It Wasn’t Meant To Go This Way

The above seven words say so much about the state of Islam in the world today. More immediately, they describe a despondent viewpoint of Muslims in Switzerland, who, after having high hopes that the Swiss would embrace them as one of their own, had that hope dashed on the rocks in a vote of 57% majority against the construction of minarets in their country. As many have felt, this vote had more to do with the rejection of Islam as a valid religious expression in Switzerland than anything to do with architecture. And while I empathize with the Muslims in Switzerland, I also find this moment highly prophetic. In many ways, I see the issues that European Muslims face a presage to the reality that Muslims in America will face if we do not act while we still have agency to do so. I do not want our children to utter those same seven words.

In order to take stock and lesson from this major roadblock for Muslims in Europe [the ramifications stretch far beyond the borders of Switzerland – just ask any of the Muslims in France as to how they’re reacting to it] the first step will be to analyze what the hardships were/are [and thus, what they may be/are for American Muslims] for Swiss Muslims and what they might have done differently [what might we do/not do]. Some of my first thoughts drift towards what inroads did Swiss Muslims make, in their efforts to navigate Islam in the Swiss cultural and social landscape. Did they attempt to broker an accord that would have allowed them to see themselves as validly Muslim [as well as the Swiss seeing them as validly Swiss] and Swiss? Pre-9/11, did this discourse did not seem to occupy European or American Muslim imaginations to any great extent. To be fair, this process is not wholly in the hands of Swiss Muslims. The Swiss themselves play a key part in for who they open their cultural doors to or not. And yet, I feel there is a self-applied stigma amongst the Muslims that being Swiss or European is somehow innately un-Islamic. This mentality relegates Swiss Muslims to the fringe – often to live a xenophobic experience – where they are incapable of playing any important role in society. The specificities of this argument at too numerous to delve into here but the proofs are readily accessible for anyone wishes to read deeper.

In this inquiry on inroads, we have to ask how are such inroads made and who paves them. Who is best skilled for such a job? In a conversation I had with a brother the other day, he lamented that as a father, he failed to inculcate his children with the tools, agency, and autonomy to navigate their lives as second generation Muslims in America. As a result, his children have grown up not only not practicing Islam, but having an aversion to it. They perceive it as a foreign enterprise or country club, where their membership was either denied or not offered in the first place. Similarly, many young Muslims in Europe have bemoaned that they do not feel a close kinship with their religion because the method in which it is preached and propagated leaves them feeling like second-class citizens. The old guard speaks Arabic or Turkish or Urdu while the new generation speaks French or German, or English. A classic generational divide that has real consequences for the survival of Muslims in Europe.

I believe there is a tremendous lesson to take from this; a lesson not simply to catalog and file away, but to use a call to action for Muslims in America. In a private conversation, one of the top Muslims scholars in America estimated that Islam in America has at most, fifty years, perhaps less, to indigenize and find its footing before it is washed away by the tide of the demands of the dominant culture. Looking towards the European model, those words certainly seem to ring true.  Islam in Europe is a a teetering point – will it stay or go? We can see that if the very difficult challenge of making Islam valid and relevant in its environment – be it America, Europe, or anywhere else, is not met, European Muslims cannot hope for any longevity in their predicament.

The title of this post is a quote from a recent article by Tariq Ramadan, one of Europe’s most popular scholars on Islam. In his article, he continues the conversation and states that Switzerland is, “the land of my birth”. And while Ramadan may identify as Swiss, how many of his other co-religionists in Switzerland identify in the same manner? For that matter, in Europe as a whole? This crux of identification is one of the most important dilemmas that Muslims the world over have to contend with in modernity. This is something that both American and European Muslims are having tremendous difficulty articulating. I see this as especially pertinent to American Muslims, where indigenous Muslims struggle to see themselves as legitimately Muslim in the face of foreign-born expressions of Islam, and immigrant Muslims scramble to appease the dominant culture without loosing their religion. Will American Muslims cooperate to find a middle ground or will they continue to play high-stakes winner-take-all chances?

Going back to Ramadan’s article, he sites some of the issues being related to the invisibility of Muslims in Swiss society [read Europe for the purposes of this article]. I would challenge this observation in that it is not simply the invisibility of Swiss Muslims but rather the Swiss may not like what they see. Again, I acknowledge that this decision is not wholly in the hands of Swiss Muslims but it does beg the question of how non-Muslim Swiss see Swiss Muslims and how that can be analyzed for the betterment of Muslims in Switzerland. It would be grievous, not to mention complete dereliction of duty, to conclude that what the dominant culture thinks of Muslims is frivolous or inconsequential. The challenge is to meet this test with a creativity and intelligence that has the dignity and longevity of Muslims as its chief and primary concern, not simply blaming the European [read American as well] populists as failing to, “assert that Islam is by now a Swiss and a European religion and that Muslim citizens are largely ‘integrated’.

I pray we can learn from this, that we can take the opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing and how good we have it. And believe me, we have it good compared to our European cousins. May God make it easy for all of us. Amin.

9 Replies to “It Wasn’t Meant To Go This Way”

  1. Good article, old friend
    The stigma of “The Other”, with regards to Islam and its percieved attendant socio/political structure(or lack thereof in the minds of such “Benefactors” as T.E. Lawrence), as denoted by the likes of celebrated Orientalists as Edward Said was the 19th centuries swift stroke of genius relegating it to a provincial expression of what the deserts had been producing for well over 1000 yrs even by the time of Muhammad(SAWS).

    The “Dominant Culture” so as could opined was further solidified with the fall of Granada in 1492; only but a scene in an act that foretold how the play will be written for the next 500+ years and apparently as yet far from its curtain call.

    To see the forest thru the trees would afford blips of groups like the Ashkanatz, decendants of the Gentiles of Khazaria, occupying strategic land masses that afforded the least corruptible trade routes, made to convert to Judaism as a sort of middle way between the competing and lecherous glares of Islam and Christianity. Watch their precarious slidings through history, with near misses and averted tragedies only to surface as the dominant branch of Judaism(Proselytic mind you} in the entire world.

    The key to the Jews persistance and ultimate ascendancy, at least in part, would seem to be a natural willingness to forgo the Aphorisms of the faith and give way to Secular expressions to root where they may. Though there may be many shades of grey in the Hebrew faith(and some would even say diluted) you need not go far to find Orthodoxy; it’s here, it didn’t fizzle away. Yet it was the very shades of grey that permitted the resourceful to find their way into every facet of modernity.

    We’ve no need to call any Muslim not born of Arabian soil a Proselyte. And a presaging of a Monotheistic Tripartite of sorts, with the big 3 making nice nice might sit well a few Menopausal Theosophists. If it helps some to think so, who cares. Groups like the Nation and the Five Percenters could be likened to as a cultural isolate that could only have come about in a climate far from its source. Befitting it’s set of unique circumstances. There’s always going to be a syncretic dynamism to any venture that persists thru history. Islam, to me anyway, is no different. The Indigenous Muslim of America, more than likely the ascendant expression that reveals THE cumulative ideal, shares much with a Calvinist meritocracy that comes with a decentralized structure.

    Islam is as much an internal state of being to be recognized as such as it is a religion and will persist with or without our musings but insofar as our temporal participation affects succeeding generations I suppose it a good thing to view all we survey with a sort of dispassionate evenness. I’ve heard Prof. A.H. Jackson comment to the effect that we need only to keep plowing through history ourselves. Paying no mind to the rantings of Foreign born “Holier than Thow” Muslims that paint a less than stellar picture for the public at large. Or to the itinerant media Blitz that throws us all off kilt and makes ahistorical buggers of the best of us. The Muslim carpenter will be a carpenter, the Muslim factory worker will be a factory worker, the Muslim holding on for dear life to the threads of his deen will continue to(or not). We can’t see the forest thru the trees. Islam IS. And thats it, really. And as a Meritocracy of sorts the Deen is rooting in this country. This loose Republic of States that I love and hate with equal fervor is where the world will look to when it considers the the brightest of Islams adherents. To shuffle loose the Aphorisms of those who lay claim to ownership of the deen whist they themselves are victims of contradicting morays can only help.

  2. Alsaum Alukem
    Nice article brother Marc,
    First of all I believe we have to know the differences between West world and Muslims world.
    If we do so we will understand and deal correctly with most problem the Muslims face it today.. In fact the old scholars were more open mind, and they were aware about the differences. Many Muslims have misunderstand about this issue,they think we mean create a new religion( which is may be mix between religions. We do not say that, what we are saying simply is that what we know or even use to see or do in Islamic countries, it is not necessary valid here.Of course the basic (like: Tawheed, Salah, Fasting etc…) will stay anywhere and any time,however the Fatwy (Fageh) has to be different for Islamic country.
    Second thing is; we have some Social problems we see it every where especially from immigrants ,who they were born in Arab or Muslims countries, most of them came here with their problem they have in their countries to the west world. They unfortunately became bad reflection for people here.
    In my opinion, if we want to solve our problems that we should work on both sides. Muslims side and non Muslims side.

    I hope my points are clear enough, and I hope you are fine after your ailment.
    Best regards

  3. Many indigenous Muslims, especially Black American Muslims, have a hard time seeing themselves as American. That is probably one of the reasons why they are so slavish to models of Islam from the Middle East. Part of this lies in the protest tradition of black activism, or rather their misinterpretations of Black nationalists like Malcolm X and his critique of American society. This is where the delicate balance has to be created between grass roots activism and Muslim American intellectuals (and I’m not talking about ivory tower folks but those like yourself who are engaged in the community). Both have to see a type of ownership of an American Islam that seeks to solve problems and address conditions that are unique to America, rather than just simply critique America and foster a sense of alienation. There are plenty of things to critique in this society, but we have to be willing to be part of the solution, rather than foster our continual ghettoization (and I mean that in the 1940s Germany sense of the term).

  4. Yay verily to Margari Aziza

    The wonderful empty miracle to me is in living the personal paradigm of the Deen as Americans. I use the word empty in the sense that, when you subtract the emotional investment from conviction you are still left with the Noble distillate that tipifies the human condition. The best of Islam is this. There not being a centralized nexus makes it all the more dynamic. Perilous at times;’cause you and I know many who’ve lost their way, in the Deen and out. Roll up on a brother with half of the mealy mouth talk we engage in or read about in process and theory and you’re liable to get your neck snapped back sooner or later. Boots on the ground application is whats needed and if we look closely we’ll see that they’ve been here all along. Many walks of life and persuasions to be sure, but we look to the Muslim in this instance. Many many to emulate all around us. Go to a Masjid and seek out a brother or two, w/ your idioms if it’ll help, and I guarantee you’ll be met with open arms, a strong back and kind words. BAR NONE! The meritocratic dig is where you take it from there. Brothers are livin’ HARD and dyin’ for this Deen all over the world right now. What we do here is no less epic; theres lotsa good people feeling bad right next door to us too. Someones hungry, feed them. Someones cold, give ’em a coat. Muslim or not.We all know this. A dear friend of mines only request when being thanked for his good deed was that it be oblidged to a Muslim whenever given the opportunity. This is our idiom.
    It may read like IKEA instructions written by Martin Heidegger on the first pass(it did to me anyhow) but Sherman Jacksons’s “Islam and the Black American, Looking toward The Third Resurrection”, Oxford University Press, is as thick as it gets in our idiom and has been, at least for this veteran Latino soldier, the consummate pointer to the best of what we’ve always had, Mash’Allah.

  5. You have a beautiful summary and encouragement:

    “What we do here is no less epic”.

    I think I would like to repeat these words often. I will cite you, of course, MLA-Chicago style.

    I think you might be able to replace Azhar Osman:

    “It may read like IKEA instructions written by Martin Heidegger on the first pass (it did to me anyhow): Sherman Jacksons’s “Islam and the Black American, Looking toward The Third Resurrection”.

    Very funny and very true for many if not most of us.

    P.S. If you think Jackson’s first book was a duesy, try his new one 🙂

  6. @Jamie,
    Thanks for your comments. It’s true, there is a difference between being born in a locale and being of that place, in mind and culture. This issue is very similar to what W. E. B. Du Bois spoke about when he wrote on double consciousness in Blackamericans. Never feeling wholly at ease in your own skin, and I would wager that that is most certainly the case with many Muslims in Switzerland as well as Europe as a whole. For me, the whole “returning home” is a lot closer to what’s being gotten at. This is about a stayed presence of Islam in Europe, not about architecture.

  7. “In his article, he continues the conversation and states that Switzerland is, “the land of my birth”.”
    …which isn’t actually the same thing as saying he is Swiss. Indeed, most Swiss people would identify themselves not as Swiss but as coming from a particular canton. The Duke of Wellington, born and brought up Ireland but considering himself English, said “You might as well say Christ was a horse because he was born in a stable.” when someone said he was Irish.
    Secondly, most of the muslims in switzerland are first or second generation. Apart from wealthy individuals with no aspiration to citizenship and no interest in Switzerland’s internal affairs, about a fifth are Turks who came to do contracted jobs, with the expectatio on both sides that they would return home, and most of the others are refugees from Bosnia, which is now at peace and so- in Swiss eyes atleast- they need no longer stay in Switzerland.

  8. This was a great post. One of our biggest problems as a community is that we often forget to rely on the example of our beloved Prophet(may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him / p.b.u.h.)

    The prophet was not offensive or stand-offish. He did not go to another region without considering it’s inhabitants and leaders. For example, he visited a group of people and braided his hair the way they braided their hair so as to let them know that he comes in peace and means no offense. This is key, because there are a number of Muslims who fail in this regard.

    Additionally, I would also like Muslims to ask themselves whether or not a minaret is a requirement on a masjid? It may be time for the Muslims to show some flexibility and innovation when it comes to developing masjids and musalahs. Many communities are thinking that if they can’t add minaret, they wont have a good masjid. Perhaps we can maintain a masjid’s architectural reputation as well as compliment the cityscapes in which they’re constructed without a minaret? It is an additional expense.

  9. As salaam alaikum Brother Marc,
    Taking a deep breath… okay…

    I commented on another one of your articles you wrote about “solutions” hopefully that thread won’t be closed next month.

    But briefly, the American Muslim community has human resource management problem. Some of our problems remind me of what is going on in the non-Muslim black and Latino communities.
    I live in Virginia. Virginia is not too happy with Muslims (of any race, class, gender) these days. The shooter of the military base in Texas was a native, and prayed at a masjid here. These five young men arrested in Pakistan and accused of trying to join a terrorist group are from Alexandria Virginia. I have watched over the past five years the response from groups like CAIR and most importantly ***the reaction to our response*** from non-Muslims. Not just the general population but from folks like Lieberman who are from the “ruling class.” I noticed a huge difference between Nihad Awad’s responses on MSNBC to the shooting rampage versus his organizations response printed in the Washington Post about these five young men arrested in Pakistan. I read the comments to the story in the Post, and I scanned other social media websites as well. When your nation does not trust you, feel comfortable or safe around you, or thinks you are trying to ***convert people for the sake of overthrowing the government to create an Islamic American state*** versus convert people your religion for divine purposes*** you have a HUGE problem. I’m afraid that many in one of our leading national political part believe we are a fifth column—including those of who are American.

    My observation is that our organizations are not studying this, and if they are they do not know how to respond in both word and deed effectively. Also, not to stir up the pot of IMM’s vs BAM’s but seriously I noticed the non-Muslims had a different reaction to Imam Warith Deen Mohammed.


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