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‘Being Muslim’ offers an alternative history of Islam in America

“Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in Amerian Islam” cover and author Sylvia Chan-Malik. Courtesy images

(RNS) — Sylvia Chan-Malik never expected to become Muslim, let alone an expert on Islam in America.

A scholar of American and gender studies at Rutgers University, she was raised in California by Chinese immigrants who were culturally Buddhist but not religious. In high school, she was nearly baptized but decided against it. (The pastor said she couldn’t attend a Madonna concert.) When she began working on her doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley in 2001, shortly after the Los Angeles riots, she wanted to explore the intersections between Asian- and African-American communities.

Then the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened.

She soon began collaborating on anti-racism initiatives with Muslim and Arab activist groups in the Bay Area. “I quickly realized that the same racial dynamics that I was studying between African-Americans and Asian-Americans were all present within Muslim communities,” Chan-Malik said.

She began documenting the ways U.S. Muslims were trying to constitute their identities and grapple with cultural differences to find a political voice. In the course of her research, she found herself drawn to the faith and converted in 2004.

Her new book, “Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in American Islam,” walks readers through the largely forgotten history of Muslim women of color in the past century. She begins with black women in the Ahmadiyya and Nation of Islam movements and ends by exploring how women of color today defiantly practice Islam against the backdrop of the Trump presidency and the ongoing war on terror. “In the narrative of American Islam, there’s this complete omission of these black Muslim women who are so critical to its making,” she says.

Chan-Malik spoke to Religion News Service about Islamic feminism, the fixation on the veil and why it’s critical to understand American Muslims through the lenses of race and gender. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your book diverges from the popular narrative of Muslims becoming American to look at people in America being Muslim. How does your personal background shape your research?

In my own experience learning how to practice religion, I’ve always been very intimately aware to do it against whatever people were thinking — in my family, my community, my work, even walking down the street. ‘Being Muslim’ is a thing. You not only have to think about who you are, but you have to constantly be aware of how other people are perceiving you in your current environment, what happened in the news that day, how people are looking at you. That’s what being Muslim is: a constant, active insurgency. You feel it in your body. To choose to be Muslim, even against all these things that might cause you harm or stress, is an insurgent act.

So “being Muslim” is something that connects all Muslim woman, as opposed to “becoming American,” which is an experience something that’s restricted mostly to immigrants over the past several decades. But it’s the experience that’s most often associated with Muslims today.

Can you have this experience of ‘being Muslim’ without being Muslim?

The actor Aziz Ansari wrote in The New York Times about how he left Islam a while ago. But the political climate has made him say, “OK, this is how I identify as a Muslim because of the ways in which other people see me and my parents.” So he recognizes that he shares this experience with other Muslims in this country.

That’s in line with the experience of racialized minorities in this country. If you think about what connects Asian-Americans and African-Americans and Latinx people — there is no real common thread except for how they’re racialized in the same way.

Today you can’t really talk about Muslim women without discussing the hijab or burqa. Has that always been the case?

In the U.S. it only starts coming up at the end of the 1970s. In my own research combing through all the New York Times and other news coverage prior to that, they would just mention in travel coverage that, oh, they were in Morocco and the women dress like this. It wasn’t something stressed in media coverage, and it definitely wasn’t demonized or fetishized how it is now.

This really changed in 1979. It was never seen as a threat until the rise of oil politics became the pre-eminent marker of our relationship with Iran and the region. That was also a moment in which the second-wave feminist movement was looking for an international cause. This issue then connected oil politics with the ways in which white feminists were trying to go global. They could say, “Hey, we can go there and be useful to these poor women around the world and show them how our values are superior.” So the veil became a useful and convenient symbol.

The mention of women also cues up questions like: Is Islam compatible with feminism, and is there such a thing as Islamic feminism? How have Muslim women in the U.S. dealt with these questions?

A strong desire for women’s empowerment and gender agency has been at the core of women’s engagement with Islam for the past century. Even within what we might see as traditional, conservative family frameworks, they were trying to express agency and power in order to uplift their communities. Many Muslim women themselves would not call it feminism; they’d say, “I’m trying to empower my community” or “I’m trying to submit to Allah.” I argue that this constitutes a desire for gendered liberation.

A strong desire for women’s empowerment and gender agency has been at the core of women’s engagement with Islam for the past century.

In a lot of Islamic discourse and mosque communities, there’s a visceral rejection of the word “feminism.” It’s seen as a sort of destructive force within our community. But there’s another tradition of feminism called womanism in the U.S. that goes back to Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells and enslaved African women fighting for freedom. They produced a different version of feminism that I see as being much more in line with the way Muslim women have found Islam as a source of empowerment.

What’s missing in popular depictions of Muslim women?

Women of color who engage in grassroots community building, activism and cultural production, especially African-American Muslim women. I’ve seen a lot more films being done by those women themselves, but nobody else is really striving to tell their stories. There’s a whole generation of African-American Muslim women who are now in their 70s, 80s, 90s who have so much to tell. They have entire archives on how they created the first Islamic schools in their communities, they have all these documents and photographs in their homes, and nobody is interested.

I’d love to see young Muslims try to preserve and explore and learn from these stories.

About the author

Aysha Khan

Aysha Khan is a Boston-based journalist reporting on American Muslims and millennial faith for RNS. Her newsletter, Creeping Sharia, curates news coverage of Muslim communities in the U.S. Previously, she was the social media editor at RNS.

20 Comments

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  • I’ll start by saying that Islamophobia is a thing. But fundamentalism within Islam is also a thing, and it’s a thing that is disproportionately higher in that religion than in all the others. That is something liberals are frequently loathe to admit for fear of being labelled Islamophobic. But I’m with Bill Maher on this one – Islam needs to be called out and challenged for the extreme level of fundamentalism it is willing to tolerate by a huge swathe of its adherents.

    This is a type of fundamentalism that keeps women covered in hot, sweaty tents when the temperature rises to 120 degrees in the deserts of Saudi Arabia so that men won’t be tempted by the sight of bare female legs. (Naturally the men do not have to do likewise so that women won’t be tempted by the sight of bare male legs.) It’s also a type of fundamentalism that requires so-called “honor killings” of a woman after she gets raped while her rapist gets to run free and rape other women. This is a type of fundamentalism that requires that 18 year-old boys who are caught kissing each other be hung to death for being gay. Among other completely ludicrous things.

    Until Islam is willing to confront itself over the way it has developed over the centuries, a way that has rejected modernity in all its aspects, it should not be surprised when it confronts modernity in other cultures and conflict ensues.

  • A scholar of American and gender studies at Rutgers University, she was raised in California by Chinese immigrants who were culturally Buddhist but not religious.
    ….
    She begins with black women in the Ahmadiyya and Nation of Islam movements….

    Ahmadiyya is a form of Islam in which the Buddha is explicitly recognized as a Prophet of Allāh.

  • IE – “Being a muslim means I can make up crap and play the revisionist history game – after all that’s what Mohammed did to Christianity and Judaism!”

  • and the Ahmadis apparently believe the end of days already came about a few decades before World War I and Jesus (or the Mahdi) returned and died of dysentery. They’re like the Mormons to Christianity.

  • Would you say Christophobia and Judeophobia is a thing? Because the Qooran is chock full of it.

  • That is the great thing about religious freedom. Nobody has to care what anyone says about any given religion. Nor can we be forced to care.

    You can hurl your barbs at them, they can do the same to you. Everyone is free to express their feelings on the subject.

  • Not the first.

    Because I can’t find a single example of Christians in this country being attacked on the basis of their faith or anyone calling for their discrimination or demise.

  • A lot of wasted verbiage until Muslims come to grips with the horror and terror of their holy book.

    And the Old Testament is not much better as it lists the following god-approved atrocities:

    To wit:

    •Exodus 32: 3,000 Israelites killed by Moses for worshipping the golden calf.

    •Numbers 31: After killing all men, boys and married women among the Midianites, 32,000 virgins remain as booty for the Israelites. (If unmarried girls are a quarter of the population, then 96,000 people were killed.)

    •Joshua: ◦Joshua 8: 12,000 men and women, all the people of Ai, killed.
    ◦Joshua 10: Joshua completely destroys Gibeon (“larger than Ai”), Makeddah, Libnah, Lachish, Eglon, Hebron, Debir. “He left no survivors.”
    ◦Joshua 11: Hazor destroyed. [Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (1987), estimates the population of Hazor at ?> 50,000]
    ◦TOTAL: if Ai is average, 12,000 x 9 = 108,000 killed.

    •Judges 1: 10,000 Canaanites k. at Battle of Bezek. Jerusalem and Zephath destroyed.
    •Judges 3: ca. 10,000 Moabites k. at Jordan River.
    •Judges 8: 120,000 Midianite soldiers k. by Gideon
    •Judges 20: Benjamin attacked by other tribes. 25,000 killed.

    •1 Samuel 4: 4,000 Isrealites killed at 1st Battle of Ebenezer/Aphek. 30,000 Isr. k. at 2nd battle.
    •David: ◦2 Samuel 8: 22,000 Arameans of Damascus and 18,000 Edomites killed in 2 battles.

    ◦2 Samuel 10: 40,000 Aramean footsoldiers and 7,000 charioteers killed at Helam.
    ◦2 Samuel 18: 20,000 Israelites under Absalom killed at Ephraim.

    •1 Kings 20: 100,000 Arameans killed by Israelites at Battle of Aphek. Another 27,000 killed by collapsing wall.
    •2 Chron 13: Judah beat Israel and inflicted 500,000 casualties.
    •2 Chron 25: Amaziah, king of Judah, k. 10,000 from Seir in battle and executed 10,000 POWs. Discharged Judean soldiers pillaged and killed 3,000.
    •2 Chron 28: Pekah, king of Israel, slew 120,000 Judeans

    •TOTAL: That comes to about 1,283,000 mass killings specifically enumerated in the Old Testament/Torah.

    The New Testament has only one major atrocity, that of god the father committing filicide assuming you believe in this Christian mumbo jumbo. Said atrocity should be enough to vitiate all of Christianity.

  • What is missing? The following:

    From
    the studies of Armstrong, Rushdie, Hirsi Ali,
    Richardson and Bayhaqi————–

    The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths:(–The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to
    bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)

    Are you ready?

    Using “The 77 Branches of Islamic “faith” a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the
    essential virtues that reflect true “faith” (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings.” i.e. a nice summary of the Koran
    and Islamic beliefs.

    The First Five of the 77 Branches:

    “1. Belief in Allah”

    aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your self-cleansing neurons.

    “2. To believe that everythingother than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these
    things and subsequently they came into existence.”

    Evolution and the Big Bang or the “Gib Gnab” (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible
    and the “akas” for Allah should be included if you continue to be a”creationist”.

    Steps 3-5 are available upon request as are the steps to deprogram all other religions.

  • Ilpalazzo is just annoyed because he had that surprise on-camera interview with Stone Philips. (testing to see if I am really being blocked)

  • Americans Don’t Understand Islam

    http://warisboring.com/americans-dont-understand-islam/

    If the Islamophobes had even one actual case, they would certainly have proclaimed it nonstop, at top volume. So its absence from their rhetoric is a clear sign that they have no such evidence — in all likelihood because, like the Muslim Brotherhood’s “civilizational jihad,” it doesn’t exist.

    Those untruths are not just bigoted and dishonest but dangerous. In the struggle against the real threat from violent Islamic extremism, the Islamophobes’ false statements and overall message help the terrorists, not the security of Americans.

    Falsely demonizing all Muslims, their beliefs, and their institutions is exactly the wrong way to make Americans safer, because the more we scare ourselves with imaginary enemies, the harder it will be to find and protect ourselves from real ones. …

    Those threats will not be detected by pursuing nonexistent conspiracies. The surest way to find them will be through information
    from relatives, neighbors, religious teachers, fellow worshippers — that is, in the great majority of cases, fellow Muslims.

    The vast majority of American Muslims oppose extremism and violence by Muslims or anyone else and have no wish to live under the brutal rule practiced by jihadist fanatics. As a religious minority in a country where their faith makes them potential victims of hate crimes, Muslims
    have stronger reasons than most Americans for believing in and practicing religious tolerance, not holy war.

    Keeping Muslim Americans as allies and maintaining their trust in our common values and political and legal institutions will be critical in
    successfully opposing extremist violence. Losing that trust and driving them away, as the Islamophobes’ ugly falsehoods inevitably will, can only help the terrorists.

  • According to Odin Text research, Quran is less violent than Bible. And,tolerant just war theory in Quran may be God’s plan to resist and reform military industrial cultural complex. According to Quran 60:8 God teaches being kind and just towards non-violent non-Muslims.

  • Divine rights are more important to orthodox Muslims than human rights of Muslims are to identity politicians. Because Quran teaches that being tempted is more dangerous than being killed, because being discriminated leads to infinite bliss and being tempted leads to infinite suffering. The best solution to avoid temptations is either to leave West and to try to heal sexual revolution through Ishmaelite mysticism of sufism. Conservative ecumenical apolitical Christians can be allies in common struggle against temptations.

  • As the koranic/mosque driven acts of terror and horror continue:

    The Muslim Conquest of India – 11th to 18th century

    ■”The likely death toll is somewhere between 2 million and 80 million. The geometric
    mean of those two limits is 12.7 million. ”

    and the 19 million killed in the Mideast
    Slave Trade 7C-19C by Muslims.

    and more recently

    1a)
    179 killed in Mumbai/Bombay, 290 injured

    1b)
    Assassination of Benazir Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh

    2)
    9/11, 3000 mostly US citizens, 1000’s injured

    3)
    The 24/7 Sunni-Shiite centuries-old blood feud currently being carried out in
    Iraq, US troops killed in action, 3,480 and 928 in non combat roles. Iraqi
    civilians killed as of 05/10/2013/, 113,249-123,978 mostly due to suicide bombers,
    land mines and bombs of various types, http://www.iraqbodycount.org/ and http://www.defenselink.mil/news/casualty.pdf

    4) Kenya- In Nairobi, about 212 people were killed and an estimated 4000 injured;
    in Dar es Salaam, the attack killed at least 11 and wounded 85.[2]

    5) Bali-in 2002-killing 202 people, 164 of whom
    were foreign nationals, and 38 Indonesian citizens. A further 209 people were
    injured.

    6)
    Bali in 2005- Twenty people were killed, and 129 people were injured by three
    bombers who killed themselves in the attacks.

    7)
    Spain in 2004- killing 191 people and wounding 2,050.

  • 8. UK in 2005- The bombings killed 52 commuters
    and the four radical Islamic suicide bombers, injured 700.

    9)
    The execution of an eloping couple in Afghanistan on 04/15/2009 by the Taliban.

    10)
    – Afghanistan: US troops 1,385 killed in action, 273
    killed in non-combat situations as of 09/15/2011. Over 40,000 Afghan civilians killed due to
    the dark-age, koranic-driven Taliban acts of horror

    11) The killing of 13 citizen soldiers at Ft. Hood by a follower of the koran.

    12) 38 Russian citizens killed on March 29, 2010 by Muslim women suicide bombers.

    13) The May 28, 2010 attack on a Islamic religious minority in Pakistan, which have left 98 dead,

    14) Lockerbie is known internationally as the site
    where, on 21 December 1988, the wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 crashed as a
    result of a terrorist bomb. In the United Kingdom the event is referred to as
    the Lockerbie disaster, the Lockerbie bombing, or simply Lockerbie. Eleven
    townspeople were killed in Sherwood Crescent, where the plane’s wings and fuel
    tanks plummeted in a fiery explosion, destroying several houses and leaving a
    huge crater, with debris causing damage to a number of buildings nearby. The
    270 fatalities (259 on the plane, 11 in Lockerbie) were citizens of 21 nations.

    15 The daily suicide and/or roadside and/or mosque bombings in the terror world of
    Islam.

    16)
    Bombs sent from Yemen by followers of the koran which fortunately were
    discovered before the bombs were detonated.

    17)
    The killing of 58 Christians in a Catholic church in one of the latest acts of
    horror and terror in Iraq.

    18)
    Moscow airport suicide bombing: 35 dead, 130 injured. January 25, 2011.

    19)
    A Pakistani minister, who had said he was getting death threats because of his
    stance against the country’s controversial blasphemy law, was shot and killed
    Wednesday, 3/2/2011

    20)
    two American troops killed in Germany by a recently radicalized Muslim,
    3/3/2011

  • 21) the kidnapping and apparent killing of a
    follower of Zoraster in the dark world of Islamic Pakistan.

    22) Shariatpur, Bangladesh (CNN 3/30/2011) — Hena Akhter’s last words to her mother
    proclaimed her innocence. But it was too late to save the 14-year-old girl. Her fellow villagers in Bangladesh’s
    Shariatpur district had already passed harsh judgment on her. Guilty, they
    said, of having an affair with a married man. The imam from the local mosque
    ordered the fatwa, or religious ruling, and the punishment: 101 lashes
    delivered swiftly, deliberately in public. Hena dropped after 70 and died a
    week later.

    23)
    “October 4, 2011, 100 die as a truck loaded with drums of fuel exploded
    Tuesday at the gate of compound housing several government ministries on a busy
    Mogadishu street. It was the deadliest single bombing carried out by the al
    Qaeda-linked al-Shabab group in Somalia since their insurgency began. ”

    24) Mon Jun 4, 2012 10:18am
    EDT

    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A
    suicide bomber detonated an explosive-packed car outside a Shi’ite Muslim
    office in central Baghdad on Monday, killing at least 26 people and wounding
    more than 190 in an attack bearing the hallmarks of Iraq’s al Qaeda affiliate.
    The bombing on a Shi’ite religious office comes at a sensitive time, with the country’s
    fractious Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs locked in a crisis that threatens to
    unravel their power-sharing deal and spill into sectarian tensions.”

    25)
    BURGAS, Bulgaria | Thu Jul 19,
    2012 11:27am EDT

    BURGAS, Bulgaria (Reuters) – A
    suicide bomber carried out an attack that killed seven people in a bus
    transporting Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, the interior minister said on
    Thursday, and Israel said Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants were to blame.

    26 ) September 12,
    2012
    U.S. AMBASSADOR
    KILLED
    Envoy to Libya dies in rocket blast

    27)
    Boston Marathon horror – April 2013, four dead, hundreds injured and maimed for
    life.

    28) San Bernardinomassacre, December 2015, 14 dead, 22 seriously hurt,

    29) Orlando Massacre- June 2016, 49 killed,
    hundreds injured by radical, koranic Muslim.

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