This month, CNN produced a list titled “25 Muslims changing America” in which it showcased a who’s who of American Muslims making an impact in their local communities. Overall, the list comprised of individuals who have done some tremendous amount of work. They represent, and are a composite of, certain demographics of the American Muslim community.
However, upon just a quick glance, many things were missing from this list. What happened to the Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, Latina Muslims, Native American Muslims, Black Muslims, non-violent Salafi Muslims, Sufi Muslim, secular Muslims, cultural Muslims, LGBT Muslims, etc.? The decision to ensure that these other voices are heard is just as important to the larger story of American Muslims to ensure that diverse voices are heard, represented and seen in America. With large-scale sectarian tensions already being a major concern throughout the Middle East, and a ramping up of proxy wars between Shia and Sunni leadership between Tehran and Riyadh, the American Muslim community should see the lessons from their co-religionists overseas of what not to do and to ensure a healthy culture of pluralism that is so necessary.
In the aftermath of this list, on both social media and in private conversations with friends and family throughout America, there continues to be an internal crisis among American Muslims on the acceptable definition of their identity. This deceptively dangerous trap of narrowly shaping and publicly controlling who is acceptable and not acceptable feeds into a slippery slope which we are seeing playing out in the current political climate in America – one which American Muslims should avoid and be cautious about as well.
In addition, for the most part, in a post 9/11 era, mainstream American Muslim communities have somehow shaped a narrative to equate Muslims to be synonymous with Arab, South East Asian and Sunni. Despite the founders of American Islam being enslaved Africans and Ahmadi missionaries, American Muslims do a complete disservice in re-writing history and creating erasure in communities that have cultivated and established Islam in America. Like Sunday for their Christian counterparts, Friday continues to be the most divided hour in America for American Muslims, during which American mosques are segregated places of worship and people congregate and go to places in which people mainly look like them, depending on their ideological persuasion and ethnic lines.
For American Muslims, and for a person who comes from generations of indigenous Muslims who established Islamic schools and institutions in America, it is more important than ever that when we are in positions of leadership we encourage, value, and ensure that all voices are heard. For the emergent Muslim narrative in the United States, one doesn’t have to be black to challenge racism nor a woman to challenge sexism, the success for a uniquely diverse Muslim community is one in which diverse voices are not only encouraged, but celebrated and seen as a healthy contribution to American life.
Dr. Muhammad Fraser-Rahim is the Executive Director of Quilliam International, the world’s first counter extremist organization with HQ’s in London and offices in Washington, DC.