Reflections on Islam and Muslim identity in America

Culture Curmudgeon

KoranAn Iranian Shiite Muslim woman holds a copy of the Koran, Islam’s holy book. AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE

There’s nothing like thirst and hunger to remind oneself about faith and spirituality. Especially for countless Muslims around the world who are fasting for the month of Ramadan.

It’s a time for reflection, studying the Quran, praying and giving more, and examining one’s relationship with God or Allah.

Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business America show on CCTV America. His analysis represents his views alone.  Culture Curmudgeon Ahmad Coo

For many American Muslims it’s also a month to foster understanding among other religious faiths and communities. In Washington D.C., Muslim organizations are holding interfaith dialogues to counter the so-called Islamophobia that dominates U.S. media coverage.

From ISIL’s brutal reign in Iraq and parts of Syria to the deadly terrorist attacks in Bangladesh and Europe, it’s easy to mistake Islam as a violent, backward faith.

The opinion echoes the recent study by the Pew Research Center of how Americans view various religious groups. According to the report, most of the U.S. has a negative or cold view of Muslims. Of course, anyone who’s willing to look beyond mainstream coverage knows that Islam is not a monolithic religion.

Islam is just as diverse as Christianity and Judaism- there are the extremists, the moderates and the liberals. But unfortunately for the Muslims, nothing gets the TV ratings revving like a gun-toting jihadist.

Unfortunately those same extremist images tend to emphasize the ‘otherness’ of American Muslims. But they aren’t the ’other’ more than any other ethnic group that makes up the so-called melting pot that this country represents. However, the way things are going in terms of news coverage, Muslims in America will probably be subject to more scrutiny and paranoia. For some, the growing anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S. may make some Muslims question where their loyalties lie.

That push and pull between a Muslim and American identity are explored in the play ‘Disgraced’ by Ayad Akhtar. The Pakistani-American protagonist Amir is a prominent attorney with all the accoutrements of success. He’s on the verge of becoming a partner at his law firm, has an outsized penthouse apartment in one of the most expensive neighborhoods of Manhattan and has a beautiful Caucasian wife who’s made a name for herself in the world of modern art. Disgraced: a play

When the play starts, it’s not clear if Amir is actually a Muslim. He drinks whiskey like its water, loves pork tenderloin, and swears like a sailor all frowned upon in Islam. His persona in the opening scene of the play reminds me of Gordon Gecko in Wall Street- cursing his subordinates through his gigantic brick phone and walking around huffing and puffing.

But just like anyone trying to live the American dream, he’s under a lot of pressure. As the play progresses it’s obvious that the protagonist is trying to downplay, if not completely erase, his Muslim identity. He’s up for promotion at a predominantly Jewish law firm and Amir is increasingly paranoid that any sort of leanings toward his faith may derail his chances.

Throughout the production, we see this push and pull between his two identities the successful All-American go-getter lawyer and the Pakistani immigrant who’s conflicted about Islam. However, the schism within Amir finally manifests itself in his outer life. Shortly after that Amir’s life completely unravels. It’s clear who’s been disgraced.

But the title also applies to the wider public discourse about Islam. It’s easy to make monsters out of the more extreme members of the faith, but most media won’t go beyond that.

To point out that ISIL, al-Qaeda and the Taliban aren’t even considered true Muslims by a majority of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims is lost in the shrill cries of fear-mongering politicians and completely unqualified television pundits.

Thousands of mourners pay final respects to Muhammad Ali 1But despite all the negative bias towards the faith, there have been American Muslims who have countered the media-imposed stigma. Among the most successful of them was the late Muhammad Ali. He was one of the very first public Muslim figures who fought against so-called Islamophobia. His boxing persona was larger than life but he also used his celebrity to promote the religion.

Ali’s critics tried to portray him as anti-American when he converted to Islam, accusing him of using his sport as ‘a mass instrument of hate’. But the heavyweight champion insisted throughout the years that all Muslims just want to live in peace.

He kept true to those words most of his life- becoming an ambassador for the faith and living by example. After retiring from professional boxing, he devoted a lot of his time to working with charities and humanitarian projects.

Even in death, he was able to rise above the din from the steady stream of negative reports about Islam. During his televised memorial service, several religious leaders from a wide array of faiths honored his memory and applauded his tireless efforts to help the poor and disadvantaged in the U.S. and abroad. His embrace of both Islam and America was what set him apart from his peers.

To this writer, he was among the few who succeeded in giving American Muslims a voice in U.S. society- one that’s unfortunately increasingly getting drowned out by fear.

In the end, Ali’s life was the antithesis of Amir’s in ‘Disgraced’.

His dogged defense of Islam and his insistence that being Muslim and an American weren’t mutually exclusive was among the factors that made him a historic figure, factors that would have also saved Amir’s life from dissolution.