The Self-Made Myth of the American Muslim

harold-cruseI have spent the last several years writing, lecturing, even khutbah’ing on the topic of Islam in America and the need for a bone fide American Muslim culture. I plan to continue this trend, though I feel now, I may need to clarify some of my stances. I’ve chosen, again, to use a passage from one of America’s brilliant-but-forgotten scholars, Harold Cruse1, to demonstrate what I am hinting at:

“It was never the intention of the editors of Freedomways the various Muslim think tanks and organizations, to do justice to the Harlem American Muslim’s reality historically, politically, culturally or economically. There are too many skeletons hidden in Harlem’s their closets, and none of the knowledgeable writers executives, vice-presidents and presidents dared to probe too deeply. Among the twenty-two numerous writer-specialists acronyms, activists and organizations, seemingly there was not one political, economic or cultural theorist who attempted to plot the course of where the American Muslim community was going in transition. Not one dared to be so bold as to debate the imperatives of two positions: Should Harlem the American Muslim community be broken up in favor of American individualism or should Harlem American Muslim citizens band together and direct all efforts toward maintaining Harlem’s the American Muslim community’s separate distinct existence? Not one was willing to undertake to corral community opinions in order to lead or direct the fortunes of Harlem the American Muslim community in either direction. The social motivations of these writers organizations and individuals are not inner-directed but outer-controlled; thus the acronyms exist in a neutral stasis subject to the outside decisions—political, economic and cultural—of the white non-Muslim economic and political power structure. From this initial position of subservient compromise, those who wrote the Freedomways special Harlem issue claim advocacy on behalf of American Muslims  could not even know where to begin a thorough analysis of Harlem Islam in America. Such an analysis, of course, had has to be historical, but the historical essays their ahistorical understanding of America itself were in fact the weakest is the cause of their weakness itself.”2

Another reflection from Mr. Cruse’s paperboy.

1. I have two other pieces on Harold Cruse: The Crisis of the American Muslim Part 1 and The Crisis of the American Muslim Part 2.

2. From Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), from the section Freedomways, Summer of 1963: Black Economy—Self-Made Myth.

The Crisis of the American Muslim Part 2

Navigating American Individualism

As was stated earlier, Cruse brings to light for us one of the primary underlining social tenants of Americanism, that is to say, individualism. Islam as a religion certainly engages the individual on his or her place in the cosmos as well as other social themes, yet it would a far leap indeed to say that Islam supports individualism, the practice of making the individual the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood. What Cruse has to offer American Muslims is more than debating cosmologies, but rather a very critical and valuable investigation as to how American society works. Specifically speaking, the dynamic between the individual and society, between the group and society, and both of these in relation to the law [specifically the Constitution]. Cruse’s remarks about social imaginations are particularly useful:

On the face of it, this dilemma rests on the fact that America, which idealizes the rights of the individual above everything else, is in reality, a nation dominated by the social power of groups, classes, in-groups and cliques—both ethnic and religious. The individual in America has few rights that are not backed up by the political, economic and social power of one group or another. Hence, the individual Negro has, proportionately, very few rights indeed because his ethnic group [whether or not he actually identifies with it] has very little political, economic or social power [beyond moral grounds] to wield. Thus it can be said that those Negroes, and there are many of them, that have accepted the full essence of the Great American Ideal of individualism are in serious trouble of trying to function in America [Cruse 8].

What Cruse spells out here lines up in perfect harmony with the current dysfunction of American Muslims, who have fallen victim to a number of maladies, many of which are, if not self-inflicted, certainly seem self-perpetuated. Neither indigenous Blackamerican nor immigrant Muslims are free from this current social condition. In their efforts to assimilate, many immigrant Muslims have “idealized” the Great American Idea. While the spirit of this effort may not be blameworthy, its methodology is certainly open for examination. The result of this maneuver has been a schism within the immigrant Muslim community itself, which for the ease of this article, has left one group diving headlong into American culture with no heed for discernment, whilst the other has attempted a Mexican standoff of sorts. One group deems the whole of society and all its practices benign, whilst the other holds everything in American culture to be woefully malign. Neither approach has any chance of bringing to light a balanced practice and approach for American Muslims that would allow them to participate in society, having the power of mind to “see the playing field” and make intelligent choices of where and how to participate without running aground.

What is most crucial to take from this passage is the social reality that Cruse is trying to underpin here. Not dissimilar to the 1960’s Negro, the likelihood of the American Muslim to prosper and grow as an individual in society that in its reality places all power in the political, economic, and social group, is dubious at best. It is crucial that American Muslims come to see the necessity to put aside all small and non-critical arguments and deal with the very real danger and threat at hand; the threat of total erosion or complete irrelevance. If American Muslims are to be successful in striving to lead a life that is both pleasing to God as well as amicable to the general public, it will require the formation of a political, economic, and social clout on the part Muslims. This can only be achieved through cooperation versus dissension. I believe that differences of opinion can withstand this test; this is not a clarion call for uniformity masked as unity. The consequences are fairly clear: Muslims who capitulate to American individualism will either lose that which defines them in any distinct way as Muslim, or they will be branded an outsider, hostile, and socially irrelevant.

Part three to follow shortly. Part 1 is here.

The Crisis of the American Muslim Part 1

 

The following post is the first in a new post-series which will look at current conditions of Muslim thought, process, and social development in the American context, through the reading of a number of texts. The first of which is The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, by Harold Cruse. I believe Dr. Cruse’s work to be a perennial one, worthy of our thought and consideration as we look at our present condition, hoping to glean some beneficial observations for which we might find a way out of our current predicament. Dr. Harold Wright Cruse was a professor at the University of Michigan and was the author of numerous works that analyzed and critiqued the social conditions in American society, especially those pertaining to, but not restricted to, Blackamericans. He passed away in 2005. I had the honor of being his paperboy, having shared many illuminating conversations with him. I am most grateful and indebted to his contributions to American and Blackamerican thought.

The state of American Muslim cognizance still continues to baffle and befuddle. I am aware of the continuing development of its consciousness, or at least small pockets of efforts here and there, but I truthfully find it difficult to suppress my disappointment with the its rate of progress and more importantly, the general lack of urgency I see in the collective mindset of “rank-and-file” Muslims. There are a number of factors that have led to this; to list them all would beyond the enterprise of this article. Still, adjectives such as complacency and heedlessness come to mind as well as other activities: charismatic leadership and infighting to name a few. These ruminations can certainly feel like nothing other than side-line heckling; I have accused and been accused of the very same. And while the jury is still out on the former’s verdict, I would like to examine the predicament of the American Muslim through the lens of an esteemed American intellectual: Harold Cruse. Published over forty years ago, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual stands as one of the most memorable pieces of cultural criticism from the tumultuous Sixties.

Harold, who was born in Virginia but raised in New York City, came of age at what would be the ground zero of Black intellectual thought during an era which saw and bore witness to tremendous social upheavals via the Civil Rights Movement. Yet the work that Cruse produced was more than simply a cerebral testimony of the Civil Rights Movement. He just as often critiqued and criticized it as much as he praised it. His criticisms were done, not to defame or destroy the works that the Civil Rights Movement accomplished, but rather to illustrate a number of very subtle and unchallenged assumptions about the Civil Rights Movement and the supposed hegemony its institutions held over the Blackamerican community. How is this helpful in regards to the American Muslim community, you may ask. I believe there are a number of observations that Cruse makes on the nature of the Blackamerican [he uses the word Negro and all such quotes from The Crisis will continue to use Negro though I will interchange it with the more modern usage of Blackamerican] community and their social situations and conditions, observations that relate directly to the condition of the American Muslim, still relevant to this day. Cruse also makes very astute calculations about the relationship between the individual and society, the group and society, and the individual and law; all topics that are germane to the American Muslim’s current predicament. And while I do not pretend to offer Cruse’s The Crisis as a panacea, I do believe we can benefit from past scholarship [nothing new in the Muslim tradition], even if it is outside of our faith tradition [again, in truth, nothing new in Muslim tradition].

One of the first issues that come to mind that American Muslims must come to grips with is diversity: diversity of thought and practice.  Academic Orientalists are not the only ones guilty of this practice: reductionism.  The current state of Muslim-Muslim relations is rife with intolerance and a mean spiritedness that hampers the growth and development of Islam in America.  Part of this has come from not only an absence of education regarding theology and orthodoxy for American Muslims but also from a lack of understanding how Muslims have dealt with and encountered differing strains of thought throughout history.  As one scholar wrote, there is a significant difference “between formal heresy, i.e., the willful persistence in error and, material heresy, or the holding of heretical doctrines through no fault of one’s own” [Jackson 3].  This in no way implies that there are not “right” and “wrong” ways to believe in or practice Islam, but a more delicate, engaging, and thoughtful process need be called upon when coming to these conclusions, to say nothing of the authority to perform such excommunications.  For the purposes of our examination, this is keenly what Dr. Cruse contemplated when he examined the relation between the orthodoxy [for lack of a better word] of thought found in the civil rights-oriented NAACP and its conflict with dissenting opinions from other Blackamericans.  As Cruse points out, by examining the works of the likes of Frederick Douglass and Martin R. Delany, there was significant difference and indeed dissention amongst the ranks of the newly emancipated Blackamericans.  Cruse shows us that even as early as the Civil War, blacks were divided on roughly two mains paths: pro-integrationists and pro-segregationists, namely the Back-to-Africa movements.  I say all this to bring to light the need to recognize differing opinions as well as the development for some type of social authority mechanism for people to take their appeals to, such that unhealthy squabbling might be avoided.

One particular aspect of the question of orthodoxy I would like to comment on is the policing of it as well as the objectives of orthodoxy and the objectives of religion.  To the first point, it is exceedingly difficult to police orthodoxy in Islam, particularly in America, where there still persists a very real vacuum of knowledge and authority.  In the absence of any real authority mechanism, such attempts are reduced to individuals or small groups, either by proxy of charisma or some other means, who often seek to brow beat their coreligionists into submission.  Little can be said to its efficacy, as unorthodox practices are still prevalent in American Muslims.

As to the latter, it should be noted that orthodoxy and religion are neither one nor the same.  The objectives of orthodoxy do not necessarily coincide with those of religion.  The former seeks to gain ascendancy or authority over a particular community, whereas religion has the ability to encompass a multitude of expressions.  Moreover, to ground the argument in the present talk, it would be much more worthy of the energies and endeavors spent on the part of American Muslims to push or expand the circle of belief, leaving room for growth and understanding.  In a recent conversation with a friend of mine, he expressed concern over the lack of spiritual growth and commitment to Muslims in his particular community.  He noted the absence of Muslims for many of the prayers and many of those who did attend the mosque did not engage in any supererogatory activities such as Qur’an reading or dhikr circles.  I mentioned, while I could sympathize with him, it would be much better to celebrate those Muslims who do come to the mosque with any frequency as well as widening our acceptance for Muslims whose practices may not be as “on point” as we might hope.  However, I did note that there was considerable room for creating social stigmas and criterions for behavior in our midst, sending a clear signal to those individuals whose social behaviors are unacceptable, such as domestic violence, lack of employment or education, and so forth.  In this category, I see no issue with tightening the ranks while leaving people to develop spiritually as Muslims.

I speak upon the problem of diversity and acceptance not as a humanist but because I believe there are more pressing issues at the table facing American Muslims.  Several of these issues I have written on before but here I would like to take the opportunity to perhaps expand the conversation a bit as well as bring it to a more relevant focus.  The need or even the demand for Muslims to express an articulation of Islam that seeks to appease the dominant culture is nothing new.  However, what is not often talked about is how American Muslims might go about this task of navigating and negotiating the cultural landscape of America under what Cruse calls the “Great American Ideal”.  To clarify, I will cite Cruse’s own definition:

The superficial answer is that, in practice, it is the living expression of that body of concepts sanctified in the American Constitution.  For the Negro, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments are of special relevance.  But this is true because of the way in which the Negro has influenced the evolution of the American Ideal [Cruse 7].

This “dominating persuasion” as Cruse calls it, is quite similar to the social contexts that American Muslims currently live under.  This has even further relevance and importance for Blackamerican Muslims, whose history in this country and the potential role they might play in terms of how Islam is played out in America cannot be understated.  It is a pressure that seeks to deny American Muslims an equally dignified existence their fellow Americans enjoy.  Cruse cites very eloquently, “the philosophy of these Negroes has not been allowed the dignity of acceptance as an ethnic conception of reality” [Cruse 6].  This latter point, the conception of reality, is to me, one of the most crucial aspects of social life and acceptance that is currently hanging American Muslims out to dry.  Undeniably, there are social factors outside the complete influence of American Muslims but it would be dishonest to assert that all opportunities have not been capitalized on.  It is my firm belief that if Muslims are to harbor any hopes of having a successful and lasting stay and relationship in American, they will have to find some means of validating their own “conception of reality” in the dominant cultural landscape [a reality amongst realities if you will].  To not do so will render Islam and Muslims as an ahistorical other, an outcast with no seat at the table, and whose descendants can only look to a future in which they can and will play no defining role.

Part 2 is available here.

  1. Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. New York: New York Review Books, 1967.
  2. Jackson, Sherman. On the Bounds of Theological Tolerance in Islam: Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s Faysal al-Tafriqa bayna al-Islam wa al-Zandaqa. Oxford: Oxford Unversity Press, 2002.