Muslims, Conservative Religions, and the Amish

More alike than different & history all the same

I’m from Maine, a pretty libertarian and freedom-oriented place.

And while Maine is sadly still the whitest state in the union, we usually don’t care who our neighbors are, as long as they (and the government) don’t bother us. They could be blue and from Mars for all we care. Or at least I’d like to think that’s how we think.

Europe’s recent immigrant challenges, especially the EU’s limited ability to understand and integrate Muslims and other immigrants got me thinking about these issues, including how we look at others, especially conservative religions and their “oppressive” traditions across our history.

Let’s begin with my favorite state of Maine.

Maine is a pretty traditional and very white place. In fact, the whitest in the USA. So much so that I never even met a person of color until out-of-state high school trips.

So, you may be surprised to learn about Maine’s growing Somali population. Believe it or not, Maine is incongruously home to a growing African diaspora, with about 10,000 Somali refugees having moved to Maine in the last 20 years.

And while they are not without controversy, they helped revitalize one of the poorest cities in Maine and brought an influx of young people to a state quite short of workers in many industries.

More broadly, they’ve certainly helped diversify the state and literally brought color to the rather bland Maine life. Not only are they black Africans in a largely white state, but as conservative Muslims, Somali women are often out in burkas & hijabs, something I never thought I’d see in Maine in my lifetime.

As you may know, I’m always a fan of new immigrants, of diversity, and the continual broadening of American culture and experiences. And like those before them, the Somalis, their religion, and their culture will enrich us all over time.

This is a very good thing. Really. Burkas, hijabs, and all.

Maine also has one of the newest and fastest-growing Amish communities, something I only discovered recently, given that the Amish are a bit less noticeable than 10,000 Somalis.

I’m a big Amish fan and thus happy to see the Amish are adding a new Maine community every other year or so. And since they have large families, we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in our rural communities over time.

This is a very good thing. Really. Buggies, straw hats, and all.

So, Maine’s major newcomers are a curious mix of Somali and Amish, which is pretty darn interesting, given they seem about as different as they could be. However, they come to Maine for essentially the same reasons and broadly believe in the same things.

They come for inexpensive land or living costs, a sense of their own community, an ability to start over or start something new, and a broader accepting community. By now, both have established communities and bases where they can land and thrive.

They are also both quite conservative communities — though their cultures are quite different, and their challenges over time are more alike than we might imagine. Today the Amish are accepted, even cherished, but this was not always so. They were persecuted & hunted in Europe, an experience many Somalis shared 400 years later.

And thus I was thinking about how we are (or should be) accepting and even again welcoming conservative religions and other outsiders, especially in this time of global rejection of all things foreign.

I’m pondering two threads on this.

First, it’s interesting how we treat conservative religions among us.

Conservative religious groups have always faced disdain, discrimination, and often worse across the arc of time, including coming to America hundreds of years ago to escape European persecution. These included mainstream groups along with smaller or homegrown religions such as the Shakers, Quakers, Mormons, and even Pagans, all of whom have suffered over the centuries.

Today, many Americans criticize Muslims, forgetting that we still have very traditional Christians who speak in Latin, Hasidic Jews in their black finery and isolated communities, and many other less-mainstream religions among us. Including the Amish.

Most of these groups are much more conservative or have more unusual practices than most Muslims joining us these days (of which the Somalis are only a small part, as today’s Muslims come from everywhere).

Yet modern Americans are broadly accepting of all these older groups, and unless you live closely with them, they are hardly noticed nor commented on. Partly this is because they are all loosely Judeo-Christian faiths, and also presumably because they’ve been here a long time and thus part of the established order of things.

But it still strikes me as odd that everyone adores the Amish and accepts the others, and yet sizable groups actively dislike or even persecute Muslims in America and beyond. I ponder this more below.

Second, how & why are we treating Muslims differently than other conservative religions?

Islam seems so strange and threatening to some, but it’s a major world religion not that different from the others. And, as near as I can tell, Islam for modern Muslims focuses on modesty, family, and charity — all of which all of us could use more of.

People’s views are certainly colored by challenges in the Middle East and other regions, where sadly, fundamentalism and terrorism are a reality. But views are also influenced by ignorance, including the belief that Islam is anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, or desires to somehow impose Sharia on us all. Foolish ideas, not helped by politicians stirring the pot in decidedly unhelpful ways.

Also coloring the West’s view is the nature of traditional Muslim women’s garb. For many in the West, it’s a huge affront to their sensibilities, as they can’t see why any self-respecting woman would wear such things. It’s not what the West wants to see, nor expect in modern pluralistic societies where everyone should be free.

It’s certainly true that women are treated very badly in many Muslim countries and cultures. However, it strikes me that one must very much separate Islamic clothing and treatment of women from how many countrys’ cultures treat women, for they are not at all the same thing.

From my limited perspective, most modern Muslim women wearing the traditional burkas and hijabs do so as a choice, in line with their conservative views, especially around female modesty. And while their choice of clothing may differ, you’d probably hear similar views from Mormons and conservative Christian sects, too.

Contrast that with some Middle East or South Asian cultural views of women as property, unable to go out or live on their own, or even be killed for shaming the family. Sadly, these are especially prevalent in despotic Arab regimes and related fundamentalism that’s more about control draped in religion than religion itself. These toxic ideas are very far from Islamic ideals, and we should all condemn them.

To me, Islam is fundamentally just a conservative religion that is younger and, in some ways, still evolving into the modern age. It’s still shedding some of the old ways, just as many Christian churches have over the centuries.

It’ll continue to evolve and modernize, both in the Middle East and across the world, and perhaps already has in Europe, the USA, and Asia. This process is not easy but certainly smoother if we are supportive, helping nudge folks away from some of their more challenging cultural practices, especially regarding women.

Overall, most of us are now experiencing our first real contact with the Muslim world in our world, with the inevitable small and not-so-small conflicts. Some of us are reading the Koran and reaching out to better understand our new neighbors, while others are sadly fostering their own unhelpful mistrust and even hatred.

But frankly, these are the same challenges we’ve worked out over hundreds of years with a myriad of new religions, ethnicities, and more . After all, it’s not our first rodeo integrating new folks, their religions, and their cultures into America.

We specialize in edging them increasingly closer to the mainstream while they maintain their own uniqueness within, and contribute to, the larger culture. For some, this means modernizing their views on things, often about women, but also on children, education, and many other things big and small. They all leave their mark on us, too, big and small.

Likewise, for many conservative Muslims, it’s also their first attempt to integrate into other worlds. Realistically, it’s hard to give up the old ways, and both good and challenging to see their children grow up as modern Americans.

But they have no choice, as none of them can be like the Amish, separating their world from ours. And like generations of American immigrants before them, most want to both be American and retain their culture. We’d do well to enable that all we can.

Give these things time. We’ll get used to it, new generations will evolve, and frankly, by 2050, we’ll have forgotten most of this — a few women wearing Burkas in the West will be like the Amish, interesting and respected for their traditional ways, nothing more. We’ll be eating more yummy Arab and African food, using a bit of Somali slang, and not even know it.

Finally, we might also remember how open and accepting the Muslim world was in old, and not so old, times. Just about the only places religions lived together in relative peace over the centuries was under Muslim rule. Let’s not forget that, and thus in some ways, perhaps we need to be more like them, as they work to be more like us.

  • Have you read a summary of the Koran?
  • Do you have any Muslim friends?
  • Do you have conservative religious friends or neighbors?

CEO of ChinaNetCloud & Siglos.io — Global Entrepreneur in Shanghai & Silicon Valley