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.