Since the tragic events of September 11th, Muslims in America have been expressing their patriotism and Americanism to more varying degrees than in the past. Virtually every Muslim organization and community has not failed to make others aware of or to tout their American-ness. And rightfully so... many of us are Americans. Some of us were born and others are naturalized citizens. Many of us who aren't American citizens, certainly aspire to be. It is no doubt that the process of normalizing Islam in America will be a tedious one. So here we are attempting to define ourselves as true Americans while holding on to our Islamic heritage and values. Defining Islam is one thing; however, defining American culture is a somewhat more complex pursuit. Some would argue especially those not raised in America that there is no American culture. I disagree. While it is true that our culture is an ever changing amalgam of ideas, values, cuisines, styles and ideologies, some imported and some born of this soil, there is a national consensus of sorts of what is considered to be distinctly American in the modern age.
Arguably there is a pronounced, anti-Muslim; anti Arab and anti-immigrant vein that runs though this country. That does not speak for all Americans. Let us not forget that people can change. Being American in the sense that we understand it is more than just holding a passport. Many Americans have no real problem with Islam in our midst. They just want their shake and fries with it. We have always embraced other cultures; we just like to add our own twist to it. Just look at how we embraced pita bread! I remember the time where about the only place you could get pita bread on the East Coast was to go to Malko Brothers on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Now you can get it at just about any major supermarket in the country, and in different flavors too! At least 19 towns in the United States are named for Lebanon, six for Jordan, four for Egypt, and three for Palestine. There are four Cairos, six Damascuses, two Arabis, and at least one Baghdad. There's even a place called Mecca California. History has shown that Americans are open for new ideas.
Many American converts to Islam are ambivalent to downright indignant to being told that they must abandon all of their American-ness, if they are to embrace Islam totally. We may not all agree just exactly what American culture is, however, undeniably there is such a thing as American culture. And if we are to truly find our place here as Muslims, it just may help to understand just what it is.
American culture is Super Bowl Sunday, cheese steaks, and high school basketball. Its block parties in the summertime, coming from a neighborhood and always being able to go back and see the people you knew and grew up with. That's America. America is the electoral process with all its flaws, campaign ads, debates and voting machine function and malfunction. America is savvy commercials, the local shopping mall and Wal-Marts from Harlem to Middletown USA. It's Michael Jordon, Muhammad Ali and the resilience of Lance Armstrong. That's America. Its opportunity, sometimes equal, sometimes not, getting your mail delivered in the driven snow, and 24-hour Jack in a Box, that's America.
American culture is public debate about racism, affirmative action, and the success story of Baraak Obama. Its Girl Scout cookies, camping trips and summer vacation from school. Its your alma mater, baby boomers and the quest for early retirement. America is John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field. Its Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Saturday morning cartoons. America is good neighbors, back yard barbeques and a manicured lawn. It's sitting on the front stoop in the summer time eating Italian water ice. Where else but in America can you go to Friday prayer and find a person of African origin, with an Irish last name wearing a shawal khameez from Pakistan, with a Saudi abaayah, khuffs on his feet, and Stacy Adams wing tips? That's America.
Of course American culture is much more than what I have mentioned. America is changing and so are Muslims. The sheer greed fueled inertia of capitalism has forced corporate America to take notice of Muslims. We spend, and we spend big. Maybe that's a bad thing and maybe not. This is a wealthy country with a high standard of living. Perhaps that's one reason why we like it here so much. Hey, al-humdu lillah that we're not doing so bad financially. We just need to remember who to thank.
Some of American culture is at odds with our Islamic values, however, we are free to take or leave alone what we want that's America. Yes there is a lot that I dislike about our country; I abhor street gangs, the pervasiveness of sexual promiscuity, and our governments one sided meddling in the Middle East. I hate parking tickets, high taxes and corporate welfare, but let's not throw out the baby with the bath water. There are certainly a lot of things wrong with our country but there is also all lot of thing right with her. I gave a sermon (khutba) last summer about watching Fourth of July fireworks, something I have always done with my kids. Someone asked me, Imam how can you sanction such a thing. My reply was: "hey, I like fireworks. Besides, the declaration of independence is what assures me the freedom to practice my religion". Does that make me a dyed in the wool patriot? Not necessarily. But until we evolve into an Islamic state replete with our God given rights, I will take advantage of the liberty to practice Islam, pray at the Masjid, enjoin the good and forbid the evil.
America is protest, public criticism and freedom of the press. It's feeding the homeless, volunteering and pesky telemarketers. It's rooting for the underdog, having reliable firefighters, and being able to dial 911. America is public service, shoveling snow for twenty bucks per house, and bright yellow school buses. America is break dancing, home stereo systems and Jazz. Granted, some music is haram but you won't win too many points in America by attacking John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk. America is lot of things to a lot of people but I wouldn't condemn her just yet. I expect to get some flak for this article and that's okay, I can live with that. I sense that we like this country more than some of us are willing to admit. We've been told that America is the great Satan. Well I've got news for you. The Shaitaan (Devil) is an equal opportunity deceiver; he respects no borders, color, nationality or even religion. Yes, it is true that Shaitaan is busy in America but he's busy elsewhere as well. Yet, all of the forces of the devil did not stop the athaan (Muslim call to prayer) from being called from Sarasota Florida, to Sacramento California. That's America. When the hijab was banned in France, Turkey and on Public Television news in Egypt, it still prevailed in America. That alone deserves a hearty "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great).
The truth is that we as Muslims have decided to make this great nation our home despite her flaws. Obviously our Islam should be first, and we are obligated to practice it, and share it with whoever wants it. Americanism and Islam are not mutually incompatible. The relationship between the two just has to be tweaked a little. The Sunna (tradition) of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (May the peace and blessing of Allah be upon him) is applicable for all times. Every mubah (permissible) and even some makrooh (disliked) actions can be enhanced with a sprinkling of Islamic flavoring. Instead of the Saturday bath, we have the weekly ghusl for Jum'ah. Instead of church on Sundays, we have prayer on Fridays. On super bowl Sunday, we replace Coors Light with Passion juice from the Garden of Bilal, a Muslim restaurant in Philadelphia. We replace the Boy Scouts with the Jawala scouts, a Muslim scouting organization. Just as the MSA has become our cleaned up version of the college Fraternity, thikrullah (remembrance of God) and nasheed can replace nursery rhymes. Come to think of it, nursery rhymes aren't all that bad although I prefer nasheed. We can replace hard core rap with the Islamic innovative beat of Native Deen. Instead of pork chops or baby back ribs roasting on the barbeque grill, we have halal hotdogs and lamb chops from the local halal deli. Heck if suits your fancy, you can simply go out and slaughter your own meat or poultry. That's America.
Every Muslim people and culture has had the opportunity to embrace Islam and blend it into their own culture. Now it's our turn. Islam can be adapted to fit virtually every environment. The alternative is for us to just pack up and leave and that's not going to happen any time soon. So we might as well make the best of it which is exactly what we are doing. The term "God bless America" is not out of sync with my creed as a Muslim. Yes, I do want Allah to bless this country and make her better, to conform her to His divine guidance. Allah guides whomever He pleases. Every sane human being has the capacity to submit to Allah's will, to raise their moral standard. Otherwise He would not hold them accountable. Loving or hating American culture is not a necessarily a condition for being a Muslim. But knowing what makes this nation tick certainly eases our transition into being American Muslims in the true sense. Understanding American culture is just one step in that direction.
Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad is a free lance writer, lecturer and an Imam of a Northern California Masjid (www.masjidibrahim.com) He can be contacted at [email protected]
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