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City of Brass

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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