From a Western Minaret: How Does It Feel?
Beliefnet / July, 2001
|Michael Wolfe is the author of books of poetry, fiction, travel, and history. His most recent works are a pair of books from Grove Press on the pilgrimage to Mecca: The Hadj (1998), a first-person travel account, and One Thousand Roads to Mecca (1997), an anthology of ten centuries of travelers writing about the Muslim pilgrimage. In April 1997, he hosted a televised account of the Hadj from Mecca for Ted Koppel's "Nightline" on ABC. He is currently at work on a four-hour television documentary on the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad.|
With Bob Dylan’s 60th birthday in the news lately, I’ve found myself humming one of his Golden Oldies: "How does it feel/To be on your own/With no direction home/Like a Rolling Stone." These days, in addition to all its other applications, this song speaks personally to me about being a Muslim in America. How does it feel?
Dylan’s question is rhetorical. You have to hear his freight-train nasal whine to get the meaning: He’s not asking how you feel, as if he were curious. He’s telling you that as a social creature, you might not always fit in as you’d hoped to, that it could just be, despite the TV jingles, that you don’t “feel so fine” all of the time, that being “alone and on your own” without your usual comforts, your social expectations and constitutionally conferred rights, you may not feel as good as you’d hoped or wanted.
In the matter of constitutional rights, many Muslims these days have a split view of this country. On the one hand, most American Muslims know that simply by living here they have more freedoms guaranteed on paper than if they resided almost anywhere else on earth. On the other hand, they often feel they are strangers. And they are, all too often, treated as outright aliens at the most unexpected moments.
This sense of alienation has mixed causes in the United States, where race more often than faith triggers most mainstream discomfort. Half of America’s Muslims were born here, but their race and ethnicity is rarely “European.” The other half hail from dozens of nations around the globe. Muslims may think they are being criticized or rejected because of their faith, when the issue is often more plainly racial. Nonwhite Muslims, and Muslims of varying language or dress who don’t immediately blend in, may THINK they are being singled out for their beliefs, when it is actually their appearance that is the sticking point.
America is the biggest island in the world, and its incessant and innumerable television cameras are almost entirely turned inward. Ours may be a “global” economy, but as a geographical entity, the United States still has a single dominant language, and despite great changes lately in the demographics of its urban population, a majority of Americans are white and of Christian background.
Perhaps Muslims in America tend to hang together because the surface pleasures of mainstream U.S. democracy have an unpleasant way of becoming a very icy bath at moments when you’d least expect it. This can cut across all race and gender lines. I, for example, am a white, college-educated fifty-something male. Now, in America a lot of perks and benefits go with that description. Yet when you become a Muslim here, unless you keep it secret, the perks and bennies have a way of disappearing right before your eyes.
Eyes were, in fact, the first testing ground of my new experience as a Muslim in the States. It was in the weeks when I was first preparing to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca, in 1990. A friend, hearing of my travel plans, suggested I should wear brown contact lenses to keep out of trouble with the Arabs. When I mentioned feeling safer in Morocco than Manhattan, my friend replied that perhaps I should move to Morocco. A week before I left for Mecca, I bought the brightest blue lenses I could find and wore them to his house to say good-bye. Later on in Mecca, I wore the lenses often, without comment.
Most Americans are wrong about the Arabs, just as they are wrong about Islam. The only Arabs they seem to know are the mug shots of brainwashed hit men employed by shabby tyrants. As for Islam, Americans still don’t seem to know much about it. It rarely dawns on them that Islam is a religion, for example, rather than a set of political responses. They believe what they see on TV, and go from there — a very dangerous practice if you care about your mind. Despite the fact that the “news” specializes in tragedy and discord, most American viewers extrapolate from what they see, building on a sublimated base of fear whenever they’re faced with racial or religious difference.
As every American worker knows, not a day goes by in the U.S. marketplace without employers’ decisions and workplace attitudes being unpleasantly affected by issues of gender, race, and faith. Muslims, the new kids on the block here and probably the most sorely misunderstood, come in for more than a fair share of hard knocks in this regard. Every month like clockwork, a host of Muslim workers file complaints and often go to court to protect their rights to work and practice their religion.
Islam asks Muslims to pray five times a day; employers often try to oppose this stricture and frequently wind up in arbitration or in court. Last month, for example, Value City Department stores, in Columbus, Ohio, finally agreed to offer breaks and set aside a quiet room for Muslim employees to pray in. At about the same time, United Airlines announced changes in its uniform guidelines to permit Muslim women employees to cover their hair when they choose to. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., six Muslim firefighters filed a federal suit alleging that fire chief Ronnie Few interfered with their rights to wear beards, a practice many Muslims adopt in their effort to emulate the Prophet Muhammad. The lawsuit is being brought with help from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Disagreements like these reflect the usual, embattled give-and-take between established mainstream American social practices and fresh requirements introduced by newly emerging ethnic and religious populations that seek fair representation in exchange for the sweat of their brow. This process is business as usual in a democratic, multicultural society. One can only hope, in the case of Muslims, that the courts will continue to interpret the laws in their favor, maintaining the integrity of the U.S. Constitution, from which the laws spring.
Muslims are now experiencing what the Italian community, for instance, knows all too well: that stereotyping is a part of the American experience; that the violent acts of .1% of a group can and will be used against the other 99.9% of the community. One hopes that, in time, we will see Muslims emerge from the shadow of their own worst examples, as the Italian American community emerged from the shadow of, say, the Cosa Nostra to give us mayors and governors and senators and judges and, more important, a free run at the social and economic opportunities supposedly enjoyed here by us all.
Meanwhile, if you’re a non-Muslim, take my advice: Get to know some Muslims. They’re your neighbors, fellow workers, and fellow students. By and large, they’re a worthwhile lot. You may well enjoy the experience. You might even learn something.