The voices of American Muslim men
June 17, 2012
"Those who seek the divine want to make this world a better place, which first requires that we communicate." That's Congressman Keith Ellison in his introduction to All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim.
I pre-ordered this book as soon as I heard about it from my friend Ayesha Mattu, co-editor of Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. (Which I thought I had reviewed here, but apparently I didn't; shame on me! I was blessed to receive an advance copy before publication, and in response I wrote to the book's editors that "[t]hese essays are meaningful, poignant, and powerful. I'm so grateful for these glimpses into the lives of American Muslim women, all of whom feel to me now like cousins I'm glad to finally know." The book merits a full review; I'll try to write one soon.)
Anyway: having savored that collection of writings by American Muslim women, I wanted to also read a collection of writings by American Muslim men. (I've since learned that there is a collection of essays by American Muslim women which is more directly parallel to this one -- I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim -- which I suspect I would also enjoy.)
When my copy of the book arrived, I turned immediately to the table of contents, since I knew that at least one of my friends had an essay here: Hussein Rashid of Islamicate, who I first met at the Progressive Faith Blog Con back in 2006. I read his essay first, with great delight. (More about that below.) Then I read the one by Shahed Amanullah of AltMuslim, who I've likewise known for years; he notes that "[i]n the end, all the PR in the world won't convince our fellow Americans of our worth any better than a typical Muslim can do by simply being a friend to their neighbor." Then the one by Svend White of Akram's Razor, about growing up as a white Muslim kid in Boston. The one by Aziz Poonawalla of City of Brass (who writes that "there's more to integration than making Halloween halal.")
And then I started opening the book at random, reading stories which caught my eye. Jason Moy's "Disable Your Cloaking Device," about making wudu (the ablutions required before prayer) as a captain in the Army, deployed in Afghanistan. Shakeer Abdullah's "Memoirs of a Mighty Mite Muslim," in which he explains (humorously but also with obvious truth) the similarities between Islam and football. Tynan Power's "Stepping Across the Gender Divide," which begins with the story of a trans Muslim man going to Friday prayer before having his gender reassignment surgery. Baraka Blue's "Manhood," which explores how interacting with Muslim men around the world empowered him to own his emotions.
This is terrific stuff. Wide-ranging, diverse, heartfelt, often surprising. I would expect nothing less from any collection of essays by any religion's practitioners. But because Islam is so often misunderstood in America -- especially in this post-9/11 era -- this book's variety of voices and experiences becomes all the more valuable to have in print. (If only I thought the people who fear Islam most would pick this volume up!)
Because I've been blessed to know Hussein for years, I paid special attention to his essay. He writes eloquently about growing up "painfully normal" in Queens, New York. His grandmother and his grade school were both located in Forest Hills, Queens, "one of the most diverse Jewish communities at the time." He writes about how he developed racial identity consciousness first, and religious identity consciousness later. (Indeed: as a good second-generation American teenager, he rebelled against his parents, which naturally meant steering away from religiousness. For a while.)
From a Columbia University professor -- a former Jesuit of Syrian descent -- Hussein learned about Islam as an adult, and it spoke to him in new ways. He learned, he says, that he was "part of a larger spectrum of Muslims and their cultures." He writes:
The Jewish community I knew, from the Iranian Jew I bought my comics from, the Syrian Jews who played music in the area shows, the Bukharan Jews who ran the area restaurants, and the Ashkenazi Jew who was my best friend, made more sense to me. They had different religious understandings, food, dress and languages, but they could all respect each other as Jews. That had not been my experience as a Muslim because there was never a place with that many different Muslims in my life. Unexpectedly, through this choice of Islam as a humanities course, I came to understand my place amongst Muslims.
No surprise that that particular paragraph resonates with me, eh? I love the mental image of young Hussein admiring the pluralism of the various strains of Jewish community he had encountered (and I wish every Jewish community could be as welcoming, and as diverse, as the one he describes.)
I asked Hussein how he became involved with the project; he admitted that he doesn't entirely remember! This book was a long time in production, and he's not sure how he first connected with the project. He often uses essays from the first volume in the classes he teaches, and he knew some of the contributors and one of the editors of that first volume, so when this idea was floated he knew he wanted to contribute.
"I wanted to be involved because it's a great idea and I think the series has a lot of potential," he told me. "It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I'm an academic. I write. A lot. The few hundred words we were given, I thought would be easy." I hear that! And I can imagine some of the ways in which writing this kind of personal essay -- especially feeling freighted, understandably, with the expectation of explaining the American Muslim experience to readers who might be entirely unfamiliar with the subject -- could be difficult in different ways than writing an academic paper or a journal article.
As much as he admires the intent of the series -- showcasing individual Muslim voices, each of which is the voice of a person who speaks for themselves, not for "all Muslims" -- he added that he also feels an obligation to the others to whom he is connected, and the others who don't have this opportunity to speak. "I am part of several larger, interlocking communities, starting with my family," he noted. "I am privileged to be part of this work, and that means I have a responsibility for all those who aren't. And I am trying to speak for those who don't have the ability to speak for themselves, but are still being spoken for."
What, I asked him, are your hopes for the book? In response, he said:
I'd really just like people to pick-up the book, flip to any story (and they all are quite good), and learn something. I think all good books should make you think, and I think there are lots of essays in here that will do that. It's not about the American Muslim experience, it's about the American experience, and we happen to be Muslim. I also love how the anthology opens with disbelief and ends with the complexity of faith. We are not one, and thank God for that.
Of this collection, co-editor Wajahat Ali -- playwright of The Domestic Crusaders -- writes:
The American Muslim men profiled within these pages eradicate antiquated assumptions of what it means to be "Muslim," "American," and even a "man." This may be a book of essays, but it is most simply a gathering of voices who are telling stories. It is fitting that the protagonists of these tales are American Muslim men who finally get the chance to tell their story to us, instead of having their story told to them by others with a political agenda, a well-intentioned yet naïve myopia, or sensationalistic headlines willing to exploit stereotypes for the sake of selling papers or gaining Facebook likes and re-tweets. // In traditional times in Muslim lands, the storyteller was more valuable than the swordsman.
This book is a terrific addition to any bookshelf. I'm so glad to have a copy in my office at the synagogue, available for anyone who wants to read.