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  Albalagh Home Food for Thought The Project for a New American-Islamic Cultural Order
  

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The Project for a New American-Islamic Cultural Order

By: Sohaib Baig

Globalization has opened the door to a myriad of foundational questions over the issue of identity. How can we identify ourselves in an era where we may build homes in several nation-states, intermarry amongst different ethnicities, and settle in different countries than our land of birth? Are we identified by our passports or our ancestral genealogies? Is there a particular “culture” to which we belong and pattern our lives on? Can one culture be more Islamic than another?

Destabilizing questions such as these are bound to generate different reactions. Some begin to neglect culture in the name of abstract religious ideals (e.g. some Salafists); some tend to neglect religion in the name of an imagined cultural identity (e.g. some secularists); some identify a particular culture with religion and refuse to recognize the legitimacy of other cultural religious expressions; and stranger still, some turn inward to the nation-state for identity, superseding all other cultural affiliations, and developing religious practices within the context of the imagined national culture.

The campaign to form an American Islam perhaps aligns most closely with the last model. Here, religious practices ensconced in a foreign cultural context are criticized as being alienating and irrelevant to the American scene. Culture is deemed as purely relative, and hence, non-binding from an Islamic legalistic view; Arab or Indian culture is no more Islamic than American.  Thus, these voices call for a retreat back into the safety and familiarity of the American nation. Doing so, it is posited, will help facilitate the organic expression of Islam in America, thus making Islam part of the national fabric. In fact, it is argued that there is nothing exclusively American about the call for an American Islam; Islam is said to have always adapted to the local cultural climate during its long history. Thus, American Islam will be consistent with both American and Islamic models of identity, and help pave the way for a smoother, long-term flourishing of Islam in America.

It is interesting to note how the call for an American Islam springs from an antagonistic view of the other (as seen in the popular refrain, “we must get rid of our cultural baggage”).

As Muslims across America increasingly commit to this vision, it is essential to examine and re-examine it closely. To begin, it is interesting to note how the call for an American Islam springs from an antagonistic view of other imported Islams 1 (as seen in the popular refrain, “we must get rid of our cultural baggage”). Otherwise, the call would be obviously quite unnecessary and redundant – American Islam would presumably develop as a concomitant condition of settled life in America. Now, however, it will be structured on a rupture, a conscious split from the non-American. The non-American is “otherized,” and is thereby liable to go, regardless of the relevance (or lack thereof) it might have for some Muslims. In a way, it risks becoming the cultural predator that it criticizes other Islams as being.

It is important to note the special ramifications this has on the immigrant experience. It is one thing for indigenous Americans to weld together an American Islam; but for immigrants, both first and second generation, it is a completely different thing to discard their cultural baggage in such a process. The issue is not primarily about their cultural baggage; it is about their identity. What happens to their former cultures and identities? Are they to be suppressed and repressed? Are immigrants to go through a deculturalizing and dehistoricizing process before they can help create an American Islam?

Much of the schizophrenia in the sacred city of Makkah, for example, is predicated upon the reliance on select abstract religious ideals that are divorced from culture. Ancient sites rich with culture and history are decimated; but foreign consumerist culture is allowed to flourish with reckless abandon, with all its architectural and capitalist wonder. … it is precisely a neglected child left broken and confused by the divorce of culture and religion in a globalized world.

Deculturalizing and dehistoricizing, to be sure, are far from harmonious processes. In fact, they can result in profound violence. Much of the schizophrenia in the sacred city of Makkah, for example, is predicated upon the reliance on select abstract religious ideals that are divorced from culture. Ancient sites rich with culture and history are decimated; but foreign consumerist culture is allowed to flourish with reckless abandon, with all its architectural and capitalist wonder. This ironic “open-mindedness,” or modernist streak of the Salafists is not an accident – it is precisely a neglected child left broken and confused by the divorce of culture and religion in a globalized world.

To deculturalize, thus, is to leave oneself vulnerable. As calls grow to shed foreign cultural baggage, it is important to ask what new baggage will replace it. Abstract Islamic principles, by definition, will not – as also demonstrated by the Salafi case. Only another strand of cultures can and will. Yet all cultures come with their own “baggage” and politics of identity. How, then, will acculturation into an imagined “American culture” transform Muslim practices and identities?

This is a huge question, and I will not attempt to provide a complete answer. What I would like to note are three points. First, that acculturation will not necessarily lead to indigenization. America indeed has a history of gradually, reluctantly incorporating minorities within its national fabric, but it also has in a sense never moved significantly beyond its original, founding conception of what constitutes Americanness. In fact, the very idea of an ethnic or religious minority itself represents a paradox; in theory, the citizens in the liberal democratic system are only identified by their citizenship, not religion or race. The complexity of minority politics in American history is a testament to the very real inability to live up to such an ideal of the abstract and equal citizen.  Indeed, “double consciousness,” the famous term used to describe the struggles faced by African Americans on the divide between Americanness and blackness, still poses a powerful challenge for African-Americans, and in a way parallels the dead end Muslims will inevitably face in the struggle to become authentically American.

Second, that acculturation along the lines of the American melting pot model is not reflective of Muslim history and tradition. A melting pot by definition is built on a fear of difference – it has to melt away all traces of the Other so it can be reconfigured to coagulate into the authentic Self. The melting pot of today is a gift of the modern nation-state; in its bid to acquire complete power and hegemony, the state has to homogenize its subjects.  Herein lay the seeds for so much tension and stress in the modern nation-state, and for our purposes, in America: on the one hand, there is a limited, non-universalist, conception of what constitutes Americanness; on the other hand, its melting pot works to pressurize everything to become American, even if they can inherently never become so. There is thus perpetual tension, whether latent or visible.

Pre-modern empires and states historically did not always develop melting pots; there were other more open and egalitarian institutions. The salad bowl model, for example, thrived on diversity and difference. As Ashis Nandy, a famous Indian critic, writes, “In a salad the ingredients retain their distinctiveness, but each ingredient transcends its individuality through the presence of others. In a melting pot, primordial identities are supposed to melt. Those that do not are expected to survive as coagulates and are called nationalities or minorities; they are expected to dissolve in the long run.” Thus, there was not always the burden of sacrificing culture and genealogy to the homogenizing machinery of the passport; and nor did culture have to bear the burden of being artificially universal in its outlook.

Third, that culture is indeed much more than the relativistic, areligious, life structure that some assert it is. As Clifford Geetz, a noted anthropologist, explains, culture is to be seen as a ‘web of meaning’ within which people live. The reigning cultural ideology of the West, liberalism, only produces an illusion of multiculturalism – it too, has spun its own web of meaning, with its own sets of values and beliefs. While it may allow superficial differences of language, food, and clothing, it will not make room for morally significant and public issues, such as marriage, family values, (often) the hijab and niqab, and so on. Thus, leaning too much on liberalism will put significant pressure on Muslims to mutate their religion into something personal that can fit the liberalist paradigm, to restrict it to the non-morally significant issues of prayer and personal worship.

Indeed, since Islam has had a much longer history in many parts of the non-American world, it is completely justifiable to suggest that some cultures may embody Islamic principles to a greater extent than other cultures. It may be wrong to suggest that a particular culture should now establish a hegemony–but it certainly can be argued that cultural elements that mesh well with Islamic ideals should continue to be preserved and re-created as an essential means of illustrating alternative Islamic possibilities for cultures that are bereft of Islam.

There is no future for an approach which suggests homogenizing or melting.

Culture as it is practiced can never be boxed into exclusive, air-tight packages. There is always something fluid and dynamic about culture, where we engage in processes of exchange and borrowing. However, as identities are attributed to certain cultural entities, it becomes crucial to determine where we stand. On this end, we must realize that there is no future for an approach which suggests homogenizing or melting, even if done so in a different style; that given our dynamic world, the future lies not in cultivating one particular “web of meaning,” but in engaging fully with all the webs that encompass our histories and current life interactions, and in letting the waters of Islam flow through and reach them all in a harmonious, unifying moment. There is no use in vivisecting them prematurely in obeisance to a random passport or the requirement of societal relevance; only when we can stand strongly and holistically on our own individual foundations, can we help others stand on theirs. We need not weave the same webs, given the reality of human diversity; but we must make sure to color them all with the colors of Islam.


1  The term imported Islam is being used here, the way the term American Islam is being used by its proponents, to refer to the manifestation of Islam in a person’s life. Otherwise Islam is the revealed deen of Allah as defined in the Qur’an and Sunnah, meant for all people, places, and times and which therefore cannot allow the use of such qualifiers.