Muslim Americans Should Reject the Politics of Normalcy

People take photos of each other before a group prayer session for the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha in the Brooklyn borough of New York City

People take photos of each other before a group prayer session for the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, U.S., September 12, 2016. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith – RTSNFKL

It seems like every day, there is a new story involving Muslim Americans beingkicked off of planes, harassed online, assaulted on the street, or worse. With news of each new terrorist attack perpetrated by extremists in the United States and abroad, Islamophobia is on the rise. Donald Trump has made suspicion of American Muslims a pillar of his campaign, and discussions of blanket bans and religious tests for immigrants have become so regular as to be mundane.

Muslims thus feel obligated to broadcast their all-American identity, whether by disguising their foreign-sounding names, changing their appearances, avoiding their native tongues, or obscuring their religious affiliations. Increasingly, Muslim Americans feel the need to make themselves appear as “normal” as possible by white, Christian standards. Whether through donning a hijab or appearing to speak Arabic, openly existing as Muslim has material consequences. Muslims thus attempt to combat Islamophobia by simply blending in. But true acceptance for Muslims will only come when those Muslims who wear their religious differences openly are seen as being just as American as those whose choices hew closer to the norm.


Donald Trump’s rhetoric energizes Muslim voters

blanding083116muslimvote1metIn a different election year, Bilal Durrani, a busy electrical engineering student at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, might have ignored the background noise of a presidential campaign.

But when Durrani saw a voter registration table at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury earlier this year, he stopped and did the paperwork.

“After hearing what Donald Trump’s had to say,” he said, “it’s become an obligation to vote.”

Although Trump’s harsh rhetoric regarding Muslims has proved to be hugely popular with his supporters, it is also uniting and galvanizing Muslim voters, spurring unprecedented voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts in their communities, including mosques in Boston, Lawrence, and Sharon.

And those initiatives are targeting potential swing states, such as Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, and Virginia.

“Sometimes, you need a catastrophe or a threat to bring people together,” said Hazem Bata, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, whose 53rd annual convention in Chicago over Labor Day weekend offered prime booth space to four organizations helping attendees register people to vote. “Donald Trump is our catastrophe.”



Sufi Sect of Islam Draws ‘Spiritual Vagabonds’ in New York

25sufi1-master768On a leafy block of West 72nd Street, a Muslim Sufi order meets each Thursday evening, squeezing into Abdul Latif’s three-bedroom apartment. You don’t have to know Mr. Latif, born John Healy, to attend. Raised in the Yorkville neighborhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he greeted his guests in Arabic with a thick New York accent, inviting them to sit on the floor.

A group of about 10 beloveds, as they call one another, then stood and locked hands, forming a circle. Mr. Latif, 57, weaved around the ring, leading the chants in unison, including the 99 sacred names of God and prayers of adoration.

The participants — mostly American-born converts to Islam — squeezed their eyes shut; some gently swayed, letting themselves be carried away by the rhythmic mantras. The pace of the chants quickened, one man stamped his feet, another wept silently, and after 30 minutes the beloveds were captivated and perspiring.

Sufis call this practice zikr and see it as a way of connecting with God and elevating themselves through communal meditation. Worshipers frequently lose themselves in a spinning frenzy, as with the well-known whirling dervishes.

Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, has been cloaked in secrecy for most of its existence, having been forced underground by Ottoman rulers in the 13th century. Nowadays, however, many of these spiritual communities, like the beloveds in Mr. Latif’s apartment, are in plain view around the city if you know where to look. Some can even be found through a simple Google search.

The Murid order, for instance, meets in West Harlem and follows the teachings of its Senegalese founder, Ahmadu Bamba. The Tijaniyya group congregates on Fridays in a brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.The Naqshbandis meet on Saturday nights in a 19th-century church on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan.


Christians, Muslims stump together in Jordan


(The Christian Science Monitor) Akef Smeirat did something no other Christian candidate in Jordan is known to have done: he ran for office with an Islamist party.

“Today we need to stop talking about divisions: Islamist and leftist, tribe versus tribe,” Smeirat told residents of this Christian village who gathered recently in a tent overlooking rolling olive orchards on the outskirts of Amman. “We need the efforts of all Jordanians, Muslims and Christians, hand-in-hand, to build a better Jordan.”

Ismael Abu Rumman, a Muslim candidate from the nearby town of Salt, chimed in.

“We are one team, one message and one voice—we want to reform Jordan,” Abu Rumman said as he campaigned in Fuheis alongside Smeirat. The two men were among 130 candidates that the Islamic Action Front fielded in the parliamentary election on September 20; four, including Smeirat, were Christian.

“Although most of the 130 seats in the lower house of Parliament were retained by pro-monarchy loyalists, the Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood’s political arm, and other Islamists not affiliated with the Brotherhood won a total of 16 seats,” the New York Times reported.

Their unusual campaign, which was a first for 21st-century Middle East politics, not only brought Islamist candidates to Christian communities; it also brought Christian candidates to the refugee camps and working-class neighborhoods that are the heartland of Islamist supporters.

Such crossover is noteworthy not only in the Middle East, where Christians have been under attack from Iraq to Syria to Egypt, but even in the increasingly polarized political environments of the United States and some European countries, where other sorts of tribalism are taking hold.


What Happened When Christian Writers Watched an All-Muslim Movie?

timbuktuHave you seen Timbuktu?

All of this movie’s main characters are Muslims. In fact, the screenplay’s deepest wisdom is spoken in a mosque by a passionate imam. But when I showed it to a room full of Christian writers, what followed was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had at the movies.

Last January, at a conference center on Whidbey Island, The Chrysostom Societyretreat organizers asked me to share movies with the group of writers that had gathered together. This year, Timbuktu lifted us from our soggy Pacific Northwest surroundings and set us down at the edge of the Sahara. When the movie was over, we sat in a heavy hush, reflecting on what we had seen.

Consider this: A 99% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes. A Cannes Film Festival Ecumenical Jury prize. An Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Top honors from the Africa Movie Academy Awards.

Yet, like so many world-class films, Timbuktu remains almost unknown to American moviegoers. It’s subtitled, after all. It’s foreign. It doesn’t star familiar names and faces.

In a recent promotional video, a Christian filmmaker declared with confidence that he would give Christians what they want to see:

  • A Christian worldview on the screen (not somebody else’s).
  • Two hours without any risk of being offended.
  • Entertainment!

Christians gave him a lot of money, and his film was widely distributed.


For Muslims at the Pentagon, a Tough Election Year

pentatrumpLast winter, after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivered a landmark speech calling for a ban on all Muslims traveling to the United States, 9-year-old Jibran Ali came home from his Virginia school with an urgent question.

“Am I still going to be allowed to be friends with Axell?” he said, referring to his best friend.

For his mother, the Defense Department’s most senior Muslim American civilian, it was a disturbing moment.

As a special advisor to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Iram Ali oversees the hundreds of White House political appointments to the Pentagon. Her mandate, as tasked by the Obama administration, is to recruit and attract people of all ethnic, educational, and religious backgrounds — a policy the White House believes will foster a better-informed and more effective class of national security leaders.

That commitment to inclusiveness is something she tells her son is a bedrock principle of the United States. But for Ali and other Muslim Americans working in U.S. defense jobs, such ideas are increasingly under assault in an election year when a major party nominee is calling for special ID cards and a database to register all Muslims, insulting the Muslim parents of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, and castigating Islam as incompatible with Western society.

“My husband told our son there’s always been people who were viewed as the negative part of society,” Ali said during an interview at her office in the Pentagon. “It’s our turn now, and it’ll be OK.”


Donald Trump and the Rise of Anti-Muslim Violence

Trump arrives aboard his plane for a campaign rally in Fort Myers, Florida, U.S.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump arrives aboard his plane for a campaign rally in Fort Myers, Florida, U.S. September 19, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst – RTSOHKM

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton tell very different stories about who belongs in America and who doesn’t. Trump describes a country under siege from refugees and immigrants, Mexicans, and Muslims. Clinton talks about a nation made stronger by diversity. The narrative each campaign creates matters. It may even influence the way Americans treat their fellow citizens.

“There’s very compelling evidence that political rhetoric may well play a role in directing behavior in the aftermath of a terrorist attack,” Brian Levin, the author of the report said in an interview. “I don’t think we can dismiss contentions that rhetoric is one of the significant variables that can contribute to hate crimes.”