The Test of the American Muslim

TheTestOfTheAmericanMuslimDear Daughter,

I have something I want to share with you, which I have never explained to you before.  When I was a young man, I made a decision that would change the course of my life and ultimately yours as well.  The skeleton in the closet of our lives is that as a wide-eyed, peach-fuzz lipped, knuckleheaded, eighteen-year-old, in the middle of one brisk March night, I said the following words that would change who I was forever: “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his last prophet.”

It was long before the frenzied age of rampant Islamophobia and nearly a decade before hijacked airplanes would slice into our hearts, like rusty blades that leave wounded tissue gangrenous with infection, claiming thousands of American lives along with our innocence, in a cacophony of death.  There was no Muslim “Kaiser Soze” (boogeyman) yet; Bin Laden was not in the public conscious and most people in our nation associated Islam with the eloquence and dignity of Muhammad Ali, and not the straggly bearded, turban clad foreign accents that terrorized us from faraway lands.

My two friends, the lanky and tall Abbas and the pudgy faced Osama, shouted “Allahu Akbar!” in unison to affirm the pledge I spoke that night that made me a Muslim, and the sound of their cry ricocheted through the air like a lost memory echoing in the back of my skull, for I too was a victim, spoon-fed imagery of explosive Middle Eastern tropes.  The hidden truth is that in the eyes of America, my brown skin and my unique heritage already categorized me as “other” in the eyes of xenophobic America.   America was already Islamophobic, it just hadn’t learned the vocabulary yet.  I grew up through the hostage crisis, embassy bombings, plane hijackings, and the Gulf War; I’d been the victim of school yard bullying and the default Iranian, Arab, Libyan, and Iraqi in all those instances, and ostensibly a Muslim, because of my brown skin.  The same lovely hued skin you have.

America had already considered me “the other” in many ways, long before I became one, and back then I always had a cowardly way to retreat from the otherness they asserted upon me.  I could say with conviction that I wasn’t Muslim or an Arab, or anything else other than what I was.  Or take it a step further, become strategic and grow to hate and then bully the Muslims around me. The venom inside me had burgeoned into racial and ethnic slurs that I found myself using under my breath, and eventually I’m loathe to admit, at the top of my lungs in order to distance myself from those who had distanced me from my identity as an American.

I became the bully that I despised by targeted the false-identity they ascribed to me, in others and challenging their othering with self-hate.  In that clouded time, Chuck D and Lord Jamar cut through my mental fog and spoke directly to me through cassette tapes stuffed in Walkman’s while the Poor Righteous Teachers taught me like no other teacher had in school and collectively, these Hip-Hop artists introduced me to a man named Malcolm X.  It was ultimately Malcolm who began the process of healing me, and by the time I met your uncle Abbas as an eighteen-year-old college kid, I was enamored with the discipline in the faith of Islam.

Abbas, now a successful surgeon, was the first practicing Muslim I had ever met, and in him, I saw a Muslim who was emblematic of what Islam taught, as manifest in the example set by Malcolm; in our friendship, I discovered the essence of Islam, is love. This was a far outcry from the Muslims I had met through Hollywood, showcased in the media, or those whom I’d previously interacted with. Our brotherhood helped introduce me to Islam, but my decision to become Muslim was a choice to become what the world already thought I was—it was ultimately a resolution to embrace my otherness.

From that day to this one, I have survived by living in the hyphen; as a Muslim-American, in a nation that devolved rapidly from President Bush making a distinction between American Muslims and those who committed the atrocities on 9/11, to a president calling for a Muslim registry and travel ban. The otherness I’d embraced in my youth now encircles me like the serpentine wrappings of the pariah I’ve become—but one I would have been regardless of my choice to become a Muslim or not. The Qur’an foresaw the test we’d face as Muslims in America when in Chapter 29, it states, “Do people think that they will be left alone on saying, ‘We believe,’ and that they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and God will certainly know those who are true from those who are false.”

The great secret that I have kept from you is that I didn’t choose this life for you—but that it was chosen for us, by the ignoramuses that have equated brownness with otherness and have hung hyphens around all of our necks.  The fact is whether you choose Islam or not, you will be inextricably related to it, and you can deny it at every turn, join the bullies, or choose to follow this path and thereby control the hyphen.  This is the test.

Whether you choose to wear a scarf on your head or not, you will be a default ambassador for Islam.  You will be forced to explain it and its practices at every turn and stupid people will question your nationality because of it; they will question your loyalty and they will typecast you into the role of other, so they can define themselves as civilized citizens while they demonize you. This is your test.

What may seem like a vice grip akin to a being trapped between a rock, or in this case Iraq, and a hard place, is truly a special place to be, because like the Quranic promise of a test of faith, there is a test of what it means to be American too.  Ostensibly America is just a promise.  It is a dream deferred until it is tested and realized for those collecting on its promissory notes.  For example, it takes a person like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to test the promise of the freedom of expression by sitting during the national anthem, just as it takes a conscientious objector like the late Muhammad Ali to test freedom of religion.  It will take someone like you embracing the otherness they cursed you with in order to litmus test the promise of America for yourself, by walking this path, donning a scarf, and ultimately living in the hyphen, until America accepts you for what you are and who you choose to be.  This is America’s test, not yours.

Love,

Dad

Stop Using Islamophobia

Islamophobia12

Why not Islamophobia?

The original definition of this term, coined in the 1970’s was not one that invoked the notions of uncontrollable fear, but one that spoke to systems of oppression; however, over time a lay definition has taken over, one which absolves agents of hate, arguing that they too are victims–victims of a uncontrollable phobia.  Sadly, this not only does a disservice to those oppressed by these agents but the fight against this type of hate because it absolves the system of its culpability.

Therefore Islamophobia no longer helps to describe a system that actively “racializes” all those that it associates with Islam (not necessarily by declaration of faith, but by physical cues like brownness, facial hair, or head covering) into a monolith to be exploited, oppressed and to limit civil rights, for the excuse of safety.

Islamoracism is therefore, a more accurate term of this type of systemic hate.  I encourage my fellow educators, and diversity practitioners to switch the nomenclature, as a coalition of Muslims and Sikhs that I am a part of have.

To help, a group of brown M.C’s of various faiths and non-faiths created this piece:

Islam and America

islam-and-america

Islam and America by Professor A.L.I.

When you silence me, you ignite the Bill of Rights,

When you stop me from practicing my faith,

You set the document aflame.

 

When you ban me, you shred the legends,

That this nation was once a haven,

For refugees of religion.

 

The ink of the pen of Jefferson,

Was enthused with his reading of my Holy Book,

As he framed the documents you prize.

 

The blood of Muslims deprived;

Chained souls in cargo holds,

Are tethered to this nation’s success.

 

Moorish treaties made this a country,

Through formal recognition,

Yet now their children are enslaved in prisons.

 

Ask the carcass of Hi Joly,

Or the remnants of Alexander Russell Webb,

Reminders of the American Islamic web.

 

Two sides, polarized, engage in civil warfare,

Like the 292 Muslims who fought,

In the Civil War, so we could be here.

 

Sadly, their names forgotten,

Like the Union porter Max Hassan,

Or Moses Osman, a ranking Captain.

 

A century old Muslim cemetery,

Look to Biddeford Maine,

Where the tombstones face Mecca.

 

The oldest mosque is rooted in Cedar Rapids,

Targets for bigotry, graffiti and fires,

Equal parts peace and tragic.

 

You honored Malcolm with a stamp,

But the stamp you gave on my passport,

Is a promise you’ve broken.

 

You shed tears for Muhammad Ali,

Yet you deny me,

For having the same beliefs.

 

No matter how you reclassify me,

I remain an American,

Who wishes you only PEACE.