NBC Nightly News – Why Muslims Need A New Media Strategy

On Sunday, December 4th, I had the privilege of having 10 seconds of my interview with NBC aired before the nation. Yes, I am being sarcastic.

As I mentioned in this week’s The Middle Ground Podcast, I don’t believe in the conspiracy theory of the media to portray Muslims as victims, at least not entirely. Undoubtedly there may be a few journalists who do but I firmly believe that the vast majority in the media who portray Muslims as victims are doing so at the direction of a vocal group of Muslims themselves. It’s much easier for us to demonize the media and scapegoat them for all of our problems than to face an inconvenient truth: many of us love being victims because we believe we can use pity to coerce Chuck into getting what we want from him: our pre-9/11 lives back.

This startling truth was made even more clear when I was interview by Larry Mantel on his show, AirTalk, on KPCC radio.

One caller, Fawaz, further illustrates my point. He spoke on how he was supported by the community, as immigrants. Never did he speak on what they contribute back. He further said,

“I do take an issue with some of the other points. I am an American Muslim, I am an immigrant, but I am fully integrated with the local activities and am part of Arcadia dialog; interfaith group.”

My response to brother Fawaz was,

“the glaring point is I, and your guest, would not be on this show if this wasn’t an issue”.

Clearly the American/Muslim issue has not been put to rest, despite Fawaz’s claims, otherwise there would not be a continued national discussion regarding it. What is most misunderstood here is there’s a difference between being a citizen and being fully American; there’s a difference between how one thinks of one’s self and how one is perceived by others in that society; and the difference between the potential to be fully American and current realities.

Clearly we must take efforts to stop sabotaging ourselves through continued invocations of victimhood. Only through a strong, principled, and courageous voice can we make our narrative felt and understood.

@Issue with Steve Highsmith

It was my pleasure to have been invited on NBC 10’s @Issue, hosted by Steve Highsmith. The show was about religious leaders and how they try to lead Muslims, Christians and Jews toward peace in a post-9/11 era. I was joined by Rabbi Richard Hirsh and Rev. Sherri Hausser, both of whom I enjoyed meeting and hope to work with again in the future.

The three segments are below. If you have trouble loading them, you may view them here.

View more videos at: http://nbcphiladelphia.com.

View more videos at: http://nbcphiladelphia.com.

View more videos at: http://nbcphiladelphia.com.

9/11 2011 – Say Good-Bye to Diversity [?]

Here it is. My 9/11 post. I had been avoiding this issue, not because I haven’t had thoughts on it, but primarily because I haven’t really had the venue to speak my mind. But while laying on my couch, giving Pnin a cursory reading before my term begins, an e-mail flashed across my iPhone and a very long and complicated conversation jumped off inside my head. Here is the short form.

In truth, I had not wished to address 9/11 for a number of reasons. First, after having spoken with my father and agreeing with him, I feel the imagery surrounding 9/11 and its veneration is insensitive to those who did lose family and loved ones. Over and over, for a decade, these families have been forced to have their loved one’s final moments played out, over and over again, with little to no regard to the sanitizing and sterilizing effects it has on the masses [repeatedly witnessing the deaths of nearly 2,800 people] not to mention the agony of seeing your husband, your wife, your son, your daughter, your neighbor, mowed down and destroyed needlessly. We could do with a lot less instant replay and a lot more reflection. While this post is not the time nor place, I must repeat it again: Technology is not neutral.

Another reason, not wholly unrelated from the previous sentence’s final thought, is the lack of sound and critical dialog over the entire phenomenon of 9/11 and what spawned from it. No, this is not a clarion call for conspiracy theories: I admit, there are things about the “how” of 9/11, but if we’re honest [Muslims] we don’t have to strain ourselves to come up with the “why”. This is not an indictment of Islam: I am a “practicing”, 5-times-a-day-praying, Ramadan-fasting, zakat-paying, House-of-God-visiting Muslim. I do not subscribe to such popular buzzwords as “Islamic” terrorism [as there were no orders to terrorize in the final Revelation that was sent to the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him]. But, sadly, there are some Muslims who do seek to instill unjustified fear into the hearts of folks simply because they can’t reason their way out of a wet paper bag.

Happening now: Wolf Blitzer discusses how Sunchips bags are noisy while the news reads below: '14 people killed when vehicle plugs from cliff in Nepal'.

This lack of dialog however, should not be seen as something isolated to the tragic events of 9/11. In truth, America has abandoned intellectual discourse in the public sphere a long time ago. This is aided by technologies such as sound bites, 24/7 CNN-style “Situation Room” nonsense, where meaningful information is massacred into entertainment [another plug for technology is not neutral]. But to help put this philosophical and ethical crisis into the broader context, I will talk about 9/11 from the perspective of tolerance and belonging.

Tolerance: a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.

That is a dictionary definition of tolerance. But that is no longer what tolerance means in America. Instead, diversity has come to be seen as the antithesis of democracy, of tolerance, and thus, unity has devolved down into a make-shift uniformity. You can be diverse in America, so long as you’re just like me. Only problem is, who gets to define “me” [what ever happened to “we” by the way]? From what I can tell, it’s a particular strain of whiteness to be frank. A strain of whiteness that would like to harken back to the pre-Civil Rights days, when Whiteamericans didn’t have to live under the yoke of racial suspicion, but that’s another story for another day. So how do we maintain one of our civilizational core values of diversity when everything we do threatens its very existence?

One of the proofs that we are sadly rolling downhill to the formation of a monoculture is in the adoption of Islamophibic rhetoric by Blackamericans [and other “minorities as well]. Blackness has been on the ropes ever since 1964 and now it looks to be down on one knee; the ref’s count stopped at 6, but one more body blow like that and…

You see, it’s very difficult these days to adhere to Blackness [or any other category that defies the false universal of white values]. Even our President, who no doubt was partially elected by some of his constituents because he was black, dares not discuss race openly. He was seen as a chance to change what had seemed written in stone. And yet, as has been in the [sound bite] media lately, there has been a great deal of dissatisfaction on how this President speaks on race, let alone addresses anything near it with a ten-foot pole. Why am I talking race? Weren’t we just discussing 9/11? Yes, we were, and we still are. You see, 9/11 has put Muslims in a very nasty little corner [albeit, one they helped decorate, if not create]. One must pledge allegiance to the Flag, unwavering allegiance that cannot afford to include any criticism of the State Power: after all, we do not wish to bite the hand that’s feeding us [our own hand], right? Can we mourn all of those who died on 9/11? White? Black? Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, atheist? Can we also mourn those who died as a result of 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially the former, that was shown to have had no links to the 9/11 perpetrators? The simple answer is: No.

The greatest public tragedy of losing Martin Luther King Jr. was not his cowardly assassination, but was the assassination of everything he truly stood for. While he did call for and hope for the day when “little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls”, he was not calling for the abolishment or abandonment of blackness [race] nor the abolishment of diversity, in order to bring that dream to fruition. King was very much invested in black self-worth and dignity. Sadly, once his face was immortalized on that postage stamp and built a thoroughfare through every ghetto in America with his name on it, the nuances of his speech have long been lost. I say this because the same tragedy that had been enacted upon King is now being enacted upon Muslims and upon America as a whole: the insidious attack on diversity. Decriers of Muslims inability to assimilate to American society often evoke King’s words to demonstrate the “innate” goodness of America: See! Black folks and white folks can all get along [I’m thinking of a name here now, someone who lived in L.A.]. It’s these MOOZ-LUMS who hate democracy and hate our values. And yet we also find Muslims co-opting King’s language as a weak demonstration of our supposed support [I do believe we support it, it’s just I think the gesture is weak] of King’s/America’s values. But when diversity is re-defined as that which makes us incompatible, then how can truly function in a society where, all rhetoric aside, we are all quite different [ethnic/racial/religious groups]? This is why, as I try to tie up a loose end here, I see Blackamerican politicians rallying to the banner of anti-Muslim sentiment: If diversity is the problem, and I’m black, then where else do I have to go [thought Herman Cain]? A ha! If I abandon my Blackness [in the name of post-racial, multi-racial etc.] and flock to the banner of uniformity [a.k.a., the false universal], then I might just have a place in this new fantasy land [that is, again, until these white folks take a second look at me and realize I really am black – but there’s time to squabble of the spoils of victory later].

In end and in short, Muslims must return to the proper dialog of diversity and shout it loudly. The current dialog on religion in America wishes to root itself in our Abrahamic faiths and yet none of us [Christians, Jews, or Muslims] refers to ourselves as Abrahamites, or refers to our religion as Abrahamity. No, we are Christians [of one stripe of another], we are Jews or we are Muslims. We should feel comfortable, we three, to speak and articulate our distinctness without feeling we are abandoning our shared values [including Abraham being a central figure to our three faiths]. Perhaps then, when we respect [our own and each other’s] diversity and not see it in opposition or contradiction to unity [finding mutual values that we can raise above the fray], perhaps then, perhaps just then, we’ll all mourn as one, the dead of 9/11 and the death of bigotry.

Required Reading: Explaining Islam to the Public

The following is an article that was published in the online Blog, The Immanent Frame. The piece, by Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis religious studies professor, Edward E. Curtis IV, is well worth the read. Professor Curtis highlights some of the difficulties, dangers and pitfalls to the symbiotic relationship between 9/11 and Islam in the Academy. In particular, Professor Curtis speaks about the issue of authority and the media’s demand for authoritative voices about, as he puts it, “x or y”:

The expectation that Islamic studies scholars were prepared to “cover” the Islamic tradition and speak to its beliefs and practices on a normative, global basis was stressful for many of us.

We were not allowed to answer, “It depends.” What was generally desired, it seems, was a fatwa, an authoritative ruling on what the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the ulama’ say about “x,” not a lecture on how the historical practices of real people refuse easy generalization.

I hope you will enjoy reading his article and take away a seldom head but very much needed critique of not only the media, but also of American academic institutions.

Note: this article was originally published on The Immanent Frame‘s web site. For whatever reason, the article was down so I have republished it here. My apologies for stepping on any toes. I felt the article needed to be read. You can read it here on SSRC’s web site.

Explaining Islam to the Public

from The Immanent Frame by Edward E. Curtis, IV

Perhaps no group of scholars has had as much at stake in the public understanding of religion of late as Islamic studies pecialists. The attacks of 9/11 indirectly created opportunities for career advancement for Islam specialists. Though the number of positions for scholars of Islam advertised through the American Academy of Religion (AAR) has increased only modestly, from 61 between 1996 and 2001 to 74 between 2002 and 2007, Islamic studies scholars found new funding sources through both the government and private foundations, and they scored higher publication rates in journals of record during the latter period. At the same time, all the new public attention resulted in attacks against Islamicists by the general public and, perhaps more alarmingly, systematic campaigns, led by groups such as Campus Watch, to deny tenure to scholars of Islam. In addition, foreign scholars, such as Tariq Ramadan, were prevented by the U.S. government from even attending the meetings of the AAR, which subsequently sued over the matter.

The expectation that Islamic studies scholars were prepared to “cover” the Islamic tradition and speak to its beliefs and practices on a normative, global basis was stressful for many of us. The idea that we could speak with authority about the practices of 1.4 billion people who speak dozens of languages and have inhabited the planet for the last 1400 years is absurd, of course. Like other academics, Islamic studies scholars are trained in certain fields of knowledge; in the best of programs, they are trained to be exceedingly careful about claiming too much. The pressures to become the academic voice of Islam both on campus and in the media frequently led scholars to abandon caution. We reached for our copies of the Encyclopedia of Islam and sent out queries, sometimes quite urgently, to the AAR Study of Islam listserv. “What does Islam say about x?” was the way questions were often framed. We were not allowed to answer, “It depends.” What was generally desired, it seems, was a fatwa, an authoritative ruling on what the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the ulama’ say about “x,” not a lecture on how the historical practices of real people refuse easy generalization.

The pressure to come up with one-liners and sound-bites was particularly acute when Islamic studies scholars were asked or permitted to participate in media outlets. Here the line between professor of Islamic studies and practitioner of Islam was often blurred, as Muslim professors offered answers that reflected, not only their considerable knowledge of the topic, but also their personal opinion or practice of Islam. Not all of them did so, of course, but autobiography was one strategy for dealing with questions about Islam’s position on x or y. At the least, these scholars could answer questions about what Islam says about love, war, life, and death by giving their own views as Muslims. It was as good as any other way of trying to answer impossible questions. But explaining one’s personal beliefs and practices was not a viable strategy for non-Muslims. In both cases, Muslim and non-Muslim scholars were forced to develop strategies, or simply to improvise, to deal with questions about veils, terrorism, churches in Saudi Arabia, Ibn Taymiyya, and a whole host of topics that were bubbling up, especially among anti-Muslim hate groups and in online forums.

My opportunity to participate in national debates over these questions came with the Ground Zero mosque controversy in the summer and fall of 2010. This controversy took the spotlight away from Islam abroad and shone it on Muslim Americans. Like many other Americans, I was angered by the intolerant tone of the debate. I was especially maddened by the idea that building a Muslim community center near Ground Zero would be insensitive to the hallowed ground of the 9/11 attacks. I didn’t like the conflation of the 9/11 hijackers with the Muslims of lower Manhattan and one of their leaders, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who happened to be the single most prominent proponent of interfaith dialogue in New York City. I decided I had to
do something.

So, I wrote an op-ed.

Rather than discuss issues of freedom of religion or the politics of contemporary Islamophobia, I wanted to stress the idea that Muslims have lived and worshiped in Lower Manhattan since the Dutch first arrived in the New World. I don’t know, in the end, if shedding light on Muslim contributions to the history of the United States helps to reduce contemporary prejudice against Muslim Americans or Muslims more generally; but if I am to participate in public scholarship, this is one area in which I can do so with intellectual integrity. Even if history is boring to a lot of folks—as some people have gingerly admitted in response to my speeches about Muslim-American history—I also know that this is a novel approach to Islam in America, and I still get a lot of “I didn’t know thats,” “wows,” and “goshes” when I outline the imprint of Muslims on the thirteen colonies and the United States in both public and academic forums.

The editorial that I penned included descriptions of the Muslim slaves who lived and worked either on or just blocks away from the Ground Zero site when New York was still New Amsterdam. It mentioned the escape of Muslim slave Mahommah Baquaqua from a Brazilian ship on Manhattan’s docks. It reminded New Yorkers of the Arab-American Muslims who lived in the very neighborhood where the twin towers were eventually built. I sent it to a few papers and heard back from the New York Daily News—to be sure, not the New York Times, but still, a New York daily with a circulation in the hundreds of thousands. The editor didn’t think he could run it, but he did ask if I had references for all of my claims. Yes, I told him, I did, and I sent him a very long list of peer-reviewed references. The take-home line of the piece was, “It may be a strange, even perverse fact of history, but Islam in New York began on or near Ground Zero.”

The first draft that I sent to the Daily News was informational. It largely avoided direct criticism of the anti-Muslim activists who opposed the building of the community center. My goal was to make it impossible to talk about Muslims as new or foreign, thinking, perhaps, that if Americans thought of Muslims as part of their shared past, they would be less inclined to perceive them as threatening. But my editor encouraged me to take a stronger stand and to criticize the Islamophobia that animated much of the opposition to the community center.

Thus, my third draft used the word “troubling” to describe how politicians had exploited the pain of 9/11 victims to advance their own anti-Muslim agendas. I even used the word “lie” to label the argument that the community center would be a “9/11 victory mosque.” But this still was not enough for the editor, who added the following lines himself: “Comments by [Gubernatorial candidate Rick] Lazio and [Sarah] Palin are mere drops in an ocean of right-wing vitriol over this issue.” And: “Rhetoric that treats Muslim Americans like hostile foreigners fundamentally—and intentionally—skews the story of New York and its Muslim community.”

My reaction to these edits was, “Yes, exactly! But … I didn’t know that I was allowed to write that way.” My first draft, which attempted to relate the long history of Muslims in Manhattan as an antidote to Islamophobia, assumed that the reader would understand my larger purpose. I was writing history without explaining why I thought that history was so urgent to expose, and I had forgotten that I was writing for an editorial page. It was a form of self-censorship. In order to find a publisher, I had unconsciously written in the dispassionate tone of the so-called objective academic, trying to avoid the expression of my own feelings. I never expected that an editor for the New York Daily News would help me find my voice, but he did, and he made the op-ed better as a result.

But if working with the Daily News helped me to find my voice, my next experience with a major media outlet, the Washington Post, was a different story. In this case, I lost my voice, or at least a part of it. The Post contacted me to become a one-time contributor to a regular feature of the “Sunday Outlook” section called “Five Myths.” They wanted me to identify and then correct five myths about mosques in the United States. I pointed out that religious studies scholars use the word myth to meanmore than misconception, but that was just the name of the feature, they said. I accepted their offer and submitted the five myths that I wanted to correct.

One was that “all Muslims pray in mosques.” I hoped to point out that Muslims also pray in private homes, Sufi lodges, Shi‘a imambargahs, Isma‘ili jamatkhanas, and Nation of Islam temples. There was too much focus on mosques, I thought, and not enough on other Muslim-American sacred spaces. But this suggestion was rejected on the grounds that it was “interesting, but maybe not worth devoting a full myth to.” In its place, a new myth was suggested by the editors: “Mosques seek to spread shari‘a law in the United States.” One editor wrote that “this one has been coming up so much in conversation … in particular, people have been raising the status of women under shari‘a law.” I went to work correcting the five myths—in 1200 words or less.

Following the scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl, I responded to the myth about shari‘a by writing that shari‘a is an ideal, that it is not codified, and that the human attempt to realize this ideal is called “fiqh,” or jurisprudence. I said that most contemporary mosques don’t actually teach the shari‘a because it is too dry, too pedantic, too arcane. I stressed that mosques devote their weekend classes instead to discussions of the Qur’an and the Sunna and how they apply to everyday life

But my answer had sidestepped the question. In retrospect I realized that I was trying to respond to the negative feelings of Americans toward shari‘a by downplaying its importance in American mosques. I didn’t want to leave people with the idea that lots of Muslims were busy learning when and how to take the law into their own hands and apply hudud penalties, such as the stoning of adulterers. Working on a deadline and with space for two paragraphs or so, perhaps this was the best I could come up with. I was much more pleased with the other parts of the piece, but I had to move on.

In any case, it did not seem to hurt the piece’s reception. Whereas the Daily News op-ed about the history of Muslims in Manhattan received about 500 likes on Facebook and a few dozen comments, this piece received 4000 likes on Facebook and 523 comments. It was syndicated in papers around the world, and more people read this short piece than anything else I have ever written. It led to two subsequent interviews on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Tell Me More with Michel Martin; a harrowing call-in to a show on a Pittsburg Fox radio affiliate (during which my wife almost took the phone away from me to tell off some callers); several speaking engagements; some severe criticism by Stop Islamization of America leader and professional Islamophobe Robert Spencer; and some very angry emails. I got a lot of compliments, too. All of this attention and feedback made me nervous, excited, and scared.

I also received an email from a colleague who wanted to quibble about my claims regarding the teaching of shari‘a in American mosques. Yes, he said, I was technically right that the whole shari‘a is not taught in mosques. That would be impossible. But some of it is, he said. That’s how Muslims know when and how to pray, how to observe Muslim holidays, how much money to give to charity, etc.

He was right. My answer hadn’t exactly been wrong, but my response to the question was not sufficient. In addition, it did not respond explicitly to the public’s biggest fears, for instance, about the cutting off of hands and stoning. When a Middle East studies newsletter asked for permission to reprint the piece, I kept some of my original answer but added the following: “most mosques in the United States teach only those parts of the shari‘a having to do with religious rituals and obligations. They do not teach the part of the shari‘a having to do with criminal law.” And further: “Few Muslim Americans advocate a shari‘a-based theocracy. Instead, most Muslim Americans insist that democracy is the most Islamic system of governance in the world today.”

During the brief course of my five minutes of high-profile public scholarship I came to realize just how difficult such work is. Many of the topics on which I was queried and the ways that I could write about them were already determined in such a way that I felt like I was making an appearance in a largely pre-written script. Responding to the public’s misconceptions about Islam is part of what we do. But if we cannot question the assumptions on which questions are posed, we cease to be critics. We must retain the ability to ask questions as well as to answer them. The problem with my Washington Post piece was that I did not explicitly name the prejudice that was animating the question about the shari‘a in the first place. As recent legislation passed in Oklahoma demonstrates, there is a special animus on the part of millions of Americans toward shari‘a, which is viewed, like Islam more generally, as particularly dangerous.

As I reflect on my moment of high-profile public scholarship, and on teaching religion more generally, I want to conclude with two further responses to the “myth” that “mosques seek to spread shari‘a law.” First, perhaps my response to the myth should have been: Yeah, but so what? Most American religious organizations seek to educate others about their ethics and rituals, and that is exactly what most of the shari‘a taught in American mosques is all about. Second, most Muslim Americans are not “spreading” shari‘a; they are trying to figure out how to apply it to their own lives.

The final point I should have made is that public discussions about shari‘a and other aspects of Islam are inevitably influenced by and reflect anxieties about the nation’s war-making in Muslim lands. A supermajority of the American public thinks that Islam is more violent than any other religion. As I wrote the original version of this piece, which I delivered as a talk at a recent meeting of the Midwest AAR, Congressman Peter King was holding hearings on what he calls the “radicalization” of the Muslim-American community, demonstrating that it is far easier to project blame onto either the Muslim foreigner abroad or the Muslim other in our midst than it is to acknowledge and reflect on American culpability for the deaths of thousands.

To be sure, foreign Muslims who resist U.S. dominance in their own countries utilize their religious traditions in so doing. But analyzing this religious violence in isolation from U.S. foreign policy, economic dominance, and military interventionism renders us mute as critics of our own societies and serves—however inadvertently—to normalize the secular nation-state’s monopoly on legitimate violence. There is a clash of interests between the U.S. and those whose lives it seeks to shape, often in its own image. But this story does not begin in Mecca; it begins in Washington. Middle Easterners, including Osama bin Laden, were not fantasizing when they saw the U.S. establish military bases in the Gulf region nor when it restored the Kuwaiti amirate to power in 1991 when it intervened on behalf of both the Iraqis and Iranians in the Iraq-Iran war, when it shelled Lebanon in the 1980s, and the list goes on. This is not primarily a story about religious fanaticism but a story about secular, imperial power

It may be tempting for religious studies scholars to take advantage of this historical moment by deploying one-dimensional explanations of religion to justify our own usefulness to the academy and to the nation. But even if we have to admit our ignorance, or just say that it’s complicated, it is better to resist further propagating or reinforcing simplistic conceptions of Islam, or of religion in general. Instead, we should spend more time exposing the political contexts in which popular understandings of Islam and religion more broadly are generated, disseminated, and used. And if we must produce a sound-bite about Islam’s role in making violence for the media, then let it be this: “Islam is not the cause of violence, but it does offer one means of resistance to U.S. political, military, and economic domination in Muslim lands.”

Paying the Price For Our Lack of Vision

I’ve been resisting writing and posting during Ramadan but I opted to put out one small post. I pray everyone’s Ramadan is rewarding, redeeming, and fulfilling.

One of the most memorable lines from the Star Wars franchise was Emperor Palpatine’s cruel admonishment of Luke when he cackled, “you shall pay the price for your lack of vision!” This chastisement was swiftly followed by searing bolts of blue lightening. If it weren’t for the timely intervention of Luke’s at-one-time sinister father, Darth Vader, Luke may have met a very unfortunate fate.  In what has also become now a cruel twist of fate, American Muslims are now paying their own price for lack of vision, as the United States now increasingly turns on Muslims, demonizing and terrorizing them, not unlike this recent incident in New York, where a mosque was attacked by a small pack of marauding teens. Similarly to Luke’s blunder, American Muslims simply did not adequately prepare, in this case, for life in America. Where is our Darth Vader in our time of despair?

Sadly, Islam in American, in its heretical inception—referred to as the First Resurrection via The Nation of Islam—did a far better job of indigenizing Islam.  The Second Resurrection [Islam 2.0?], consisted of both immigrant Muslims and new orthodox converts, who were initially unconcerned with the dominant culture’s views of Islam, and thus chose to either live anonymous lives in their new found homes—vis-a-vie through the door of whiteness—or in the case of Blackamerican Muslims, chose to live new lives that had little to do with the existential realities as colored folks living in a post-Jim Crow America. Both groups lived in a fantasy; a bubble.  Of particular interest to immigrant Muslims, whiteness has been the gateway that many if not most immigrants have successfully integrated into the American social landscape.  This created a dichotomy in American Islam in which immigrant Muslims increasingly turned a blind eye to the underside of assimilation: whiteness, and all of the unearned privilidges it entails. Blackamerican Muslims, having no such option, opted to simply limp along, paroting their immigrant counterparts without the Players Club incentives. Much to the dismay of [immigrant] Muslims, the 9/11 attacks did away with any hopes of Muslims being considered white/American, and thus we arrive back at our “price” for “lack of vision”. In another twist of ironic fate, blackness and its legacy of civil rights engagement [i.e., its holy protest against white domination and supremacy] seems to be the last bastion of hope for both communities. It is the only social modality that is seen and recognized as viably America: out of immigrant and indigenous Muslims, it’s the only one that’s socially acceptable, if not preferred. Perhaps if immigrant Muslims had not uncritically flocked to the banner of whiteness [I can hear Admiral Akbar shouting now, “it’s a trap” – or “it’s a twap”, however you prefer your phonetics] and Blackamerican Muslims had not been so quick to abondon blackness, we might very well be in a completely different situation today.

The Nation of Islam, and subsequently its splinter group, led by the courageous Warith Deen Muhammad, charted a vision of Islam [by Islam here, I mean as it was socially expressed by the NOI, and not by the normal rigors of classical Muslim theology] that sought to place the cares, concerns, and proclivities of [Black] American Muslims at the heart of its agenda.  And while the WD movement has also fallen on hard times, it still alludes to the crux of the current social predicament.

In many ways, Muslims in America were afforded a tremendous blessing post-9/11. Public sentiment towards Muslims was somewhat tarnished but by and large, the cloud of negative perceptions of Islam were held at bay, only occasionally making their way in to the public arena.  In fact, there was a notable calling amongst non-Muslims that the 9/11 attacks were perpetuated by a few terribly misguided souls and that Muslims and Islam were not to blame.  American Muslims, instead of capitalizing on this opportunity to push forward efforts to indigenize [not assimilate] themselves to their social, cultural and political landscapes, simply rested on their laurels.  Both sides of the indigenous/immigrant isle have been equally to blame.  Native-born Muslims still continued to favor a brand of Islam that was more about cultural acting than getting down to brass tax and most immigrant Muslims were so devastated at the quandary of being abandoned on the doorstep of whiteness that most of the efforts out of that community have been mostly assimilationist at best, if not simply down-right floundering.  So again, where is our Darth Vader in our time of need?

Simply put, it is my belief that if Muslims do not solve this issue [if it is already not too late], then Islam will suffer a fate worse than persecution: irrelevancy.  And by issue, I mean to address what is at the heart of mainstream America’s growing resentment towards Islam. I believe this to be mainly aesthetic: people simply do not like the way Islam looks and feels as a result of not knowing what Islam’s story is, or more precisely, what the American Muslims’ story is. And American Muslims have failed in telling their own story because they have yet to craft one. Narrative is crucial to survival in America; if you don’t have one, you don’t belong. Perhaps it’s not too late to stop, reflect, and take stock of our condition, our situation.  Let us look at examples from our common cultural past that have succeeded: the Nation of Islam as well as the American Jewish community, who have critically understood the necessity of story and narrative as a primary means of not only survival but also of flourishing. To delay any longer would be akin to another favorite Star Wars quote: “almost there … almost there …” – and we all know what happened next after that.

Cross posted on Tumblr.