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Ethnic Relations and Power in Islamic America

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Believers of  various backgrounds come togetherThe mainstream Islamic power network in America, especially in the Shia sphere, belongs to the immigrants and children of immigrants who have settled here. This is apparent at many levels.

First, we see that almost all "places of worship" have been created by and for immigrants and to seek the preservation of culture. Consequently we also see that many of these "Islamic" centers are in reality cultural centers. We see that new centers are often created because of a point of dispute on cultural issues rather than Islamic issues or the lack of progressive Islamic movement. The Hyderbadis break from the Iranian center to hold traditions that they hold sacred that the Persians do not. The Pakistanis break from the Arab center because of the same principle. The converts, "Americanized" children of immigrants, and indigenous American-born Muslims feel isolated in most centers, form home groups, or stop attending the center altogether and many times fall outside of the realm of Islam.

Second, we see that the "Islam" taught at many of these centers revolves around cultural traditions that have some spare link to Islam. Many ideas that most immigrant Muslims hold are simple traditions passed down rather than strong Islamic values based on the teachings of the Prophet, his Progeny (peace be upon them), or the Qur'an. This is apparent in the cultural expressions of grief and the rejection of new expressions of grief, the cultural expressions of fashion and the rejection of new expressions of fashion, and wedding traditions that are often outside the realm of Islamic teachings and law. There is nothing wrong with culture, nor is there anything wrong with "immigrant culture", but there is something wrong in rejecting new forms of culture which are within the realm of Islamic teachings just because they do not fit the status quo.

Third, we see that many convert Muslims feel pressured to take on the clothing, food, and other cultural standpoints of the majority Immigrant community. We even see many convert and indigenous American Muslim women becoming completely immersed in a certain immigrant culture because she has married an immigrant man. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, but this proves that the power of the Islamic community resides in an immigrant-run monopoly.

Now that this point is clear, let us examine the problems that are apparent because of an ethnically diverse community in America being run by a power structure that holds some very negative, un-Islamic ideas in the name of "tradition" and "cultural preservation".

The most far-reaching problem is the intention of preserving culture over propagating Islam. This is the reason why we have Arab, Afghani, Indian, Pakistani and Persian centers. If Islam was the main reason these centers were developed, we would have a much stronger base in America. However, most of the immigrants that came to America did not come here for Islam at all. Many came for the opportunity of wealth or education, among other reasons. None of these reasons are wrong in principle, but we must understand this in order to view the actions of the Muslims in the correct context.

Another consequence of this problem is the issue of inter-ethnic relations on personal, rather than structural, levels. We see that there is a problem with Muslims marrying Muslims of another nationality, ethnicity, or race. Indians and Afghanis do not marry frequently. Arabs and Persians do not marry frequently. Pakistanis and Americans do not marry frequently. This is usually done in the name of "preserving culture". Again, preserving culture in and of itself is not problematic; however, it does become problematic when it turns people away from other people or away from an entire ethnic group. More important, however, is the fact that this doctrine of "preservation" is often usually a cover for a mind infected with prejudice.

Another consequence of this prejudice is that some organizations do not allow certain people to speak or join their organization because of their background. One example of this is the United Muslim Association of America. On the testimony of a well-known Islamic studies professor here in the US, UMAA once rejected a man who he referred to them to speak because "he is black". There has also been strained relations between American speakers who know English well and immigrant speakers who do not, because the youth often are more attracted to the American speakers who can relate to the youth and communicate ideas more clearly.

So, what are the long term effects of such actions which are maintained by the current traditional, immigrant-run power structure?

First and foremost is the continuance of strained relations between all ethnic groups and cultural bodies. This leads to misconceptions about each other when God has commanded us to "know each other", not further misunderstand each other. These misunderstandings leave us more vulnerable to attacks from the outside and leave us in a state of weakness because no groundwork for true, sincere brotherhood and sisterhood has been laid. Thus, our intellectual, social, and political aspirations will never be attained.

Secondly, the opportunity for the development of a new mixed, shared culture is cut off. When we look through history, we can find periods of time where new ideas intellectually, artistically, culinarily, and politically came to be because of sharing ideas and traditions cross-culturally. Think about the spice trade. Think about St. Thomas Aquinas, the famous Catholic thinker, who came up with new philosophical ideas after encountering Islamic literature. Think about the period when the Muslim Arabs took residence in Spain and worked with the Jews and other indigenous people there to come up with new artwork, translate literature, explore astronomical ideas, and innovate new ideas in science and mathematics. If we study modern trends in music and culinary arts, we see that many new ideas hinge on mixing and matching ideas from different parts of the world. Why would we not allow ourselves as an Islamic community to take hold of such an opportunity to share, grow, and form new ideas when we have such a diverse group of people at each other's fingertips?

The last point is quite possibly the most serious and, at the same time, the most controversial. Many people may not agree and may not like to think about this next point. We have discussed the point that this doctrine of "preservation" is often a cover for prejudice. There is no doubt that there are deep prejudices within the "American Ummah". However we should examine which prejudice is more far reaching and which might have the most long term consequences.

Our opinion is that the prejudices against the indigenous American Muslims are the most problematic now and in the future. Why? While it is true that there are prejudices between immigrants of different ethnicities, nationalities, and cultures, we also see that the immigrants of all cultures still have a strong, solidified group of people just like them to fall back on. If we look at the current reality, we must admit that there are little to no groups of indigenous Muslims for American Muslims to fall back on to for support, especially in the Shia world. Interestingly, when indigenous American Muslims create support networks and groups for themselves, they are often accused of "disunifying" the community.

We can also support our point that the prejudices against American Muslims by the immigrant power structure are more destructive by looking at individual relations. In Islam, marriage is very highly recommended. If an American Muslim tries to marry an immigrant Muslim, we usually see rejection by the immigrant parents or by the person proposed to. The American Muslim often has to try to marry another immigrant and has to face rejection again and again until finally (s)he either find another American Muslim to marry or until (s)he find a good Muslim immigrant family. However, the immigrant Muslim who rejects the American has a network to help them find a spouse within their culture or ethnicity. This "over and over" rejection process that the American Muslim must go through creates some enmity between the American and people of the immigrant cultures because of the pain he or she was put through. The prejudice of the immigrant communities often creates a balancing "counter-prejudice" in the American Muslim that did not previously exist. It is very important to note this point – that the American Muslim usually does not have any previous prejudices against immigrant Muslims. In fact, the American Muslim usually looks up to the immigrant communities as standard-bearers of the faith. It is only because of the prejudices – based on nationalism, racism, or ethno-centrism – that some of the immigrants bring to America with them that the American Muslim later develops a sort of counter-prejudice.

What is the future of the Islamic community, especially in light of the oppression that the current immigrant power structure imposes on the small but growing group of indigenous American Muslims? Let us look at a teaching of Imam al-Kadhim (peace be upon him): "According to the writers of his biography who described his modesty, the Imam once came across an ugly looking black man from the suburbs. He appeared so ugly that few people would associate with him. In his first encounter, the Imam greeted the man, sat beside him, and talked with him for an hour. Then the Imam said to him, 'Tell me what your wishes are. I am prepared to help you realize them.' When some people who noticed the Imam sitting with such a miserable man said to him, 'O son of the Messenger of God, do you sit with someone who is shunned by all?', the Imam replied, 'You should know that he is, after all, a creature of God and is your brother in faith as per the command of the Holy Qur'an. The best of fathers, that is Adam, and the best of religions, that is Islam, have established the best links. May be one day he will be of need to us. He would remember how modest we were."

At some point, we believe that the immigrant power structure may be in a minority position and lose its power altogether as the indigenous American community grows and as more children of immigrants lose touch with some of the traditions of their parents' homelands and shed the backward-thinking mindsets of some of their parents. Once this happens, the power structure will be largely in the hands of forward-thinking, Islamic movement-oriented individuals from this land, America. Now that some people have developed a sort of prejudice against the immigrant communities for not addressing the American Muslim's needs and not allowing cross-cultural marriages and cross-cultural ideas to be shared – instead we see the rejection of all things "Western" by some groups of immigrants – we fear that there could be a sort of backlash against some immigrant communities when the power structure is taken over by the American Muslim community, which will eventually be the majority.

What can we do today? Immigrant Muslims and the current power structure must be persuaded to open their minds and develop friendly and open relations with the growing American community. These "traditional" ideas which shroud forms of prejudice – whether nationalist, racist, or ethnocentrist in nature – must be shed. If we would like to see a stronger community of Muslims in the future, we must nip the problem in the bud and stop the actions that are creating negative reactions in the indigenous Muslim communities. Concurrently, the indigenous Muslims must guard themselves from developing a balancing prejudice while at the same time demanding justice and open relations between these "factions". We must take the teaching of our Imam al-Kadhim and implement it as soon as possible so that we can create a richer, stronger Islamic community in the future with God's mercy and will.

Author of this article: T. Sadiq C.
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