The New York Times | Andrea Elliott on Generation 9/11

Photo by Guy Calaf for The New York Times

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Andrea Elliott profiles 3 young American Muslims, including me, in her most recent article, Generation 9/11, about the generation that came of age in the post-9/11 decade.

It’s humbling to read your own story told by someone else. More reflections later, God willing.

Ingrid Mattson | The Importance of Community in Islam

This an oldie but goodie, which I first posted in back in 2006 but with GoogleVideo now defunct, I re-uploaded the video via YouTube.

You might also be interested to read Dr. Ingrid Mattson – Words of Wisdom, which includes two short lectures and a pdf of her Heaven’s Gate: How Muslim Women Open or Close Doors for Their Sisters lecture.

I’m heading out tonight to break my fast at a local mosque iftar, my first in several years. I used to love having iftar at the mosque but gave it up to have simpler and more familiar meals at home. I’m hoping that I will find a welcoming community. I’ll report what I find for my Ramadan in DC series, God willing.

IslaminAmerica

Dr. Sulayman Nyang | The History of Muslims in America

My father is a professor of African and African American history and I can vaguely remember seeing on his bookshelves at home a book authored by Sulayman Nyang in my childhood. Many years later, when I was in the process of thinking about Islam, long before, well, at least a few months, before I converted, I ordered a large number of books about Islam online. And one of the books I purchased was Dr. Sulayman Nyang’s Islam in the United States. These books formed my first in-depth introduction to and study of Islam, which eventually culminated in my conversion.

So I was quite interested to have the opportunity to attend a day-long lecture on the history of Muslims in America given by Dr. Sulayman Nyang, the head of the African Studies department at Howard University. He reminded us that even though popular American history often begins with the arrival of Columbus that the history of Islam in America began during the Pre-Colombian period and that events that transpired at the same time in Africa and Europe are also a part of this story. Nyang emphasized that Muslims should learn this history and not see the history of Europe or sub-saharan Africa as separate from our story as American Muslims but to integrate it into our understanding.

According to Dr. Nyang, the most conservative estimates indicate that up to ten percent of the Africans brought to the Americas as slaves were Muslim. More than the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the story of Muslims and America includes the war-like encounters with the Barbary pirates in North Africa. Interesting that more than two hundred years later, the U.S. is once again engaged in armed conflict in Tripoli.

Around the turn of the 20th century former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt as the police chief in New York City was dubbed Harun al-Roosevelt after the Muslim caliph Harun al-Rashid. Both are said have wandered the streets at night to gain a better perspective on the everyday lives and happenings of the people whom they served. Many Yemenis were employed in the automobile industry in and around Michigan, which is now one of the largest centers of Arab Americans and Muslims. These early Arab immigrants tended to marry white or black women if they did not return home to marry an Arab woman.

Muslims from Southern Europe and of Slavic descent tended to settle in northern cities and in the Midwest. Some Muslims arrived from South Asia and the Asian Pacific islands like Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines and settled in the Western part of the United States and Canada. Among the Muslims settling on the West Coast were a large number of Muslims and Sikhs from the Punjab. Some of these young Punjabi men worked in the rice fields in California and married Mexican immigrant women, which led to the formation of the Punjabi-Mexican ethnic group, and some of their descendants can still be found today.

Important to the story of Islam in America particularly among Muslim immigrants was the construction the Suez Canal, which allowed more direct travel between Western countries and Asia, the Cold War, and the influx of young Muslim students in the latter half of the 20th century. Prior to Cold War, ninety percent of Arab immigrants in America were Christian. Today, the numbers of Arab Christians and Muslims have almost equalized. As the Cold War progressed, more and more Muslims began to immigrate to the United States and would begin to lay the foundation for the creation of the influential Muslim Student Association and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). The MSA began on college campuses and propagated a conservative form of Islam, which sought to correct what they believed were misguided or deviant interpretations.

More well-known is the story of African American journeys and encounters with Islam. However, there are two distinct narratives of Islam in the African American experience, which include a more traditional form of Islam and the formation of proto-Islamic groups. The story of traditional Islam is often mentioned in reference to Muslim immigrants or about Americans who traveled overseas to Muslim lands like Alexander Russell Webb and the remnants of Islam maintained by the descendants of African slaves as in the example of the Gullah people of the coast of South Carolina. A number of the proto-Islamic groups like the Nation of Islam or the Moorish Science Temple held beliefs deemed heretical to many of the more traditional Muslims.

Among the important legacies of the African American Muslim experience is that of institution building from mosques to schools to businesses, both on a local and national level and of interfaith work and dialogue. A legacy, which other American Muslims have only recently begun to recognize and emulate.

One stumbling block in the development and maturation of Muslim communities and institutions was the “Myth of Return.” Many Muslims immigrated to America believing that they would earn their education and living here and someday return to their home country. For these Muslims, their identity and roots were firmly moored in old world realities. But their children, often born here in America, do not share that same nostalgia for their parents’ home country and may not even be able to speak the language.

Dr. Nyang posits that this mythology of return pre-9/11 helped create a confused discourse about whether or not Muslims here could fully participate or identify as Americans or if migration to a Muslim land was preferable or even required. This also led to the “imported imam syndrome” where adults believing they might return to their home countries enjoyed having an imam who shared their cultural framework but this turned out to be a “disaster” for their children who grew up here and could not identify with this type of imam. According to Dr. Nyang, the events of September 11th, helped “explode the myth of return” for many Muslims, and while some did indeed return home, the vast majority who stayed have acknowledged that America is their home country. As for the growing pains experienced by the Muslim community, Nyang says “every group [in America] has negotiated for identity, security, and acceptance in the host society.”

According to Dr. Nyang, there are three types of Muslims, grasshoppers who wish to be fully assimilated into the dominant host culture and often change their names or are not outwardly recognizable as Muslim, oyster Muslims who are isolationist who tend to cling to more orthodox understandings of religion. These Muslims are somewhat like the Amish or orthodox Jews in being apart from society even while being in it to the limited extent necessary. The third group of Muslims are the owls, which seek a path to reconcile between the grasshoppers and the oysters.

Throughout his talk, Dr. Nyang encouraged the audience to take a proactive role in learning and researching this history to share with others. He also encouraged us as American Muslims today to effect positive change and participate in society through building institutions and also by writing in our campus newspapers to leave traces of a Muslim footprint so that those who come after us will know that we were once here.

It’s a thought-provoking question, at your school or workplace or in your community, if you left today, would anyone know a Muslim had been there?

Abdelillah Drigibi charged with assault and battery

The Accidental Activist: How to Respond to Assault & Death Threats

If you challenge an unjust status quo, those invested in maintaining things the way they are will attempt to silence, marginalize, and may even try to harm you through physical or verbal threats and violence. So you as an activist should try your best to prepare how to respond beforehand. Each situation is unique and it’s hard to predict how a situation will affect you but here’s some advice based on personal experience.

Prepare Beforehand

1. Before you undertake any action, make sure you go into a situation with correct intentions. For the religiously-inclined, saying a prayer and consulting with a spiritual advisor may be helpful.

2. If possible, go with a group, so someone can watch your back, and in case your judgment is clouded, two heads are often better than one. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, …”three’s company.”

3. Be prepared with your technology. Smartphone, digital camera, flip videocamera, etc. Make sure you’ve charged them beforehand and have them ready to use or record at a moment’s notice so you can capture the assaulter in action, which may be useful later on to prove your case. Don’t be afraid to take their pictures or film them as they are not shy to do the same to you.

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4. Always have an exit strategy. Don’t allow yourself to be cornered. If threatened, move to a more open space, preferably one with potential witnesses. Don’t be surprised if people do not offer to help you, they may have their own motivations. It’s been my experience at two separate mosques, that it is often the people who work at the mosque that are the least helpful and most likely to lie and coverup what happened to protect their colleagues and organization. I’m not generalizing this to all mosques, just my experience at two local mosques that when I sought out assistance to either find out information about my assaulter or to thank those who stood up for me that mosque officials were unhelpful.

If assaulted

1. Call 911 or the police and request that they come to the scene.

2. When the police arrive, if they ask you if you want to press charges, say “yes.” Sounds self-explanatory but in the immediate aftermath of an assault, so much is happening that you’re not always thinking clearly. When I was assaulted last year, the police officers asked me if I wanted to press charges and I said, “no, I don’t think so.” They pressed me if I was sure and I still declined. It was only hours later when I was at home and began to process what had transpired that my mind became clearer and I did then want to press charges against the man who attacked me. My reasoning was to send a message to those thugs that it’s not okay to assault anyone and so that they might think twice before doing that again.

3. Allow the police to gather the identifying information from the person who assaulted you and get a copy for yourself. This is crucial.

So what do you do if you decide after the fact that you want to press charges

1. Well, in Virginia, you must go to the County Magistrate and fill out some forms indicating the nature of your complaint. This can be a major stumbling block because in order to file a complaint, you will need identifying material on your attacker including full name and date of birth. Yes, that’s something you might not have learned in your self defense class that in addition to shouting “Stop!” and “No!” don’t forget to say “Excuse me, can I have your full name and date of birth?” Other information that is helpful is driver’s license number or license plate number, home address, and place of work. This information tends not to be something you think about while you are being assaulted. And even if you ask for or try to obtain this information, the other party is usually not very forthcoming for obvious reasons.

How to get around this? If you know where your attacker lives or works, you can have a police officer confront the individual and obtain the information you need. In my case, I knew the man who assualted me worked at the mosque. One day after the assault I went to the mosque for Friday prayer and saw the man that assaulted me setting up orange cones, directing traffic, and opening and closing the gates to the parking lot. So after we prayed, I went over to the police officers who help direct traffic around the mosque on Fridays and explained my situation to them. They listened and one very nice officer walked back to the mosque with me and asked me to discreetly point out my attacker. The officer confronted the man and took down all the pertinent identifying information for me to use to file my complaint with the magistrate. Continue reading “The Accidental Activist: How to Respond to Assault & Death Threats”

Heba Elzawahry

Hijab-less by Choice, Muslim Women in Their Own Words

NPR: Lifting the Veil

It’s always so powerful and inspiring for me to hear people tell their own stories in their own words. Included in the multimedia presentation for this NPR story are 12 Muslim women explaining their choice to unveil. So many of the themes of doubt and questioning and negotiating recounted in their stories resonate with me even as I choose to continue wearing hijab.

Kim Joseph, a convert to Islam, remembers that before she even took her shahada, the phrase which one utters to enter into the faith of Islam, the Muslim women around her put a hijab on her head. She wasn’t even Muslim! It seems the priorities were mixed up. And Joseph now says without hijab, she is able to “develop her faith from the inside out rather from the outside in.” I don’t think there needs to be dichotomy between the external and internal parts of faith, yet when the internal meshes with the external, they seem to reinforce each other. Before I converted to Islam, when I was simply delving into learning about the faith, I test drove several mostly unorthodox hijab styles. I just wanted to see what it’d be like to wear hijab were I to convert to Islam.

Sana Javed looked familiar to me, she attended the University of Maryland and was involved with the on-campus Muslim events so I’ve probably have seen her around. She expresses a sentiment that is felt by many, that as long as you look the part of the ideal muslimah, hijab and demeanor, it’s all good but once you challenge those stereotypes, you can expect a wave of negativity directed at you to force back into the orthy box. Hijab in  that sense, is seen as a “litmus test” for one’s piety. Which brings up the issue of the assumptions and expectations that go along with wearing hijab.

Hijab is a religious, political, and social statement. It means different things to different people but no doubt those many statements, assumptions, and expectations come to the fore. People, both Muslim and non-Muslim often see the hijab before the woman. For some, this is preferable and desirable and for others it becomes a burden, a hindrance, and brings much unwanted attention. And for some of us, hijab is a little bit of both. Samia Naseem mentions how she actually feared for her safety while wearing hijab in this sometimes hostile environment post 9-11. And I think it’s important not to diminish these voices, a garment that is supposed to offer a form of protection does also quite visibly at times put women at risk of physical harm and abuse. Despite her own choice, Naseem doesn’t want her unveiling to be used as support or encouragement for other Muslim women to unveil. The choice, which every woman should be free to make is deeply personal.

For Rasmieyh Abdelnabi, wearing hijab is akin to being forced to be a public and visible representative of the Muslim community at all times, which is not a role every woman wants to assume for herself. It’s remarkable how easily many Muslim men can blend in and are even encouraged to blend into society, to not stick out, and live public lives nearly indistinguishable from the non-Muslims around them. For Muslim women, one of the only ways to do that is by choosing not to wear hijab.

Nadia Shoeb expressed that she felt naked the first time she went outside without her hijab as if she had gone shirtless. I think this is something many of us can relate to, either being asked to remove our hijab in public or having a man unexpectedly walk in on us without our hijab. Such an experience can be deeply embarrassing or humiliating. Shoeb also noted something interesting, that the experience of these Muslim women chronicled in the story is “distinctly American.” Continue reading “Hijab-less by Choice, Muslim Women in Their Own Words”

Hebah, Spitzer, Mona

I Do Not Support the Burka/Niqab Ban

So France has banned the burqa/niqab. I blogged about showing some niqab solidarity way back in 2006. That post, which I had forgotten about is now trending on my blog so I decided to re-read it. So many promises made, ones that should be kept:

I promise not to judge people by their clothing. I promise to defend the right of women to decide for themselves how they wish to dress. I promise to not take any positive or negative experiences I have had with sisters dressed a certain way to extrapolate and make generalizations about them or others with similar fashion choices. I promise to not sit idly by while people try to force you to uncover or cover to fit their perceptions of modesty.

More than four years later, my views on niqab have shifted. At some point after my conversion, I flirted with the idea of wearing niqab but ultimately decided against it even though I had purchased several Saudi-style over-the-head abaya/niqab outfits. I never wore them outside of my house. I tried them on but found them completely unwieldy. My peripheral vision was diminished, it would have taken some getting used to the everyday walking, sitting, driving, and praying, especially getting up from prostration. And certainly, my family already not particularly enthused with my decision to wear hijab would not have been pleased. Oh, but isn’t it about pleasing God, first and foremost? Perhaps, and yes, ideally, but there’s often a great deal of people-pleasing that goes into our clothing choices, and this is true for Muslims and non-Muslims, both secular and religious.

I believe my decision to wear hijab and abaya was primarily motivated by a desire to increase in my God-consciousness. The decision wasn’t well-received by those closest to me and at that time my main contact with Muslims was through online forums. When I was thinking about wearing niqab, I asked some other niqabis for their advice and input, I was curious about their experience and feelings regarding their choice. One sister in particular, who no longer wears niqab, advised me not to wear it out of the communal pressure that sort of “niqab is better and more pious” talk that permeates many conservative communities.

In the end, I didn’t feel then and don’t feel now that niqab is obligatory or even preferable. I don’t think it would bring me closer to God nor do I think it’s necessary go to such an extreme (for me) level of covering in order to simply exist as Muslim woman in society. The struggle for some of us is to blend our cultural identities with our clothing choices. We want to dress modestly but  neither wish to look “weird” nor assume cultural practices alien to our own culture.

However, my personal feelings are beside the point. To force a woman to cover or uncover has nothing to do with justice and liberal values. Yes, women are forced to cover and they are also forced to uncover every single day by other Muslims and by non-Muslims and that’s really very sad and something we should all strive against. But the way to do it, is not by limiting choice and freedom, even if we disagree with those choices.

I’ve been in several situations (renewing my driver’s license, working in a hospital, working for TSA) where I was asked or rather told that I needed to take of my hijab. That’s never a pleasant feeling and if you’re not strong or you do not know or feel able to defend your rights, you may give in to that pressure. In a similar way, I’ve been in positions where women that may not wear hijab have asked me for advice about whether or not they have to or should wear hijab in specific social situations. I tend to say, “no, you do not have to wear it” and to emphasize that it is their own personal choice and comfort which is paramount. And that I will support them in whatever they decide.

It is this support that I think is critical and often missing. The support to choose for oneself despite the pressures, which seek to remove that choice. Nice clip on CNN of a debate between Hebah Ahmed, a niqabi,  and Mona Eltahawy. For me, seeing Hebah and Mona is a victory of sorts, two Muslim women with two different ideas about dress comfortably explaining for themselves why and what they believe. I find it disturbing for someone who believes in women’s rights to try to deny women the right to choose a manner of dress for themselves. And I also find it equally disturbing that some of those who claim to support the right of women to choose for themselves in this case would quite happily deny women the right of choice if empowered in other settings.

I know there are many women who continue to wear hijab or niqab simply out of the pressure to conform despite their wishes to not wear it. And I’ve seen women forced to take off their hijab or niqab for reasons of employment or safety or unjust laws like those in France or Turkey or elsewhere. I’m for choice, yours and mine.

Previously,

Hijabi Monologues Review

Drop-Top Convertible Hijab

Caryle Murphy, Yasir Qadhi, & the Headscarf

cnn-mm-roundtable

Ilm Summit | Behind the Scenes of the CNN Interview

In my earlier post on Deborah Feyerick’s story partially filmed at Ilm Summit this past August, I mentioned I would blog about some of the behind-the-scenes happenings. After interviewing the various instructors at Ilm Summit, counterterrorism expert and occasional Muslim Matters’ contributor Mohamed Elibiary helped arranged an interview with bloggers from Muslim Matters.

Meanwhile, I was eagerly awaiting the start of that night’s wild card session with Jamaludeen Zarabozo. A respected and self-taught convert to Islam with extensive knowledge of the Islamic sciences, his classes and books are popular in conservative Muslim circles. It was expected that he would share some of the key elements of his story of conversion and how he learned the Islamic sciences with us.

I was all set to learn something new and take notes and just as Zarabozo sat down to begin, someone came up to tell me or passed me a note (should have written this earlier, memory is now a bit hazy) that my presence was requested outside the banquet hall, which had been converted into our classroom. I was pretty disappointed to be leaving the session I had most looked forward to all day especially as I was not at all sure of what was in store for me outside. As it turned out there was a bit of a Muslim Matters huddle, preparing for an interview opportunity with CNN on a story about online efforts within the Muslim community to counter the message of extremism.

Courtesy of MM

So often in the media, Islam is represented through the voices of men so it was seen as desirable to have at least one woman join in the interview and that’s how I ended up there as the token Muslim woman. I was a bit anxious to return to the wild card session, now in progress, but was somewhat resigned to the fact that I would miss it. Perhaps, I could have caught the end of it had there not been some miscommunication. For what seemed like at least 20 minutes or more, both the MM team and the CNN team were sitting near each other at tables in the cavernous lobby. As it turned out, we were both waiting for the other group to signal readiness to commence the interview.

Once it was sorted out that both sides were ready, a few awkward moments soon followed. I didn’t intend to wear my black AlMaghrib hoodie but the videographer wasn’t sure where or how to clip on my microphone due to my hijab. So I quickly put my hoodie back on and he worked out the mic issue in a way that made me acutely uncomfortable threading the mic over my clothes and hijab but under the hoodie. I thought to myself, is this what I’m missing the wild card for? I then made a mental note to always do the microphone myself and most likely could have worked out clipping it to my hijab. Though, I must admit the CNN mics were nice.

Next bit of awkwardness, in order to fit all four of us on camera for a wide angle shot, we had to sit rather close together. Much closer than one might sit naturally in order to maintain a level of personal space. Not much that could be done about that.

As the interview progressed my colleagues made some excellent well-packaged talking points. I don’t think I said anything extraordinary. I rambled through my first response, distracted, I briefly lost my train of thought. A small crowd of students had gathered around us to watch the interview. I just hoped someone was taking good notes inside the hall. By the time we finished, it was pretty late and Deborah Feyerick, her producer, and the videographer had had a long day but were still very cordial and gracious.

After we wrapped up the interview, I headed back into the hall but the wild card had ended. I had missed the whole session despite being prepared for it and staking out my seat in the front row, which at Ilm Summit is no small feat. To get a front row seat, one has to come early, eat quickly, leave off sleep and socializing, and sometimes negotiate with the crew from California who would like to think they own first dibs on those seats.

I asked my trusted note-taking companions about the wild card session to see if any of them had notes but none did. Continue reading “Ilm Summit | Behind the Scenes of the CNN Interview”