Religious Revitalization of US Muslim-Palestinians: New Solidarities and New Tensions

Immigration to Europe, Australia, and the Americas has been one of the primary strategies that Palestinians have adopted to cope with their decades-long displacement

By Loren Lybarger|July 16, 2015

Immigration to Europe, Australia, and the Americas has been one of the primary strategies that Palestinians have adopted to cope with their decades-long displacement. In the United States, Chicago has historically served as a main hub of Palestinian North American migration.
This migration began in the late 1880s when Palestinians, subject to Ottoman imperial rule, sought relief from land reform laws that had rendered sharecropping increasingly difficult.
The 1948 war, which ended with the establishment of Israel, transformed approximately 750,000 Palestinians into stateless refugees; it also increased the rate and changed the nature of Palestinian emigration to Chicago. Instead of single men uprooting themselves to find work, entire families sought to establish themselves in the Windy city.
Perhaps the single most important event in the formation of the Palestinian immigrant presence in Chicago, however, was the 1967 war in which Israel conquered and occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, Sinai Desert, and Golan Heights, displacing an additional 250,000 Palestinians. The war brought the West Bank—from which most of Chicago’s Palestinian immigrants came—under direct Israeli military rule for the first time.
The ensuing occupation, extensive land expropriation, and Jewish-only settlement construction heightened anxiety in the villages that had served as the primary sending communities for Chicago. Chain migration—migration that is facilitated by existing familial ties—increased. A high rate of new migration also occurred from adjoining villages that had previously not been major sending communities.
During this period, Chicago’s Palestinian immigrant community expanded exponentially, growing to 20,000 to 30,000 people by the end of the 1980s. Most of these migrants settled in the city’s southwest side.
Since then, immigration has remained strong. Today, there are between 80,000 to 120,000 Palestinians in Chicago, making the city host to the single largest concentration of Palestinians in North America.
In addition to spurring an exponential jump in migration, the 1967 war also introduced new political forces that would shape Palestinian identity in two competing directions.
The first direction became embodied in the secular nationalist liberation movements, principally those connected to the Palestine Liberation Organization, more commonly known as the PLO. In Chicago, immigrants with PLO leanings became activists who established student groups and community centers that aligned either with the PLO’s main Fatah faction or its Marxist opposition.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the community centers, which were located in southwest Chicago’s immigrant enclave, served as primary gathering spaces for Palestinians, especially during crises. The activities they sponsored instilled a secular PLO-style nationalism within the wider immigrant community.
The second direction had its roots in the Islamist movements that took form and gained strength in the Gaza Strip during the first Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
These new movements and the ideological orientations they advocated attracted support within the immigrant communities. In Chicago, main proponents included not only Palestinians sympathetic to the Islamic tendencies but also Syrians who had fled Hafiz al-Asad’s brutal eradication of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama during the early and mid-1980s.
The growing presence of recent Palestinian immigrants, including professionals oriented toward the Islamic movements in the Middle East, coincided with the large demographic shift within the Palestinian community from Chicago’s southwest side neighborhoods to the near southwest suburbs.
Spurring the transition was the general accumulation of wealth in the community and a desire to escape the endemic poverty, poor schools, and persisting crime that beset the older urban areas of immigrant settlement. Second generation Palestinians whom I interviewed referred to this event as akin to the white flight that had occurred in the 1950s.
As they shifted to the suburbs, the immigrants—many of whom continued to own stores in the older, increasingly African American and Latino neighborhoods in which the Palestinian enclave had once been situated—began to embrace Islamic piety as a principle framework of identity.
An important force in this process was the Mosque Foundation. The beginnings of this institution date back to the 1950s, when the first generation of immigrants from a small West Bank village formed an association to collect funds for a prayer space that would double as a community center.
The effort resulted in the purchase of an abandoned lot in Bridgeview but then stalled. The arrival in the 1980s of Palestinian professionals, some of whom had embraced Islamic movement ideals and possessed ties to international funding sources, reinvigorated the campaign to build the mosque but not without controversy.
The newcomers, translating their financial resources into enhanced influence, gained majority control of the Mosque Foundation board and began to reorient the organization toward their reformist style of Islam.
The older immigrants resisted this move, seeing it as an effort to sideline their leadership role and the communal priorities that animated their desire for a prayer and gathering space in the first place. Their efforts to hold onto their role and priorities led to a lawsuit in the Cook County Circuit Court.
The legal action failed, however, leaving the way open to the reformers to pursue their plans for an expanded mosque and eventually two Islamic schools.
Perhaps counter-intuitively the religious turn that has taken root among the Palestinians in the southwest suburbs signals a type of segmented assimilation in which immigrant groups embrace ethnic or religious identities in a manner that situates them as part of a hyphenated US national culture.
Events like the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the anti-Muslim backlash that followed have served further to make Muslim-ness the salient identity frame for Arabs and for other Muslim-groups in the US. “Muslim” now appears to constitute a recognizable ethnicity in the spectrum of US identity politics.
Yet, the religious turn has also coincided with a decline in the influence of the PLO-aligned community centers and in the secular pan-Arab and Palestinian nationalism they promulgated.
Largely the consequence of the failure to achieve a viable Palestinian state, the decline of secularism has generated a crisis of cohesion—especially in the diaspora, from which the PLO emerged and for which it served as its principal ideological and organizational structure.
The religious turn, in this situation, has provided individuals with alternative integrative meaning and structure in the way historian of religion Mircea Eliade describes in his classic essay on The Myth of the Eternal Return. It has helped them to make sense of Palestinian suffering in Palestine and in the North American exile by locating them within the mythos of Muhammad’s miraculous night journey to Jerusalem and within the memory of the Muslim conquest of Bayt al-Maqdis (the Holy Sanctuary and its surrounding lands—i.e. Palestine).
Jerusalem has thus become a parallel Islamic axis mundi to the one in Mecca, enabling Palestinian Muslim immigrants to retain Palestine as the exile’s lodestar under conditions of chronic national collapse and Islamophobic backlash.
The religious shift, however, has also had dislocative effects. There has been, for example, a loss of spaces within which Palestinians across the religious spectrum can come together as a single national community.
A main event that brings US Palestinians together to focus on the Palestinian national problem is the annual convention of the Chicago-based American Muslims for Palestine (AMP).

Although AMP seeks to include Palestinian Christian voices, very few if any Palestinian Christians actually participate in this event. One Palestinian Christian who has been an outspoken advocate for Palestinian national rights commented to me, “Why couldn’t they have named their organization simply, ‘Americans for Palestine?’”
Some secular nationalists feel similarly excluded. For these individuals, the Islamic turn in the immigrant community and in Palestine reflects a fundamentally divisive force in Palestinian and Arab societies, generally.
“Look what’s happening in Syria,” one of these individuals told me during an interview, “Those religious zealots are as much to blame as Asad for destroying the nation.”
Thus, religious revitalization has provided alterative meaning, an alternative solidarity, under conditions of secular political collapse—a condition Palestinians have suffered since at least the start of the Second Intifada in September 2000.
It has also created new divisions precisely because the meta-historical horizon toward which it gestures is not one that everyone necessarily desires or shares.
Cainkar, Louise. “Islamic Revival among Second-Generation Arab-American Muslims: The American Experience and Globalization Intersect.” Bulletin of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies 6/2 (Autumn/Winter 2004): 99-120.
Kimmerling, Baruch, and Joel S. Migdal. The Palestinian People: A History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994, 2003.
Lybarger, Loren D. Identity and Religion in Palestine: The Struggle between Islamism and Secularism in the Occupied Territories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
__________. “Nationalism and the Contingency of the Religious Return among Second-Generation Palestinian Immigrants in the United States: A Chicago Case Study.” The Muslim World 104/3 (July 2014): 250-280.
__________. “A Disenchanted Exile: Secularism and the Islamic Revival among Second-Generation Palestinian Immigrants in Chicago.” Religion and Culture Web Forum (May 2014):

Image: The Prayer Center Mosque in Orland Park, Illinois (near Chicago), built in 2004 / flickr creative commons.

3bbf9157-9ad7-4a57-b2e7-cf524f8409be.jpeAuthor, Loren Lybarger, (UChicago Ph.D. 2002) is Associate Professor in Classics and World Religions at Ohio University. He was a Senior Fellow in the Marty Center for two years (2013-14 and 2014-15) and a recipient of a 2013-14 Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Lybarger is the author of Identity and Religion in Palestine: The Struggle between Islamism and Secularism in the Occupied Territories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).


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