I throw up a little when I hear the term “progressive Muslim,” even though some might label me as one. It's the bigotry inherent in this scene that particularly makes me sick. A perfect example of this prejudice can be found in an op-ed published back in July by Ani Zonneveld of Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) called “It’s Time for an American Islam.” If you’re wondering what would make Islam fully “American,” Ani tells you: prayers in English, an absence of “foreign garb,” and “musical expressions like choirs that are not Eastern in scale or language.”
I asked Ani to explain what she meant by “foreign garb.” She promptly answered, “Turbans.” It was that easy: Americans wear American clothes, and people who aren’t American wear turbans, because turbans are not American.
The idea that we can measure Americanness by language, clothing, or taste in music did not begin with MPV. It’s an old idea that has been throwing bricks through windows and filling graves for a long time. Sadly, some voices for Islamic reform have picked up this concept in the name of making Islam more “universal” and “inclusive,” only to spit the same hot garbage that has been thrown at numerous immigrant communities over the years, not to mention this hemisphere’s original inhabitants. How would it read if we applied Ani’s notion of “foreign garb” to American Sikhs, or her arguments about language to America’s many Christian churches whose front signs welcome you in Spanish or Korean, or school buses in Brooklyn that bear Hebrew text? At what point does Christianity or Judaism become American? This “American Islam” shit is really just plain old American racism.
In Ani’s case, it’s specifically an anti-Arab racism, as she complains that converts to Islam are “expected to conform to an Arabic culture.” What “Arabic culture” means, exactly, she doesn’t say. Are converts supposed to watch Egyptian soap operas or race Maybachs in the desert? Ani also expresses her regret that African- American Muslims failed to create “an Islam that reflected their cultural and artistic heritage.” Combining this heritage with “soaring sermons and humor”—apparently essential and timeless qualities of blackness, I’m guessing—Ani imagines an American Islam that “would have easily won over the hearts and minds of the masses.”
First off, black Muslims have been reconstructing their Islam for generations in countless forms. When Ani says that it’s “long overdue for us to create an American Islam rooted in American values and culture,” she’s ignoring a full century of black people doing just that. Some of them even wore turbans, such as Noble Drew Ali, who was born Timothy Drew, the son of slaves in 1880s South Carolina. For him, wearing turbans, fezzes, and other “foreign garb” was part of an effort to reclaim the African Muslim heritage that had been stolen from his ancestors. And yes, in the work of Noble Drew Ali and many others, there were actually masses of people “won over.” Why don’t they count as the makers of an American Islamic tradition? If black Muslims aren’t credited as having contributed anything to what could be called “American Islam,” then Ani’s real definition of “American” becomes clear. When she argues, that “In its current form, Islam feels ‘foreign’ and therefore not welcoming to many,” her real charge can only be that Islam’s not sufficiently white.
Ani closes with her plea, “There’s a Malaysian Islam, a Pakistani Islam, and a Chinese Islam. Why not an American Islam?” This reads oddly similar to a passage from page 14 of my 2006 road book, Blue-Eyed Devil. I’ve been talking the “American Islam” talk for a decade now, but I’ve learned the danger of this narrative: Whenever we want to say what’s really American, we also have to say what’s not American. I had my own flawed means of drawing those lines. For Ani, it was as simple as turbans.
When Ani writes of “American Islam” as something foreseeable in the future, but only if we search for it and even actively engineer it, she also makes a statement on American Muslim communities in the past and present. It’s a statement that echoes rabid Islamophobes, for whom Muslims are not American, not fully, not yet, until they learn to pray and dress like an “everybody else” that has never existed.
Michael Muhammad Knight is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction.
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