Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit that promotes interfaith cooperation. His blog, The Faith Divide, explores what drives faiths apart and what brings them together. He is also author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press, 2007).
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A Place for Us?
LAURA KIM TELLS an illustrative story in the Race/Related newsletter published by The New York Times about a white boss who responded to her request for promotion by saying, “You’re so good at what you do. I thought you wanted to stay in your position forever ... Normally, Asian women keep their heads down and stay very quiet.”
It is the kind of story that professional, middle-class Asian Americans are telling more and more these days. Stereotyped as determined and technically competent, but not especially creative, we might be the kind of people you’d want as your accountant or computer expert, but we are definitely not management material. In my experience, Kim’s story rings true, but it’s not the only true story about Asian-American experiences.
I think that’s one of the reasons I found Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel, A Place for Us, about an immigrant South Asian Shia Muslim family in post-9/11 California, so interesting. As part of a South Asian Shia Muslim community myself (the Ismaili community), the various religious references (to Imam Ali and Imam Hussain, to the presence of the Quran as a protection) felt both familiar and comforting.
Equally familiar, if less comforting, were the family dynamics. The lives of the children were governed by rules written by religious tradition, maintained by family, and enforced by the broader community.
The kids largely viewed the white world outside the home as a place of freedom, a world where you could choose your own path of study, select your own romantic partner, and go to parties, all without the prying eyes of your parents and the wagging fingers of community members. At home, at the mosque, at Muslim events, you bore the burden of your tradition. Your words and deeds represented your parents at all times.
By Every Means Necessary
MY FIRST JOB out of college was teaching at-risk black and Puerto Rican kids in an alternative high school setting. At 20 years old, fresh from a critical theory-oriented undergraduate curriculum, I basically taught what I had read in college: bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Paulo Freire, Noam Chomsky. I was thrilled to do it. After all, in front of me were the people that I had studied in those critical-theory classes—“the oppressed.” And here I was to deliver liberation.
“Is this going to get me my GED?” a skeptical student named Angel asked me at one point. “If I pass, I get $1 an hour more at Cub Foods, and my girlfriend is pregnant, so, you know, I gotta get that. I ain’t slanging [dealing drugs] no more.”
I wanted to tell Angel that I was providing him far more than material gain. I was the bearer of soul freedom.
When Joel, the math teacher at the school, caught wind of what I was doing, he about put me up against the wall. “Are you crazy?” he said. “You walk in here from your privileged life and start delivering oppressive-systems mumbo jumbo to kids who need to learn how to read? Teach them that they need to work their butts off to pass the damn test. Stop giving them an excuse to blame the system.”
It is one of the most important lessons I’ve ever gotten in my life: People closest to a tough situation usually want to find the most direct way out, not the most ideological critique of injustice.
Reach Out and Build Bridges
DOING DIVERSITY work in the Obama era felt like being not only part of the zeitgeist but the telos. History was bending toward an interfaith, multicultural future, and we were part of it. There was a long way to go toward the finish line, but the road was downhill and paved and our leader knew the way. There might be some disagreements in emphasis and in tactics, but generally speaking we believed we were heading to the same place.
Boy, how things have changed, both in the White House and in how we see the bend of history. The changes in the political sphere have had important reverberations in the diversity movement. It feels like there are two schools of diversity work these days.
On the one hand there is the Protect and Resist School. This type of diversity work emphasizes creating safe spaces for marginalized people (women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ folks, Muslims) and resisting the power structure in any way possible, from furious tweetstorms to Black Lives Matter protests to shouting down conservative speakers on campuses.
“We tried the Martin Luther King Jr. way with Barack Obama,” this school seems to say, “and you racists rejected him as a radical when really he was as moderate as any human being God ever created. You have the weapons of power; we have the weapons of resistance. To paraphrase James Baldwin and the Bible—no more water, the fire this time.”
ISSUES RELATED to race were at the center of my growing political consciousness when I was an undergraduate in the 1990s. Two were especially impactful: racism in the criminal justice system and racism in cultural representation.
The Rodney King beating happened when I was in high school, and there was almost nothing said about it in the largely white, professional, middle-class suburb where I grew up. In fact, the remarks that I do remember were sympathetic to the police.
The crew I ran with in college changed all that. They raised questions such as: Do you think if the officers were black and the person being beaten was white that the national conversation would be the same? Do you think that the continuous portrayals of black people as criminals had nothing to do with the acquittal of the police officers?
Those kinds of questions shifted my worldview—for the better, I believe. Given that, it should come as no surprise that the news stories I paid the most attention to in 2015 were about issues of race, the criminal justice system, and cultural representation. Basically, I was consumed with #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite.
Parenting in the #MeToo Era
MY OLDEST SON is about to turn 11, which means he is old enough to both recognize and call out the hypocrisies of the adult world. Here are two recent examples:
- While watching an NBA game, he says that adults are always saying that boys shouldn’t judge girls by their looks, but what else are you supposed to be doing while cheerleaders are doing their moves? And what do cheerleaders have to do with basketball anyway?
- As my wife and I are singing along to old-school hip-hop in the car, he says that if boys are not supposed to talk about girls’ body parts in ways that make them feel like objects, why is it okay for this guy to sing about liking “big butts”? And why is it okay for us—his parents—to be singing along?
These questions make my wife and me squirm. Generally, we try to face things square on, but on the subject of why we tolerate certain messages in the pop culture that we like, we go mum.
But something in Molly Ringwald’s New Yorker piece this spring about watching her ’80s-era Brat Pack movies with her then 10-year-old daughter made me think more deeply about the whole dynamic. Ringwald writes about how uncomfortable she was being confronted by the racist and sexist themes in those movies. The horribly racist caricature of Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. The under-the-table panties scene in The Breakfast Club. The casual ways boys in those movies talked about trading drunk girls as if it were normal.
THE ATTENTION generated by Captain Humayun Khan’s Iraq war activities (as related by his father, Khizr Khan, at the Democratic National Convention) is not the first time that a military story was used to try to tamp down prejudice against U.S. Muslims. In 2008, Gen. Colin Powell responded to the charges about Barack Obama being a Muslim by saying “What if he is?” Powell then cited the image of a mother hugging the gravestone of her American Muslim son at Arlington Cemetery as an illustration of Muslim contributions to the nation.
I respect Captain Khan’s military service. Yet I can’t stop thinking about an issue that his father reportedly raised with him when he was leaving for Iraq: Are you troubled at all by this war? Lots of Americans were, concerned both about the questionable evidence used to justify the war and the many lives that were sure to be destroyed during it.
As most soldiers would, Captain Khan stated that decisions about which wars to fight were above his pay grade.
But it does raise a question for those American Muslims who were disturbed enough by the contours of the Iraq war to withhold their support: Are there ways other than going to a war you don’t believe in to express your patriotism and be welcomed by your country?
I’d like to think that there are, and that American Muslims have in fact demonstrated them. Take Salman Hamdani, who was a young American Muslim emergency medical technician on his way to work on 9/11 when he saw the planes fly into the buildings. He rushed over to the site of the attacks to help whomever he could, and died in the rubble there. The police investigated him for possible ties to terrorism because of his Muslim faith and Pakistani heritage.
Shouldn’t sacrificing your life to rescue others merit the embrace of others in your country, or at least shield you from their suspicion?
Campus Diversity in the Era of Trump
SOME TIME ago I took a long walk with a favorite professor of mine from the University of Illinois. I talked about how I’d turned my undergraduate activism in the campus diversity movement into a full-time career, and he told me an interesting story about identity.
The week before, he had needed to shift his 9 a.m. class to 8 a.m. because of a mid-morning appointment. He promised his students he’d bring in Panera to make up for dragging them out of bed so early. One of his students, a white kid from a rural area in Illinois, had asked, “What’s Panera?”
Everybody else in his highly diverse class knew what Panera was, he stated matter-of-factly, making that white student’s distinctive experience all the more striking. “Shouldn’t any campus diversity movement that takes identity seriously be open to her uniqueness?” he asked me.
I stifled a laugh and turned the conversation to another dimension of identity, one that I felt really mattered. Surely my professor friend knew that the assigned role of white people in campus diversity programs is to listen to the bigotry that people of color have experienced and apologize for the ways they have benefited from racist systems. The only time they are allowed to speak proactively is if they occupy one of the other “preferred” identities—if they are gay, or female, or have recently converted to a minority religion.
In the weeks since Donald Trump was elected president—in between being scared out of my mind about the violent attacks on ethnic and religious minorities in America (my kids’ names are Zayd and Khalil)—I’ve thought about that rural white student. The place she’s from voted overwhelmingly for Trump. I wonder if she did. I wonder why I never wondered much about her before.
Some Thoughts on Identity Politics
I WAS ONCE on a panel with a counselor who proudly claimed her identity as a woman as the reason for her feminist approach to counseling. Toward the end of the discussion, she told the story of a client who frustrated her. A highly educated middle-aged mother of three, this woman (the client) had stepped off the career track to take care of her children. The children were now grown, and she had come to counseling to think through her next steps. My fellow panelist encouraged this client to claim her identity powerfully and express it in public fiercely. The client liked this idea. Some weeks later, she told her counselor that she had gone back to the Catholic church of her childhood and started to attend pro-life rallies.
“That wasn’t what I meant when I told her to claim her identity and express it in public,” the counselor deadpanned, and the liberal university audience laughed along with her.
The exchange left me feeling queasy. Here was a counselor purporting to empower the identity and expression of a client in a period of transition and then being disappointed that her client hadn’t chosen the identity and expression the counselor desired. And the public affirmation of the counselor in a room full of people who clearly shared her worldview felt doubly unsettling.
The 'Roadkill' of the Islamophobia Industry
IN HIS BOOK The Islamophobia Industry, author Nathan Lean points out that two months after the attacks of 9/11, Pew research showed that 59 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Islam. That was a 14-point increase from a similar poll taken in March 2001, several months before the Twin Towers fell. This was likely because U.S. leaders, including President George W. Bush, stated publicly and repeatedly that Islam and Muslims were not to blame for terrorism—terrorists were.
By October 2010, nine years later, only 39 percent of Americans expressed a favorable view of Islam.
What accounted for this dramatic drop? Yes, Muslims committed 11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil during that period, attacks that tragically took the lives of 33 people, but this hardly seems overwhelming in a nation that experienced 150,000 murders in the same time span. Lean concludes that the “spasm of Islamophobia that rattled through the American public is the product of a tight-knit and interconnected confederation of right-wing fear merchants ... the Islamophobia industry.”
The controversy the “industry” generated around Cordoba House (the original name for what became known as “the Ground Zero Mosque”) was its first taste of sustained mainstream public influence, but it would not be the last. A few years later, many denizens of this world were either in or orbiting the Trump campaign and later his White House. “Fringe, Sinister View of Islam Now Steers the White House” was how a New York Times headline described it.
Trump himself appears to embrace this worldview. During the presidential campaign, he repeatedly made comments such as “I think Islam hates us” and threatened to enact this worldview into policy.
Can Civil Religion Save Us?
IN HIS RECENT book American Covenant, Philip Gorski writes, “To be part of a tradition is to know certain stories, read certain books, admire certain people, and care about certain things. It is to knowingly enter into an ongoing conversation, a conversation that precedes one’s birth and continues on after one’s death.”
The civil religious tradition was first invoked regarding the United States by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967. Bellah spoke of it as the “religious dimension” of the “political realm” and the “founding myth” of our national community. It stands separate from people’s traditional faiths but draws freely from religious language to sacralize national symbols.
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