American Muslims and American Civic Religion

Civil Religion as defined by Robert Bellah: a set of rituals, symbols and beliefs which were institutionally separate, but partly derived, nevertheless, from organized religion. According to Bellah, American civil religion had two main origins: one religious in nature, the other secular. To be more precise, Bellah based his understanding on the theological leanings of the Puritans as well as the republicanism of America’s Founding Founders. Bellah’s assumption, as late as the 1970’s, was that American civil religion was defunct and run aground.

There are a number of scholars and thinkers who think that civil religion has not gone the way of the Dodo but has in fact, remained alive, if however sickly it may be. For me, the argument of what state it is in is less pertinent to the issue of American Muslims than the fact that it is still there. So what can this mean for American Muslims? If we can take Bellah’s clause of “institutionally separate” in tandem with “from organized religion”, we can see an opportunity or indeed, an opening for American Muslims to participate in civil society. Many of the objections I have heard over the years from my fellow Muslims is that this is a “Christian nation”; I hear their objections but I cannot accept their validity. To get straight to the point, if American civil religion is indeed institutionally separate, then there is no reason why creative and talented Muslims cannot find a way to also lend their voice to the hyphenated-American experience. In other words, if “Judeo-Christian nation” can apply, why not “Judeo-Christian-Muslim nation”?

Continuing in this manner, as Philip Gorski writes, “religious and political communities should be coterminous”. American Muslims should be thinking of ways in which they can share those borders of the religio-public and political spheres of their fellow Americans. Gorksi adds that, “For the civil religionist, finally, America is a moral community that seeks to balance solidarity and pluralism”. The last two items echo harmoniously with much of the quasi-liberal American Muslim community, a rumination that has gained ground even amongst some neo-conservative/neo-traditionalist voices [this author being mildly included amongst them], to see that civic engagement is one of the main life lines through which American Muslims can move from the margins into the mainstream of American cultural thought and life. In fact, I would argue that using the conduit of civic religion to participate in American civic life is akin to how Blackamericans used the Constitution itself as a means of overturning state-legitimized terror, forcing America to allow Blackamericans to be full participants in society. The time for Puritanical disengagement of society has long passed, and now it only remains to be seen if American Muslims will rise to meet this challenge; a challenge that, while fraught with the danger of losing their religion, can no longer be ignored or indeed, tolerated.

Bebop, Islam and the Promise of a Dignified Existence in Jim Crow America

The following is a short paper that I wrote on the relation between Islam and Blackness and the draw between the two back in the early part of the 20th Century. I hope to have the time to post a few more ruminations, but at the moment, enjoy this small piece.

Much like the 1940’s, modern day America is taking a closer look at the religion of Islam, how America relates to it, and how Islam fits into the tapestry of the dominant culture. As it is today, so was it some seventy years ago that Islam was seen as a foreign and possibly even hostile entity. And yet, for Blackamericans, Islam not only held a mystique that called to them but also eventually offered an alternative modality of being both black and American. For many, this switch of religious identity was cemented in the social issues of the day, namely the racism that was prevalent in American society at the time towards Blackamericans. As we shall see, jazz, and more specifically, bebop, would play a major role in tying together disparate narratives into a holy protest against white supremacy.

The article I have chosen to discuss is a passage from Dizzy Gillespie’s memoir, To Be or Not to Bop. From the selected passed, Gillespie, as one of bebop’s founding fathers, illustrates a unique crossroads of black consciousness: religion, music and social justice that for many Blackamerican jazz musicians came in the form of Islam, bebop and intellectual/anti-establishment mindset that saw to either confront or subvert the laws and practices of a Jim Crow legacy.

In recent years there has been a tremendous amount of research conducted on Islam, including the phenomenon of Islam amongst Blackamericans. And while there has been enlightening findings that have shed more light on the nature of Africans and their decedents in antebellum American, it still stands that the chain that linked modern Blacks and those of their African ancestors that were Muslim, is a broken one. Instead, as Gillespie relates for us, the rise of Islam in the interest and imagination amongst many Blackamerican jazz musicians had primarily to do with the social/racial climate that these musicians found themselves in. As “colored” or “Negro”, such musicians were barred from playing and performing in jazz clubs, which were white-owned. Even the task of acquiring lodging for these traveling musicians was made near to impossible due to the color of their skin. But in what would be a puzzling discovery, Blackamerican musicians that changed their public identity to Muslim, would find they could pass under the radar of Jim Crow.

The turn of the 20th Century saw few improvements for Blackamericans. Indeed, one could say that things were worsening, with the state-condoned violence that was unleashed on many Blacks in America. And by the mid- and especially late-Forties, when Black service men were returning to America after having served in a war that was supposed to be about racism, they saw their social context in complete opposition to the values supposedly expressed by the dominant culture. It is here the seeds of discord would be sown and out of this collective discontent would rise a new sense of intellectual ownership over themselves, as yet unseen before in the history of the United States. For many Blackamericans who chose to adopt Islam as their faith, Islam represented something completely outside the jurisdiction of white authority. This sentiment would be proved even by the racist elements of white-American society that would permit access to services to Blackamerican Muslim converts, who were presumed to be of a non-American black origin. Gillespie relates one such occasion:

“He [Oliver Mesheux] went into this restaurant, and they said they didn’t serve colored in there. So he said, ‘I don’t blame you. But I don’t have to go under the rules of colored because my name is Mustafa Dalil.’”

This process, something as simple as changing one’s name to something that sounded Middle-Eastern, offered some Blackamerican musicians a expeditious means of overcoming Jim Crow racism. Though beyond the scope of this article, it would be this sentiment that would inform many other Blackamericans and their choice to embrace Islam.

To gain a more encompassing perspective of this phenomenon, we must also analyze the broader social context into which it came into, namely the liberalization of the American society. One must remember that though Blackamericans were indeed suffering at the hands of their white counterparts, they still saw themselves as American in one sense or another. And along with that traditional sense of American was a strong attachment of Blackamericans to Christianity. As we will see in the Civil Rights Movement, Black Christianity would play a key role in organizing and shaming the dominant culture in American into submission. To be certain, there were some amongst the black intelligentsia that were aware of the legacy of non-Christian religious traditions in their heritage, but by and large, Christianity remained the predominant if not exclusive religion of Blackamericans pre-1900’s. This would all change with the coming of alternative black intellectual endeavors (such figures as Garvey and DuBois were sympathetic to Islam, though certainly not practitioners of it) that saw to root themselves outside of the white-dominated constituency of American society.

With the relaxing of society’s grip on religious intolerance, an increasing (though still a minority to be sure) number of Blackamericans sought solace in the haven that Islam promised. Less rooted in religious or philosophical reasons than purely existential ones, Islam opened up to Blackamericans, of which the ripples of this are still seen to this very day. In short, a black man, for example, in the 1940’s could convert to Islam in what would amount a sort of racial swapping, if not apostasy. And like modern times, this did not escape the attention of the dominant culture, who were curious or even concerned that Islam amongst Blackamericans might be some sort of “anti-Christianity” movement. Gillespie himself, though not a Muslim, was at one point put to the question if he “planned to quit and forsake Christianity”. In a sense, what is being articulated here, is an invisible link that binds “blackness” and “Christianity”. Islam was a foreign enterprise and for many, represented a hostile (though not in the same meaning as hostile would mean today) threat, for this conversion was seen as linked to movements and ideologies that sought to circumvent the status quo of Jim Crow law and sentiment.

I believe that the movement and attraction of Islam within this minority of Blackamerican musicians is both intriguing and erudite to some of the similar issues we’re looking at today. It also sheds light on why Islam would be appealing to a minority group that simply looking for a method of living out a dignified existence in a social landscape that offered few choices and little room for improvement. Throughout its history and even up until today, Islam amongst Blackamericans cannot be separated from its history as a social commentary and vehicle of upliftment and expiation for Blackamericans. Indeed, as we would soon see from the likes of Malcolm X, Islam was a vehicle to combat the hostilities from their environment in a manner and method that differed quite distinctly from black Christians. It also allowed Blackamericans to re-created themselves with a new sense of autonomy not formerly allowed to them in the stifling social climate that they lived in. And yet, unlike Malcolm X, the black bebop jazz musicians that would embrace Islam sought to do so in a non-violent fashion. Contented to be social commentators and critics through their music, most simply just wanted to be able to play their music to a broader audience without discrimination. I find this again, strikingly similar to the times we live in today, where there is a very small number of Muslims who advocate violent resistance to perceived oppressions (valid or otherwise is besides the point here), and yet the vast majority of Muslims simply wish for the right to live with dignity and practice their religion with their humanity intact, and not called into question, as was the case for black folks living at the beginning of the 20th Century America. Perhaps here in history there’s a lesson for us all to learn (again).

Blackamerican Islam and the Squandering of a Legacy

American social mores can be quite peculiar. To gain social acceptance in America usually requires some type of struggle to “get in”. Once you do get in, while you might be razzed from time to time, it no longer becomes socially or legally acceptable by the vast majority of the populous to make degrading remarks or actions towards those who’ve “gotten in”. Parties or individuals who seek to do so risk moral condemnation and can be banished to the periphery as ignorant, barbaric and rude. These aforementioned protections are precisely what Blackamericans have earned and it is these rights that are being squandered, more specifically here for the sake of this post by Blackamerican Muslims. And while there are still many of us who are waiting to till their land with that ever elusive mule as well as that reparations check that just never seems to show up in the mail, four hundred years of mournful mistreatment on a part of American society and its government have afforded Blackamericans many civil liberties and protections that, if continued to ignore, may slip away. And if you think your immigrant brothers aren’t jealous, you’ve got another thing coming.

Since the attacks of September 11th, the United States has cracked down on groups or people it believes as being responsible, actively or tacitly, for those attacks. High profile cases in the news covering Muslims [and here we should point out immigrant Muslims], who while flying have experienced increased scrutiny or down-right racist treatment simply because of their religious/ethnic backgrounds and perceived terrorist affiliations. While blacks may be woefully guilty of DWB [Driving While Black], Arabs, Pakistanis and even Sikhs [who aren’t even Muslim] are guilty of FWM [Flying While Muslim].

And in light of these civil infractions, Arab-American and other ethnic Muslims groups have taken up the torch and rhetoric of Civil Rights – we see CAIR leaders and other interest groups using nomenclature right out of Martin Luther King’s play book. Why? Because Civil Rights are two big key words when fighting against those in American society or government who would seek to infringe upon those rights. In contrast, Blackamerican Muslims, at least to date, have not been subject to the same form of scrutiny. Why? Simple. Because they are Blackamericans. In other words, due to the legacy of state-sponsored racism against peoples of African descent in this country and the reformation of those laws, blacks can no longer be perused by such means without hostile legal and social reactions. Our immigrant brothers and sisters do not share these luxuries. And they are most certainly that – a luxury. Just ask an older Blackamerican man or woman who lived through pre-Civil Rights reformations and they can easily tell you how different the social climate was. Yet despite those victories won, Blackamericans continue to ignore the bounty that has been cast upon them. Am I saying that American society has been rid of racism or even de facto racist policies? No. Of course not. I myself have witnessed those ideologies at the end of a policeman’s gun pointed in my face for doing nothing wrong. What is different though is that there are consequences for those actions. It is this lesson we must learn or else we are apt to loose this luxury precisely because society isn’t fixed or perfect.

A recent case that reminded me of this situation is the Don Imus incident, where the radio host made some flagrant remarks to a number of Blackamerican female basketball players. When the DJ made those remarks he was swiftly condemned and the results of his words has cost him his position. Is racism a thing of the past? No. Can white people still make inflammatory remarks about blacks? You bet’cha. Is there a price to be had? Currently, yes, there is. You cannot publicly attack blacks in America without facing social or even legal action against those words. Simply put, anti-black rhetoric is no longer tolerated, at least not publicly, socially. This public shield extends to all blacks, regardless of economic position or religious affiliation. It is here that I bring this to my point. Blackamerican Muslims are in a unique position in this country where we have the God-given-right as well as the sanction of the United States government to openly and freely practice our religion. Even outside of black social circles, Islam is accepted as a viable religious form to be practiced amongst Blackamericans versus the type of cultural apostasy that white American Muslims risk if they choose to convert. No one, neither white nor black would look askance at a Blackamerican Muslim woman who covers or a Blackamerican Muslim male who prays while he’s on the job. It has been successfully assimilated into American blackness. Again, many of our immigrant brothers and sisters do not have such an easy path to tread.

In addition to this cultural normalcy comes that fact that while many of us who do come from black backgrounds in America and all that entails [reconciling our “Americaness” and how that can prove to create a difficult psychology because of how closely that equals “white” for many of us], we are in a very unique position as Blackamerican Muslim to dictate to a great extent not only how Islam will be practiced in America [incorporating pluralism and so forth] but its success or failure as an enterprise in America as a whole. If Islam is to be “normalized” in the greater American psyche [and yes, we are talking about white Americans here] then that normalizing process will depend on the success of Blackamerican Muslims to create a conduit for Islam to not just abide [Islam has been in America for some time now whether you count the first slaves or the first wave of Middle Eastern immigrants] but to grow and attach itself successfully to the root of the American cultural experience. No other group in America has as much potential to accomplish this as do Blackamericans. We have the time invested, have made the sacrifices to be a part of the country and for better or worse, Black Folks are here to stay – and so is Islam. So the question remains? How are we going to do this? And when? And while I can only speak for myself, I feel a sense of urgency. What we do now and for the next twenty to thirty years will greatly dictate how Islam is practiced in America and the level and extent of its success or failure. And God knows best…