Many non-Muslims in North America believe that Islam is primarily the religion of Arabic speaking peoples. However, not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslims are Arabs. There is a significant population of Christian, Jewish, and secular Arabs, and Arabs are in fact a minority ethnicity within the worldwide Muslim population. The greatest concentration of Muslims is actually found in Indonesia, and Muslims of South Asian descent, primarily from India and Pakistan, currently account for the majority of Muslims in North America overall.
The first Muslims in North America were brought to America by force as slaves from Africa. The first immigrants likely came from Lebanon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries working as peddlers. There are currently an estimated 600,000 Muslims in Canada, 6 million in the United States, and 15,000 in Mexico. Muslims in North America are on the whole very organized and established enough to maintain their Islamic identity in the North American context, adding their rich cultural heritage to the countries of North America.
But Muslim diversity in North America has not just included immigrant minorities but has become increasingly prevalent among ethnic or racial minorities as well. And here a possible connection between multiculturalism in America and Muslim diversity may be seen. A significant number of African Americans have converted to Islam during the 20th century. A reasonable estimate places African Americans at 30% of the total American Muslim population, which would register them at an estimated membership of approximately 2 million. The largest African American Muslim group today is known as the Nation of Islam. The most important figure in this group historically has been Elijah Muhammad, and the present leader of the group is Elijah's son W. D. Muhammad. Significant personalities and leaders in this movement include Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.
The Nation of Islam is significant because the shape of multiculturalism in the United States has taken on a highly racialized tone. Multiculturalism in America is a counterdominant movement that intends to represent America's ethnic and racial diversity more accurately and fairly in United States's institutions. To date, most efforts have been limited to education practices and the mass media, but there is great potential for this political discourse to address the concerns of not only racial and ethnic minorities but also immigrant and religious minority groups as well. Even though the United States is well-known for its stringent separation between church and state and thus continues to affirm that the publicly funded school is no place for religious education, some schools have taken advantage of the American court's affirmation that the public school is indeed a place to teach about religious traditions. And some private or charter schools are beginning to receive some public funding as long as they uphold certain curriculum standards, but otherwise they are free to include some religious education in their programs. And just as multiculturalism in America has tried to more accurately represent African Americans in the mass media, so too Muslims can benefit greatly with more accurate representations of their religion in the presses. There has also been some effort to accommodate Muslim minorities in issues relating to employment. In 1989 the District of Columbia passed legislation requiring all employers to allow Muslims leave to attend Friday prayers. President Bush recently pushed the boundary between church and state by offering some funding to religious institutions to provide social services. But unfortunately these funds have been primarily limited to Christian institutions and have not addressed the needs of diverse immigrant and minority religious communities.
There are of course numerous other historic, ethnic, and immigrant religious communities throughout North America, and Diana Eck's Pluralism Project is an invaluable and exhaustive project that is seeking to document and understand the incredible new religious diversity present in America. The Web site for this project and the CD-ROM published by this project is full of useful information on this subject.
Canada too has begun to address the issue of religion in public schools and religious accommodation. Karim H. Karim reports that one Muslim's attempt to procure time off work to attend Friday prayers at his mosque led to the termination of his employment. However, this Muslim successfully won his case in court and was reinstated in his job with the right to attend Friday prayers without pay. Separate Catholic schools continue to be fully funded with public dollars in the province of Ontario. And the province of Alberta has recently decided to fully fund any religious separate school that requests government funding provided that they meet certain curriculum and policy guidelines. Canadian public schools are also trying to include optional courses about religious traditions into their curriculums. Karim H. Karim reports that Muslim communities in Canada have been successful in garnering public monies to support programs in organizational development, Muslim conferences, classes in citizenship enhancement, development of youth leadership, Muslim exhibitions, classes in teacher training, and minority language classes including Farsi, Urdu, and Arabic.
Canada has also very recently been looking seriously at the question of allowing some Muslim groups to institute parts of Sharia law in their communities. This is not a proposal to institute the worst of penal law in some Muslim countries that has been broadcast by the popular media but rather is a proposal to include a purely optional and limited portion of civil law in areas such as legal separation, divorce, and the custody of children. Similar options are already available through approved programs to some Christian and Jewish communities, and on the whole have worked surprisingly well because of their orientation toward reconciliation and restoration, rather than the confrontational winner-take-all approach of many state legal institutions. However, a strong national Muslim women's organization is very concerned about this development's impact on the real legal choices of Muslim women in Canada. This question is as yet wide open, but Canada has decided that it is preferable to ask and struggle with these questions of accommodation rather than simply ignore its religious diversity and legislate for the dominance of the majority culture across all minority communities.