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.