If an American who’s awake and socially aware converts to Islam, he or she will encounter the cultural and intellectual imperialism of their fellow Muslims. Not only will you experience pressure to change your name but you will also be asked to choose between being fully American or fully Muslim as if the two are not compatible. An identity crisis is soon to follow but for many of us, it takes years to realize that we’re in it and climb out of it.
Photographer Mustafa Davis poignantly captures the sentiment through telling his own story in Who am I and How Did I Get Here, Reflections of an American Muslim:
But when Muslims tell us that we cannot be American because that means we support ALL things America… it means they are telling us we cannot exist. I will say that again… it means they are telling us that WE CANNOT EXIST.
They can always fall back on their rich cultural heritages (that are often mistakenly called Islamic cultures. They are not, they’re merely cultures where the majority of the inhabitants are Muslims). But I don’t have that luxury or ability. America is the only culture I have to identify with.
Telling me its not possible is pushing me into nonexistence. I don’t think people with such rich cultures and heritages fully understand what its like to not have that to fall back on.
This past weekend, I attended the United for Change conference in Washington DC, where Dr. Sherman Jackson gave the best speech of the night eloquently explaining the rhetoric so often used to confuse Muslims, particularly converts to Islam.
The following is mostly paraphrased from my notes and memory
Dr. Jackson explained that when many in the Muslim world hear us identify as American Muslims, they equate this identity with full support for unpopular aspects of American foreign policy. They mistakenly believe that American Muslims “identify with, condone, or want to whitewash” these policies. However, Jackson notes that “identifying as a Muslim American does not mean I go along or condone” the actions of the U.S. government.
Dr. Jackson points out that if an American Muslim offers condolences for the victims of 9/11, as we rightly should, we are immediately challenged by some Muslims and asked if we are equally empathize with the loss of thousands of lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In order to truly communicate with others we must respect their feelings, counsels Jackson, while not shying away from our principles and that which makes us unique. He told the audience that he prefers to say,”I’m Muslim American and I love my country, not the government, but as home.” “We don’t live in perfect countries or societies but they are our societies,” said Jackson so it’s “not fair to ask us to disavow our country due to its imperfect foreign policy.”
He advises that we not fall into the trap of believing that Islamophobia only affects Muslims because the Islamophobes are working against all of America, which has long been a multi-racial and multi-religious society. The “ambivalence” some Muslims feel towards being an American “feeds right into the rhetoric of the Islamophobes” who believe that being Muslim is incompatible with being a full citizen in Western lands.
But for Dr. Jackson, there is no contradiction between being both American and Muslim. “Islam has some universal values like modesty, generosity, sharing and caring but for these values to mean anything they must be concretized in time and space” thus the expression of these values are unique in each land.
According to Jackson, “some Muslims buy into the view of an essentialzed Islamic culture, which should superimposed upon every culture.” This sets up a false and harmful dichotomy leading one to question whether or not to accept Islamic culture at the expense of their own culture or vice-versa. Dr. Jackson believes a better and more accurate question to ask would be, whether or not one’s “cultural norms coincide with values recognized by Islam” because “Islam has always engaged cultures on the basis of values.”
This process of engaging local cultures has been the key to the spread of Islam across many different lands. If aspects of pagan Arab culture could be adopted into Islamic culture, then “many American values are also good and in accordance with Islam.” For Dr. Jackson, the American Muslim community “needs to get over this notion” that the merging of Islam with culture was only a “reality of the past.” Rather, this process of the religion engaging culture is also a “reality of today.”
We don’t have to commit what some have termed “cultural apostasy” in order to be Muslim. “We don’t all have to eat couscous, what’s wrong with grits?” said Jackson. One day, he hopes to see grits being served at Islamic Awareness week on-campus events.