends with other immigrant children from around the world and mastered English quickly.

Their parents remain devoted to their Muslim faith, praying often and observing dietary and other restrictions. Both parents dress in traditional Muslim clothing. Ubaidah and Hafsa, however, wear screen-printed t-shirts and skinny jeans. At 15 and 13, the girls’ primary concerns are school, boys, and pop stars—half of which are Indian, half American. They half-heartedly keep Islamic dietary restrictions, operating on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

While they love and respect their parents, they feel that many of their parents’ priorities are not relevant to a suburban high school setting. They describe themselves as Muslim, yet they have little knowledge of Islamic teaching and little experience with Islamic practice. They view religion as something that everyone has, a differentiating factor like hair color or nationality.

Beyond Ubaidah & Hafsa
Young immigrant are, in many ways, perfect potential missionaries. Adept in cross-cultural communication, they live each day immersed in multiple cultures, and are accustomed to cultural ambiguity. In urban areas within the United States, immigrant students are often grouped together for language learning, which often leads to befriending other students from diverse backgrounds. These friendships then form a wide cross-cultural network that transcends multiple cultures, religions, and ethnicities.

Perhaps more than any other group, young immigrants have the potential for a global impact for the Kingdom of God. A young Muslim teen may have close friends from Burma, China, Mexico, and Uganda—and each belong to an immigrant community of their own. If we wish to see the gospel spread across diasporas, we must make reaching next generation immigrants a priority.

Conclusion

The Lord is doing a new work in bringing scores of Muslim peoples to our doorstep, and the Church must do a new work in meeting the challenge that this new wave of immigration brings. We must see our neighbors with fresh eyes, keeping our hearts open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, seeking to understand how he would have us engage our Muslim neighbors and how we might empower them to engage others. This cannot be accomplished without first doing the work of knowing, loving, and understanding them, not just as Muslims, but as individuals for whom Christ died.

References

al-Ghazali, H. 1989. “In Coffee Houses.” In Muslims and Christians on the Emmaus Road. Ed. J. D. Woodbury, 198-200. Monrovia , Calif.: MARC.

Bongoyok, M. 2011. “Case Study 3: Missions among the Urban Muslim Diaspora in the West.” In Diaspora Missiology. Ed. Enoch Wan, 199-210. Portland: Institute of Diaspora Studies- USA.

Diaz, Carlos. 2010. “Insider Approach to Muslim Ministry: A Latino Perspective.” In Envisioning Effective Ministry: Evangelism in a Muslim Context. Eds. Laurie Fortunak Nichols and Gary Corwin, 155-162. Wheaton, Ill.: EMIS.

Poston, Larry. 2001. “The Current State of Islam in America.” In The Gospel for Islam. Eds. Roy Oksnevad and Dotsie Welliver, 3-19. Wheaton, Ill.: EMIS.

Trousdale, Jerry. 2012. Miraculous Movements. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

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Caitlin Roam is coordinator of church partnerships and mobilization for Trinity International Baptist Mission. She lives in a highly-diverse neighborhood in Chicago.

EMQ Jan 2015, Vol. 51, No. 1 pp. 20-28. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors. For Reprint Permissions beyond personal use visit our STORE (here).

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