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

Islam and America

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Touchdown For Freedom

Colin Kaepernick

A Touchdown for Freedom by Professor A.L.I.

Colin Kaepernick is trending, and the die-hard ‘9er’s fan in me is excited hoping the news is good, that he’s healthy for the next preseason game.  I’ve supported the team through our great successes and triumphs throughout the ‘80’s and 90’s, only to watch us claw back to relevancy, and then have that fall away.  I’m a Colin Kaepernick fan as a result, and my hope was this year would be different than what the pundits had predicted, if only to piss off all the Oakland Raider fans who have been needling me throughout the summer.  However, as I tuned it to the trending timeline, it became clear that Kaepernick was trending for reasons even more relevant to me as a person, and furthermore as a person of color in America and so I watched closely like a fan rooting for the home team during the Super Bowl.

I watched Colin sit for the anthem now, just as I had watched Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf sit as a young Muslim kid who’d saved up money to have a custom poster of Abdul-Rauf made, which showed him supplicating as opposed to standing for the national anthem.  This was a picture that I hung proudly on my dorm room wall and even when his career shifted because of his religious-political stand it stayed there to remind me of the sacrifices a person needs to make for their convictions.

When Mahmoud came to speak at UC Berkeley’s Muslim Unity Conference, it was shortly after the height of the controversy and the lecture halls were rightfully packed with eager American Muslims who had felt the same way, disenfranchised by the American promise because of one’s Blackness or Islam; so the flag didn’t hold the same weight for us because in our minds its symbology was besieged by police brutality, an injustice system, and policies that privileged some over others.  Mahmoud stood up for us by sitting down and he sacrificed his career to do so.

People have forgotten how good Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was.  He was the prototype for Steph Curry, and he made an impact on the game in an era where the rules did not favor that style of play.  He never missed a free throw and had one of the silkiest shots in the game.  People forget that when he was still known as Chris Jackson at LSU, a teammate of Shaquille O’Neal, that it was Chris that people came to see. I still remember his 50 point explosions and battles with Larry Johnson.  Most people don’t remember any of that, in fact he has become obsolete, made so by standing up for his beliefs.  He might have been on my poster, but he was made a poster-child for un-sportsman like qualities.

From not standing up for the anthem to fasting in Ramadan, he was painted to be selfish.  Sam Perkins, a Jehovah’s Witness never stood for the anthem but he was never outed by the media nor was he made an example in the same way.  Hakeem Olajuwon fasted in Ramadan, but when he did it no one made it an issue.  When Mahmoud covered up the logos on his shoes, instead of being praised, he was ostracized.  And the scrutiny took its toll and deprived many a basketball fan of watching a truly uniquely gifted talent from evolving into one of the game’s greats.

Mahmoud Abdur Rauf FlagThis was twenty years ago, and the injustice done to Mahmoud for standing up for his faith still bothers me, because it remains an injustice that is so incongruent with what the flag stands for that those who stole his right not to stand actually disrespected the principles of the flag more than he ever could by not standing.  Freedom is a concept that must be lived through experience, not pseudo-honored through conformity and denigrated by the complacency of those who don’t truly know what that concept means.  The flag waves for freedom.  The freedom to stand or sit.  The freedom of faith and the freedom to express it.  What happened to Mahmoud was senseless then and remains so now, and to call for the same to happen to Colin Kaepernick only showcases how much we have regressed in two decades.

In twenty years the issues of injustice remain and I’d argue along with those who would say that things have gotten worse.  Thanks to social media and devices that capture everyone’s single story, we have become hyper connected to the narratives of oppression that exist in this country.  Police brutality is no longer a myth that privileged groups can choose to ignore.  It is real and the movement to create accountability and shift policing is one that has been born of the work done by all those who have brought attention to this issue.

Colin Kaepernick scored a touched down for Black Lives, for the injustices done towards people of color and he made the nation pause and cheer and jeer for him, just as if this was in the Super Bowl.  His growing friendship with our mutual friend and my brother and colleague Dr. Ameer “Left” Hassan of @LeftSentThis, a true educator who uses social media to teach as effectively as he does in the classroom, is a testament to his growth as a human being and his victory in the eyes of the people.

I write this as an American who understands deeply that a fundamental quality of being an American is to recognize the freedoms an individual has, and this includes the freedom to burn a flag, let alone remain sitting when the national anthem is played.  Those that doubt the patriotism of Colin Kaepernick or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, should consider Jackie Robinson’s stand for the same right, and check their love of figures like Muhammad Ali at the door.  They should question what they are patriotic of, a flag that stands for nothing, or a flag that stands for freedom.  If it is the latter, they too should sit with Colin, but if it’s the former, I guess they should vote for Trump, because after all, his promise of an America devoid of any difference, any choice or freedom of faith, is precisely the flag they seem to be saluting after all.

 

Terror In Orlando: Ali Bomaye!

TerrorOrlando

Terror in Orlando: Ali Bomaye!

I was prepared to continue mourning the loss of Muhammad Ali in private, with my family and local community, and then this morning I awoke to the the horror in Orlando, and I just wanted to scream.

I am a Muslim.  I am a Muslim in large part due to Muhammad Ali, who was a childhood hero of mine, long before I knew anything about the faith.  He remained a hero into young adulthood and into this present day, because he represented many of the things I also rep for, such as Islam, blackness, social justice, humanity and love.  He took two holy names and made them a part of global lexicon, so much so that people throughout the world scream Muhammad and Ali in unison, just as they had once had in Ghadeer Khum in the middle of the desert for only the faithful and historians to hear.

Muhammad Ali represented many things.  Those who outcry the participation of many at his funeral, who they feel are incongruent with the politics of Muhammad Ali, have themselves “flattened” Muhammad Ali to a sliver of his robust and intricate persona.  He was many things and his funeral was attended by many people, and his Islam was a global Islam, evolving beyond the backwards fatawa (plural of fatwa) of Saudi clerics who label anything new an innovation and associate it with shirk (polytheism), in order to destroy it, so that they can further manipulate and control the faith.  Muhammad Ali also represented Islam, better than anyone without the surname Shabazz in the West and like Malcolm X, who was his mentor, Muhammad Ali continued to evolve and grow, becoming a better human being day by day.  This is what I know of Islam and why I became a Muslim, and this is why I hate what happened in Orlando and mourn it doubly.

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What happened in Orlando is sick and it has no faith, let alone Islam.  If you think it has something to do with Islam, then check your own timeline for posts about Muhammad Ali and have fun trying to reconcile those two very disparate things.  Muhammad Ali represented Islam, what Orlando represents is faithlessness.  Today the community in Orlando is mourning, and I mourn with them.  The LQBTQIQ community is reeling, and I too reel.  Gun owners feel they are being homogenized with terror and I too feel the same.  Yet there is a sliver of hope and it is named Muhammad Ali, for even in death his memory destroys the argument that this is Islam—it knocks out bigoted polemics and stands victorious, so that we all can chant “Ali Bomaye!” while facing terror with the poise of this unique and singularly powerful soul.

Muhammad Ali walked away at his prime, because he did not want to kill.  His stance, which cost him dearly, represents Islam greater than any singular bomb blast or mentally unstable individual with an Islamic name.  No one has ever done that in my memory.  Imagine Lebron James  Steph Curry stepping away from the sport of basketball, or Joe Cool walking away from the field in the late 80’s because he did not agree with the Gulf War.  My Bay Area pride aside, no one has ever come close.  Mahmoud Abdur-Rauf, whom I had the opportunity to meet in 1996 at a Muslim Unity Conference, came the closest in my opinion, but even he never walked away from sport for his beliefs—and as ill as he was with the rock back then (check tape if you are Steph Curry fan), he was never the G.O.A.T.

I never got to meet Muhammad Ali and it will remain an unrequited item on the bucket list.  I was lucky to go to Louisville last year and visit his museum, walk through a street named after him and imagine as a squinted the segregation of the city in which he was bred.  Last year as I visited his city, I was mourning Paris, events in Nigeria, Syria, and Yemen.  This year I add Orlando to the list—as we as a human population try to heal, while we are baited into a never-ending conflict of us versus them.  Like Ali versus Frazier, one side versus the other, where victory can only come when bodies hit the floor—and yet, if we understood Ali, we would know what Ali versus Frazier truly was.  Frazier supported Ali as he took his moral stand and walked away from boxing, financially and stood by his side—these weren’t enemies caught in a never ending cycle, but two human beings who stood beyond the sport of boxing and became friends.  This is the Islam that Muhammad Ali represented and this is the Islam I know.

17822_837194406315646_7409196219918621380_nSo I ask you, if you have been reading this to invoke Muhammad Ali in your mind.  Let him fill your consciousness and allow his memory to knock out the media fabricated mythology of the Islamic terrorist.  Islam is about justice, peace and the evolution of the human being to become a better human being; that is why you love Muhammad Ali and why in that love we have to have to battle bigotry and hatred as he once did, in order to rise.  It is why we have to build bridges and not walls, to paraphrase Billie Crystal, and why we have to stand for justice, instead of giving into the easy path of hatred and indiscriminate blame.  Let us mourn those who we have lost and let us stop this cycle of hatred, by reminding those who would terrorize us that we will no longer give into their greatest strength, which is bullying us into conflating our hatred of them with a billion innocent Muslims—because these Muslims are represented by Muhammad Ali and nobody can’t beat the GOAT.

***

Professor A.L.I. is a spoken word and Hip-Hop artist and educator; in his piece “The Pen” he immortalizes Muhammad Ali with these words, “or channel Sonny Liston with devil intuition and fight Muhammad, then, pen becomes a prison.”

Professor A.L.I. has also written the book “A Muslim Trapped In Donald Trump’s America”, which speaks to the issues outlined above.

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