Muslim American problems rooted in our inability to highlight our Americaness
Posted Sep 10, 2010

Muslim American problems rooted in our inability to highlight our Americaness

by Robert Salaam

“We have to drop the immigration narrative” A good friend, Imam, and mentor recently counseled me.

I have been saying in private for a long time but not so much in public that I feel our greatest problem within the American Muslim community is our image.  As 9/11 approaches the summer of anti-Muslim rhetoric crescendo’s with protests against a proposed Muslim Community Center a couple of blocks from the WTC attack, and an infamous Qur’an burning planned by a radical Christian preacher in Florida.  Many Muslims are scratching their heads wondering how all this happened and what can we do about it.  So in typical fashion, many Muslims have taken to the airwaves, written op-eds, signed letters, and joined protests to counter what we all know is a very dangerous trend in the national discussion.

As perplexing as this current round of religious/political drama may be to some, many American Muslims especially in the African American community aren’t remotely surprised.  Last week, a broad spectrum of African American Muslim leaders held a press conference outlining their intention to form a Coalition of African American Muslims, whose intention is to ensure that “our” narrative is not being lost in the national debate.  When I first heard of the event and tuned into to the live webcast, I practically jumped out my seat with excitement.

Some may question the need for such a coalition or even feel that in forming such a group, African American Muslims are performing some sort of un-Islamic racial segregation of sorts, and to those who harbor such opinions, I simply disagree.

I started blogging in 2005, due to what I felt was a need to be another voice in a chorus of other American Muslims, in order to highlight our views, thoughts, and visions.  I wanted to ultimately show that we are just as American as any other American.  I have blogged about Music, Movies, Video Games, Books, and Pop Culture in addition to Politics and Religion.  I have even gone out of my way throughout the years whether in writing or on my show, to not be overly religious in my approach.  I wanted my readers and listeners to see and hear the actual voice of Muslim America, not the stereotypes that are currently held up as definitive of who we are and I believe I have had some success on that part.  By writing as “your friendly neighborhood Muslim” I have been able to reach countless people on every continent and my voice has been consistent.  I’m just a normal guy who’s more likely to be playing the Xbox 360 than I am to be giving a sermon on the virtues of Shariah.  I believe my readers get that about me.

What is it about the broader American Muslim community that Americans don’t get?  Why is it that after hundreds of thousands of denunciations, television appearances, fatwa’s, debates, etc. Americans are still not buying into the idea that American Muslims are just as American as apple pie?  I believe everything has to do with our approach and imagery.

Whenever there is some “controversy” real or imagined involving Muslims and the major media seeks a Muslim “representative” what does Joe six-pack American see?  While some may not agree with my sentiments or think I’m being racially controversial, we have to admit that what the average American sees when watching the must see debates on cable news is the realization of their stereotypes about Muslims and Islam.

To many Americans, Islam is a foreign religion practiced by “those” people in the desert who we are at war with.  “They” are coming here to get “us” and majority America is freaked out.  So when the rhetoric rises, those who look like “those people” are attacked and every dirty name is applied and amplified against the perceived enemy.  So we now hear reports of Sikhs and Arab Christians who are hurt and abused because they “look” Muslim.

American Muslims don’t have a messaging problem per se, but an image problem.  All of those brothers and sisters who so gallantly fight the good fight on cable news do so with elegance, knowledge, and dignity.  Their points are valid, truthful, and practically unbeatable.  But America at large is still not buying it.  Maybe it’s not so much the message, but the messenger?

Americans by nature seem to be obsessed with image.  You don’t have to work at a PR firm or advertising company to know that when it comes to branding, it’s all in the imagery.  Every product, brand, and public figure spends a great deal of time and money to go through rigorous studies, polls, and surveys, in order to decide what is the best image to present to the American people in order to get their target audience to buy into their “product”, yet Muslims fail to realize this and as a result we suffer.

It appears as if Muslims are asleep at the wheel, just winging it, choosing to move forward more by hope than by reality.

The reality whether we like it or not, is that as Muslim Americans we are selling a product.  Our product is equal rights, dignity, and respect and in America that means we have to show in words and in imagery that we are in fact players on the team of Red, White, and Blue.  While it may not be popular to say in public, and it may hurt a lot of feelings, we have an urgent need as a community to promote African American and Caucasian American voices to the forefront of the cable news and media wars.

Americans identify with those things they can easily relate to.  If the prevailing stereotype is that Islam is a foreign Middle Eastern religion, what sense does it make to promote foreign born or Middle Eastern descended American Muslims as representatives for the broader American Muslim community?  Why go through great lengths to promote a narrative that highlights the fact that many within this particular group of Americans are new to the fabric of America?  This narrative only validates the stereotype.

However, if you had guy or gal next door American appear on the networks and in the media sharing the same information and messaging it would be better received.  Why would this work?  For one thing, the narrative would be entirely different.  Americans are not buying the “Ellis Island” narrative that is often being promoted by many of the current crop of Muslim guests.  While it’s a great story to hear about this or that Muslim immigrant family who moved to America a generation or two ago to start a better life, in the current national debate against Muslims in general and especially the hostility against immigration, it’s not moving critics of Islam and Muslims to tears.  Many Americans like to relegate immigration to those Europeans who came to America a century ago and tend to only be moved to tears about their narrative.  Fair or not, perception often rules against reality, as we are evidently witnessing on the eve of 9/11.

This is where African American and Caucasian Muslims voices become so crucial in the national debate.  We don’t have an “Ellis Island” narrative, which can be used against us to label us as foreigners who must “assimilate”; both communities can trace their lineage to the very origins of the country itself.  Our communities not withstanding their own diversities and controversies are largely looked at as purely American, but “different” in an acceptable and diverse way.  Most black or white Muslims will never have to fear being rejected for a job, or getting beat up for looking Muslim, and our families and communities are largely accepting of us.  Go to any urban area in America with a largely black population and yell As Salaam Alaikum and your likely to get the appropriate reply from non-Muslims.  We are long established in the diverse, American fabric.  Most of our families are used to the Muslim cousin whom you have to be careful of certain foods when they come to the family reunion.  We are already integrated have backgrounds and relationships with other religious communities and have been here for centuries.  Americans know us and for the most part hardly ever define us by our religion but who we are as people, which is why Muslims like Dave Chappelle could be so successful even after Americans found out that he was Muslim.  The same goes for the scores of entertainers and public figures in pop culture who are Muslim, but their fan base is largely non-Muslim.

Americans see Islam all around them everyday but how we identify this is the challenge.  Instead of allowing them to see Islam and Muslims through the prism of their relatives, friends, and the public figures they are familiar with and enjoy, we keep directing them toward an image that is foreign to anything they have ever experienced.

If we are to ever gain traction and have our reality compete with the perception, we have to lose this talking point that proclaims that American Muslims are just here for a better life.  Not only is it simply not completely true, but it also completely disenfranchises an entire core group of indigenous Muslims who laid the groundwork for these later successes, which thereby marginalizes our principle strength in this debate that Islam in America is much older than one or two generations. Muslims have been here for every American triumph and failure.

If we persist in the “Ellis Island” narrative it’s to our own PR disadvantage and further detriment.  If we want Americans to truly see us for who we are, we have to show them Islam and Muslims in a way they can relate to.

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