Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Counter-practices of the "Othered"

Perhaps no group has been so easy a target for "othering" as the African-American Muslim community, formerly known as the Nation of Islam.

While black female Womanists emphasize the uniqueness of their experience of "tripartite oppression"--race, gender and class, African-American Muslims historically shouldered the burden of their own trifecta of difference: race, religion and radicality.

Today, overt prejudice and festering fear against American Muslims emanates from the horrific reality of violent acts of terrorism perpetrated by a handful of modern fundamentalist Muslim groups, most particularly, the Al Qaeda attack of 9/11. However, Edward Said controversially argued over thirty years ago that westerners have derided Muslim populations as violent and barbaric for centuries, even as they conquered and colonized Muslim territories through military force.

Yet for African-American members of the Nation of Islam in the 20th century, prejudicial fear had more to do with their race and outspoken subversive politics of racial sectarian nationalism. Leader Elijah Muhammad called for poor African-Americans to create an alternative nation within a nation in defiance of the racist ideologies and oppressive power structures of the white mainstream.

When I read the cosmology, or creation story, of the Nation of Islam for an undergraduate religion course several years ago, I was appalled. This fantastic narrative relates how a portion of the "original race" of black people was corrupted into white devils by a sinister genetic engineer thousands of years ago. The story seeks to overcome white racism through an elaborate assertion of "reverse racism" which affirms black superiority, as opposed to the emphasis on human equality of the Civil Rights Movement. In other words, the "othered" subversively "othered" the "otherer."

While the hopes, goals, religious symbolism and rhetoric of the Nation of Islam and the Christian Civil Rights Movement differed drastically, the central strategy was the same. Both groups sought to reveal the awful lie of dehumanizing racism by embodying human dignity.

Recently, Mansoor Sabree, the resident imam at the predominantly African-American Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, provided a model presentation of such dignity to my "Reporting on Religion" class. Despite being "the youngest imam in America," Sabree, 30, carried himself with the stately air of a sage, exuding wisdom. Like his bow-tie clad forbears, Sabree was impeccably dressed. His posture was perfect and his movements were deliberate, yet elegant. His tone melded the soft-spoken confidence of the academic expert, charisma of an emerging leader, and peaceful repose of the enlightened mystic.

After learning our names and majors, Sabree launched into a share a vivid, balanced, detailed, candid account of the often tumultuous history of the Nation of Islam, illustrated by a litany of photos. He straightforwardly portrayed the reverse racism, anti-state rhetoric, rigid hierarchical discipline, and scandalous abuse of power against the successes of empowering the urban underclass toward a functional lifestyle of defiant dignity and self control in the face of an onslaught of racial prejudice.

Sabree candidly explained how the Nation of Islam selectively borrowed the symbols of Islam to sacralize a wholly new religious, political and social movement which advocated a radically distinct theology. He characterized the gradual and controversial realignment of the former Nation of Islam with mainstream Sunni Islam under W.D. Muhammad in the final quarter of the last century as the righting of past wrongs and correction of untruths. African-American Muslims now practice normative Islam and emphasize human equality and welcome all peoples.

Since this transition, many African-American Muslims have traded in their formal uniforms for more traditional forms of modest Muslim dress, particularly women who choose to wear the hajib. Thus, they now identify themselves with the rest of the global Ummah in dress as well as in theology and practice. Through the process, they have come to experience more of the general fear and prejudice suffered by all American Muslims in place of the overt racism and sociopolitical suspicion which confronted the Nation of Islam.

Our friend Stephen Prothero relates the story of a hajib-clad African-American Muslim woman told to "go home" by an angry fellow shopper at the supermarket. The cruel irony is that this woman's ancestors were forcibly brought to this country as slaves hundreds of years ago.

When asked how African-American Muslims have responded to post-9/11 prejudice, Sabree highlights the community's emphasis on "staying local and staying relevant." "It's difficult to be asked to represent 1 billion people around the world" he says. "We try to achieve a just recognition of why this conversation is happening, while challenging the mainstream understanding of what it is to be American."

It seemed clear to me that Sabree's forthcoming acknowledgment of the reality of Islamic terrorism does far more to mitigate the fear of American Muslims than the staunch stance of defensiveness taken by other Muslims.

When this same class visited the beautiful Masjid Al-Farooq in midtown Atlanta, Dr. Saddiq, our middle-aged Pakistani tour guide understandably took such a stance when asked about Islamic terrorism. Rather than pointing out the absurdity of holding one billion people responsible for the actions of mere thousands, or offering a political and economic explanation of the radicalization of Islam, Dr. Saddiq attacked the overrepresentation of Islamic terrorism in the media and exhorted our journalism class to be more fair. He threw out statistics indicating that there is as much or more non-Muslim terrorism, which seemed to have little impact on the audience.

Dr. Saddiq no doubt has a point. The knee-jerk, incorrect assumption of news reporters that the Oklahoma city bombing was committed by "Islamic terrorists" demonstrates that such prejudicial media portrayal was prevalent prior to 9/11. But by taking an aggressive defensive stance and denying the elephant in the room, Saddiq only gave skeptics an excuse to dismiss his perspective entirely.

Our stereotypes are broad lies we apply indiscriminately to large numbers of people through the embellishment and universal application of narrow and limited half-truths.

The Nation of Islam acknowledged the excess of violence, drugs and prostitution in the black urban ghettos of the early 20th century and sought to demonstrate that such deprivation resulted from social injustices rather than inherent racial inferiority through the transformation of the urban underclass into a productive new nation. Similarly, American Muslims throughout the country are proving that Islam is not inherently violent or antagonistic to American values and culture by contributing to our society through charity, peace, and proactive political participation.

These proactive practices challenge the "otherer" to examine their prejudices. Just as we all "other" people, all of us are "othered" in various ways. Who might be "othering" you because of your class, clothes, age, religious affiliation, etc. How might you seek to peacefully disprove their oversimplified stereotypes and help them arrive a broader and more inclusive view?

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