Christy Ferguson: Defining American
1, 2001-- Muslims have immigrated to the United States
for more than a century. Theyve come in several waves, from
various parts of the globe -- India and Pakistan, Indonesia, the
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
Ferguson, a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia, confronts
questions of Muslim identity in her Distinguished Major thesis in
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 dont 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."
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 Islams similarities to Judaism and
Christianity, while defining its differences.
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.
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."
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.
21, grew up in Franklin, Va., a little town in the peanut country
of Southside Virginia, where her family has lived for more than
high school, she left Franklin to attend a small -- and protective
-- college, Randolph-Macon Womans 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.
were working at Bir Ftouha, a Christian pilgrimage center from the
sixth to eighth centuries," Ferguson said.
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.
awoke to the sound of the Muslim call to prayer before sunrise every
morning. The summer opened Fergusons eyes and ears to the
Muslim world in all its beauty, mystery and contradictions.
search to understand that world and its diverse people, overseas
and in the U.S., has shaped Fergusons studies at U.Va., where
she is completing an undergraduate degree in anthropology.
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 masters degree program in
anthropology and refugee studies at American University in Cairo,
she knows now is that somehow, somewhere her future will involve
the exotic, exciting, perplexing, compelling world of Islam.
Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858