Ugly Muslim Youth

Several events of today had me thinking about the role of youth—especially Muslim youth in America—in making social changes and what they can do based on what they have inherited from earlier generations.

In my visit to Masjid ash-Shaheed in Charlotte, NC, their imam, Brother Khalil Akbar, shared his hopes that it was the current generation of Muslim youth who would begin to really define Islam in America. Part of those hopes included bridging the racial divides between Muslims. The Greater Charlotte Area has at least 7 mosques, segregated mostly according to race or national origin.

Masjid ash-Shaheed is a mosque associated with the community of the late W.D. Mohammed. That community is no stranger to trying to define their own place in the world according to what they had inherited from earlier generations. The life of W.D. Mohammed, his departure from the theology from his father, and the legacy of the civil rights movement are inescapably tied to the formation of the identity of that community. Those factors have also contributed to the formation of a common language within the community. For instance, the tradition is referred to as “al-Islam” to distinguish it from any other traditions that may use the term “Islam” but that may be seen as less authentic, or less faithful to the Qur’an and Sunnah. W.D Mohammed developed his own unique, ingenious, and relevant ways of talking about theological and social issues. For example, the phrase “rab al ‘alameen” usually translated as “Lord of all the worlds” was translated by W.D. Mohammed as “lord of the systems of knowledge”.

The community has to constantly negotiate with its past and its origins in its self-perception. The Nation of Islam of W.D. Fard and Elijah Muhammad could be seen as an expression of how the descendants of African slaves tried to make sense of a world where they were no longer slaves but where they were still living the reality of racial segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, disenfranchisement, and a violent police state. The history with Elijah Muhammad can’t be entirely disowned, regardless of how members currently feel now about the way the messages were presented then and especially when those members played an active part in its earlier formation.

A completely different history, but one still connected by the common thread of Islam, was represented in Daniel Inayat von Briesen and his family. A son of the hippie generation, his life represents the bridge between New-Agey “goofy Sufis” and a practice of tasawwuf deeply connected to traditional shariah. White American converts are demographically rare, but are disproportionately represented in public figures of Islam in America (e.g. Hamza Yusuf, Ingrid Mattson, Cat Stevens). The idea that someone would jeopardize their whiteness and the privilege that comes with it by converting to Islam seems unfathomable to many, regardless of their own ethnicity or faith.

My own life, as the son of relatively recent immigrants to the United States, represents another transition.

How are today’s youth—the grandchildren of Sufi hippies, African-Americans who were raised after W.D. Mohamed, Arabs, Desis, Africans and others who were raised in America by foreign-born parents, new converts, etc— going to find ways to express their own place in the world based on what they have inherited? And what will this form of expression do in terms of more effectively addressing the challenges that our parents also encountered? Will we just get stuck in a kind of apologetics with our past and with each other’s differing viewpoints? And how will we deal with new, unexpected challenges?

On one of the car rides today, I asked some of my peers what role they saw themselves playing in their own Muslim communities. Several possibilities came up: different levels of involvement, increased or decreased emphasis on change and reform, a focus on family life, even going back to our parents’ country of origin or becoming a world-citizen (e.g. international non-profit work, jet-set businessperson, diplomat). I began to wonder what role the institutions that have already been set up will determine what choices we will even be able to make in terms of forming Muslim communities or even personal identities.

I am thankful to have been raised with a healthy mistrust of authority, especially institutional authority, along with a concern for the public good. This disposition naturally leads to a lot of bitterness and frustration, especially in thinking about being Muslim here in the United States. For instance, if Muslims cared as much about community and education as they claim to, they would put much more work and investment in improving the United States’ public education system than they do in fundraising for Islamic schools.

One way that I sum up my disaffection: I’m sick of slick, presentable, and pretty Muslims. I want awkward, ugly Muslims. The more marketable Islam is made, the cheaper it feels.

What do I mean by marketable Islam? It’s not just the Gulf with its television channels and 5 star hotels and shopping malls outside of the Haram al-Sharif. It’s ISNA conventions, talking heads on TV, events and speeches that scream “Hey look Muslims are human too because we also feel ‘x’ or do ‘y’ just like normal people!”, Zaytuna Institute, Maghrib Institute, any institute, and yes even MSA or this blog. There may seem like there’s nothing wrong with looking pretty, but it inevitably leaves the ugly out. Ugly may mean gay or feminist or poor or otherwise misfit or unhappy with current trends. Ugly isn’t good enough for PR and TV (except as an oddity) and it isn’t good enough for matrimonials and being accepted into communities.

This generation is supposed to be exciting for its dynamism, its spirit, its drive, and its innovation. But I still find it hard to be excited about my own generation. The institutions around me aren’t inspiring, whether they’re the mosques built by my parents’ generation or this new generation of educational and spiritual organizations and conventions. I have met plenty of inspiring individuals, but they’ve been regular folk not big-name figures. For something more significant to arise, we need more creative frameworks than what we have. I’m just afraid that what we already have has created boundaries that are only getting harder to transcend in a meaningful and genuine way.

It may be that I am just too pessimistic, but if I am it’s not because I only see what’s ugly around me. It’s because I don’t see enough of it.