A Religious World Divided?

That is the title of the town hall meeting I attended last night, hosted by WHYY, here in Philadelphia. The discussion consisted of a rabbi, an academic/columnist, and an imam. Ray Suarez, the resident journalist, fielded the questions and set the pace.

Almost immediately from the get go, it ceased to be a discussion about divisions (plural) in the world between religious traditions but the good old, time-honored tradition of the rift between the “Muslim World” and “The West”. Suarez dove right in, making it clear that he was not interested in divisions between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, but rather the perceived clash of monospaces, i.e., The West and Islam.

Amongst Suarez’s early questions was one directed towards the imam, who is a Blackamerican Muslim, on how is he able to reconcile his Americaness and his Islam. In other words, his “Easterness” and his “Westerness”. Suarez in a sense alluded to the notion that any and all Muslims, by simply being Muslim, must have some sort of connection to “The East”.

For the sake of this post, I am not going to delve into the responses of the panelists but rather examine the nature of the questions and how large aspects of the American media simply follow suit in sound bite, sloganized journalism, neither introducing nor encouraging new thought or dialog on a topic that goes far beyond “Islam and The West” – which is synonymous language for “us and them”, often conflated to “good and evil”.

Another oft-repeated motif during the talk was, “Americans’ need to understand Islam and Muslims”. During the Q&A session I asked Mr. Suarez and the panelists how they could justify such a question given that the majority of Blackamerican families have at least one member who is a Muslim. A son, a daughter, an uncle and so on (incidentally, this goes beyond the “prison convert” – my brother is dating Bernard Shaw’s daughter (Shaw, if you’re unfamiliar is a prominent Black journalist who worked for CNN, famous for his reportage during Gulf War I), whose brother is a Muslim, obviously coming from an affluent background). So in this instance, Islam is known to Blackamericans (Malcolm X being the most famous Black Muslim). So the question needs to be altered to, “which portions of Americans need to understand Islam and Muslims better?” – a.k.a., White Americans.

There is an additional caveat that goes along with this alteration and that is, “how much familiarity will it take on the part of White Americans before Muslims can or will be accepted by the white-majority American population?” Case in point, Jews, who when they first arrived in America, were not accepted as white and hence we have plenty of historical documentation of anti-Jewish sentiment in this country. But over time, Jews were able to ascend, or more specifically, were racialized by whites, to whiteness, and in doing so, became accepted (or in some circles, tolerated) in the psyche of majority-white America. This path to acceptance in no way led to a greater understanding of Jewish theological thought or ritualistic practices. I would gladly bet dimes to dollars that most Americans are woefully ignorant of both of the above. Never the less, being Jewish is an acceptable form of “whiteness” just as being Muslim is an acceptable form of “blackness” (it should be noted though that Jews ascension to “whiteness” in no way has completely discouraged anti-Jewish sentiment, a la Mel Gibson and his outlandish comments – but it did brand Gibson as brash, lude and has tarnished his image as it rightly should have). The problem lies in groups (and here I am talking about Arabs, Pakistanis, ect.) whose path to whiteness has been roadblocked by the phenomenon of 9/11. And being that America has mainly two acceptable modalities, i.e., black and white, these groups are left in the lurch (personally, this is the same conundrum that Mexican and Hispanic immigrants face but that is the subject of another post).

The aforementioned phenomenon of September 11th has left Muslims in this part of the world or Muslims who come in contact with “The West”, in a predicament. On one hand, in what I will call Example A, due to the combined nature of post-Colonialism and the aforementioned lack of opportunity to be accommodated into this version of Modernity, some Muslims outside “The West” (physically or mentally) feel that they can only achieve a real sense of Islam by thrusting themselves against The West in an all-or-nothing-at-all scenario. The other side, Example B, is that Muslims residing in The West are forced or compelled into authoring an expression of Islam, whose sole purpose is to appease the dominant authority (a.k.a., white/Euro/Anglo-Saxon values). It is from this train of thought that we get Muslim apologists, “Progressive Islam”, or “Secular Islam”. In my opinion, none of the above is conducive to a shared existence and all seek a form of hegemony over one another.

The fallout from Example A is obvious. It is often violent, self-destructive, let alone not condonable by any authentic narrative of the Prophet Muhammad’s “Sunnah”. Like any revolution, its longevity rests in its ability to struggle against “the other”. When “the other” is eliminated, physically or mentally, so dies the movement and its adherents (just look at Civil Rights in America).

Example B is a bit trickier to analyze but no less malicious and perhaps even more denigrating. All peoples have a primordial desire to live out free, dignified existences. Muslims are no different in this regard. But an existence where one is defined, not by what one is but by what one isn’t, is both a sham and a disgrace. Example B is what most immigrant Muslims here in America are currently struggling with. With the door to Whiteness an ever narrowing gap, they are left in a similar situation as Blackamericans during the time of slavery. For those who reject the apologist rhetoric they will be banished to toil in “the fields” or rather the periphery of society and condemned as barbaric, extremist, fundamentalist, and morally deprived. But for those who are willing to trade their freedom for a seat at “Massah’s table”, which means to serve their master to the extent of his or her liking, these Muslims become the equivalent of, pardon the expression, house niggers. Like Example A, this too would have a difficult time gaining authenticity from the the Prophet’s “Sunnah”, which would certainly never settle for a loss of a dignified existence (which, when you examine much of the Sunnah, that’s what it is about).

Not once during the talk did I hear any discussion of how Western (a.k.a., “white”) actors and values play A and B against one another. Again, referring to antebellum America, these Muslims will battle each other over the “True Expression” of Islam in the way that White America fostered an environment where Blackamericans fought and argued (and still do!) over “True Blackness”. If America, and yes, I mean white America (both the people and the value system), are going to be true to their words then they will have to learn to accommodate Islam as it sees itself – not in how it lacks being “Western”. To borrow from a great early American, they will have to, as John Locke wrote, set aside their particulars and differences for the sake of civil society. This goes for both sides.

And God knows best.

P.S. – if you are interested in listening to the show, it is set to air May 18th, at 8pm. For more information, visit WHYY’s Web site.

12 Replies to “A Religious World Divided?”

  1. Salaams Bro
    Damn good article. Provocative points to chew on for a good long time.

    I’m wondering if you think you might’ve nailed a big piece of the puzzle with the Jewish assimilation portion of your Post?

    A cocktail of timing, acculturation and persistence, perhaps?

    Timing:America not being the Insoluble World Power at a time of swift Jewish emmigration( Over a Million arriving on NYC shores in less than forty years, straddling the 19th and 20th centuries).
    Accultration: The Organizational means in such times that enabled Social programs such as those along the “Borscht Belt” that provided an escape from NYC inner city summer doldrums with chances like day camps dotted all over upstate NY. The Herbrew Union College and Jewish Theological Seminary that provided progressive and traditional studies respectively.
    Persistance: Thru these secular delvings over time Jewish religious traditions became less of a central, or presonal modicum of Identity supplanted by the inertia of popular sentiments of dare I say the normal goings on of a country such as ours, i.e. Arts, entertainment sciences and even politics to the point where,it could be argued, that these very endeavors we as a nation hold near and dear have very critical roots in Jewish participation. From George and Ira to the Guggenheims to the IAPACS and Netanyahus that stroll the halls of Congress soliciting influences. A lesson in persistence indeed.

    Religiously, and this for me is a stinging clincher, The Ashkenaz, the overwhelming Eastern European constituency of Jewish political and religious identity in the US and elsewhere have NO legitimate claim to a bloodline even remotely related to Abraham, which if I understand correctly, is a requisite to even calling youself Jewish.
    The Ashkenaz trace ther roots to the Kingdom of Khazaria whose king had opted to convert himself and his kingdom to Judaism as sort of a middle way between the warring Christian and Muslim.

  2. Salaams, Tony!

    I’m wondering if you think you might’ve nailed a big piece of the puzzle with the Jewish assimilation portion of your Post?

    Only the shadow knows! But to answer, I only hope that I’ve encouraged some thought on a topic that is much more refined than the typical “us and them” stuff. I do think that the whole notion of inclusion, and historically which groups were let in and which ones were left out and how time as well as other national factors (such as participation in the various World Wars) opened up the opportunity of inclusion into “whiteness” as well as the ever-transforming social machine of racialization still persists (again, Mexican immigrants and that whole story would tie in but I will have to dedicate it to another post).


  3. Thanks to Tariq over at his blog for posting a response to my post here. You can read his comments as well as readers’ comments here.

  4. Pingback: The Manrilla Blog | Life. Art. Religion. Culture. | Documenting the American Muslim Experience one pixel at a time » A Religious World Divided? - Call & Response
  5. Thanks, Jerry. Your comments are welcomed. I would only add an addendum to your statement:

    “…In contrast, the African-Americans and Native-Americans were brought unfortunately to the points whence compelled to stir, hence uproot the American conscience. Whereas the Muslim-Americans are now faced with the same challenges as African/Native-Americans without historical bereavement to speak of…”

    I would only add that “Muslim-Americans” should be tagged more specifically as immigrant Muslim-Americans. Otherwise, good points. Thanks.

  6. Firstly it is (almost “was” but not yet) Americans’ nature to outcast and brandish the newcomers to the block. Such instances are the Irish into New York City/Chicago, the Chinese/Japanese into San Francisco and the Cubans into Miami. The Jewish population were elbowed to the side until (a) the truths of the German horrors came to publications. In addition, (b) the Jewish population did not stand to stir any conscience regarding their acceptance into mainstream society. If one reflects to historical points, there were one group of African-Americans who were accepted by mainstream society. The fairer-skinned African Americans who did not partake in known activities challenging or stirring the American conscience. Tis’ fair and consistent? Of course not. Tis true of the Irish, after it was clear that they had no known intentions to shake nor stir the American conscience for acceptance. Tis same is true for the Jewish population. In contrast, the African-Americans and Native-Americans were brought unfortunately to the points whence compelled to stir, hence uproot the American conscience. Whereas the Muslim-Americans are now faced with the same challenges as African/Native-Americans without historical bereavement to speak of. It is the pivotal “historical” actions of the “outsiders” to mainstream America AND the Islam practicing community. I think “historical” and “outsiders” are self-explanatory.

    Secondly, I am intrigued to the notion that West vs East stigma suffered by all Muslims. Lest I ask, was it not the Nation of Islam radical movements that stirred the American conscience long before the “historical” actions of the ‘extremist’? Anyone who privies themselves to American history and world events would suffer the so-called flashbacks when such Muslim-related explosive actions are published in America. After the Civil Rights era, I’d dare say the Muslim community have enjoyed some quiet and quality time whereas therein enjoyed forward movements until the unfortunate time-loop-slapback of September 11. And thus returns the ever epitomized revelation America’s infamous Malcolm X orated, “the Nation of Islam’s practice may not be the same as that of the East”. And America has held that to his words.

  7. Good piece brother…this xenophobia in America is truly something…if it’s different from me, well, it must be a threat,….perhaps the cause lies at the ignorance of Americans, their single language pride and stupidity, lack of travel and worldliness, but remember, the president had only been to the Texas/Mexico border when elected!!! Wow, are we being led.

  8. Hmmm, the land of opportunity, streets paved with gold, unmatched resources, E Pluribus Unum, Manifest Destiny, give me your poor: What it means is take off your shirts, pick up a sledge and start pounding rocks to smithereens.

    Get down into those mines and into the forests. Tame the wilderness. Introduce ownership to the aboriginals, apply the principle to the land and to their labour.

    Import innocent people from around the globe and put them to work in the Christian effort of Capitalization. How could we not be ignorant of the rest of the world when our naked bodies have little chance to pause from work, stand erect and look around and make use the mind.

    In the building of modern America people competed for work rather than starve. They had moved from self supported hamlets, safety of tribal living, fishing villages, farm communities into a vast land and immediately found themselves under a monetary feudalism. They did not want to integrate with each other, they wanted to clasp to their identities. Identities have no place here, life is improving, but happiness is still scarce. Just wondering what role capitalism plays in our ignorance lack of education and mutual misunderstandings.

    I could go on and on, but I won’t.

  9. Pingback: The Manrilla Blog | Life. Art. Religion. Culture. | Documenting the American Muslim Experience one pixel at a time » More Thoughts On the Exclucivity of Whiteness
  10. Gren, I am not sure – they’re usually pretty good about putting stuff up. I will look into and if I am able to derive an answer, I’ll let you know. Thanks.

  11. Do you happen to know where to find this? I heard the end of it live but WHYY hasn’t published anything on its site about the show or a possible download of it. Was a pre-registration website but it’s not so helpful now. Thanks if you can help.

  12. Pingback: The Manrilla Blog | Life. Art. Religion. Culture. » Lying Liars and the Lies They Tell

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