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Indian Muslims in America
By Kaleem Kawaja

Muslims from India started arriving in USA in significant numbers, along with other Indians, around 1965, when the US government relaxed the immigration laws. India Abroad the well-known newspaper of the Indian community in US, has estimated that at the turn of the century in 2000, the number of Indians in US was about 1.1 million. Of that the number of Indian Muslims is about 100,000.

A vast majority of these expatriate Indian Muslims typically live in the major US cities namely, New York, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Atlanta, Detroit, Miami, Washington DC and Boston. The largest population of Indian Muslims is in the New York and Chicago regions. Most of these Indian Muslims are generally technical professionals in the fields of engineering, medicine, sciences, accounting, teaching etc. Of the various regions in India from which these folks migrated to US, most belong to the region around Hyderabad. The state of Bihar is home to the second largest number of Indian Muslim expatriates in US. Other Indian Muslims in US are from all other states in India.

Soon after the Indian Muslim expatriates established a foothold in the new country and formed their families in the mid 1970s, they became concerned with the need to retain their religion and their distinct ethnic identity. Thus their quest to establish mosques, Islamic centers and Islamic schools on Sundays, began in earnest. In this effort they found a common cause with Muslim immigrants from other countries namely Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon etc. Thus by the early 1980s, Islamic Centers sprang up in most major cities in US. In all these Islamic centers one could find a significant number of Indian Muslims, who were keen to ensure that their young children receive Islamic education on weekends, so that they become good Muslims.

Also Islamic Centers developed into institutions where Muslims from the Indian subcontinent could organize religious and social/ cultural events, with features similar to what they recalled from their days back in the mother country. Thus in the early 1990s, at least one Islamic Center in every major US city came to have a substantial number of members, and those who were managing them, Muslim expatriates from the subcontinent. In the late 1990s quite a few Indian Muslims became heads of Islamic Centers in major US cities and in nationwide Islamic organizations. On the cultural front, Mushairas, the beloved pastime of the Urdu speaking Muslims from the subcontinent, started gaining popularity in the early 1990s, in quite a few major cities in US. The organizers started inviting well known Urdu poets from the subcontinent to the annual Mushairas, generally held in the months of September through December. Today, quite a few Indian Muslims are among the leading organizers of Mushairas in US.

Indian Muslims also started taking active part in the social & cultural organizations of Indian expatriates in various US cities. Thus in the observances of India's independence day and Republic day, in the receptions to visiting dignitaries from India, and in the entertainment events by Indian movie stars & singers, a significant number of Indian Muslims are always found.

Then came the mid 1980s when anti-Muslim communal riots erupted in various cities in India and started to occur with clockwork regularity. The news of these horrendous riots and the lack of any action by the Indian government made a strong imprint on the minds of the expatriate Indian Muslims. It was natural for them to turn to organizations of Indians in US, to seek their support to lodge protests with the Indian government on such gross lack of social justice to their people back home. They were surprised and pained when these Indian organizations declined to support such protest appeals. They soon realized that this was their own problem that they themselves had to work on.

That led to the formation of separate organizations of Indian Muslim expatriates. Today four such organizations exist in US. They are: 1. Washington DC: The Association of Indian Muslims of America. 2. Chicago: Consultative Committee of Indian Muslims. 3. San Francisco: Indian Muslim Relief Committee. 4. Detroit: American Federation of Muslims from India. Through these organizations, Indian Muslims in US are trying to help their Qaum back home, by supporting programs for the improvement of education among the youth, provide financial relief in the event of natural disasters and anti-Muslim riots and do public relations work to draw attention to instances of injustice to their community in India. Alumni of the Aligarh Muslim University have established fairly successful Alumni Associations in Washington DC, New York, Chicago, San Francisco Atlanta and Detroit. Generally, every year in October, they organize annual get-togethers and Mushairas to celebrate the birth anniversary of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of the university.

Like other Indian expatriates in US, a majority of Indian Muslims are professionals and technocrats. In general, these folks are financially well off and maintain good standard of living. Several Indian Muslims have become very successful in their chosen professions in the government, corporations and other large organizations. A few notable figures are: Dr Islam Siddiqi, Deputy Undersecretary, Ministry of Agriculture, US government; Dr Waseem Siddiqi, Chairman Department of Tropical Medicine, University of Hawaii; Aziz Haniffa, national editor, India Abroad newspaper; Dr Muzammil Siddiqui, President, Islamic Society of North America; Dr Saeed Ahmad Saeed, Secretary General, Islamic Society of North America; Dr Khurshid Mallick, Executive Director, Islamic Medical Association of North America; Dr Habeeb Ashruf, Senior Advisor, American Muslim Council. Entreprenuers who succeeded in their fields are: Zubair Kazi, owner of many restaurants belonging to the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant chain; Ismail Merchant, Hollywood movie director-producer; Zakir Husain, Tabla maestro; Madhur Jaffry, movie and stage actress.

Now in the twenty-first century, the second generation of Indian-American Muslims, the offspring of immigrant Muslims from India, are continuing to do well in higher education and in starting promising careers in various professional fields. The challenge for them is, to remain proud of their distinct Indo-Islamic heritage & identity and remain good Muslims, as they excel in their chosen professions, something their parents are very keen on. Indeed, in a short span of less than 35 years, immigrant Muslims from India have firmly planted themselves in formerly alien America, have succeeded in their diverse professions, have helped build a thriving American Muslim community, and have put their children firmly on the path of success.

The writer is director of the Association of Indian
Muslims of America, Washington DC.
Pictures: top: A gathering of Indian Muslims to celebrate Eidul Fitr, Baltimore, Dec.2000 (courtesy: Kaleem Kawaja); bottom: Indian Muslim girls at ISNA conference, Sept 2001 (courtesy: Usama Khalidi)

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