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Oct 08 2018

The Muslim Community & the Issue of Identity and Belonging

Credit: DKlaughman, Flickr. CC 2.0 (This image has been cropped)

Source: http://blog.minaret.org/?p=18506

By Dr Imad ad-Dean Ahmad
April 2018


[These are my notes from The Washington Forum Lecture Series* program on “The Muslim Community & the Issue of Identity and Belonging” held in Fairfax, VA on April 4, 2018. These notes summarize my impression of highlights of the presentations and are not an attempted transcription.]

 

 


Summary of the Introduction by Ustadh Anwar Haddam:

The first lecture in this series was on liberty and democracy. We need a clear vision. It should be society oriented to face the challenge and to benefit from the opportunity the challenge has provided.  Liberty and democracy must be the central focus for Muslims.

Liberty means, first, to be free to be what you want to be and, then, to be free to do what you want to do. Unless you are free to be who you want to be you are susceptible to manipulation in deciding what you want to do.

We look at the Islamic faith as a set of tenets that allow us to embrace the components of our internal identity without conflict. Islam is not only about rituals but has a mission-driven component.

Lecture by Dr. Esam Omeish:

Simply put the question of identity is “Who am I?” A person can have multiple identities that, collectively, make the individual.  According to psychology, belonging is near the top of the hierarchy of human needs: physical needs, security, and belonging. It is the need for love, welcome and acceptance. It is the stepping stone to esteem and actualization. Our identity determines where we belong. The act of belonging requires an ability to formulate a status that allows you to assess what belonging looks like.

We look at the Islamic faith as a set of tenets that allow us to embrace the components of our internal identity without conflict. Islam is not only about rituals but has a mission-driven component. The American experiment is a human experiment that we embrace naturally because we come from a background that embraces the same principles. We remain a community impacted by the same social factors that impact any community, but we have a mission to actually embrace the challenge.

We have recommended as a reading assignment A Nation of Nations by Tom Gjeltan (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2015) in which he looks at Fairfax County as typical of the challenges and transformations immigrants have experienced. For immigrants, questions of identity and belonging are manifest. He selected my family and me as one of the examples, including the issue of Islam. There is a bit of each of our stories in this story. America could not reach its potential until immigration was recognized as one of its organizing principles. I believe that we have the resources not only deal with the challenges, but to be strengthened in our identity and belonging in the process.

We are adopting a broad definition of Islam not to enable us to restrict ourselves to a religious identity but because the expansive definition is the true one: Islam is a universal religion compatible with the human condition. The Islamic Civilization definition of our din is the realm in which we find our Islamic identity. It is important that we not view our Islamic identity as opposed to all other identities. In refusing to do so, we shall be be confronted by resistance within our own Muslim communities using arguments such as al-walaa wa-l-baraa (loyalty and disavowal, that is embracing that which pleases God and opposing that which displeases God).

Credit: Ilana Alazzeh (Flickr)

Al-walaa wa-l-baraa is irrelevant unless we distinguish that which opposes the Islamic religion from that which simply comes from outside the tradition. About half of our community are first generation immigrants and imams who address these issues without being aware of the cultural sensitivity involved will be unprepared for the backlash. Younger Muslims and the children of immigrants are better prepared to consider these issues, but they still want to know how Islam plays a role (what is its relevance?), like the young American who went to Algeria to learn how their understanding of Islam became a force in the resistance to colonialism.

Remarks by Ustadh Youssef Yaghmour:

We should not shy away from theses controversies. The Prophet (pbuh) addressed the disbelievers with “Ya kawmii,” (O my people). The compatibility of being an American with being a Muslim has become an issue, but questions of allegiance only arise in times of war.

The question am I a Muslim-American or an American-Muslim is the wrong question. The style of government in an empire-state is not the case in the world of nation-states in which we live, and it cannot be the model for our time.

If we see ourselves at war with the rest of our American community, then we have a bigger problem than a debate over identity, one that will affect how people look at us. Is there a conflict between being a Muslim and an Egyptian? Between being a Muslim and an Indian? Then why between being a Muslim and an American.

The question am I a Muslim-American or an American-Muslim is the wrong question. The style of government in an empire-state is not the case in the world of nation-states in which we live, and it cannot be the model for our time. There is an identity conflict between being a Muslim and an atheist, but not between being a Muslim and an American. That is a contrived conflict. I want to use Islam to help solve America’s problems, and there is nothing in this nation to stop that.

Comments by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.:

We can learn by critically observing the variety of experiences of the multiplicity of religions in this country as case studies of identity and belonging. The Jews integrated more as an ethnic group than a religion; the Amish insulated themselves from the “English;” the Catholics set up their own schools, dominated police departments and political power centers and openly challenged social policies of the Protestant majority; the Mormons homesteaded an entire state; the Quakers exerted influence as peaceful activists.

Credit: IslamicCity.org

The United States is unique among nation-states. It is the only one in which of the five factors that define a national identity (ethnicity, language, culture, language, and historical narrative) historical narrative thoroughly overshadows the other factors. That narrative is one of liberty and resistance to tyranny, and the immigrant experience is thoroughly intertwined with it.

Resistance to the state and even to prevailing public opinion is a major element of Americanism. White Supremacy was at one time part of the American ideology. While it as not been completely eliminated, the fight against it is hailed not as opposition to Americanism, but as a fulfillment of it. Thus Martin Luther King did not have to change the words of the Declaration of Independence, only to stress a single word, when he said, “All men are created equal.”

Even though Muslim immigrants understandably distinguish themselves from the African-American community on the grounds that the latter were forced to come here, we must recognize that their experience too is instructive and that they must not be excluded either as a model nor as participants in programs such as this one.

In addressing these issues we face resistance from both within and without the Muslim community. It is the resistance from within that is most difficult. Non-Muslim resistance is manageable if you know how to do it. I have lived in this country all my life. One of the most difficult challenges to belonging was my refusal to drink alcohol because it is considered a “social lubricant.” Declining to drink on the grounds that it is bad for you or because I do not like it only alienated those who offered it to me. But I learned that if I just said, “It’s against my religion” they were satisfied, because Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and Christian Scientists do not drink either. (And even Baptists, supposedly, some would say, are not supposed to.) Not so easily managed are Muslims like the one who anonymously called my office and told my employee, “Dr. Ahmad should not play guitar.”

 

*On January 30, 2018, some Muslims in the Washington, DC area initiated “The Washington Forum Lecture Series” to address the challenge and opportunity posed by recent events to Muslims in the USA and abroad by a new approach aiming at inspiring and leading change, instead of managing the status quo.

 

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad is the President and Director of the Minaret Institute of Freedom and the author of Signs in the Heavens: A Muslim Astronomer’s Perspective on Religion and Science. He teaches courses on Islamic religion, history and civilization and religion, science and freedom at Wesley Theological Seminary and a course on “Changing Views of the Universe” at American University.

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