All-American Muslim – Thoughts and Response

The new reality show, All-American Muslim, featured on the TLC channel, has caused something of a stir amongst American Muslims, particularly with Blackamerican Muslims, who continue to feel misrepresented, if not completely excluded from the narrative of Islam in American. While I do sympathize with many of the shows detractors for the obvious and above reasons, I think it’s equally important for Muslim Americans in general, and Blackamerican Muslim in particular, to come to grips with the true realities of piety amongst rank-and-file Muslims.

There is no doubt that All-American Muslim (AAM) is a misrepresentation of Muslim life in America. That Blackamericans as well as South-Asian Americans, Latino-Americans, Turkish-Americans and so many others are absent, is a gross misstep in my estimation of the show’s producers. In fact, I believe much of the backlash from Blackamerican Muslims in particular (having read comments on Facebook and other web sites) can be tied in tandem with the 20/20 exposé on Islam in America (see my posts, Islam: Questions and Answers and Bit Parts). Like AAM, the 20/20 show was woefully absent of any black presence. And given that all recent polls show that Blackamericans comprise at least 30% of the American Muslim population, such ire is not difficult to understand.

Racist or exclusivist accusations aside, I personally feel it is high time for Muslim Americans in general, and certain enclaves within Blackamerican Islam in particular, to come to terms with the nature of on-the-ground realities in terms of atypical religiosity amongst Muslims, Arab, black, or otherwise. Being a Detroit native myself, Dearborn was very much in my backyard, and while I have not had an opportunity to discuss the show with anyone from back home just yet, I can affirm that AAM is no way completely representative of normalized Muslim life in Dearborn. I myself have known very religious and conservative Arab families who are no doubt disgusted to some extent, if not by the show’s participants, certainly in how the show itself attempts to represent all Muslims from Dearborn. One commentator on Facebook wrote,

So what if Dearborn is ‘#1 in population of Muslims in America.’ It doesn’t mean they are a good example of the average Muslim American. I would at least expect them to come to NYC. Philly DC or Chicago!

The above comment shows a heart-felt disgust at the blatant display of “deviant” behavior by Muslims on display for all the world to soak up. While I cannot condone the behavior of the show’s participants, I must concede that their conduct is not so uncommon as many of us (especially conservative Blackamerican Muslims, of whom I can be considered an adherent) would like to believe. Nor is this display of crass behavior exclusively the property of westernized or assimilated Arabs. I cannot recount how many times I have seen (and continue to see) Blackamerican Muslim men in Philadelphia in the company of women who are obviously not their wives or family members. They are so-called halal girlfriends. And this is just the tip of the iceberg with deviant behavior amongst Blackamerican Muslims. So before we loft up stones from our own glass houses, we should perhaps be a bit more honest with the situation at hand.

In a short talk I participated in a few weeks ago, I was asked to speak on the divisions between African and African-American Muslims. In summary, while acknowledging that such divisions do exist, I brought to the surface what I believe to be the crux of the issue: self-validation. It was not so much what African Muslims had done to Blackamerican Muslims per se but rather, so many Blackamerican Muslims continue to embark upon their conception of Islam from a position of low self-esteem. This is why, in my opinion, you still see the majority of Blackamerican Muslims on the East Coast on Friday sporting thobes and other forms of “foreign garb” due in large part to their lack of confidence in their own cultural norms. It is this self-esteem issue that I see resurfacing in the AAM issue. If (Black)American Muslims had more confidence in their own validity as Muslims, then any such displays as are seen on AAM, 20/20, or any other show, would simply be seen in the light of personal malfeasants on the part of those Muslims, and in no way would undermine their own sanctity as Muslims. Whether or not we’re invited to the party should not have any impact on our authenticity as Muslims.

Another comment that caught my eye on Facebook, one I find particularly disturbing, was the following:

I am just speechless… this psedo=modern form of Islam that they want to portray in the media is absolutely disgusting.!!!!

The above rhetoric not only shows just how out of step religiously devout Muslims are from their “religiously challenged” counterparts, it is also revealing of several ideologies that are of great disservice to Islam in America. That “modern” is seen as “psedo” [sic] or fake, reveals just how far myopic, Utopic and completely unrealistic conceptions of Islam run in the American Muslim community. Such rants are juvenile and derelict in duty. Another comment bemoaned the existence of a “westernized, Americanized Islam”:

My coworker told me about the show last week and I told them that it will not depict true Islam, but will portray a westernized conformist view of Islam.

What strikes me most is how one-dimensional this commonly espoused rhetoric is. I certainly hope that Islam in the United States is American and Western. What else should it be? Nor should Islam conforming to American demands be seen as an abandonment of sincere religious devotion if one understands the breadth of leeway one has in the Shari’ah as well as American Constitutional law (for this, see Dr. Sherman Jackson’s response to Vincent Cornell). Such fanciful flights of imagination continue to reveal just how ignorant and lacking in self-worth many Muslims are in America and how little faith they have in Islam to negotiate their lived realities. Ironically, it is most certainly due to a non-indigenized Islam (not the same as assimilated) that Americans continue to look at Muslims with mistrust, monolithic media conglomerates aside.

It is not easy as a practicing Muslim to look upon the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad and see it mangled on display for the whole world. In my line of work as chaplain, I counsel and advice young Muslim students who, while perhaps not quite as brazen in their religious shortcomings, could easily be lumped in the same group as the participants as AAM. My way of navigating this has been to be brutally honest as well as honestly compassionate. For example, my views on hijab have been made abundantly clear from the minbar as well as in private conversations: I believe, for instance, that hijab is mandatory and that those who do not wear hijab have something deficient in their practice. That being said, I will not toss out the baby with the bathwater simply because a Muslim has a deficiency in their practice (Lord knows how many I have). My advice to my fellow (Black)American Muslims is thus: enact a compassionate orthodoxy. Do not give ground on what is mandatory or even highly encourage (wajib/mustahibb). And yet, make the adherence to God’s commandments a means of being understanding and compassionate, even when it rubs you the wrong way. And above all, cement your belief, your identity as a Muslim, not in the validation from others, but in the knowledge that it was none other than your Creator who gave you guidance in the first place.

The Quba Institute

Philadelphia, after five years, continues to tantalize me with the hope and potential it has for American Muslims. There simply is no other city in the States that has the down home feeling of Islam that Philadelphia has. I believe that is saying something given that I grew up within a 45-minute drive of one of the larger Muslim populations in the United States: Dearborn. The contrasting difference between Dearborn, Michigan, and Philadelphia, is that the population in question here is an indigenous one. There isn’t anywhere you can go in Philadelphia and not see the presence of Muslims: The hospital; the bus or public transportation [many Muslims work for SEPTA]; the University; all walk of life from menial to professional. But it isn’t just ubiquitous nature of Muslims in Philadelphia, it’s also their impact on the greater non-Muslim population. It is often noted and joked about that, as far as the Black population goes, you cannot easily distinguish who is and is not Muslim in Philadelphia. Non-Muslim Black men dress in that decidedly distinct Philadelphia Muslim fashion: thick beards, short pants, Timberland boots, etc. Even non-Muslim Black women imitate Muslims here [on the way home from work I sat on the bus with a woman who wore what appeared to be hijab. She greeted me with, “as-Salaamu ‘alaykum,” noting my dhikr beads. At the end of the conversation, she said she wasn’t Muslim but had many Muslims for friends]. And while I do feel that the indigenous identity has been compromised here by certain movements whose imagination is planted somewhere, as one scholar put it, “hovering over the Atlantic”, I still feel comfortable in branding Philadelphia as the United States premier city for Muslims. Continue reading “The Quba Institute”