Town Square Meeting – GreenFaith

I was honored last night to be asked to attend the Town Square Meeting at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Center City Philadelphia. The meeting was presented by Philadelphia Green and was about the merging of faith-based organizations and the stewardship of those religious groups and how they are or can be engaged in environmental activities. It quickly came to my attention that Muslims at least in this area have been woefully absent. Absent either due to ignorance of such activities or because it’s simply not on the radar. For the concerns of this post, I will address the latter.

Like so many topics and events today, Muslims seem to either be swept along by the zeitgeist of the day or bypassed all together. This is an issue that we as a Muslim community need to address more seriously if we wish to have our voice taken seriously – otherwise, it will be taken away. By zeitgeist I am referring to the trend that many Muslims allow popular consensus or dominant voices dictate to us what is or is not important. One example that comes to mind is a conversation I had with a Muslim brother who said we needed to take a tougher stance towards homosexuality. When I inquired as to what he meant, he was referring to the unions of gay couples and homosexual marriages. He was quite passionate about the topic and felt that Islam was somehow being eroded by this lapse in what he saw as social immorality. I calmly reminded the brother to consider the following: homosexuality is not permissible in Islam. God has made this readily apparent and therefore he should take comfort in this incontrovertible truth. In other words, the question has been answered by the Highest Authority, therefore why approach the topic as if it could be reopened for discussion [and ultimately, permissibility].

Secondly, I asked him to consider why it was so important to him? What was informing his concern? Were there members of his congregation that were openly calling for the permissibility of homosexuality in Islam? He replied in the negative. Upon examining his sources it became apparent to both of us that he was coerced, in a sense, by the dominant hype in the media. That most of the conversation was being driven my Christian groups who were dealing with an internal struggle within Christianity as to the permissibility or lack thereof concerning homosexuality. And ultimately it was the government that was being lobbied on the part of these Christian groups to enact this ban. He conceded that he had not truly formulated his opinion on his own but was rather influenced from the outset. Mind you, none of this compromised his or Islam’s position on the impermissibility of homosexuality. But as a caveat I asked him what he thought of the governments ban on polygamous marriages. The government also placed a ban on that as well, which, according to Muslim tradition, is permissible.

Our conversation led to a common ground of analyzing that in the end, perhaps it was the government that he ought to take to task on intervening in marriages and unions – something that I believe they ought not to be in the business of administrating. The right to union is a right from God and therefore the state should not seek to overturn the rights granted by God. And as for homosexual unions or marriages, if they’re coming to the mosque to do so then Muslims would have every right to nullify or abstain from consecrating any such unions but there would be nothing to stop them from doing them under their own authority [which is to a great extent, what the whole gay marriage issue boils down to]. Ironically, Muslims and homosexuals [as well as other groups] may have common ground on petitioning the state/government to get out of the business of administering marriage. Their sole role should be to recognize the said parties once the union is formed, leaving the respective parties to administer their own unions.

My point in all of this is that Muslims should discipline themselves to ensure that when they are critiquing, that they are doing so on their own terms and are not simply being led around by the nose. Are there social ills that should concern us as Muslims? Absolutely. But we must construct those concerns and critiques in our own language to guarantee that when we are speaking out that we’re doing so with the proper conviction and not serving someone else’s agenda.

To return to my point of Zeitgeist and being passed by, Muslims should develop their own definitive voice on approaching the environment and other “green” causes. As I pointed out during the talk, much of the greening has taken on the form of an elitist rhetoric, whether intentional or not. In discussions with other environmentalists, they often fail to realize that aside from access to the materials and information, economics is often a turn off to small economically challenged groups who may not have the start-up costs to implement these greening methods, especially on the time table and scale of the environmentalists. This has in turn caused a shunning of many low income groups who may see environmental causes as another feel good social stunt for the entitled. Nonetheless, given the overwhelming evidence of the various planet-wide disasters we are facing, Muslims should indeed be lending their voices, their human capital and their expertise based on our scriptural imperatives.

As for the actual presentation, it was invigorating to hear the works that other religious groups were doing. Many spoke of the unexpected gains that they had in lobbying governmental agencies on environmental issues. Rabbi Lawrence Troster from GreenFaith, located in New Brunswich, New Jersey, said that in fact many state legislators were “blind-sided by religious groups advocating for environmental reforms”?. To paraphrase the rabbi, these law makers simply didn’t see this as an expected act from religious groups, who are more typically associated with social justice issues and not environmental ones. And given the great potential for networking and communicating between religious groups and interfaith organizations, they were seeing substantive results. Up until tonight, there had not been a significant Muslim presence in these meetings [many pointed to myself being the one and only thus far] and were eager to welcome the participation of Muslims in these efforts.

Given the many challenges that Muslims are now facing in the public square, opportunities such as these should not be allowed to pass us by. And indeed, if we are to seek a way to articulate an Islam that is not solely reactionary nor appeasing to the dominant culture then we must seize any and all such opportunities and define them with our own voice. We are already seeing the consequences when we let the “experts”? speak for us. And for a city that has so many Muslims – Philadelphia’s Muslim population is enormous [you can see Muslims here in all parts of the city no matter where you go], why do we not have a more active, engaged voice in the affairs that affect us all? I for one am optimistic that we can actively participate in such environmental ventures starting with looking at how green our mosques are. And I’m sure that there are already masajid participating in such activities. I only hope we can do a bit more outreach.

And God knows best.

Bricolage – Blackamerican Islam and Synthesizing the Future

There has been much air and debate tossed around about the future of Islam, especially in America. For me, the primary community of interest has and continues to be the Blackamerican community. For many reasons, one that I’ll give here, it remains a key ingredient in my book, regarding the success of Islam as a genuine entity in the American social space. One of the biggest reasons is that Blackamerican Muslims remain to this day, the only indigenous Western community/racial group that have experienced a large, mass conversion. I have read the numbers on conversion rates and populations. I am not here to debate or inflate the numbers but as the facts stand, Blackamericans are the only group that have had a significant number of their population embrace Islam. This cannot be said of Latinos or whites. And while the number of second and third generation Muslims continues to grow, they are still very much seen as a foreign enterprise. And for the growing number of whites who are choosing to embrace Islam, they still face a tough road of skepticism, cynicism and out right bewilderment from their fellow white Americans, who see their religious choice as some sort of racial apostasy or abandonment. Indeed, Blackamerican Muslim enjoy a special kind of insulation in that blacks can convert, change their names, even where foreign regalia and still be seen as authentically black. This should not be under appreciated or go with out significant notice.

So aside from acceptance, what else does this mean? What significance should this have for us as Blackamerican Muslims? Have we even acknowledged this fact and taken advantage of it. From my day to day run-ins with various Blackamerican Muslims around Philadelphia, I must give a cautious “no”. By no means do I think that some of the Muslims I’ve met in Philadelphia represent all Muslims elsewhere but I will nonetheless use them as a test case. For in my sixteen years of having embraced Islam, many of the sentiments I’ve heard echoed by some of Philadelphia’s Blackamerican Muslims have been echoed elsewhere. It is my hope that some of this short post will provide a bit of food for thought on the subject.

It may be a cliché that to want change one must recognize that one needs to change. Status quo can be a dangerous and comfortable set of chains. Bound by our thoughts, we have forgotten that we constrained and when time, circumstance or situation demands action, we just keep singin’ that same ol’ song. Much of the tension that I see between younger Blackamerican Muslims and the Old Guard is the lack of vision or clairvoyance to see that a change is needed. But change for the sake of change’s sake won’t cut the bill. Serious thought and soul searching must be engaged to see what it is that needs to be changed and in what manner. If there’s one community that has suffered so terribly from the baby-and-the-bath-water syndrome, it’s the Blackamerican Muslim community. So desperate were we to escape the confines of “black life” in America, many of us donned costume and script from some one else’s play and we played the part [at times better than they did themselves]. What I’m getting at is what I heard from a colleague lately, who criticized Black Muslims for out Arabing the Arabs. What many don’t realize, is that the hidden impetus behind this shift, this searching, had a great deal to do with the pain that many of us felt. Stifled by the glass veil of white values [not the KKK, per se], we were eager for an outlet. An outlet that would allow us not only to express out blackness in a valid way, but our very humanity. Our souls. And while I will fault no one for those feelings, it has not proven to be a successful operation. In my opinion, one of the stumbling blocks was due to what I’d call the eclecticism of Blackamerican Islam in the wake of the Nation of Islam. I shall try to elaborate.

It may seem short sighted or even harsh to label post-Nation Islam as an eclectic movement. It should be understood that this is not a value judgment on those persons who participated in the movement, but rather an observation. By eclectic, I mean in the dictionary sense of the word, but transplanted in a social context: selecting or choosing from various sources. Let me further ground my statement in what Ebrahim Moosa [see Ghazali & The Poetics of Imagination – Chapel Hill Press] describes as eclecticism:

“Lacking coherence, it [eclecticism] sits uncomfortably in its new habitat as if it had been mechanically inserted into the new setting.”

But exchanging eclecticism for Blackamerican Islam [post-Nation], one can see it has sat uncomfortably and even further, dysfunctionally, in its new habitat. What I see is a call for bricolage, a term coined by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who, in his definition as explained by Moosa, points out the difference between a bricoleur and an architect:

“An engineer always attempts to go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular moment in civilization. A bricoleur, on the other hand, is always inclined to remain within those limitations and constraints.”

Moosa further elaborates on Strauss’ term in two facets:

“…first, the appropriation of cultural elements from the dominant culture; and second the transformation of meanings through ironic juxtaposition and innovative use in order to challenge and subvert existing meanings.”

For me, Strauss’ bricolage elegantly describes much of the process of the Nation of Islam. That to a great degree, Elijah Muhammad appropriated certain elements of Islam from dominant Muslim theology and transformed them into new objects that were meaningful for to him/blacks in his time and place, and they very much did challenge and attempt to subvert existing meanings on what constituted blackness and the limits that white values had placed on black human beings at that time. So when we look at the religious doctrine of the Nation, it is very much out of touch with traditional/orthodox/main stream Islam. But it did breathe new life into the dignity of many black folks who wanted to shrug off the confines of the injustices they faced in their time. If not in practice, then in spirit, this is the very same need that I see Blackamerican Muslims in need to do. This bricolage, this struggle, will encompass a serious grappling with the past/Tradition of Islam without becoming slave to it. Self martyrdom [“…it’s a black thang…”] will simply not suffice.

So how does this bricolage take flight? In what manner is it carried out such that it will be seen as genuine and not another fish out of water enterprise. The answer laid in Moosa’s description as to the difference between eclecticism and bricolage:

“The crucial difference is [that] in order for any performance or idea to be deemed eclectic, the provenance of the borrowed artifact must still be very much visible to the observer in the composite product. In fact, the borrowed idea does not develop a life of its own within the new setting.”

“By contrast, a bricoleur relocates artifacts in such a way that they form an integral part of the new environment. A bricoleur demands originality in the process of refinement and adaptation, making the borrowed artifact synthetically fit in with the new surroundings as if it had been there all the time and belonged there in the first place.”

Moosa’s last statement, about belonging, again points to a critical difference between the indigenous Blackamerican population and other foreign or ethnic populations. They simply are not seen as belonging in America. That their very essence is anti-Western and can never fit or be accommodated. In contrast, Blackamericans can move from Christianity to Islam without shedding their sense of belonging [unless they choose to do so!]. One should not think that for a moment this position is without envy from the foreign/ethnic population.

As it stands, much of the Islam I have witnessed coming out of the Blackamerican population has been one of eclecticism. That the process to becoming Muslim required replicating a previous or “other” version of Islam such that when it was donned by Blackamericans it still resembled its old form or context. By this I mean things such as wardrobe, diet, and societal norms. Suits and pants became thobes and turbans. Falafel and hummus became more authentic than steak and fried chicken. And holding down a 9-5 and supporting one’s family was bucked in favor of checking out against the kafir-led regime that oppressed the Palestinians. But instead, if we were to fashion an Islam that spoke to our time, our condition and our history, this bricolage would speak far greater to us than any masquerading could.

Part of this process of bricolage will entail revisiting the past and the Tradition of Islam. The Tradition of Islam cannot simply be ignored, as is attempted by authors like Irshad Manji or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wish to jettison all of the past in favor of a new utopist, Western-values dictated Islam. This type of rhetoric is equally guilty of the hegemony that they claim the Traditionalists hold over them. A new, fresh and honest rereading of the past can allow for a blending of tradition with circumstance. As Michel de Certeau says,

“The same words and the same ideas are often reused but they no longer have the same meaning [and] they are no longer thought and organized in the same way. It is upon this “fact” that the project of an all-encompassing and unitary interpretation runs aground.”

So instead of tossing that same old baby out with the bathwater, perhaps we should learn from our past errors and sit, with humility and calmness, and readdress our past and take from it what will give us a sense of knowing, a sense of dignity and a sense of pride without being held hostage by it.

And God knows best.