Muslims in America – What Comes After Resistance?

The American Muslim community is currently embroiled in a struggle against the injustices being perpetrated by the Trump administration. As to whether these actions are truly injust or simply a matter of selective outrage, fueled by a model minority narrative, remains to be seen. But one question which hovers over American Muslims is what is their fate, post-resistance?

In reading Daniel L. Fountain’s Slavery, Civil War and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity 1830-1870, one is inspired to, drawing upon the religious history of black folks in America, ask the question: will American Muslims adopt the world-views, mores, and religion[s] of their “masters”? By this I mean to compare the history of African Americans and their conversion to Christianity to American Muslims and their future conversion to liberalism, secularism, and scientific atheism. In order to make this inquiry clear we must look at why and how Africans and their progeny converted to Christianity.

Anecdotal historical accounts of African religious life in antebellum America feeds us a narrative in which African slaves and their progeny converted to Christianity during their tenure as slaves. From this perspective we are left with the assumption that Christianity played a major role in the lives of slaves. However, recent scholarship gives a more convincing insight into the reality that Christianity did not come to play a significant role in the majority of African American lives until after emancipation. According to Fountain (amongst others),

“more than 60 percent of the slaves surveyed indicated that they were not Christians while enslaved (emphasis mine)1.”

My point being here is to challenge the notion that Christianity was a form of slave resistance. Instead, I argue that, since Christianity did not gain significant ground amongst African Americans until post-emancipation, it was more a means of assimilation than resistance. Fountain quotes nineteenth century physician and all around social agitator, Thomas Low Nichol, as saying,

“[t]he Southern people are eminently religious, and their negroes follow their example (emphasis mine)2.”

Whereas in the nineteenth century, the religion of America — and those who stood in position to impart “freedom” to slaves — was Christianity, the religions of America today are increasingly liberalism, secularism, and scientific atheism, and thus, my concern is, will American Muslims embrace the religions of those who stand ready yet again to impart “freedom” to American Muslims? While some have balked at the heavy-handed tone in a recent article penned to American Muslim activists, I am equally concerned about the temptation for American Muslims to go down the same road as their previous American brethren did. In fact, as Fountain argues, it was,

“the expectation and delivery of freedom [being] the leading factor for African American conversion to Christianity3.”

The question remains: have the descendants of African slaves gained freedom and have their expectations been met? Many would argue that true freedom, the ability for self-determination, has not arrived yet. And likewise, in light of liberalism, secularism, and scientific atheism (what I will term here as scientism), can these philosophies fulfill their promises to American Muslims4? For it is precisely the same gambit, the same offer, and the same temptation, I see American Muslims engaged in both in terms of embracing liberalism and the like, but also in an articulation of Islam that is pitched as resistance, and nothing more. If, quoting Fountain again, “under slavery, Christianity … did not meet most slaves’ needs … most did not convert”5 then what of an Islam that does not meet Muslims needs, particularly as Americans? It is here I believe most of the hard work needs to be done and thus should be the primary focus of scholars, for it is also the reason why so many Muslims, particularly the youth, look for truth-claims (even false ones) elsewhere6.

Resources 

1. Fountain, Daniel L. Slavery, Civil War and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity 1830-1870. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. Pg. ix.

2. Ibid., 7.

3. Ibid., 5.

4. Jay Tolson, in the Fall 2016 edition of The Hedgehog Review, writes, “scientists began to wonder uneasily about whether scientific progress was compatible with scientific truth”. Tolson, Jay. “From the Editor”. The Hedgehog Review. http://iasc-culture.org/THR/index.php.

5. Fountain, 5.

6. Manley, Marc. “Between Political Theories and Truth-Claims: American Muslims and Liberalism”. Marc Manley – Imam At Large. www.marcmanley.com, 21 Jan. 2017.

A Racism of Consequences

Racism, at least in the American context, is as old as the country itself. Its legacy enduring as much as it is penetrating, and its consequences real and tangible. It’s here that I think many immigrants, immigrant Muslims no less so, are woefully ignorant of the real consequences of racism in America, particularly anti-black racism. Former Senator Fred. R. Harris, of Oklahoma, wrote in the introduction to Black Rage,

“There are many evils which derive from racism that are more easily identified, including the existence of ghetto neighborhoods, joblessness, stultifying classrooms, and poor health.”1

What Harris points out is that racism is far greater, far more evil, and far more determining than simply “not being liked”, as racism is so commonly understood in its American vernacular. Where once upon a time in America, racism determined where you could live whereas now its more likely to determine where you can’t. This “can’t” being determined by the joblessness that Harris articulates. When one is relegated to the lowest economic rung of the social ladder, one is forced to live in “ghetto neighborhoods” that also happen to have the greatest percentage of failing schools. And “poor health” can also extend to the urban extreme of being dangerous to one’s life, with the ubiquitous presence of violent crime in these areas.

To return to the Muslim question, particularly those of an immigrant history or background, they too have falsely been misled and even perpetrate the misconception that racism is only “not being liked”—suggesting it has no tangible consequences—being that many of these Muslims are educated in the American public school system, it is no surprise. However, in light of the recent ascent of the Christian evangelical Right, these Muslims now have a glimpse at the very real consequences of racism in America. The social opposition Muslims are being challenged with show that racism is far more concerning than simply being “disliked”. In the hands of a majority who also possess political power, American racism threatens to bear down on Muslims in America in way that have the potential to create cultural ghettos, discriminate against Muslims who seek employment, bully their children at school, ultimately leading to a degradation in their mental and physical well-being.

So the question remains, will American Muslims come to see that one of the primary challenges facing America is her enduring legacy of racism, and that legacy affects the lives of people in visceral ways, and that now perhaps is the time to crawl out of our gated communities and shells and truly embrace America, which will require standing up to her and telling her some things she’d rather not hear, especially from those who’ve, until recently (?), peddled a model minority narrative. Will American Muslims come to identify with America’s poor, that group which God says in the Qur’an, He, “desire[s] to show kindness to those who [are] oppressed in the land”2, or will our community sell God’s Sign for “a paltry price”3. I can only hope we will do the right thing, though time will tell. May God grant us strength, conviction, and dignity in these difficult times.

1. Grier, William H. and Cobbs, Price M. Black Rage. New York: Basic Books Inc., 1968.

2. “We wanted to empower those who were being oppressed in the land, to make them leaders, to give them an inheritance in the earth.” Qur’an, 28: 5.

3. “Believe in what I’m revealing, which confirms the teachings with you now, and don’t be the first to reject it, nor sell My revealed verses for a petty gain. Be mindful of Me!” Qur’an, 2: 41.

NBC Nightly News – Why Muslims Need A New Media Strategy

On Sunday, December 4th, I had the privilege of having 10 seconds of my interview with NBC aired before the nation. Yes, I am being sarcastic.

As I mentioned in this week’s The Middle Ground Podcast, I don’t believe in the conspiracy theory of the media to portray Muslims as victims, at least not entirely. Undoubtedly there may be a few journalists who do but I firmly believe that the vast majority in the media who portray Muslims as victims are doing so at the direction of a vocal group of Muslims themselves. It’s much easier for us to demonize the media and scapegoat them for all of our problems than to face an inconvenient truth: many of us love being victims because we believe we can use pity to coerce Chuck into getting what we want from him: our pre-9/11 lives back.

This startling truth was made even more clear when I was interview by Larry Mantel on his show, AirTalk, on KPCC radio.

One caller, Fawaz, further illustrates my point. He spoke on how he was supported by the community, as immigrants. Never did he speak on what they contribute back. He further said,

“I do take an issue with some of the other points. I am an American Muslim, I am an immigrant, but I am fully integrated with the local activities and am part of Arcadia dialog; interfaith group.”

My response to brother Fawaz was,

“the glaring point is I, and your guest, would not be on this show if this wasn’t an issue”.

Clearly the American/Muslim issue has not been put to rest, despite Fawaz’s claims, otherwise there would not be a continued national discussion regarding it. What is most misunderstood here is there’s a difference between being a citizen and being fully American; there’s a difference between how one thinks of one’s self and how one is perceived by others in that society; and the difference between the potential to be fully American and current realities.

Clearly we must take efforts to stop sabotaging ourselves through continued invocations of victimhood. Only through a strong, principled, and courageous voice can we make our narrative felt and understood.