Chimamanda Adichie on the Danger of a Single Story

I’m not sure how I happened across this TED video of Nigerian author and storyteller Chimamanda Adichie but I’m so glad that I did. Much of her talk, revolving around examples pointing to the danger of having only a single story about any people or any place resonated with me.

I am Nigerian and I am American, dual-nationality granted to me as a consequence of my birth. Like Adichie, since childhood, growing up in a mostly white town in upstate New York and attending a mostly white school district, I too have been asked about Africa as though I’m supposed to be an expert about every country, historical development, and political and cultural reality on the vast continent. Oh and Africa is most certainly a continent, not a country. Please try to remember that the next time you’re mentioning a list of countries like America, Japan, Brazil, England, and Africa? No, my friend, Africa does not fit at the end of that list.

When Adichie’s American college roommate asked to listen to some of her “tribal music” I could almost see the disappointment which must have reflected on her friend’s face when she pulled out her Mariah Carey cassette tape. I remember so many conversations asking me if those Tarzan-like or Kipling-esque images of Africa still ring true. If we all dance around the fire or live next to elephants, tigers, and giraffe.

The Africa I know is one of modern people living ordinary or extraordinary lives, in houses that might resemble similar structures in any American or western suburb. Not to say there is not poverty because there is but that poverty does not define the Africa I know any more the Southeast D.C. defines the Washington DC region I know. The Africa I know is of people working hard despite the hardships, excelling in education and careers (if they are fortunate to find employment after graduation or as they migrate to foreign countries), laughter, strong familial and community ties, infused with spirituality, good traditional foods, and of Nollywood (the Nigerian Bollywood or Hollywood). The only time I remember seeing large animals commonly found in the pages of a National Geographic magazine was on a trip to the zoo in Lagos.

Like Chimamanda Adichie and Chinua Achebe and even an author with my exact name Ifeoma Okoye, I am Igbo. Their writing inspires me and provides me with examples of people like me. To return to Nigeria and to read their work fills me with a sense of coming home (even though I view my hometown as being in New York) and of understanding. It provides me with examples of people with brown skin and hair and lips and cultural nuances like mine. A much needed reference point in forming one’s identity when surrounded by a world that views Africans “with a kind of patronizing well meaning pity” as a monolith, inferior, beastly, “half devil, half child,” needing to be rescued from themselves by outsiders.

I am Igbo and I’m Muslim, a convert to Islam. Many people I encounter familiar with the Igbo will remark on how unusual or anathema the two concepts seem as the Igbo tribe post-British colonialism has become fiercely identified with Christianity. And in the never-ending battle of tribal one-upsmanship juxtaposed to other tribes, particularly the Muslim ones.

To be a convert in American Islam, even with its diversity is kind of like growing up in a predominantly white town. Very rarely do you see authentic representations of oneself and one’s story. Continue reading “Chimamanda Adichie on the Danger of a Single Story”

Andrea Elliott, Yasir Qadhi | Talk about American Muslims, Jihad & Good and Bad Salafis

Disclaimer: I am quoted in this article.

Andrea Elliott has written a revealing profile of Yasir Qadhi, an influential teacher and imam amongst some conservative western Muslims. Overall, I think Elliott offers the reader a fascinating window and insight into a little known and much maligned segment of the Muslim community, however, the repeated references to Salafiya seem to have missed the mark.

…But Qadhi had another life. Beyond the gothic confines of Yale, he was becoming one of the most influential conservative clerics in American Islam, drawing a tide of followers in the fundamentalist movement known as Salafiya

I’ve never been fond of the word “cleric” and have become even less so after reading it repeatedly throughout this article. While a cleric may rightly be defined as “any religious leader ” it seems that word is most often reserved for Muslim imams, leaders, and religious activists. Later on, more neutral terms like “theologian”  and “preacher” are used, “Arguably few American theologians are better positioned to offer an authoritative rebuttal of extremist ideology.”

I will concede that I don’t see much difference in aqidah (theology), fiqh (jurisprudence), and methodology between those who would like to be called Salafi, orthodox, or conservative. However, within many Muslim circles, the Salafi label is viewed in an exceedingly negative light and has been for quite some time. While many conservative Muslims proudly assert their claims to orthodoxy and to following the ways of the salaf, the earliest generations of Islam, due to the excesses of the Salafi movement, many reject the label Salafi for themselves. Today, the few that do still claim the Salafi title for themselves have a tendency to view people like Yasir Qadhi with his ever-evolving views (evolution, in this sense, is a good thing) as having sold-out or gone astray from the straight path of Islam. An Islam largely informed by the historical political, religious, and social mores of Saudi Arabia.

A more accurate assessment might be that Qadhi draws followers from a diverse group of largely conservative Western Muslims. His story is like so many of ours, the child of immigrants, to whom much was given and much was expected, having come of age  trying to find a balance between the competing forces of our fiercely Western and our parents’ back home identities. Fluent in the vernacular of Westerners, with a sharp and critical mind, and an engaging and lucid manner of speaking, writing, and teaching, it’s easy to love his work. I still remember the first time I heard a Yasir Qadhi lecture. A friend had given me his The Story of Ifk about the slander of Aisha and I was immediately drawn into the story, captivated, I listened to all four parts. Not only did Qadhi have flawless English, a sometimes rare but important quality but he told the story with such detail and intensity that one could not help but be moved. Afterward, I remember asking my friend for the name of the speaker so I could find more of his lectures online.

In the basement of the religious-studies building, Qadhi settled into an empty room, flipped open his MacBook Pro (encased in Islamic apple green) and dialed in to an Internet conference call with more than 150 of his AlMaghrib students. “I want to be very frank here,” Qadhi said, his voice tight with exasperation. “Do you really, really think that blowing up a plane is Islamic? I mean, ask yourself this.”

Photo courtesy of Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Islamic apple green? C’mon, it’s just a green case. I have a blue one, one of my friends has a green one, nothing Islamic or religious about it but interesting detail with a picture amongst the interactive features. Continue reading “Andrea Elliott, Yasir Qadhi | Talk about American Muslims, Jihad & Good and Bad Salafis”

Stop the Hate, Evolution, & Why We Care about Issues

Haters never Prosper

In Orange County, California (remind me to strike that off my places to visit other than to show my support for the Muslims there), the worst and the lowest of anti-Islam protestors showed up to a fundraiser organized by a Muslim organization to raise funds for women’s shelters and to aid in the general fight against hunger and homelessness here in America. They were greeted by politicians, tea party activists, and a group of protestors akin to the repugnant Westboro Baptist Church members who protest at the funerals of dead military personnel.

Now, I’m a big free speech advocate even if that speech is offensive and it may reflexively feel good to prevent it. I agree with the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday protecting the right of expression and don’t agree at all with the implementation of so-called blasphemy laws in some Muslim countries, which are largely used as tools of injustice to persecute minorities or political opponents, which even if there is some basis in the religion, was never the intent of law.

Here’s the video, not for the faint of heart, of the protestors harrassing the Muslim attendees at the fundraiser. I hope and pray each elected official that spoke at the rally is voted out of office or recalled by the people and for understanding and civility to enter the hearts of the protestors.

The Theory of Evolution

I made some comments on Muslim Matters in response to a comment indicating that Muslims find the theory of evolution to be a heresy. Among other comments on that post about the assassination of Salman Taseer in Pakistan, I said the following, “I neither think that parts of the theory of evolution are a heresy nor blasphemy laws as we see implemented today for a plethora of reasons should be considered a part of religion.”

I didn’t make those comments lightly or flippantly. However, some critics, reading in their own biases then interpreted those comments to mean that I have given full and unconditional support to Darwinian (where did I say Darwinian?) evolution. Did we miss the word “parts” used as a limited qualifier?  Many conservative Muslims find Darwin’s theory of evolution to be incompatible with Islamic theology and the story of the creation of human beings. To what extent one accepts or rejects evolution is controversial. However, for me, learning and working as I do in the healthcare field, parts of the theory of evolution, Darwinian or otherwise, is simply incontrovertible, that some organisms do evolve and there seems to be a form of natural selection at play.

One can always disagree about anything, pseudoscience is there for the taking but real science confirms (as it can in its limited way) the existence of newer strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria for example common in TB patients and of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). I’m currently doing a unit in maternal nursing and women’s health. Have you ever seen a child born with genetic mutations incompatible with life? Continue reading “Stop the Hate, Evolution, & Why We Care about Issues”

Un-Mosqued | Leaving the Mosque Behind

Leaving the Mosque Behind

We are leaving. Leaving what? Leaving Islam for some, leaving the mosque and and sense of greater Muslim community for others, carrying with us the broken and unfulfilled promise of an Islam, which really did elevate the status of women and truly does view women as full active and contributing members of society worthy of respect, dignity, and inclusion. Not that we were ever truly welcomed here by so many of our communities. A victory of sorts. Victory for those asking us to convert out of Islam for challenging the status quo, victory for those who believe women should neither be seen nor heard nor step outside of her home, and victory for those who say Islam is an intolerant and backward faith in need of reform.

The Un-Mosqued

In the film Me and the Mosque by documentary filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz, Dr Aminah Mccloud, a professor of Islamic Studies at DePaul University notes that many Muslims are “un-mosqued.” These are the Muslims (the absent and mostly silent majority)  that have been unable to find or participate in helping to create a mosque space that welcomes and reflects the desire of (not only) Western Muslims, especially but not limited to women, to have a real voice and equitable space (and other) consideration within Muslim communities, near and far. For many reasons, mosque attendance has become associated with multiple levels of pain and anguish so much so that many have given up on their communities and have become un-mosqued. At the recent Muslim Public Affairs Council’s annual convention, Imam Johari quipped that while Muslims may be un-mosqued they are not “un-Muslim.” In some communities, attendance at the mosque for prayers, lectures, events or weekend school is a kind of litmus test for one’s faith. Those who come more frequently are often assumed to be more pious and to have stronger faith than those that come infrequently.

It’s not only women who have grown dissatisfied with the general attitude of non-concern, which permeates many Muslim communities whereby more than half of mosques in North America relegate women to basements, penalty boxes, balconies, partitions, and other substandard accommodation in addition to excluding their meaningful participation in the affairs of the community. Professor Jeffrey Lang, recounts in a three-part video lecture his personal and devastating experience with his own daughters as they gradually became un-mosqued. Unable to find a place to nurture their faith in the man-cave of the mosque, which never welcomed them, many women have grown accustomed to developing and practicing their faith outside of the mosque without a sense of greater community. Again, a victory for those who emptily parrot the hadith that the salah of a woman receives more reward in her home as though that can capture the full range of meaningful experience of vital importance to cultivate and strengthen one’s faith.

Why do we seek to engage in our communities through the mosque? The reasons are many and includes so much more than just the multiplication of reward for engaging in salah. The mosque is not only a place to pray but also a community gathering space. Yes, when out and about and in need of a place to pray, I delight in praying comfortably in a mosque. The mosque is also a place to see the diversity of Islam’s adherents and meet other like-minded Muslims, I think I’ve met the majority of my friends either at the mosque or through mosque-led events. Being in community and interacting with others with its attendant joys and bearing its harms is a way to put one’s faith into practice. Getting up in the early pre-dawn hours, day after day, to pray fajr and other salah in the mosque teaches you discipline and time management, standing next to a fellow Muslim in prayer inculcates the beautiful manners of Islam including patience, gentleness, humility, forgiveness, and a concern for others, and breaking fast together or performing other communal worship strengthens one’s own faith, deepens the ties of connection, and fosters a sense of real community.

So the loss of the mosque in one’s life is acutely painful. Practicing one’s faith alone can be lonely. It’s profoundly disheartening to experience the disconnect between the theoretical Islam where Muslims happily recount the list of Muslim-first achievements (women having the right to own property and inherit, to keep their own names, to whatever) and the repeated use the easy hijab and gender stereotypes, while the ugly reality of inequity and belittlement, which is experienced by so many simply on account of their gender exacts a heavy toll on one’s faith. Those that bear witness to such inequity mainly do so with either silent acquiescence or protest. I’ve tried the former and am increasingly convinced the latter is better. Protest can take many forms chief among them is the prayer coupled with action.

Pray in Protest

Moving out from behind the partition and penalty box, the basement and classroom, and the balcony and other inferior disconnected spaces, I’ve decided to write and continue to highlight the words of other strong and eloquent writers on the issue of women’s prayer space and community inclusion, here and here, which continue to generate much discussion. In addition, I’ve started a photoblog to highlight prayer spaces around the world. Recently, after publishing pictures and my own reflections of the experience at a local mosque, a board member at that mosque responded in the comments excusing the substandard accommodation and promising reforms and improvements in the near future. A small but important victory of sorts.

Among the beneficial aspects of highlighting the issues surrounding women’s prayer space and inclusion within the Muslim community has been to find a community of Muslims around the world who have been struggling for improvements for years and increased awareness and attention paid to these issues by Muslim writers, activists, and imams. In the last year, Suhaib Webb, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, and Yasir Qadhi have been speaking out against the shameful ways women are treated in our community, of which one aspect manifests in poor accommodation in mosques.

The decision to leave the mosque behind in search of a safe place to nurture one’s faith is not taken lightly by one deeply connected to the mosque and Muslim community. But for some Muslims, it’s a retreat that is needed in order to hold onto both faith and sanity. We may be leaving the mosque behind but we’re not leaving our faith, at least not most of us. As for me, I’m not willing to give up on my faith or the Muslim community or the mosque and so I will continue to utilize my energy to improve the situation and continue to pray in protest.

Zaid Shakir & Mohamed Magid | Curbing Violent Extremism in the Muslim Community

Cross-posted on Muslim Matters

(Audio removed by request, but may be back at later date)

A few weeks ago, I attended the “Curbing Violent Extremism”  hosted by the ADAMS Center in Sterling, Virginia. Zaid Shakir, an Islamic activist and teacher at Zaytuna College spoke alongside Mohamed Magid, the imam of the ADAMS Center and the new President of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). I found the discussion invigorating and refreshingly frank. Below is a recap of some of the major points and the Q&A that followed.

Imam Zaid Shakir

Zaid Shakir opened the discussion by recognizing that the issue of violent extremism is “a very complex, sensitive, and emotive topic and one that stirs up a lot of emotions” so he mentioned by way of reminder the hadith in which the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) advised a man three times to not become angry meaning to “not act out of your anger.”

The most “dangerous manifestation” of violent extremism here in the U.S. in Shakir’s view comes from those who seek to gain positions of prominence in the government to advance an agenda that will prove detrimental to Muslims. However, Shakir stated that his primary focus is on how the American Muslim community can “empower or diffuse” the agenda of those who seek to inflict ever greater levels of harm upon innocent Muslims around the world. He posits that the real targets in this climate of increased attention and hostility towards Muslims are not Muslims themselves but rather the “disappearing white middle class.” The fear of Muslims and Islam is conveniently used to distract attention away from the difficult economic climate.

According to Shakir, we should also be concerned with what Muslims do because “we are a people of personal and individual responsibility. We are not a people who play the victim card or blame others for our actions.” Muslims must learn the lessons of history and look internally to remember that “we are the responsible actors for effecting change and not anyone else.”

Shakir then noted that, “we have some Muslims who are just as wedded to violence as this cabal of neo-cons, extreme Zionists, and [some] Christian fundamentalists in this country.”  However, there is a significant difference between the two groups as the latter group has access to the instruments of mass destruction while the Muslims do not. Shakir then noted the example of General Ken Waller during the first Gulf War who responded to Saddam Hussein’s boast to “fight the Americans until the last Iraqi” by saying that “we’ll grant them their every dying wish.”

Imam Zaid counseled the audience to not be so naïve as to think that the claims of those including candidates for public office who say we need to wipe Islam off the face of the earth or bomb Mecca or intern Muslims are so far-fetched if the political reality changes, for “what human beings have done, humans can do” and the examples from history are numerous. In the face of such a concerted effort, the Muslims promoting a violent ideology would not be able to effective counter measures.

Shakir answered critics who say that the violent extremists are only following a literal reading of the Quran with the verse, “Allah does not forbid you concerning a people that have not fought you over your religion nor expelled you from your homes that you have amicable and just relations with them and Allah loves those who are just.” Some may respond by saying that “the Americans are driving people out of their homes” but Shakir countered this by saying “most Americans I know haven’t driven anyone out of their homes.” Rather, he advised Muslims, especially frustrated and angry young Muslims that want to do something to join forces with those Americans like Michael Ratner and Chris Hedges that have dedicated their careers to shutdown the Guantanamo Bay prison and oppose the invasion of Iraq.

“Michael Ratner has dedicated the last 8 years of his career with others in trying to shutdown Guantanamo Bay. What have you done to help him in this effort, did you go to law school or learn about the political mechanisms of this country and add your voice, organize your community, educate your neighbors, use the media…Where were you when Chris Hedges and Veterans for Peace chained themselves to the White House fence and were arrested while trying to draw attention to those veterans protesting the war? Had Shakir, a military veteran been here, he says he would have a joined them.

Out of frustration, Shakir said that some Muslims claim “the only thing they can do is to blow something up and kill their neighbors who never did anything to them” all the while strengthening the forces that are salivating to go to war against Muslims. He then reminded the audience of the hadith where the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “Don’t any one of you insult your father.” The companions replied, “How could any of us insult our father?”  To which, the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “You insult another man’s father and in return he insults your father, you’re the cause of your father being insulted.” Similarly, “if you were to go and blow up a bunch of people and these people become filled with rage, vengeance and retaliation and they kill thousands of times the number of people you killed, do you think that none of that blood would be on your hands?” Shakir probed the audience, “There are millions of able-bodied Muslim men that can bear arms and fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, why do they need an American to go over there to pick up an AK-47? Is that why Allah put all of these Muslims here in America? Allah has given us so many opportunities here, access to education, the ability to organize and mobilize politically, to critique and stand against our government and its vicious war machine.”

Shakir closed his opening remarks with a final reminder, cautioning Muslims not to be used as unwitting “pawns” in a geo-political game and exhorting Muslims to stand up for justice and to recognize that if the community does stand up, that many other Americans will also stand with them.

Imam Mohamed Magid

Imam Magid opened his remarks by acknowledging the unfortunate reality that despite the many condemnations of terrorism by Muslims, the wider American public will still say that they have not heard this message from the Muslim community. Violent extremism, in Magid’s view has three components – ideological, political, and social.

Ideologically, verses and hadith are taken out of context. Politically, many Muslims do not believe they have an effective platform or may be afraid to speak about foreign policy grievances for fear of being labeled a “terrorist sympathizer.” Zaid Shakir offered that “if you are against American foreign policy, its brutality and its excesses and you are called a sympathizer, then you should know that is nothing new in American history…you should understand that you are part of a proud tradition” of groups that were labeled for standing up for what’s right. And socially, Muslims may become frustrated and angry by the public attacks on Islam and/or by the personal bullying they have experienced for being identifiably Muslim, the last two factors, which Magid believes if taken together may lead to “social isolation.”

In Magid’s view, the Muslim community must respond by engaging in various means of dialogue to deconstruct the arguments used to justify violent extremism. Imam Magid advised the audience that “no Muslim should be intimidated, scared, or afraid to engage in political discourse or to stand up and say that I disagree with the American government on a specific issue because you have the right to free speech.” Commenting on the fears some Muslims have expressed about having their phones tapped or receiving undue scrutiny, Magid responded by saying, “even if that is the case, we have to fight the fight of civil rights and civil liberties as that’s how each people gain respect in this country.”

He also emphasized that “on a political issue if you disagree, you have to use a political platform to make that disagreement known. Trying to take up arms in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iraq does not solve the real underlying issues.” In addition, Magid believes there is a need for Muslims to work to combat the negative portrayals of Muslims in the media and to offer young people an opportunity to learn “authentic and true Islam” to minimize the reliance on sometimes dubious internet sources.

Questions and Answers, for more complete and thorough answers, please listen to the mp3 audio above. Zaid Shakir has also written an extensive set of responses to questions received after the publication of his Letter to a Would-Be Mujahid article, which can be found here: Answers to “Would-Be Mujahids.”

1. What is violent extremism? Why is that we seem to be adopting the language the corporate media assigns to people struggling for self-determination in their own countries? Continue reading “Zaid Shakir & Mohamed Magid | Curbing Violent Extremism in the Muslim Community”

Ify & MuslimMatters on CNN: Countering Extremism

MuslimMatters: MuslimMatters  on CNN & in Houston Chronicle

Intend to blog about the CNN experience at IlmSummit a bit later, insha’Allah. Updated the About page with a picture that kind of symbolizes where I am now, created an Ify in the News page, and deleted the Educational Pursuits formerly Edumacation page.

After the Takbir: Advice to a Muslim Convert

Crossposted over at Muslim Matters

Congratulations, if you have made it this far in your journey and my prayers that you will remain steadfast as you progress along this path of Islam throughout your life. Long after the chants of Allahu Akbar die down if you had the opportunity to witness your faith at a masjid in front of other Muslims or silently at home with only Allah and the angels to witness like I did, it is possible that you might see some of what I’ve seen and experienced. Here are some convert survival tips drawn from my own experience:

Read Everything

I came in like most converts wide-eyed, with an open heart, and ready to learn about and accept my chosen faith. I read voraciously about Islam before and after my conversion. I read everything from different translations of the Quran, books giving an overview of Islam, books about iman (faith), aqeedah (theology), hadith to books on sale in Christian bookstores full of untruths and distortions by “ex-Muslims” to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. As for the latter, I had read Rushdie’s book while in high school trying to make sense of the furor around it and rather enjoyed his unique literary style. It was only later, upon re-reading as a Muslim with some basic understanding of the faith that the blasphemous passages became more clear. My advice to anyone, read as much as you can, not only the “approved” books but whatever piques your interest, and you might learn a lot by reading that which others try to tell you to avoid. Always look critically to what is excluded from your masjid’s library, bookstore, or curriculum, and you’ll learn a lot about what they really believe and often like to present as a universal or “more authentic” expression of Islam.

Don’t Accept Opinions & Views Uncritically

It took me almost a year or two to cautiously begin navigating the Muslim community through my regular attendance at various mosques in the area including the ones my well-meaning friends never told me about including the smaller offshoot masajid, the Ahmadiyya and shia mosques as well. What an eye-opener to the different expressions and manifestations of Islam. Now, this is not theology class where we scrutinize our own beliefs and the beliefs of others, it’s just about being open to learning about our fellow human beings. Don’t fall into the trap of demonizing without critical thought and reflection. Learn and if you don’t know, just be quiet, don’t add fuel to the fire. I seriously doubt that anyone’s iman goes up from attacking others and it most likely will only serve to coarsen your manners and harden your heart. Although, there can be benefit in clarifying issues related to belief.

I’ve always been inquisitive by nature, I actually consider this a blessing, the same inquisitiveness that caused me to read my older siblings history textbooks while still in elementary school cover to cover led me to want to find out about the religion of Islam through reading the Quran after 9/11. And it is this same spirit of inquiry, which causes me to ask questions, sometimes even the hard questions, in reflecting upon the situation of our communities today.

To be honest, even though I didn’t entirely lose my inquisitiveness after accepting Islam through my interactions with other Muslims, I subdued that part of me along with my penchant for asking questions especially in classes (is the voice awrah or not?), and my own individuality to fit in with the prevailing mood of the community. Lower your voice sister, lower your voice, don’t laugh, brothers are walking by. Continue reading “After the Takbir: Advice to a Muslim Convert”