City of Brass

City of Brass

Muslim Americans: the Next Generation

This is a guest post by Willow G. Wilson.

I wonder if there might be an inherent flaw in the trajectory of American Islam/American Muslims as it is envisioned by young muslim leaders and political activists. The airtight integration of ‘foreign’ religious ideology into American culture has never been done before… in every previous case (Catholics, Jews, minority Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, etc, each one of which had similar, serious issues with assimilation) religion took a back seat so that greater cultural integration could occur. Catholics became moderately Catholic, Jews became moderately Jewish, minority Protestants vanished from all but the smallest and weirdest of southern towns, ad nauseum. Today, religious minorities who strive for the kind of orthodoxy most of us practice are considered fringe elements. (Hassids spring to mind.) Everybody else has pretty much abandoned the application of ritual law on a daily basis and become high holiday-only. That was the solution.


Ironically I think Muslims are at a disadvantage because Islamic law is comparatively easy to practice and apply in isolation. The result is a community with a sustainable level of conservatism (ie, it’s not like orthodox Jewish or Catholic doctrine, which are almost impossible to keep up en toto outside a Jewish or a Catholic community with established kashrut/regular access to communion etc). Other communities were forced to give up a great deal of religious life simply because the bells-n-smells necessary to sustain it weren’t there. Muslims in America haven’t been forced to make compromises. So any compromises they do make come with an almost hilarious level of groaning and moaning, like they are doing everyone a ginormous favor by budging an inch.


Thus, American Muslims/Muslims in America have never gotten to the point where chucking shari’a becomes a matter of social and emotional survival. That is going to make conventional integration very difficult. I think it’s important to remember that for a lot of Muslims America was a destination of last resort, not a dream. The desi community is singularly blessed in that the majority came here for professional development… not as economic or political refugees. The Arab community by and large is not like that, the African community certainly isn’t like that, nor the Cham community… for a lot of these people, being in America is like having to beg for money from the kid who stole your bike. They are not going to give up anything more than they have to.


I think before the kinds of conversations the new, native generation of muslim Americans want to have about the greater good and public interest can take place, Muslims in the US need a reason to cohere besides despair. They need some kind of incentive that is not propaganda (“Be a part of the greatest nation on earth!” Or as South Park calls it, “America: F$%kYeah!”) It is vitally important that more educated, integrated segments of the Muslim population (us) figure out what that might be, otherwise we look like a bunch of posers.

Also important to keep in mind is that there is that the more integrated, educated segments of the Muslim population are guilty of a certain amount of ethical hypocrisy as well–most notably, we consume that which we are unwilling to produce. I’m talking here about mass culture (political culture, pop culture, etc). I run into this dilemma ALL the time as an artist. We’ll go to the movies full of extramarital relationships, we’ll watch the TV shows full of cursing and drinking, we’ll read the books underpinned by an emphatically Christian worldview (lord of the rings, anyone?), but are we willing to produce these things ourselves? This is what the public consumes, love it or hate it. We can pretend to be above it (“Hey Mohammad, did you see the new James Bond movie? The new Bond girl is so hot, istaghfirullah”) because we don’t *produce* it, but we still consume it. With relish. More isolationist AmeroMuslim communities neither consume mass culture nor produce it, so at least there’s a kind of moral symmetry. The moral asymmetry of our culture consumption is very obvious to them, and it makes them suspicious. I’ve had LOTS of conversations about this in my local community because I do produce mass culture in addition to consuming it. There are scantily clad cursing fornicators in some of my comics…not because I necessarily endorse the behavior, but because it’s how real people really act in the really real world. As a writer I have to acknowledge that with some level of humor and honesty. Is it right? I have no idea. Possibly not. The point is, mass culture is difficult to avoid and integral to integration, so if you consume it even when it runs in opposition to Islamic principle, it’s a good idea to have a working explanation ready for people who think the whole thing is a bad idea. Simply asking why people don’t get it and why they don’t like art isn’t enough.


UPDATE – Haroon Moghul has some thoughts in response.

Willow is the author of the graphic novel Cairo and the award-winning series Air: Letters from Lost Countries . Her upcoming memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, will be published by Grove Press next spring. Also, see her earlier comments about the difference between American and Egyptian Islam.

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posted November 25, 2009 at 10:33 am

I really know what you mean about Muslim’s that have some suspicions about other Muslim’s who consume popular culture. I don’t blame them either; popular culture is pretty dumbed down, especially television.

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posted November 25, 2009 at 3:41 pm

It’s too bad that the U.S. is filled with history ignoramuses when it comes to Islam, else they’d know how ever since its rise in the 7th cent. it has been the most intolerant religion the world has ever seen, the only one that requires its faithful to commit holy murder. After 1300 years of fighting its expansion tooth and nail, the West finally caused the Ottoman Empire and the caliphate to go kaput after WWI, and falsely believed that Islam was kaput also, only to begin finding out that the Quran isn’t written in disappearing ink and its commands to true believers to spread the territory ruled by Sharia by force and kill all who resist don’t have a time limit. Instead of working to end Islam and ban the Quran, Western govts. had a misguided policy of permitting mass Muslim immigration, Qurans and all, resulting in Maj. Nidal Hasan, and doubtless many more to follow.
It’s time to revisit the 7th cent. and learn the “fundamentalist” Muslim mindset to arm your mind. Try studying online free with the Historyscoper, the most concentrated and quick course available by clicking the url.

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posted November 25, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Willow –
You make some good points, but I had a hard time following your logical progression. Are you saying that the optimal route for Muslim integration would have been to largely set aside religious doctrine like the Catholics, etc.? Also, I’m not sure what you mean by “Muslims in the US need a reason to cohere besides despair.”

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posted November 25, 2009 at 8:20 pm

probably the distinction was not made so as not to limit the post to religion nerds, but i do think the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy is informative here. aside from evangelical christians most americans don’t particularly care what muslims believe, rather, they deal with muslims do. that is, the practice entailed by their beliefs.
this was the problem with judaism and its transfer to europe. many european jews arrived in the US from secular backgrounds, but they lived in a predominantly jewish environment in europe, which made religious practice relatively easy if they chose to engage in it. not so in the USA. so reform and conservative judaism arose as ways to remain religiously jewish without having to be totally constrained by halakah. though orthodox jews do not accept that reform judaism is religiously jewish, reform jews argue that orthodox judaism was simply the evolutionary endpoint of jewish religion in the ghetto constrained by christian and muslim majority societies, not the authentic expression of jewish religious devotion.
as for catholics, their issues in the US had less to do with specifics of catholic doctrine and more to do with the fact that the catholic church was hostile to democratic liberalism for much of the 19th and early 20th century. and, the catholic church objected to the de facto protestantism of the united states (e.g., making catholic children read from protestant bibles in public schools). in european countries where catholicism was not supported by the gov. the church had often established compromises which allowed it to organize and mobilize catholic minorities as if they were a society within a society. american elites would not sanction this for a variety of reasons (the lack of explicit federal relationships between state and religion was an obvious problem, but so was the self-conscious protestantism of the ruling class). american catholic deviation from church doctrine can be traced back to the period after vatican II in the 1960s, which was one generation after their “assimilation” into the american mainstream symbolized by the election of john f kennedy (helped by the de facto capitulation on the issue of democratic liberalism formalized at vatican II).
because muslims are a relative small minority (1/10th he numbers of catholics) whose conventional religious expression takes on a legalistic frame, i think an analogy with jews is probably better. one of the major differences between jews and muslims though is that jews arrived at a time when america society was much more explicitly christian, and to a great extent protestant, in its self-conceptualization. the flourishing hassidic communities of jews are more a function of the post-world war II era, after the nazis had destroyed all the communities in europe and the religious leaders had to flee to america (“modern orthodoxy” has a position between the hassids and reform & conservative, but from what i can tell tends to be drawn to the conservative or hassidic & haredi position over time). today american society is explicitly accepting of religious pluralism and accommodating of diversity of belief and practice, so muslims have leeway which jews never did (consider that jew quotas were enforced in the ivy leagues when jews started assimilating, while most american muslims are eligible for affirmative action because they are racial minorities).
as for the relationship to pop culture, conservative protestants and traditionalist catholics have to face the same problem. my personal opinion is that most, but not all, cultural production by conservative christians which is *explicitly* christian is kind of crappy. mostly because it’s imitative and not original. OTOH, lord of the rings is a good example of something that’s christian-flavored, but not explicit. i know tolkien asserted that his work was “fundamentally catholic,” but i think that’s kind of self-serving on his part (he was a catholic convert). rather, lord of the rings is fundamentally not pagan, and seems rather neutral in terms of religion. some critics argue that it would have removed from the fantastic element if tolkien had put in too many obviously christian aspects into his work, but his personal faith prevented him from making up rituals and religiosity to flesh out the world (there is a reference to “heathen kings of old” in *return of the king* i think, showing that anachronisms slipped in). but the faint outlines of christian theism are there (there are coded references to mary), or at least the presuppositions of medieval european culture. but you can write fantasy with is explicitly grounded in other cultural suppositions. martha wells’ *the wheel of the infinite* uses ankgor wat as a source for example. there are fantasies written with east asian and indian flavors. nothing that i know written with a middle eastern/islamicate flavor where that is the central culture that i know of (though often with such a culture as secondary or antagonistic).
happy turkey day.

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posted December 2, 2009 at 4:12 am

I agree with TheAlexandrian, I’m not following this either, hope you can expand on it:
“I think before the kinds of conversations the new, native generation of muslim Americans want to have about the greater good and public interest can take place, Muslims in the US need a reason to cohere besides despair. They need some kind of incentive that is not propaganda (“Be a part of the greatest nation on earth!” Or as South Park calls it, “America: F$%kYeah!”) It is vitally important that more educated, integrated segments of the Muslim population (us) figure out what that might be, otherwise we look like a bunch of posers. ”
I assume by ‘cohere’ you mean to cohere with other non-Muslims? I agree in general that the ummah is extremely isolationist/separatist, but I think combatting Islamophobia — by getting involved locally and getting outside our bubble as citizens first and Muslims second (join your town hall, PTA, school board, neighborhood association, a gym, whatever) — should be motivation enough to cohere, regardless of whether one views responding to Islamophobia as being borne out of despair or not.
Also not sure what you mean by your last sentence in that graf; posing as what? Please explain… :)
Interesting observations about mass culture as well. Not clear to me if you’re advocating for Muslims to create mass culture from a strictly secular stance, or if you feel it should have some specific religious Islamic identity to it, or perhaps thirdly, a secular output but retaining some element of geocultural ties or resonance to the Islamic world. I get the impression that most of your work — and to be honest, I’m aware of your output, but not extremely familiar with it — would lie more in that third category. Perhaps that kind of categorization doesnt matter… There is a pretty vibrant young artistic voice rising out of Muslim and MENA identity out there (see Mark Levine’s “Heavy Metal in Islam”, the huge amount of MENA DJs and remixers in Europe creating cross cultural soundscapes– also check out the NY-based Middle Eastern arts quarterly Bidoun), but you’re right, not much of that is being created here in the U.S. There are number of interesting bands from the taqwacore scene; outside of that, you have some Islamic rappers, some DJers. The main mass cultural output from American Muslims I sense is from authors, and that output varies in its geocultural base.
For me, I stick with noisy/funky/metal/punk/freejazz but it has a heavy south Asian and MENA musical inflection in its sound, structure and improvisational method. Once you pass the ‘music in Islam’ debate, i’m pretty much home free since it’s all instrumental, so no lyric content has to run the mullah gauntlet. OTOH, I did abandon a planned erotic/espionage/sci fi/political epic that would have spanned three novels when I converted; it just didnt feel right.
From a more secular stance, you can see beliefnets’s photogallery of Muslim celebrities, ; let’s not forget the sizeable number of African -American Muslims in the jazz sphere; and one of the giants of American mass culture production, the late Turkish-American (and Muslim )Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun.

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