A woman stands outside of a mosque. Photo courtesy of Asim Bharwani/Flikr
It’s the identity crisis everyone loves to dish about. It’s like the cronut fad, except it came into being years and years ago – and yet we still enjoy getting a taste of the topic. A glimmering thread, it is prevalent across the conferences, seminars, jummah lectures and fundraisers taking place around the United States. We as a community just can’t seem to move past the topic of being Muslim in America.
I’m here to say that we need to move forward.
The identity of my generation, the Muslim American identity, was formed amidst games of mosque hide and seek and dinners that both burnt and soothed my tongue. I grew up thinking that being Muslim in America was a natural thing, that our collective history and community were as ingrained in the cultural fabric of the United States as sliced bread.
It was not until I attended my first discussion on the struggles and unnaturalness of being Muslim in America that I first realized that our identity was not as mundane as I once thought. There was a shift in my paradigm that day: suddenly, it wasn’t about living life as a Muslim American. Now, it was about how I was supposed to consolidate the two identities. It was a crisis foisted upon me, and one I grew familiar with among those of my generation.
Granted, there is some basis behind the seeming uncertainty of being Muslim in America. This basis applies, really, if you grew up Muslim elsewhere, and came to America later in life. But it is not a reality for the Muslim youth growing up in America today.
We have failed, time and again, to recognize that the identity of Muslim Americans today is not the identity of Muslims immigrating to America ten or fifteen years ago. No longer is the community mentality of returning back “home” to contribute to the infrastructure and life there – rather, it is a mentality of living and contributing to America’s society, culture and understanding as an American.
Ultimately, the issue at hand is not the discussion of being Muslim in America. The problem is the thought surrounding the discussion, an idea that it is not possible to consolidate the two identities – Muslim and American – in our community today. Although it might have been integral to confront in the community initially, it has reached a point where we are continuing still to overemphasize the topic, a decision that overshadows the real issues our community faces, point blank. The overshadowing serves, then, to validate the premise of mutual exclusivity between the two identities, throwing the Muslim American identity of many today into paralysis and confusion, as they suddenly are faced with the need for reconciliation between the two. We push ourselves two steps back by throwing identity into the way of oncoming traffic, and it only serves to harm rather than help us as a community.
This is not a plea for nationalism. This is a statement of acceptance, of comprehension, and of action. Recognizing that my identity is one, like the identities of so many Muslim Americans across the country today, that was sculpted and rooted in the Muslim American community is not an abandonment of my cultural heritage. Yet I reject the paralysis that arises when I am told that my identity as a Muslim American is not a natural one.
The paradox is this: the telling comes not from those outside our community, but rather, from those within – present in the form of lectures on how to be Muslim in America and Friday khutbahs lacking a recognition of the reality in which we reside. Acknowledging the seeming dichotomy between the two identities through talks that are rooted in “back home” mentalities serves not only to create isolation from the existing faith communities for those who grew up in this country, but means further that we are not given the space to celebrate, to breathe, and to grow in our understanding as Muslim Americans.
Frankly, as a community, we have so much more to tackle ahead of us. Identity should be the least of our worries, and should be an accepted thread in the fabric of the Muslim American community.
However, this development can only take place once we come to terms with who we are as a collective community, culture and all. Only then can we begin to focus on more salient issues, like the problem of mosque attendance, race, arts development, and mental health stigmas.
We cannot expect to move forward as a community if we remain intent on creating identity confusion and division. Let’s move past approaching the topic of being Muslim in America as though we just stumbled upon the issue.
We are Muslim Americans. Now, we just need to figure out what lies ahead for our community.