Failing to Protect Our Young

swing-Sisters

On January 14, 2013, the Philadelphia Muslim community was shaken to its core when police sounded an Amber alert for a missing five year old girl. A non-Muslim woman donned niqab and pretended to be the girl’s mother in order to take her out of school. During her captivity, the child was sexually assaulted and later abandoned in a dark playground, wearing only an oversized tee-shirt in near freezing temperatures. While this was a stranger abduction, most cases of abuse are by family members or acquaintances. Our children are not immune to the ills of society. Muslims have to wake up and recognise that our children are vulnerable to outsiders, community members, and even members of our own families. According to the Together Against Grooming (TAG) website, hundreds of Muslim leaders across the UK read a sermon addressing sexual exploitation on June 28, 2013. Some, however, criticised the campaign as reactionary or apologetic. We as a community need to be proactive in order to protect children and the vulnerable from sexual exploitation and abuse.

Nabila Sharma’s Brutal: The Heartbreaking True Story of a Little Girl’s Stolen Innocence exposes the sad reality of sexual abuse and child abuse in our midst. Every one of us is outraged when we hear cases of child abuse. Yet, as a community, we have done little to address this widespread problem. The Khutba Against Grooming organised by TAG was an unprecedented campaign that addressed the issue of sexual exploitation. In the United States, I have not seen a talk organised by a Muslim organisation that addresses child abuse: how to recognise it, prevent it, or recover from it. We make victims more vulnerable by offering few faith-based social services that would help them. Rather, we live in a world of naïve ideals, assuming that either these things don’t happen to us or expecting other social agencies will solve our problems. So, in effect, we can become complicit.

Perhaps it is the idea of seventy excuses for one’s brother or sister, the fear of backbiting, or inability to produce enough witnesses that leads to covering up crimes against children. Lama Al-Ghamdi died in October 2012 after suffering a crushed skull,

broken ribs and arm. Her father Fayhan al-Ghamdi, a celebrity imam, admitted beating her. Reports that the father would be released after paying $50,000 blood money shocked the international community. A social worker at the hospital where Lama was admitted claimed the little girl was raped. When Muslims read news stories like this about a girl who died from her father’s brutal hand we often cringe knowing that Western media picked up this story because of its sensationalism. However, physical abuse is not uncommon in Muslim families. Muslims in the West are often embarrassed by news reports about honour killings. We often cry out explaining that honour killings have no basis in Islam. Yet, what is our response to serious cases of physical abuse?

Our schools and organisations that work with the youth are poorly equipped to deal with cases of domestic abuse. Mahreen*, a South Asian school teacher, explained “There was a lack of urgency in the response and a lack of seriousness of physical abuse. We are often discouraged from reporting on our own people.” Mahreen told a disturbing account:

A clear case of an incident that needed to be reported involved a student with a black eye and a dislocated shoulder. When it was just us Muslims behind doors, it was just like it was no big deal, she had ‘just got wacked’. I talked to the superintendent about the incident and she told me not to tell anyone. However, I talked to school nurse, who was a non-Muslim and a mandated reporter. To keep my job, I had to go to an outside agency because if I reported it, my job might have been in jeopardy. However, as a certified teacher, I could lose my license to teach without reporting it.

Mahreen pointed out that there need to be training and policies put in place to protect children. Rather than sweeping things under the rug to protect prominent families, we have to become more ethical in how we deal with these cases.

When I first became Muslim, someone explained to me that sexual harassment and molestation rarely occur because of the separation of the sexes. Muslim women are told if they dress appropriately they will not draw unwanted attention, but in many Muslim-majority cities modestly dressed women are harassed and even physically assaulted on the streets. And behind closed doors all over the world, Muslim women, girls, and boys are subject to sexual assaults at the hands of family members, close family friends, teachers, and religious leaders. Girls are told that they are a fitnah. However, sexual abuse is about power and not about physical attraction.

Rape victims are often punished, either by carrying the stigma or shame or by the very legal system that is supposed to protect them. In the Maldives, a 15 year old girl who was repeatedly raped by her stepfather has been sentenced to 100 lashes for premarital sex. Often, victims of sexual abuse are yoked with notions of honor and shame. Khadijah*, who was raised by a Sudanese mother and American father explained, “The shame of sexual abuse cuts across a lot of Islamic cultures.” Khadijah told her own harrowing story:

I was very small – three years old. My abuser was a teenage girl who babysat me. I felt shamed from the beginning. I just remember using the bathroom and bleeding on the toilet. I remember the look on my mother’s face and she looked so angry. I was too young to know it wasn’t directed at me.

Ultimately, there was a trial and the offender was sentenced. Khadijah explained how the effort to repress the memory led to even greater shame. Over time, the memories came back, despite her parents’ attempts to keep it silent in order for her to forget. She was even punished for telling her sister. Khadijah recounted, “No one told me that this happened to me and I did nothing wrong.” For victims of sexual abuse, the shame can lead to low self-esteem and self-destructive behavior.

It is important that people know that sexual abuse can happen to anyone. Hafsah,* a Palestinian American living in the Michigan area with a sprawling family residing on three continents explained, “No family and no community is invulnerable to human tendencies, such as violence or sexual perversion.” Hafsah pointed out that the main problem is our silence as a community. “If the person who has this tendency knows that there is no silence, then this can’t continue. Speaking out will deny them that power.” Hafsah told her own experience as a survivor and the stories that she pieced together from her aunt and cousins. “In my culture, we are ready to cast out the woman who had a child out of wedlock, but we let the molester carry on because it would be so shameful.”

Both Khadijah and Hafsah offer hope for victims to rise from the horrors of abuse. Both pointed out that victims speaking out can empower others to break free from the yoke of shame. Hafsah said, “We are in control of our narrative and we can make a choice in how something is significant. I am still angry and this is a way to fight back and not letting them win.” As a community, we have to fight the urge to sweep things under the rug and give voices to the voiceless. By not hiding, we can help those who have been damaged by those they have trusted, whether the abuse was sexual, physical, or psychological. Zerqa Abid, who works on Project Sakinah, has addressed a lot of issues surrounding domestic abuse. We must support the work of shelters and organisations such as Abid’s because it is our duty as Muslims to protect the weak and vulnerable.

*Names and some details have been changed to protect identities

Margari Aziza Hill is a writer, editor, and adjunct professor

You can read the full article at SISTERS magazine, along with many other fabulous and thoughtful contributions from Muslim women across the globe.

Muslim Youth are in the Crosshairs of a Culture of Violence

Margari Aziza Hill addresses our collective denial about the dangers Muslim youth face and create. soapbox

Media coverage of the mass shootings of Sandy Hook and Aurora Colorado theatre should make Muslims worldwide aware of the proliferation of guns and the culture of violence in America. These tragic events have sparked a national dialogue about gun control, the culture of violence, and mental health. But the American Muslim voice is surprisingly absent from the gun control debate. Muslims often think that they are immune to the problems in broader society. This has led to a magical thinking about our children’s safety and lack of support for policies that could curb gun violence.

Muslim youth in the inner city are just as vulnerable to street violence as non-Muslims. But, outside of honour killings and hate crimes, the issue of gun violence and its effects on inner city Muslim communities are rarely talked about. Most African American Muslims know a friend or family member who has been injured or killed in gunfire. Last semester, my young African American Muslim student asked me to excuse her absence so that she could help her family make arrangements for her brother’s janazah. The 19-year-old had been shot following a verbal altercation in West Philadelphia, an all too frequent occurrence. My cousin Ara Hayward, who is also Muslim, recounted the story of her husband who survived getting shot four times in front of her house. Their stories, as well as the many janazahs I have attended while working in the Philadelphia Muslim community, have raised my awareness that gun violence is a problem. As mums, we have to stop thinking that Arabic names, hijabs, and kufis will shield our children from danger.

According to the Philadelphia Police Department, there were 331 homicides and 1232 shooting victims in 2012. Although the police reports do not indicate the religious identities of the victims or perpetrators, it is clear that there are many Muslim names on both lists. In order to understand the effects of gun violence on the Muslim community, I began to survey Muslims and contact hospital chaplains and masajid. Several respondents to my survey stated that they know of as many as 10 to 15 Muslims killed since 2001. One mother has created QAAMS Hajj foundation, to help facilitate the Hajj for Muslim youth in honour of her son, Qa’id Ameer Abdul- Majeed Staten. He was gunned down in 2003. In the past five years in Philadelphia, I have seen a number of Muslim families devastated by gun violence. Some victims are caught in crossfire like Qa’id, including the young mother of four, Hafeezah Nuri-Deen or the 18 year old Shakuwrah Muhammad who had plans to attend college to become a forensic scientist. There are others who were shot in robberies, such as the newlywed from Morocco, Quadii Soulimani, who was shot just outside the masjid doors on his way to the morning prayer and the 40 year Egyptian America old store clerk, Mustafa Shaker.

Patterns of street violence are not limited to American inner cities or African Americans. Media reports have shown that South Asian and British Muslim gangs exist, scholars have pointed to the rate of Muslims in French prisons, and some Australian reports claim that Muslim immigrants are five times more likely to be involved in crime. Perhaps we need to look at the problem of disaffection of our youth, globally.

Sometimes the magical thinking results in parents overlooking their children getting involved in crime. Aliya Khabir, author of the Islamic Urban fiction novel, Just Be Still, points out that inner city Muslim communities are not addressing gun violence. She observed, “We walk around like it doesn’t exist. We pretend like we’re not the perpetrators either.” She noted, “Looking at my third grade class picture from Clara Muhammad School, only four out of all the guys in a class of 33 have never spent any time in jail.” Muslims have been involved in robberies, cop killings, and even one child kidnapping. Some parents restrict their daughters, but they are much more permissive with their boys. Mums forget how persuasive popular media and peer pressure can be. Many of our youth are not involved in crime or gangs, but because they want to be accepted they may find themselves in harm’s way by hanging out with gang members. This is why we have to be vigilant about our children’s peer groups, regardless of gender.

Our communities also have to move beyond magical thinking. Many inner city mosques are located in areas of high frequency gun violence and crime. Some Muslim leaders have taken a stand against violence, participating in interfaith peace walks. But some of our communities have developed an insular approach and assumed that these are the problems of the kuffar. Collectively, communities have not developed programmes to make streets safer for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Instead, we long for the good old days when wearing Islamic garb would protect Muslims from harm. However, Muslims earned that respect from their commitment to developing the community and living exemplary lives. Our failure to address the social decay and blight surrounding our masajid in the past two decades has been the greatest blemish on our record.

We have to begin to think of programmes that can affect positive change in our communities, including economic development, neighbourhood watches and youth programming. This is where we need to think about programmes such as Cure Violence, which has been featured in the documentary The Interrupters. Ameena Matthews has courageously stood on the frontlines, positively impacting her community. Her work demonstrates that curbing violence is not simply pushing legislation, but also transforming the culture and communities in which we live. And this is the work we have to do to ensure the safety of our children and those who come after them.

Margari Aziza Hill is an adjunct professor, freelance writer, blogger and editor who resides just outside of Philadelphia.

You can read the full article and other great pieces in the May edition of SISTERS magazine.

 

The Relevance of Black American Muslim Thought

The Muslim American community is held together with the belief that there is no God but the One True God and that Muhammad is His prophet.  Muslims share daily patterns of worship, rituals of birth, marriage, and death. As one of the most diverse faith communities, Muslim Americans come from various ethnic, socio-economic, and cultural backgrounds.   Sometimes there are various articulations of Islam  due to different political, cultural, and religious orientations. Over the years, many Black American Muslims have been at the forefront of articulating Islamic thought for the growing American Muslim community. But this seems to have changed as a dominant narrative has taken over.

Some estimates go as far to say that there are 5 million Muslims in America. According to census data and information provided by mosques and community centers, Muslims in America make up .5% of the total population in America. Keeping it conservative, that equals just under two million. This still represents a significant number. CAIR reports that the ethnicities of mosque participants can be broken down to 33% South Asian, 30% Black American and 25% Arab, 3.4% sub-Saharan African, 2.1 European (i.e. Bosnia) 1.6% White American, 1.3% South-East Asian, 1.2% Caribbean, 1.1% Turkish, .7% Iranian, and .6% Latino/Hispanic. Other reports indicate the number of Black Americans may be even larger. Regardless of the numbers, there is no clear ethnic majority in American Islam. But these numbers raise some important issues: Who has the right to speak for American Muslims? Who are the real Muslims? Who will define the agenda for American Muslims? These questions have often been central to a debate that has emerged about the Black American/immigrant divide.

In America, there is fierce competition over resources which has led to some voices getting silenced in deciding the agenda for American Muslims. Within mainstream media, the Muslim American experience is about the immigration and assimilation experience. There is little press coverage or interest shown in the media on converts or the multi-generational Black American Muslim families. Sylvia Chan-Malik uses the term, “foundational blackness” to describe how contemporary Islam in America can best be understood by transnational affiliations that link gender, class, and religion, but also with its relationship with blackness.   However Black American Muslim foundations go back further, with memories of African Muslims enslaved in the America, even predating the formation of the United States. There are  also Sunni communities dating back to the 60s, such as Dar al-Islam movement. Some communities have origins much earlier, such as Quba Institute with roots in the 1930s Izideen village in New Jersey. Yet, consistently, there continues to be a portrayal of Islam as a foreign religion, with only internationalist interests. For over a century, some Black Americans have looked to African cultural legacies, addressed local issues, and have maintained transnational networks and ties, to articulate religious thought that is African, Islamic, and uniquely American.

While it is true that Black American Muslims were often drawn to Islam in an attempt to articulate their own cultural identity outside of the dehumanizing ascribed identity of Black inferiority, Black American Islam is thoroughly embedded in the American tradition. From the proto-Islam movements of the early 20th century, to the Black separatist movements of the 1960s, heterodox communities, and orthodox communities with leaders from or trained abroad, many Muslim communities sought to address social ills in America and globally. In particular, racism, economic and social inequality, economic exploitation, and family instability are on the main agenda of many Black American Muslim leaders. Before 9/11, some of the most prominent voices in American Islam were African Americans, including Warith Deen Muhammad and Siraaj Wahaj. Their status as citizens afforded them the privilege to critique American society and foreign policy, without compromising their Americaness. The protest tradition of many leaders helped forge a space for the next generation of immigrant and descendant of immigrant Muslims Americans to assert themselves in the public sphere. Following the events of 9/11, there has been an increasing silencing of Black American Muslim voices: a combination of little to no media acknowledgment of BAM’s as well as a systemic neglect on the part of immigrant Muslims. Over time, Black American spokespeople were gradually eclipsed as national Muslim organizations with strong immigrant interests sought to assert their agendas and provide the dominant narrative of immigrants assimilating to American values.

In contrast to the hegemonic narrative that has rendered them invisible, Black American Muslims are  vital to the health of this diverse Muslim community.  They have also continued to make great strides politically, socially, and culturally. This includes two Black Congressmen, Keith Ellison and Andre Carson, the growing prominence of intellectuals and scholars, most notably feminist scholar, Amina Wadud, and Aminah Beverly McCloud, who wrote African American Islam,  Sherman Abdul-Hakeem Jackson, and Zaid Shakir. There are also many young scholars, such as Jamilah Karim, Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, and Intisar Rabb. There is a large wave of Black American Muslim leaders who have demonstrated mastery of Islamic sciences and have graduated from Muslim institutions of higher learning, including Abdullah Ali, who earned a degree from  Al-Qarawiyin University of Fes. Black American Muslims have made cultural gains including a feature length film, “Mooz-lum,” and prominent Hip Hop artists, including but not limited to Lupe Fiasco, and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def).  The Abdullah brothers shared their story of taking time off from from the NFL to perform the annual Muslim pilgrimage (Hajj). The fencer,  Ibtihaj Muhammad, was the first Muslim woman to compete for the United States in an international competition and win a medal. Black American Muslims are very much part of the fabric of America and often play a daily role in interfaith dialogue, as many of them have family and loved ones who are non-Muslim.

Black American Muslims have used their social capital to critique American foreign policy, Islamophobia, and erosion of American civil liberties. As a group, Black American Muslims are far from nativists, as many identify with and relate to  numerous international and transnational Muslim communities. They are much more likely to attend a mosque in which another group dominates, showing their willingness to assimilate into an immigrant dominant mosque. Black American Muslims participate anti-war protests, critique extra-judicial killings through drone strikes in Chad, Mali, Yemen, and Pakistan, raise money for war refugees in Syria and alleviate suffering in natural disasters in Somalia and Pakistan. Yet  pressing social issues in their home communities, such as economic inequality, street violence, and family instability, play a large role in their everyday lives. Crime, poverty, and marriage are common issues raised in the Black American Muslim discourse from the minbar to the lecture hall. These issues also shape their outlook, which in turn causes them to be empathetic to the plight of others at home and abroad.

Perhaps the flexibility of thought can be tied to the Black American  Muslim identity, which is comprised of multiple intersections.  They are connected to many faiths and ethnic groups as part of this nation building project that we call United States of America. They are connected to many faiths and people who were either forcibly or willingly migrated to other lands  as part of the African Diaspora. They find connections with people on the African continent, and Black communities in South America and the Caribbean. They are also connected to people all over the world in  a multi-ethnic global community,  ummah. These connections have given Black American Muslims a unique juncture to relate to and speak on various issues and causes. Black American thinkers continue to be influential in defining American Muslim thought, as they connect their day to day lives with Muslims globally.

It seems to be willful ignorance on the part of the media, scholars, and some organizations to overlook these important contributions and connections.  The occlusion of Black Americans despite the continual relevancy of Black American Muslim thought makes it especially important to document this  intellectual heritage.  Indeed, we must go beyond documenting the life histories of major Muslim leaders and begin to study transformations in Muslim American thought. I look forward to the next wave of scholars who study Black American Muslims, such as Donna AustonZaheer Ali, and others who will shed light on roots of Black American Islam. These scholars can help us look at the ways in which Black American Muslims drew upon their intersecting identities in their interpretations of textual traditions in ways that address their global and local issues. I look forward to future studies of our rich intellectual traditions and the insights  that these brilliant scholars can bring to the discussion about American Islam.

FOUR STATEMENTS BAM CONVERTS MAKE THAT UNDERMINE THEIR FINANCIAL SECURITY

Sorry for the long delay. It is not just that teaching is overwhelming, but I avoid writing when I feel negative about the current condition of the American Muslim community. I can’t even begin to talk about the abysmal state of Muslims abroad. I know there are hopeful stories and inspiring people, but sometimes I’m left speechless. I didn’t want to sound like a whining Muslim; on the flip side, I didn’t want to sound like a braggart by publicly taking stock of my accomplishments. My reticence is beside the point of this article. So, I’m going to go just for it and make a major splash back into blogging. I can foresee this causing some major problems, however I will refrain from wasting time in back and forth debating. I just have to speak my mind because we have to address our dire condition.

I see many bright young African American Muslims struggle finding their place in the community. Often, our place in a community is determined by how others see our contribution. Our Ummah is not color blind, nor is it class blind. And many of our immigrant brothers and sisters come from societies where class plays perhaps a larger role than ethnicity. So our relative position on the social economic scale factors into the respect that our brethren afford us. So, if we, as a community, are a destitute group, we will have little clout in the discussion on Islam in America. In our brethren’s minds, we are bringing nothing to the table. Many Black American Muslims are struggling economically, unable to finish school or find financial security. The common perception is that most African American Muslims come from impoverished backgrounds or are ex-cons struggling with reintegration in society. But this is not solely the case.

Contrary to popular perception, it is not only White American Muslims who have everything to lose by converting. Many Black American converts who come from Middle Class backgrounds are financially worse off than their parents. Many Muslim American converts, in reality, have made personal, economic, and career choices that have undermined their financial security. There are even second generation Black American Muslims who are worse off than their convert parents. But without an honest look, we may be doomed to repeat the same mistakes. First, we should understand that several of the people who were promised paradise were wealthy. There is nothing wrong with wealth, in and of itself. What matters is how we use it. Islam is not the new socialism. And perhaps some people read or misread Ali Shariati. Two, we should understand that secular education is important in our upward mobility. In fact, education is the primary reason why Muslims immigrated to America. So why should indigenous Muslims give up on America’s promise and become ineffectual? Why is it so few Black American Muslims are attending college for professional, advanced degrees, growing businesses, or finding financial security? And importantly, why have so many Black American Muslim initiatives faltered?
After almost 20 years, some of us are looking back at the choices we made in our personal lives and communities? What led us to make certain choices in our education and professional development? Where did we let others down? Where did we let ourselves down? What resources did we have to achieve important milestones in life? What networks and social ties did we fail to tap into? What sacrifices have we made in becoming Muslim. Did we make any misguided decisions? How can we repair the damage and create a better future for children and ourselves?

I developed a list to begin to explore these questions. This list is not to argue whether something is haram or not, but to discuss the influence of certain religious positions on our lives. What sacrifices are converts making that have a detrimental effect on our financial security? In the next few weeks, I plan on tackling some of these issues. I will show the fatwas that Western Muslims have received from scholars abroad. I will then try to find alternative positions that allow for some flexibility, or endeavors that, at minimum, try to address the challenges we all face in this society.

1. Don’t Deal non-Muslims (Kuffar), even Your Family and Childhood Friends.
This faulty thinking leads many young Muslims astray and alienates their family. Not only do we fail to listen to our family’s advice, thinking that they don’t have our best interest at heart, but we don’t build stronger ties of interdependence. You are not supposed to break family ties, but maintain them whether or not you share the same religion. How you treat your family and friends can have a huge impact on the so many people’s perception of Islam. But self-isolating ourselves can lead our family and friends to think we joined a Jonestown style al-Qaeda group. Importantly, while there are generous Muslims who are willing to provide a lending hand, your family is bound to sacrifice much more, offer you a place to live, or take care of you if your health falters.

Not only do they no longer have social networks that they can tap into such as fraternities, lodges, and professional organizations for contacts, but their old college and friendship networks become frayed due to lifestyle choices that our religions demands (i.e. no cocktail receptions or happy hour networking parties and mixers for networking events). Sometimes their classmates just don’t relate. Converts may even suffer strained relationships with their immediate and extended family. This can lead to them losing family financial support in school, marriage ceremonies, or business endeavors.

Second, we fail to form solid alliances with non-Muslims to achieve the greater good. Without a relationship of reciprocity, we find ourselves isolated an alone. Third, we often hire incompetent Muslims and foster paternalism. Some Muslims have an “I only patronize Muslims” policy. Meaning that they hire Muslim contractors who do shoddy jobs or rip them off. Out of aversion to taking your co-religionist to a kaffir court, many Muslims will just eat the loss, as opposed to making these businesses accountable. Also, our fear of backbiting will also keep us from slandering that Muslim who did a poor job or did us dirty by reporting them to the Better Business Bureau.

2. Your Education Will Corrupt You.
Basically, the only real education is sacred knowledge. Time and time again I have heard tales of bright Muslims not encouraged to finish school, but become students of knowledge. You can end up in a dusty place for a few months or wander aimlessly for a about a year. Unlike some of your Arab and Desi American friends who spend their year abroad, you likely did #1 and your family probably won’t help you out and get back on your feet. Honestly, we do need more scholars of Islam, and to be honest, Muftis and Fuqaha with a strong knowledge of minority fiqh and American society. However, does the community need thousands of young men and women with the equivalent of an elementary degree from a Muslim institution of learning abroad?

The irony is that many converts are discouraged from completing their secular education by foreign scholars and immigrants who are largely educated with college degrees. Immigrant children go to college. They become doctors, engineers, business professionals, executives, and doctors. Most African Americans don’t come from families with enough money to foot college tuition. Nor do many of us get a full on scholarship. The primary way that many African Americans finance their education is to take a student loan. And look online at the fatwa’s. Student loans are haram. The immigrant Muslim community in America is largely affluent. So, many have an option of not taking student loans. Very few Muslim organizations offer scholarships to off set the education costs. And Muslim lending institutions are primarily geared towards wealthy Muslim purchasing homes, not student loans. So, many Muslims shut the door to education
The reality is that we need men and women who have the skills and capital to help build our communities. We need skilled labor, infrastructure building, and strategic planning from people who are trained and educated. A higher education can help alleviate some of the greatest challenges our community faces. It will lead to better earnings, which will lead to stable living. Stable living leads to viable marriages, which will help build better neighborhoods. With the rubber stamp of “denial” Black American Muslims are left to flounder, unable to become contributing members of their community and society.

3. Don’t Plan Your Family or Get to Know Your Future Spouse, Because Allah is the Best of Planners
Black American Muslims suffer some of the worst divorce rates. Perhaps we should thank Allah that many of the marriages are religious, and not civil marriages, because if we knew the real statistics, we’d lose our minds. My rough estimate would be that 75% or more of African American marriages end up in divorce. The sad thing is that many of these broken marriages produce children who become scarred in the process.
Many converts have an idealized version of stranger marriages, arranged marriages, and even the marriage match. Depending on if the Muslim comes from a cultish community or not, he or she may be pressured into making an insane marriage choice. I have heard of a college age young woman pressed to marry a recently released ex-con. I have heard of a teenage girl forced to marry Middle Aged destitute man only to be a divorcee by the time she’s 17. I have heard of young men pressed to marry women they don’t know and have 3 kids by the time he realizes that his wife is mentally deranged. There are lots of crazy anecdotes. Many American Muslims marry really young, derailing their emotional and financial development. My young students are all proponents for youth marriages; however if they knew the challenges that they would face, they’d think twice.

Converts also come with our own cultural norms, which are contrary to the American Muslim norms of love and relationships, and emotional baggage. Some communities have a sit down. Others may organize marriage meet and greet, or even large conventions. There are online matrimonials, myspace, facebook, etc. But more often than not, the process of meeting someone is a nightmare. American Muslims have not yet developed the network to create opportunities for single Muslims getting to know each other. Also that baggage. It is impossible to just throw away our notions of love and marriage. Americans are used to a honeymoon period of dating and getting to know each other. Those wonderful memories of courtship and fun times create, at minimum, some nostalgia about those romantic moments. Even more destructive than our notions of love and romance is the greatest baggage African American converts bring into their Islam. And that is their promiscuity. This stems from our own insecurities, notions of manhood or femininity, and egos tied to sexual conquests. Few of us grew up with two happy, married parents. So, we don’t even know what to look for in a spouse. Many American Muslim marriages suffer from intimacy problems and love doesn’t always develop between the couple.

Muslims are sometimes discouraged form practicing birth control. With a tanking marriage and 7,8, 9, 10 kids, there are some serious financial implications.

4. Don’t Focus on the Dunyah, but the Hereafter.
Many see wealth building or social climbing as a worldly endeavor and they begin to make irrational economic decisions. There are two roots to this version of Black American asceticism: the first, stemming from the Black American protest tradition and the second stemming from abroad. In the protest tradition, middle Class values of education and career are White values. Some Black American Muslims transfer the notions of whiteness or “the man” into the unbelievers, “kuffar.” The motivation to reject this world and take on a life of poverty becomes a political choice, tied closely to identity politics. The second root of the Black American aversion towards higher education or professional careers is a foreign import. Some forthcoming studies show how the imposition of these ideas is both unintentional and intentional. Basically, some scholars who have little understanding of the social, economic, and historical condition of Black Americans discourage them from taking the one path to social mobility. These two factors combine to drive many African American Muslims into a faulty notion of asceticism. This form of asceticism, rejecting “worldly education” and “worldly careers,” is often a detriment to many Black American families.

The other problem with this statement is that it channels some of the most talented and charismatic, but maybe not so pious, members of our community into becoming religious professionals. Islam becomes the new hustle. Many of our brightest minds go into careers such as imam, public speaker, religious scholars, or teacher at an Islamic school, when maybe they would have been better as professionals, who donated their wealth and fundraising ability to create community centers and institutions. Instead of giving to the community, they are drawing an income from the community. Further, if we, as a community, discouraged our members from attaining a college degree, then we will have board members with no education, management, or organizational skills. Finally, while non-profit work is honorable, many Muslim non-profits pay a pittance. I’ve heard of Muslims going six weeks without pay from Islamic Institutions.

This list is not limited to African American converts. I know that other converts, and even children of immigrants, who get caught in this cycle. I hope that by bringing up these points we can begin to address these problems and come with some solutions. I work full-time in the Muslim community, and I may be rough and gruff sometimes, but I am solution oriented. My goal is to empower us to work for a positive change. Just like everyone else, I am tired of bemoaning the fate of Muslims in America. It is time we do something about it. While I think I have a few good ideas, I know many of you have many more. So, let’s get to work!

Post-Racial America, Yahoo News, and White Angst


Santiago Matamoros (Saint James the Moor Slayer)

America’s not so post racial, as evidenced by the nasty comments on Yahoo News whenever the subject matter features anything about Blacks, Africans, Arabs, Muslims, Pakistanis, Iranians, etc. I’ve spent years arguing with some of my white associates that the racism Black Americans encounter is not a figment of our imagination. It’s funny how some of the most anti-Black Americans are insistent that we just “Get over it!” Reflective of Dr. Laura’s racial tirade, many white Americans claim that Black people’s grievances about racism are about power and control. That’s why Sarah Pailin told Dr. Laura to not quit but reload. And I’m sure that Dr. Laura’s brand has struck a cord with many Americans who hold the same view. With a Black President, many white Americans are rising against what they see as the hegemony of political correctness. They claim it is alright to stereotype, crack offensive black jokes and call somebody a N$@&% because ignorant Black people have appropriated the N-word and call themselves niggas. But really it is a veiled attempt to dehumanize, demean, belittle, generalize, and stereotype anybody who has a different perspective because our differences arise from our cultural and social backgrounds and the ethical principles that guide our social life and political beliefs.


San Luis Obispo, Spanish Mission

But how does religion fit into this, when faith is not about skin color? The reality is that some religions are racialized, and this is especially the case with Islam in America today. In fact, much of the anti-Muslim sentiment is linked to the resurgence of racism in the country. The Park51 debacle is a case in point. This controversy exposes much of the fragmented racial/religious logic in America today. Compare the hollowed ground of 9/11, which is is in reality the burial ground of the thousands who perished that day to those who perished a few hundred years ago in the name of Christianity. In California, we often call missions (i.e. Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, San Luis Obispo), Indian concentration camps because so many Native Americans were forced to live, work, and die on them. None of the people protesting Park51 are arguing that my alma mater, Santa Clara, move its church elsewhere because it is disrespectful to the burial grounds of native Americans. White American Christians have selective memory when it comes to remembering atrocities committed in the name of white Christiandom (i.e. the Crusades, The Reconquest, the Spanish Inquisition, trans-Atlantic slavery, Native American removal acts, the Herero genocides, the Holocaust, and Bosnian ethnic cleansing). There is even more hypocrisy in the dominant racial logic. While crying about how they are tired of being guilted about slavery (while ignoring the legacy of Jim Crow and decades of institutional racism), many white Americans have no problem trying to make every Muslim in the world do penance for 9/11. With that logic, I should get a reparations check and an apology from all White Christians for slavery. After I cash my reparations check and sow some seeds on the land my short changed ancestors were supposed to receive, then I’ll say sorry for what the hijackers did in the name of my religion. Long shot, no? While I condemn terrorism in all its forms, similar to one billion other Muslims, I’m not responsible for the actions of a few nuts.

American Muslims and Black Americans have to bear with generalizations and the racist vitriol with dignity and grace. But checking the daily headlines shouldn’t have to ruin my day or make me paranoid that many Americans want to see me either convert or relocate to an “Islamic” country. So, I’ll stop reading articles from Yahoo News and other online publications that allow people to post offensive, virulently racist, sexist, and Islamophobic comments. I’m doing in order to restore my faith in humanity. I’d like to hold on the belief that most Americans are decent people. I don’t want to think that most white Americans hate me because I’m Black and I’m Muslim. That’s why I never watch Fox News and I’m changing my homepage from Yahoo News to a respectable news source that has shut off non-productive comments from anonymous readers.

Getting by Within and Without Innercity Boundaries

I’ve been in a number of conversations about Black identities, Islam, and the broader society. Not all Muslims are amenable to these conversations, others seek to define the limits of the discourse on race and Muslim identity. As sister Safia from Safiyya Outlines noted in a recent comment:

Whenever a Black Muslim mentions Blackness or the Black community in a positive way, a non-Black Muslim will swiftly chastise them for it and usually drop the ‘k’ word while they’re at it.
Just another train that is never late

There are non-Black Muslims who feel entitled to speak as authorities in their critiques of Black culture despite their lack of scholarly credentials or understanding of Black intellectual and cultural traditions. Some take many liberties in their efforts to weigh in on every issue that effects Black American Muslims. There are some who have the audacity to even try to define what is and who is truly Black, even though their exposure to Black culture is within a limited segment of the community. I suppose they feel entitled to define terms of the discourse. In an effort to create boundaries, I will not engage in nonsensical debates. Nor do I feel that I must respond to every misrepresentation that floats around in the blogosphere. Instead, I have decided to try to be proactive in my writings rather than my earlier reactive writings.

Some of the conversations I’ve recently engaged in have explored the challenges Black American Muslims face in innercity Muslim communities compared to those they may experience in suburbia (Let us not forget the situation of those Muslims who live in isolated rural areas). There seems to be two major models for masajid in America: the innercity masjid and the suburban masjid. The innercity model is predominantly Black American, and is usually cash strapped with a large portion of working poor brothers and sisters. The suburban model is predominantly first and second generation immigrant and a bit less cash strapped because a large portion of its members are middle class or affluent. In the innercity Masjid, a professional Black American Muslim may get frustrated because there are no funds to enact certain initiatives, members may have ambivalent attitudes towards intellectuals, or the programing board may be more interested in re-integrating ex-cons than providing scholarships for college age kids, or any number of issues. Within an immigrant run community, an educated professional Black American Muslim may feel invisible. They may exhaust themselves at rallies and fundraisers that support overseas causes, but find no support for things of immediate concern to them such as a trying to buy a car without going into serious riba debt, student loans, or even scholarships for their kids to attend the expensive Islamic school. Looking at the pros and cons of each choice, Black American Muslims can either cast their lot with the innercity community, the suburban community , or to opt out of community life and be a down-low-Muslim.

Black American Muslims like myself are often obsessed with these questions because we have the precedent of integration following the civil rights movement. While we all enjoy the freedom to live where we want to live, many of us look back at the ghettos of the 1950s with some sense of nostalgia. When Black Americans were no longer restricted by discriminatory housing policies upwardly mobile Blacks assimilated into broader society. We see the erosion of vibrant communities and growing underclass and zones of urban abandonment. Integration meant the loss of a viable Black communities, where lawyers and doctors lived next door to carpenters and mechanics, shop owners lived down the block from teachers and artists. Integration created opportunities and losses. It can lead to tensions and conflicts like in my high school and neighborhood in East San Jose, an occasional race riot or shooting.

Of course, the integration of Muslim communities will lead to different dynamics and (a’oothu billah, no shooting). But I have often wondered how my kids (insha’Allah) will see themselves in a Muslim community. I have also worried that my children would be subjected demeaning treatment by children of less than enlightened parents, or that the school administration ill equipped and uninformed by diversity training will contribute to a racially hostile environment (like the one that I grew up in Santa Clara). While I have argued against the development of ethnic enclaves, I still hope that my children will have a healthy sense of their Black identity. I still hope that they can be a bridge continue to care about issues in the Black community, as well as the broader society. In a so-called-post-racial world, would they be just-muslim-kids?

I cannot predict the future, but the decisions Black American Muslim families make will have some serious consequences on second generation Muslims (the children of converts). One of my friends noted that finding an 18-25 Black American who was born Muslim is like finding Waldo. I’ve often worried about the ability of the Black American Muslims’ ability to reproduce itself, as opposed to an entire generation of folks with Arabic names. Could it be that they come from parents exhausted by the social pathologies, some failed movement, or the non-stop fitnah (discord and mischief) our communities seem to be embroiled in? Like all Muslims everywhere, they try as best as they can to chart a course that would give their children a healthy balance of religious and ethnic identity.

I know of a number of Black American Muslims who have divorced themselves from the Muslim community. They are tired of the social and cultural pathologies that run rampant in both immigrant and Black American communities. Many of the Black American Muslims who have left active community life, and often open identification with Muslims, are upwardly mobile professionals. Their issues and concerns aren’t addressed by innercity masajid, nor immigrant run masajid. They often feel like they are in a quagmire. So they opt out.

I don’t have all the answers, but I believe that educated and professional Black Muslim Americans who opt out do themselves and the entire community a disservice. I am not saying that they have to change the entire world, but by doing nothing they will not only fail to create a space for their own healthy community and spiritual development, but they will fail to open doors for others as well. We have to look at our past successes and failures in our history to draw important lessons. I see professional and educated Muslims who can operate in multiple contexts, whether on the streets or in academia, as being able to bridge between the innercity and suburbia. If the city and its suburban outlying areas are linked in the real world, why are they disconnected in the American Muslim community?

The Condition of a Thinking Muslim…

…is a lonely condition. That seems to be the overriding theme of all the thinking Muslims I’ve encountered over the years. It is not so much that we have withdrawn from society to stacks of books and hours of reflection. Instead, it is that we are in intricately linked in a global society that seems to lack human connection. Some scholars have pointed to the break down of communities as a result of western modernity. The growing isolation due to modernization, urbanization, break down of traditional family and community structure has actually given rise to fundamentalist (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and everything else beneath the sun) and New Age movements. Despite their allure, many of us have not abdicated our minds and free choice to join some organization or community that imposes group-think. Even though others like myself have chosen to be autonomous thinkers, we still feel the absence of real communities and suffer from various degrees of loneliness and isolation.

A lot of people I have spoken with have a general sense of disconnection from this thing that we call Ummah. I have had lengthy conversations with some Muslims where we all questioned the meaning of community and even Ummah. Some went so far to say that the concept of Ummah was now a pie in the sky. As for the American Muslim community, we didn’t see community, instead we saw a mass of lectures, meetings, boards, committees, and numerous individuals imposing their views on the ways in which we should live our lives. The complaints about the lack of community remind me of another friend’s insight. He used to talk about a tension between the individual’s desire to feel connected to others in a community and a desire to be free from the social censoring of the community that robs you of your individuality. It is some food for thought. Being that I love words, I decided to look up community to reflect on its most solid and agreed upon meanings:

1: a unified body of individuals: as a: state, commonwealth b: the people with common interests living in a particular area; broadly : the area itself c: an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (as species) in a common location d: a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society e: a group linked by a common policy f: a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests g: a body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society
2: society at large
3 a: joint ownership or participation b: common character : likeness c: social activity : fellowship d: a social state or condition

Reflecting on these definitions of community, it is not entirely clear that being part of one will actually rid us of loneliness. For some people, the only way of assuaging the loneliness is by getting involved in real change. I’m happy about some initiatives that are aimed at solving problems that affect Muslim communities. They are social problems and I believe that they will help a number of individuals. But at the same time, all this work obscures the fact that the people who are disconnected and socially isolated will likely be the ones most tapped to do this work.

I used to attend one of the largest multi-ethnic communities, but at times experienced intense loneliness. In fact, these feelings have erupted in the middle of crowded rooms in gatherings or talks. In fact, I used to be extremely active in the Muslim community and at the end of the day, retreat to my isolated corner. I felt like I was doing meaningful work, but at the same time I suffered from the lack of real human connection. Even when I met and spoke to amazing people, I got a sense of the ephemeral quality of my relationships.

I have witnessed a general mood shift occuring within a growing number of Muslims over the past few years. Perhaps it is due to age, changing life phases, increased responsibilities, or even disillusionment, but many of my friends have phased out of going to Islamic events, like lectures, halaqas, conferences, and for women, even jumuah. Most of my friends graduated from college nearly a decade ago. The days of dawa committees and MSA conferences are long past. Our circles have tightened, often drawn closer to family networks and long time friends. Even those with families and who have maintained childhood friends experience loneliness. Perhaps this is the fate we face in the post modern age-increased isolation and disconnection. The only way we seem connected is through facebook where I read their favorite quotes, see links to youtube videos that amused them, and look at pictures of their kids. While my married friends seem to have busy lives, producing the next generation of American Muslims, my single friends are juggling a lot too. Many are overworked in their careers or in some demanding academic program.

The general sense I get is a growing isolation, especially if you don’t fit into one neat category or box. I personally don’t think that the solution this condition is in building more community centers or some initiative. Rather, I think it is in individuals. What people desire is fellowship and companionship. And that is developed over time as we create ethical friendships of mutual exchanges and trust. I think it is important for our spiritual and religious leaders to teach us to be better companions and friends. We can foster a sense of fellowship and through that, have actual communities that address the spritiual need to be connected, as opposed to being purely based on political and social interests.