While Philadelphia has always been my favorite East Coast city, I sense that this environment has sucked the life and dreams out of its people. When my husband and I went to Harlem a few weeks ago we noticed that the demeanor of New Yorkers was different from the demeanor of Philadelphians. I saw a little more pride in the way women carried themselves and the men groomed themselves. I’m not trying to paint a rosy picture of Harlem. I saw my share of nonsense, including discovering a firearm in an unlikely place. But that’s another story for another day. New York has its grime, but it is not as gloomy in disposition as Philadelphia. Despite what the Chicago School says, no one city is emblematic of the condition of the inner city or state of Black America. But there is one city that embodies the condition of Black American Islam more than any other: Philadelphia.
Philadelphia is full abandoned buildings, where authorities don’t expend the energy or resources to demolish burned out shells. I’ve written about the state of urban decay and it’s demoralizing effects in the past. I’m not trying to tear this city down without imbuing new meaning. It is easier to critique a faulty construction and let it crumble due to misuses with misuse than it is to retrofit a decaying edifice and give it new life and meaning. I’m reflecting on this place because there is so much at stake here. Philadelphia Muslims, including recent transplants such as myself, must seriously take stock of these self-destructive tendencies. Everyday I go to work, I think about how can I work within Muslim institutions and contribute to the edification of our youth. Sometimes moral and spiritual renewal requires refurbishing old buildings, so that a place maintains its historic character. But some places are so damaged or their foundations are so weak that the entire area must be leveled. Sometimes we have to just start over, rather than bolstering something that is much more of a liability for the people it is trying to help.
This is the case for Philadelphia Muslim institutions: there are no Muslim run soup kitchens, not a single shelter for abused women that caters to Muslim women’s needs, and very few social programs, such as conflict resolution or treatment programs, let alone re-entry programs for ex-convicts. There are no services for elderly Muslims, so that they may have halal meals on wheels. Nor do our shiftless young men run errands for the elderly who may not be able to go outside during the hazardous winter storms. Once upon a time, Black American Muslims were seen as a positive benefit to the community. Islam was supposed to be transformative in the lives of people.
However, I am hearing increasing stories of people who have found ways for Islam to justify their proclivities rather than leave a positive impact on this Earth. The Black American Muslim community, just like immigrant Muslim communities, is not immune from the social ills of the broader society. I can save my observations of the colonized mentality within immigrant communities for another day. But today I want to focus on problems that are evident within the Black American Muslim community. In many ways, it is more vulnerable than the other communities. Just as so many Black Americans have grown complacent, so have many of our Black American Muslim youth. This complacency is not out of comfort or self satisfaction, but comes from being broken: “I will never overcome this or that.” It comes from being so damaged and having no sense of self worth. “I don’t deserve better.” It comes from being conditioned into certain patterns of behavior. “Why even try?” But this complacency is wrapped up in self-righteousness. “I’m not focused on the dunyah.” Laziness is dressed up in opposition to non-Muslims. “I don’t want to work for the kuffar.” Lack of drive is costumed in resistance against exploitation and corruption. “I want to earn a halal means.” The reality is that it is the same shiftlessness from the dominant ignorant culture (i.e. modern Jahiliyyah ) dressed in a thobe and topped with a kufi.
This shiftless behavior is most frequently seen in our young Black Muslim men who have distorted notions of manhood and masculinity. There is a corrosive culture of masjid masculinity that combines the patriarchy that can be found within Muslim societies and the misogyny in Black American culture. It finds its justifications for anti-women behavior within Middle Eastern culture. The only problem is that these same brothers often miss the redeeming aspects of Middle Eastern culture, such as honor and notions of manhood tied to providing for their families. Some Black American Muslim men who make their wives work or worse yet, welfare recipients, while they do nothing to support their families. There are even brothers who have their wives work in the US while they study “sacred knowledge” overseas. Some Muslim men will justify their promiscuity within Islam as they constantly chase women and divorce more women than they can count. Similarly, there are women who make concerted efforts at developing relationships with married men and breaking up families. There are women who can’t keep track of their fathers of their children. They hide behind niqab when they get free tuition at the Muslim school, but spend their time posting half naked pictures on myspace looking for the catch of the week. I’ve heard stories of Muslim women jumping other Muslim women in Wal-Mart parking lots. I’ve heard stories of Muslim women following other Muslim women because they have beef.
I’m not just trying to be a sensationalist. My guess is that for every one of these ghetto-Islam stories, there are 10 stories of personal transformation. People make mistakes. Most of us have had our spells of backsliding, but the problem is when institutions do not address problems that are a detriment to community building. To be frank, in many Muslim communities in Philadelphia, there is an undercurrent of gangsterism. That, within itself, has allowed for much of the destructive tendencies in the community to grow and propogate. The destructive nature of the predators and criminals becomes most apparent when you work with children, because they are the most vulnerable. Some of my friends are teachers who work with children with serious psychological and emotional problems that have stunted their ability to socialize and even learn. Unfortunately, we throw a hijab on most of our problems. We point fingers at infidels, deviants, and hypocrites without looking at our own failure to inculcate the true meaning of Islam in transforming our lives. We don’t see the damage that we do to others in the wake of our own self-destructive tendencies.
I’ve only touched on a few issues. But working within a community day in and day out really opens your eyes. We Black American Muslims must have some difficult conversations. We will have to discuss our failures on an individual level and a collective level. We will have to examine how we others and, importantly, how we failed ourselves. This is where humility must be inculcated, because if we are not self reflective and open to accepting blame then we have no hope for making changes. Then we must make some painful choices about our institutions. I am not saying that I have all the answers. None of us do, but we need to start address the problems meticulously. I don’t think swinging a sledgehammer blindly and without a plan will help. Once we address them, we have to have a plan of action. This is not just cleaning up our own backyard; this is cleaning up our streets. We might love our childhood homes, but they may have to be completely leveled so that we can rebuild. The renovation process may mean that the way we used our old edifices must be completely rethought. And anybody that’s been through a renovation knows that is a messy process fraught with all sorts of hazards. Knowing full well that we will make mistakes as we continue this beautiful experiment of Islam in America, we must move forward with hope as we constantly seek guidance from our Lord.