6. Strengthen our community centers. One of the most important things we must do is strengthen our community centers, but this is not possible without wise leadership in our centers. A major problem is that, notwithstanding their sincerity, unqualified people too often take the helm. Our centers need a level of professionalism that is grossly lacking today. Albeit, a change is in the air. Many young people who have grown up in this environment and learned the ways of more astute institutes are emerging, but they must be empowered, and those of a previous generation need to stand aside and let these young and talented Muslims do their work, unimpeded by the antiquated ways of a bygone era.
For example, when the media comes to interview someone from one of our centers, we need to put forth active spokespeople who don’t have foreign accents. Studies show that one-fourth of American viewers stop paying attention when they hear a person speaking with a strong foreign accent. I know this from first-hand experience, as my own father has a very hard time understanding South-Asian and Arab accents.
When we put forth Muslims with strong foreign accents as our spokespeople, people often assume all Muslims are foreign-born nationals and that our allegiances lie elsewhere, whereas in actuality, we are comprised of a largely diverse community that includes American-born natives as well as immigrants. American Muslims are indigenous and have always been indigenous, and in that way, WE ARE AMERICANS, so let Rush, Bill, Ann, and all those other bigots put that in their pipe and smoke it. We have never been a recent immigrant community, as there are now third and fourth-generation immigrant Muslims here in large numbers, not to mention native American converts as well as African and Euro-Americans. Moreover, African-American and Euro-American converts and their offspring are an excellent resource for immigrant Muslims to better understanding the mainstream population.
Cultures are highly nuanced, and even many first generation natives who grew up here often do not fathom all the depths of the dominant culture, as the homes they grew up in were immigrant homes. I recently saw a commercial aimed at reaching the mainstream American community. The commercial seemed as though it was produced by well-intentioned immigrant or first generation Muslims, as it was clear the producers did not have a deep understanding of this culture; the commercial depicted nice, smiling Muslims with foreign accents, little children with headscarves, and even some speaking in foreign languages. Unfortunately, such images actually engender fear in many of the very people the images are meant to reach. Such attempts at reaching alienated Americans should involve indigenous American Muslims and first generation immigrant Muslims in order to normalize the community as part of the tapestry of America. This is my personal opinion, and I am very aware of the different strategies that can be applied to this vexing problem. However, the Qur’an reminds us, “We only send messengers with the tongue of the people they are sent to, in order that they may present the message clearly” (14:4). Notice that the Qur’an uses the word “tongue” (lisan) here and not “language” (lughah); the tongue includes not only knowledge of the language but also its nuances, not to mention the accent that goes with that native tongue. Hence, we say, “English is my native tongue.”
For example, in my opinion, Adil Jubair, the Saudi ambassador, is a much better spokesperson for the Saudis than someone with a heavy accent. Having said that, on the other hand, Prince Turki bin Faisal, who was educated at Cambridge, has only a slight accent, but he was, in my opinion, as an educated, erudite royal, who breaks the stereotype of the ignorant desert Arab, even more effective. So I don’t think one should be axed as a spokesperson merely due to a slight accent. A case-by-case assessment is necessary. However, I think that very heavy accents are problematic. Nota bene: the Israelis almost always front people with perfect American accents as their spokespeople. Even the current ambassador, a Princeton historian who was raised in the U.S., has no hint of a foreign accent. When Americans hear such people, they hear themselves, as the accent is the same, and it is much easier for people to listen to one of their own than to a complete “other,” which is how people with foreign accents are usually viewed.
Alterity, for now, is no longer an alternative. Common ground must be built and done so quickly. The theme of the RIS this year is the Ten Commandments, a bridge-building topic, which provides Muslims with tools we can use to convey our message in a language that makes sense to people here in the West; interestingly, someone from – I wont identify which religion – in Toronto claiming to represent that religion wrote an op-ed criticizing our “co-opting” the tradition of “another” people. Certain groups don’t want people here to see Muslims as sharing commonalities with Jews and Christians. These groups want to maintain the foreign and negative perception of Islam and Muslims in order to successfully demonize us. Once that is accomplished, it is easy to bomb Muslims into obliteration with impunity. Note how unsuccessful the anti-war movement has been as of late. Who cares about a bunch of crazy Arabs and Afghans who’d kill themselves anyway if we didn’t do it? Just read Chris Hedges for a good analysis of how this has been done.
7. Empower our women as spokespeople. While I am personally committed to the injunctions of modest dress for men and women, I think we absolutely must get beyond the wedge issues in our community, such as who wears a headscarf and who doesn’t, and recognize that we are all in this together, and that people’s outward degrees of religiosity do not determine their loyalty to the faith in any substantial way. While the ideal is inward and outward congruity, nonetheless, we have people whose outward displays are of religiosity while their inward reality is hypocrisy; contrariwise, we have people who have no outward display of religiosity but are actually doing much more than the average Muslim to help Islam and the Muslims. It is important to get beyond judging people according to stereotypical expectations of what a good Muslim is or is not. I heard a wise person state, “The trappings can be a trap,” and I completely agree. We have brilliant, committed Muslim women who do not wear a headscarf and are extremely effective, and they should be centralized, not marginalized. These women can reach people much more effectively in many but certainly not all cases. Here again, a case-by-case assessment is important. The majority of American Muslim women do not wear a headscarf, and to always assume that only a woman in hijab should be chosen to represent Muslims is a misrepresentation of the diversity of our community.
8. Empower the African-American Muslim community. Many among the recent immigrant Muslim communities fail to recognize not only the historical significance of the African-American community but also that they are the local Ansar to the foreign Muhajirin. They are the people who paved the way for the immigrant Muslim community. Many of the people in the African-American Muslim community came out of the Civil Rights Movement. Warith Deen Muhammad is a good example of such a person. That powerful movement enabled immigrant Muslims to come to this country and find a far more accepting society. So we need to honor the African-American community and recognize their importance in transforming this country into a more pluralistic and tolerant place.
Unfortunately, racism does exist in our community. And while generally Muslims are not overtly racist, and most, like many in the dominant Euro-American community, would not even own up to having racist attitudes, nevertheless, subtle forms of racism rear their ugly heads in our centers. In addition to racism that is color-based, we have the added afflictions of ethnic, tribal, and national differences. Such diseases are addressed cogently and copiously by our Lord in the Qur’an and by our Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, in his sunnah. This is an old problem, but it needs to be acknowledged, addressed, and opposed in each generation until it is fully eradicated. A well-known principle among hadith critics is that any hadith, even one with a strong chain, that disparages blacks or Africans is deemed false. Jahiliyyah is hard to uproot, but I think we can do it here much more easily than in the traditional lands of the Muslims.
Dr. Sulayman Nyang once told me that in some ways it is a blessing in disguise that the black community in America does not know their ancestral affiliations. He said, “If they knew what tribes they were from, they would most likely be filled with the same tribal tensions here that we too often suffer from back home.” So even among communities that appear to be homogenous to outsiders, there are often great differences. For example, Punjabis, Baluchis, Pathans, and Muhajirs all come from Pakistan, but among some Pakistanis, these groups are not looked upon as equals, even if others lump them all in the category of Pakistanis, South Asians, or Orientals. The same is true for the Afghan people as well as Gulf Arabs, some of whom suffer from terrible tribal mentalities. Hence, this is a universal problem,
and American and Western countries in general, where the value of equality is regarded highly, are great places for us to address and overcome them.
9. Recognize the importance of the convert community. We should not want, much less expect, converts to become Arabized, South-Asianized, or whateverized into any other traditional Muslim culture. Western Muslims don’t need to walk around in robes and kifayas, falsely assuming that Islam requires them to do so or, more importantly, that those garments have anything to do with Islam other than their modest quality and their affiliation with one traditional Muslim culture. Islam does not require us to abandon our own culture for an alien culture in order to be Muslim. That is unacceptable cultural hegemony. And we should not want that type of mentality to be promoted. Only the negative qualities of a culture must be rejected.
“Islam in America” is its own entity, and it has to emerge as an indigenous cultural phenomenon rooted in the religion’s permanent spiritual and ethical realities that are not subject to change, irrespective of time or place. But, dressing like an “Arab” (whatever that means, given there are so many Arab cultures) is not one of the unchangable qualities of Islam but rather a phenomenon of culture that is specific to time and place. Dr. Umar Abdallah’s paper Islam and the Cultural Imperative is an excellent and much needed antidote to the idea of a monolithic and essentialized cultural Islam, i.e. Arab, South-Asian, Malaysian, Turkish, etc.
Having said that, we recognize that Islam will always have a traditional Arab aroma as a spice rather than the meal. In honor of the Arabic Qur’an and our Arabian Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, Arabic will always be the language of the Muslims; we will always prefer to break our fast with dates during Ramadan; and, I can attest, as a world-traveler, that no other people have the unique generosity of the traditional Arabs unless they have adopted Islam and are emulating that Arabic quality so beautifully and perfectly embodied in our Arabian Prophet, God bless and grant him peace. Arab generosity is legendary, and other peoples can learn much from it. Love of the Arabs is part of our faith, and hatred of them is from hypocrisy, as the Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, said. However, wearing checkered kifayas is simply not a sunnah and is not necessary for one to be considered a “brother.” Even the modern Arab robe is originally from Persia. At the time of the Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, Arabs dressed more like traditional Bangladeshis do today. That is, they wore lungis and long shirts.
The Companions of the Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, were almost all converts, and not all of them were Arab. Salman was Aryan (now called Iranian), Bilal was black, and Suhaib was an Arab raised among the Byzantines. Our Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, also dressed in a variety of styles; he wore Ethiopian shirts, Yemeni cloaks, Arabian lungis, and Byzantine garments. The Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, was already practicing global culture in the seventh century, knowing that his religion would be embraced by many cultures, just as he predicted. Converts are a great source of renewal and strengthen Islam, but if they are expected to adopt a single alien culture, it limits the appeal of Islam to the exotic and adventurous among us.
I am also opposed to the idea that converts must change their names. I know many converts who were made to feel it was compulsory for them to take on a new name. The Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, only changed names if they had a negative meaning. Bob doesn’t have to become Baba, and Lily doesn’t have to become Layla – unless they want to. Fathers have a right to name their children. Many converts’ parents are pained when their children reject the names they gave them, and Islam requires us to honor our parents, and this includes those who practice other faiths. Perhaps I am belaboring the point, but this is a very real problem that is only increasing.
My next post will be a reflection on the Wikileaks. Thank you.