Beyond Politics: The Muslim American identity

“Don’t judge Islam by the actions of a few. For Islam is perfect while Muslims are not.”

What this advice fails to address is that people generally don’t care what you believe, only how you behave.

Armed with this insight, American Muslims are shifting from expending precious time and resources in an effort to educate the public about the tenets of Islam to spotlighting the inspiring contributions Muslims are making to society, including combating hate and extremism. It’s a difficult mission given that there are countless right wing think tanks and misinformation experts who wantonly peddle hate and fear against Muslims and Islam.

BuzzFeed news reporter Sara Yasin pushed back against this idea that Muslims must go out of their way to prove their humanity in an essay titled, “Muslims Shouldn’t Have to Be ‘Good’ To Be Granted Human Rights.”

“It’s a silly notion to make a judgment call about almost 2 billion people at once, and even stranger to decide that a group’s collective “goodness” is somehow a valid prerequisite for recognizing their basic rights,” she writes.

What ends up getting lost in all these futile attempts at public relations is our very conception of individual rights. No one has the right to use my contribution, or lack thereof, to my faith community and to society at large as a measuring stick of my humanity. Rights are a legal term with an objective definition which does not depend on any one person or even an entire society’s subjective appraisals.

Unfortunately Muslim Americans do not have the luxury of relying exclusively on the law anymore. That is the real tragedy to be mourned here–we are compelled by circumstances beyond our control to enter into the exhausting game of identity politics. Like it or not, if you are a Muslim in America, you represent Islam. Whether you are observant or not, whether you chose the faith or inherited it, whether you are proud or ashamed, you must now carry the burden because you are being made to carry the blame.

Social Activism and the New American Muslim Identity

As Muslims in America call out hate and extremism, social justice has become their rallying cry. It is an effective banner for two main reasons. First, social justice is a universally understood and appreciated concept and is so obviously consistent with Islamic principles that no one, Muslim or non-Muslim, can disapprove or take exception to it. Second, the left-wing, the party that has a history of championing social justice causes, has opened its arms to the Muslim community in ways that make us want to burn our bras and cling to our headscarves.

However, in this scramble to demonstrate our humanity to fellow Americans, we are experiencing an identity crisis. Rather than forming our identity by deliberation and guidance with God at the helm, politics has forced us to press the fast forward button on this otherwise decades long process. So we find ourselves clambering to define our community positively in the public eye, with God as a hurried footnote in this essay of identity.

It seems Muslim Americans are in the throes of a collective nervous breakdown. In trying to skip the growing pains of slowly, steadily defining ourselves as a community, we’ve become a bundle of contradictions. We champion gay rights while still engaging in out of context debates about whether veiling and gender segregation is mandatory. We talk about hijab as a symbol of piety and privatization of sexuality while simultaneously celebrating the latest hijabi runway shows and makeup tutorials.

The clash between the visions of traditional Islamic scholars and the social activism inspired by the more liberal views on the left likely illustrates a lack of cohesion and rationality in the Muslim community. That however is not the worst case scenario. At worst, this rift reinforces the paranoia of those who believe that American Muslims are imposters.

There is a narrative circulating among certain hate groups that Muslim Americans are stealth advocates of extremism who are disguising their true motives behind a liberal agenda. They believe that we are using the liberal establishment as a ploy to gain trust and power. However unhinged these speculations might sound, they can inject doubts in otherwise rational people.

After all, a person who embraces a contradictory set of values is difficult to read. The hijabi with a tongue ring and skin tight clothes. The stay-at-home dad who celebrates his wife’s career, but does not utter a word of protest when she has to enter through a side door at her local mosque. The hijabi woman who champions Planned Parenthood on the podium but holds no demonstrations against gender segregation in her own mosque.

To an outsider looking in, this does not appear to be a way of life, but a strategy built on a religious division of labor—a strategy where Muslims spread Islamic culture by adopting certain features of the dominant culture with the intent to mainstream Islam and then suppress the popular culture by gradual degrees. The reality, of course, is far less sinister. The reality is, we are having a collective identity crisis.

And why shouldn’t we? Doesn’t every community have the right to a safe space to negotiate its priorities before they fortify them with institutions?

Islamic jurisprudence is a process that relies on traditional scholars interpreting and reinterpreting our non-negotiable principles within the rapidly changing social context of our times. Unfortunately, we have no such institutionalized process in place and what passes as scholarship is really nothing more than opinion leaders chiming in at random moments with ambiguous pronouncements denouncing extremism or championing women’s rights.

And do we even have the time to negotiate our priorities? The majority of Muslim Americans would answer, “No, we do not.”

Of course where the American Muslim community eventually rests after this crisis is over will depend on which philosophical approach to religious jurisprudence, imitative (taqlid) or progressive (Ijtihad), is formally memorialized in the form of our domestic institutions. But this is a process and not the event that we need it to be.

I think it’s worth highlighting the words of a favorite celebrity scholar, Hamza Yusuf, here.

“When we consider our response to the onslaught of anti-Islamic sentiments we face in the current climate, we ought not to align ourselves totally with either the Left or the Right. One can be ‘progressive’ on one issue and ‘conservative’ on another. Let’s not become a religion of Democrats or of Republicans by politicizing our religion or slanting it to the Left or to the Right. Let us be morally committed to reasonable and just positions.”

These sentiments were expressed back in 2010. It is now 2017.

No matter how politically correct Muslims are, trying to appease the critics on all sides has had no meaningful impact on reality except to dilute our perception of it. Until and unless we develop a real revisionist body of religious rules that restores the flexible character of Islamic law and is consistent with the principles we champion in public, but have yet to incorporate within own communal spaces, I fear we will not get very far in changing public opinion about Islam.

Muslim Americans should formally develop religious councils to review issues within our current social context and deliver cohesive opinions. After all, to be in a position of leadership means you have to actually take a position. It’s time to make up our minds even if our hearts are all over the place.


Inas Younis is a freelance journalist and commentator.


Photo Credit: Ted Eytan

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