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Christy Ferguson: Defining American Muslim Identity

May 1, 2001-- Muslims have immigrated to the United States for more than a century. They’ve come in several waves, from various parts of the globe -- India and Pakistan, Indonesia, the Middle East.

Add to that a number of Americans -- black and white -- who have converted to Islam in recent decades and a complex picture of a diverse community emerges. While Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the U.S., it is difficult to generalize about an American Muslim identity.

Christy Ferguson, a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia, confronts questions of Muslim identity in her Distinguished Major thesis in anthropology at the University of Virginia. She spent last summer interviewing Muslim immigrants while an intern with the Islamic Institute, a political lobbying group in Washington.

"Nationality is still an important factor for Muslims who have immigrated here," said Ferguson, whose own Virginia roots go back more than 300 years. "Recent immigrants don’t see themselves as American Muslims but as Pakistanis or Syrians or whatever. To fit into American categories of identity, they must fragment their sense of identity into religion and ethnicity and race. They hyphenate and modify their ideas of themselves as they begin to assemble a new identity in the American context."

Not only that, they often must redefine their religion in terms that mainstream American Protestants, Catholics and Jews can understand, Ferguson said. They seek ways to bridge cultural gaps by finding religious historical figures that Islam shares with other faiths, allowing them to stress Islam’s similarities to Judaism and Christianity, while defining its differences.

All three religions begin with Adam and Eve, and Muslims believe that Abraham, Moses and Jesus were important prophets who laid the foundation of their faith. But they believe Mohammed was a vital seventh-century prophet through whom God expanded on his earlier message.

"One of the incredible things about Islam is that it has adapted to so many different cultures around the world," Ferguson said. "So, when all these people come to the United States, they bring many interpretations of Islamic beliefs and practices."

But the very flexibility and diversity that has nurtured the growth of Islam around the world complicates matters in the U.S. as practitioners here struggle to develop an American Islam — one that incorporates American ideals of equality and democracy, Ferguson said.

Ferguson, 21, grew up in Franklin, Va., a little town in the peanut country of Southside Virginia, where her family has lived for more than three centuries.

After high school, she left Franklin to attend a small -- and protective -- college, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, in Lynchburg. But after her sophomore year, Ferguson spread her wings and spent a summer with an archaeology professor at a dig in Carthage, Tunisia.

"We were working at Bir Ftouha, a Christian pilgrimage center from the sixth to eighth centuries," Ferguson said.

She worked under the hot sun in the dust and dirt from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the summer of 1999. Collaborating with the Bardo Museum in Tunis and other official Tunisian historical preservation organizations, the American students and their professor examined, then replaced, any human bones they found, but cleaned and catalogued other items, such as old coins and mosaics.

Ferguson awoke to the sound of the Muslim call to prayer before sunrise every morning. The summer opened Ferguson’s eyes and ears to the Muslim world in all its beauty, mystery and contradictions.

Her search to understand that world and its diverse people, overseas and in the U.S., has shaped Ferguson’s studies at U.Va., where she is completing an undergraduate degree in anthropology.

Ferguson has accepted a Fulbright to study Arabic in Jordan this summer. After that, she must decide between joining the Peace Corps in Morocco to work with a maternal-child health program, where she can polish her Arabic and continue to explore issues of Muslim identity, or pursue graduate studies. She has deferred admission to graduate programs in anthropology at the University of Michigan and Yale University, and is considering a master’s degree program in anthropology and refugee studies at American University in Cairo, Egypt.

All she knows now is that somehow, somewhere her future will involve the exotic, exciting, perplexing, compelling world of Islam.

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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