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.

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.

African American Muslims and Their Social Purgatory

Hat tip to Khalifa for passing this on. And while we may be occupied with more-than-earthly matters today, perhaps we can take a look at this over the next couple of days and reflect upon it. I have a few thoughts of my own I will share on it shortly.

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary. ….History shows that it does not matter who is in power…those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they did in the beginning.” – Dr. Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro.

Let me say from the outset that if you’re faint of heart or easily ruffled, pardon my having included you on this note. One would think that in quoting a social commentary from 1933 that its ideas would be anachronistic or at least irrelevant by 2010, but I find that as an African American Muslim its words ring disturbingly poignant and applicable. Between the Muslim world and America, and between history and orthodoxy, African American Muslims are in a social purgatory of agenda and mission…of identity and relevancy..and between citizenship and complacency.

Let me clarify my use of the term purgatory. Social Purgatory: Living effectively in no sphere of mainstream society whether religious/spiritual, professional, economic, or cultural. .. And belonging neither comfortably or whole-heartedly to the African American community or the broader Muslim community. We stand on the fence at a time of key transition. Imam W.D. Mohammed (rahmah of Allah be upon him) has passed away. Imam Jamil is likely to die in prison, we had to scrape to raise funds for Imam Siraj’s health care, and many of us are an arm-span from FBI watch-lists or already on it. Every time a domestic attack occurs we pray that it isn’t a Muslim. Then we pray that it isn’t an African American Muslim. And then we deliver our “that has nothing to do with Islam” speech on cue. That, my brothers and sisters, is something of a purgatory in itself.

We cannot afford to turn a blind eye or merely a snide comment to the pathologies that exist among us. The dogmas and isms that we tolerate… No, this is the chasm through which opponents readily attack and before that, these are the anchors that narrow our Islam. These pathologies are too many and complex to elucidate here, but suffice it to say they range from misapplication of polygamy to dysfunctional views of our very American-ness and citizenship. We constantly frame our troubles as being from without. Well my motivation in writing this is that I believe quite the opposite. They are from within. Continue reading “African American Muslims and Their Social Purgatory”

If There Was Ever A Good Time…

Incubation [in-kyuhbey-shuh n]. The act of incubating: To sit upon (eggs) for the purpose of hatching; to maintain at a favorable temperature and in other conditions promoting development, as cultures of bacteria or prematurely born infants; to develop or produce as if by hatching.

All of the above can easily be applied metaphorically to our condition and situation as Muslims in America. Like a collective group of mother hens, we’re sitting on our eggs. But if we do not soon act in our best self-interest, we will loose our eggs through negligence and heedlessness. Every day, every month that passes by, I think to myself: “What are we waiting for?” Our situation only becomes more grim as the hours slip by. I do not say these words lightly or for the sake of dramatization. I say them because we’ve only seen the Hollywood version of how bad things can get. Yet we have no screen writers to script us a happy ending. No, that happing ending will have to be done with our own hands. But first, we’ve got to get off our duffs — intellectually, politically, socially and more — or our eggs will never hatch and we will go the way of the Dodo bird.

The American Muslim front has been hit by periodic waves of violence, public embarrassment, and anxiety post 9/11. The Fort Hood killings are just the latest ripple. Responses in Muslim circles have varied from the typical apologetic to denial, with a few bright spots of insight in between. Yet, this seems to have done very little to motivate Muslims to act with more agency, with more foresight and responsibility that it has led myself to some very disturbing conclusions, the summary of which is that we, as American Muslims, have no clue what we’re doing here in America. I base my conclusions on 18 years of observation in the Muslim community, from Detroit to San Francisco. From Madison to Durham to Philadelphia. The last locale proves the most troublesome for me, as I have lived in Philadelphia for almost five years now and I find the Muslim community here to be the most disturbing. Not disturbing based on media-drive hype and hyperbole – I’ve come across no radicals or al-Qaeda suspects. But I have and do encounter large numbers of Muslims, many young but not exclusively, who are just riding the current in front of them, heedless to the environment they are in. And if that current should dash them on the rocks, they seem mostly content. But if they should also become mired on the river banks making no action, having no determinacy of how they sail down the river, I observe the same level of complacency.

Complacency is one of the key words I would use to describe one of the major maladies plaguing Philadelphia’s Muslim community. And while the issues that Philadelphia rankles with may differ in scope and intensity from other locations, I do believe them to be indicative of national crises. I also see much of the complacency here a communal trait passed on generation to generation by the leadership here – a leadership that seems much more interested at times in being served versus giving service. The mode of leadership here is predominantly charismatic, and while charisma will always have its part and place in any community, I do not believe it can be the only qualifier if the community is to be successful. I am well aware of the fact that these words will do little to endear me to certain audiences here in Philadelphia, but as one who steps up on the minbar on a weekly basis, I have to be frank and honest. I also speak these words because I want to see the best possible future for Philadelphia and the rest of American Muslims.

In an article I read today on the Wall Street Journal’s web site, Reuel Marc Gerecht’s article, Major Hasan and Holy War, spells out the typical conservative, Islamophobic rhetoric we have come to find common place in the discourse on Islam in America. Yet we cannot simply dismiss these missives as the handiwork of Muslim haters. Muslims here must come to see that we also play a hand in how we wrong ourselves by having not made the best choices for our community. Nor are we making them now. E-Baad recently posted an article by Professor Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University in which Professor Mamdani asked some very good questions:

Is our world really divided into two, so that one part makes culture and the other is a prisoner of culture? Are there really two meanings of culture? Does culture stand for creativity, for what being human is all about, in one part of the world? But in the other part of the world, it stands for habit, for some kind of instinctive activity, whose rules are inscribed in early founding texts, usually religious, and museumized in early artifacts?

When I read of Islam in the papers these days, I often feel I am reading of museumized peoples. I feel I am reading of people who are said not to make culture, except at the beginning of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic, act. After that, it seems they just conform to culture. Their culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no debates. It seems just to have petrified into a lifeless custom.

I believe these are some very prescient questions we need to ask ourselves. Is the culture we’re promoting [if any at all] conducive to a healthy and dignified Muslim life in America? Or have we marginalized ourselves where meanings are found not within ourselves or in how we interact with our world in negotiation with our transcendent values but within a stagnant, museumized collection of ritualistic actions that are devoid of or separated from the sacred values of our religion.

As Professor Lehman suggests, modern secular society only receives its values and agency from its cultural, creative process. A process in this regard constructs its own social/civic/secular religion. It is from this paradigm that we get notions of “freedom” and “equality” and yet, they seldom materialize on all playing fields [the fact that the plural must be flatted to the singular in this matrix is another conversation]. In other words, the production of culture as it stands now sees history and tradition as wholly problematic, a pariah, that, in order to flourish, all aspects and remnants of said historical and traditional processes must be jettisoned. Not only are Muslims just as guilty here as is secular America, they are also just as guilty in mummifying their own religious practices and significances. It would be wrong to think that it is only the Orientalist academy and a few Washington think-tanks that perceive Muslims to be ahistorical, apolitical, but Muslims themselves do a fine job of promoting this false reality as well. I would claim that the majority of debates in the Muslim community are grounded in arguments that suffer from the same ahistorical and apolitical realities. Ironically, the latest trend we see now in American Islam is the reifying of Traditional Islam. This construct is presented and packed such that one need only done the proper attire and converse in the appropriate dialect and all of one’s troubles will be solved. Additionally, one can easily feel more pious than one’s counterparts, who are just simply Muslim, most likely uneducated Salafis or worse. I am dramatizing this specific point here to make another: neither progressive or conservative proclivities achieve the balance needed for the dialog and action America Muslims need at this juncture. Neither does either have a monopoly on the understanding of the religion. And like our examples above, the former [progressive Muslims] lean towards dispatching [Muslim] history entirely, where the viewpoints and attitudes of the past are rendered secular [i.e., they are empty of any transcendent value]. On the other hand, such conservative expressions [both Traditional Islam, Salafism, and even Sufism to some extent] sacrilize all of Muslim history, where the attitudes and viewpoints of antiquated communities become sacred themselves, almost transcendent, where departing from their opinions is equated with departing with Revelation.

Both Muslims and American society [if not many parts of the modern world] struggle with this problem: appeasing the present and appeasing the past. And it is a dichotomy that is easy to become ensnared in, especially given the nature of modern discourse being particularly Manichaean. For Muslims, and for the America public, Islam does offer some potential insights into seeking a way out of this ensnarement. Muslim history is ripe with great minds that saw this very specific model and attempted to broker deals that would allow them to appease the ahistocial, transcendent values of Islam while leading dignified and compromising lives [not compromised!] in their current contexts.

There are major storm clouds on the horizon. The future in America, for Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is unclear and filled with much trepidation and speculation. Past derelictions must be corrected, with a clear manifesto of what waters we’re charting and where we’re sailing to. This coming of age has already arrived upon us, and if we wish to be successful, we must act swiftly, creatively, and decisively, with courage and steadfastness, if we are to flourish, not simply trying to cling to a rock – such imagery makes good postcards but we do not want to be that lone Bonsai tree waiting for an unfortunate moment to dislodge us permanently.

Read Reuel Marc Gerecht’s article here. Additional reading about Muslims in the military here. Mahmood Mamdani’s article here. “Going Muslim” by Tunku Varadarajan.