Prior to the tragic events of 9/11, with a few exceptions, a common concern among Muslim mosque-goers in the US was the question of whether or not it was lawful to live in America. For many, the questions of whether or not it was permissible to call oneself ‘American’ and/or participate in elections and run for office were viewed as treasonous to the Islamic teachings. Two views were common. One contingent felt that since America was not a Muslim country and its military was actively involved in incursions into the Muslim world, these facts made being Muslim and American two irreconcilable issues. The second contingent felt that since blacks were not included in the “We” of “We the People” or the “men” of “All men are created equal” when America first formed, in addition to historical social alienation suffered at the hands of whites and the American government, there was no way to reconcile Muslimness with American identity. The former rationalization was popular among recent immigrants to America, while the latter view was popular among black-American converts.
Despite what many Muslim Americans felt about the matter, Imam W.D. Muhammad — Allah show him mercy — courageously rejected and fought against this understanding which fundamentally placed black Americans and others at odds with their homeland, and he demanded that American Muslims claim their birthright to an ‘authentic’ American identity. At the time, most mosquegoers maligned him as a “government agent” who was working to undermine Islam from within (Allah forgive us). Once 9/11 happened though, Muslims started singing a different tune altogether, and until this very day, I, personally, have witnessed neither a broad acknowledgement of the Imam’s wisdom and leadership on this matter nor any apology for insulting him and his community with such unsubstantiated allegations.
Since then, Muslims have taken on efforts of “indigenization” i.e. the process of gaining for Islam and Muslims a permanent home and story in America. Indigenization doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone though. For some Muslims, indigenization is just another word for cultural assimilation into mainstream values. Some feel that it is merely about yielding to the fact that America is our homeland, and working to secure acceptance from the dominant culture. For others it means appropriating the ‘American’ designation (but not its foreign policy) and making the work of Islam in America their priority. However, for some it also means celebrating America’s cultural uniqueness and popular trends, like jazz, hip hop, etc. Then, there are those who hold that indigenization is an amalgamation of all, most, or some of each of these ideas.
What is clear is that as long as there is no agreement on what indigenization looks like in the end, we will continue to clash as a community on various levels.Does being an American require of me to aid in the fight for gay marriage rights and compromise on other moral issues? Should Muslim women be removing their head covering and exposing more skin? “Must” I become involved in the political process or am I still at liberty to abstain? Does my “Americanness” demand that I judge the actions and views of Muslims on the basis of post-modernist standards? Does it mean that I insist that the boards of mosques and other organizations not be legitimized until there are female members? Should I refuse to deliver speeches at mosques where physical barriers (purda) exist between Muslim men and women?
No group of people needs to be more cognizant of their “cultural” Americanness than American converts. This is because there is the tendency among many of us to approach the indigenization process with historical European imperial fervor—that fervor which places us in the role of rescuer of women and other presumed inferior peoples. The US is a very large country with hundreds of millions of people. There exists much cultural diversity, and we cannot expect that Islam in America will look the same everywhere we go. Some Muslim women, for example, prefer to have barriers in the mosque. American converts, in general, and those who are “white” and “black” in particular need to be more introspective in their efforts to “own” Islam in similar ways that our recent immigrant brethren have. Our introspection must start with an acknowledgement that both black and white Muslims perceive of themselves as the only “authentic” Americans. The reality is that others acknowledge this as well explicitly or implicitly. With perceptions as they are, we run the risk of alienation where there could be more solidarity and solidification.
This fact is important for more recent immigrants to the US from Muslim countries to understand, especially since the tendency is to attempt to seek integration into dominant “white” culture. It is a gross misapprehension to think that one has only two possible choices for cultural integration i.e. to become white or black. Rather, if people were to study America’s history a bit more closely, one would see that there is a viable third option, which is the creation of alternative American identities which are totally authentic in themselves. There are a number of groups with a long history on the American soil who have been authenticated over time or are at least able to argue for authenticity without being required to appropriate either white Anglo-Saxon or black American culture. Among those groups are the Chinese, Irish, Italians, and Jews.
The Irish and Italians, even though identified as white today, have succeeded against pressure to become Protestants. The Jews, likewise, have been able to successfully maintain their religio-cultural distinctness. The same can be said of the Chinese; even though their general apprehension as foreigners persists, they are perceived as foreigners of a type who are confident and comfortable in the place they have carved out for themselves in America. Their ability to mobilize economically and politically is what made all of this possible.
In the end, what is most important is that two basic things need to happen for Muslims seeking integration and authentic Americanness i.e. indigenization: 1) they must abandon attempts to foster cultural uniformity; and 2) they need to realize that American authenticity does not depend on acceptance or approval of whites or blacks.