Sans Cilice


White Anti-Racism: No Hairshirt Necessary

American Conversions to Islam

A week or so ago, I began to write about how converting to Islam sometimes presents African Americans a way to create a more specific non-American ethnicity and/or a way to rebel against the oppressive European Christian society thus further solidifying their identities as black. So, starting from the point that converting to Islam can in someway present black Americans the opportunity to be less a part of white society and therefore more or more distinctly black, what can be said about the unusual case of Jihad Jane?Understandably, many reports of this story have emphasized the idea that our stereotypes of what a terrorist looks like have finally been disproved. But not so many stories have examined Jihad Jane’s whiteness in comparison to other instances of domestic terrorism, as Renee Martin of Ms. Blog does here. As Martin writes:

But when LaRose took the name Jihad Jane–thus identifying herself with Islam, a religion many westerners view as violent despite its core teachings and the behavior of most followers–she disassociated herself from Whiteness. And that made it impossible for commentators to once again apologize for a White American who commits domestic terrorism.

Martin’s thoughts about J Jane and whiteness prompt me to examine how white conversions to Islam compare to black conversions. However, I think it’s unfair to the many white people who convert and do not embark on violent jihads. Also, I’m not sure that I want J Jane’s race to be emphasized more– I think she deserves to be treated as harshly as the others involved in the terrorist plot. While agree with Martin that it’s problematic that American culture views Islam as antithetical to whiteness, I don’t want J Jane to benefit from the insanity explanation given to other white domestic terrorists.

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Feminism in Black American Islam: Intro

Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam

I’m currently reading Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam by Carolyn Moxley Rouse. I highly recommend it. Everything I had learned about Islam from grade school through college was situated in one of three very distinct settings: the Middle Ages, romanticized portrayals of the Black Nationalist movement, or the United States’ current war with the Middle East. Because of this, my understanding of the religion was neither cohesive nor flexible. Not only has this book taught me more about the “praxis” (in the Marxist sense as the conscious practice of belief or “synthesis of mental and manual labor”) of Islam in a context relevant to my own life, it has reinvigorated and broadened my engagement with feminism. I want to learn more about African American Islam because of its prevalence within the school where I work. As I learn I’ll post new thoughts on the subject. The next books I plan on reading are Black Routes to Islam edited by Manning Marabel and Hishaam Aidi, and Islam and Blackamerican by Sherman Jackson.

Though I’m sure that most of the families in my school are Christian (either in faith or culture), Islam is a very visible part of the community. It is literally visible, in that many of the kids’ mothers wear hijab and/or niqaab, some girls wear hijab and some fathers wear kurtas or dishadashas. I think that those in the community who practice Qu’ranic dress are practicing Sunni Muslims, although I’m not totally sure. I also have the sense that, especially in the realm of clothing, different individuals feel free to apply Qu’ranic advice as they see fit. For instance, I know one mother who wears a hijab but her daughter does not, and another mother who wears a long curly hairstyle but whose daughter wears a hijab.

5 out of the 40 kids I work with have at least one practicing Muslim parent. While I would be surprised if more than 20% of the school’s families are Muslim, the secular/cultural manifestations of Islam are far more prevalent and point to a great variety of degrees to which families are influenced by Muslim culture. 9 out of the 15 boys and 8 of the 25 girls I work with have first names that are etymologically Arabic or Aramaic with European last names. There are also some students in the school who have Arabic first and last names, some of whom I believe are practicing Muslims and others not. The religious lifestyle is even manifest in a secular form; “no pork” is by far the most frequently listed dietary restriction. I bet it is listed on 1/3 of our students’ medical forms.

A few years ago I encountered the idea that for some African Americans, converting to Islam presents an opportunity to adopt an ethnicity or ethnic culture distinct from mainstream African American culture. I’m sure that the religion appeals to converters for a variety of reasons, but Islam–as a religion and way of life– may have special appeal to blacks who seek to differentiate their personal history and identity from the African American identity which has been significantly influenced by white oppression. The trauma of slavery and the ensuing centuries of familial instability have made it incredibly difficult for many blacks to trace their geneology back to a city or country like most white Americans are able to do. And, although there are many sources of pride within the African American culture and history, I have sensed and heard that this culture and history can also be a source of shame. Though I do not blame the problems ascribed uniquely to the black American community, writ large, on individuals’ apathy or moral failures, I can understand why some blacks disavow the culture which produces the individuals who add to negative stereotypes.

Black people searching for a more specific personal history and/or new cultural identity may find conversion to Islam appealing as it can address both concerns. The US is skeptical and fearful of Islam. To most of America–even liberals– Islam is decidedly “Other.” Americans associate it with a totally different part of the world and frequently assume that, as a religion, it is in stark opposition to the “uniquely” Christian values on which the country was supposedly founded. These differences– real or perceived–make conversion to Islam much more than a change in faith or a spiritual re-awakening; the conversion becomes a process whereby one can choose to identify with a part and ethnically and culturally different part of the world while also eschewing the system of values which was imprecated in the construction of the country which racially oppressed black people for centuries.

By thinking about African American Islam in this way, I became more sympathetic to conversion as a legitimate and authentic act of individual agency whereas previously I had only thought about blacks’ conversion to Islam as a largely political statement following the Nationalist movement. Clearly, at that point I knew very little about Islam in America. Even after becoming comfortable with conversion as potentially empowering to the individual who chooses it, I still viewed such a conversion as lamentable (especially for women) and detrimental to feminism much in the same way I lament the existence of conservative feminism; I was glad that women were at least consciously asserting their identities and grappling with the meaning of womanhood (maybe they’ll come around!) but was not in support of breathing new life into traditional gender roles. Conservative Feminism, whose female supporters strive to be exemplars of the subordinate yet (re)productive American housewife, remains anathema to me because I am not convinced by its members’ desire for women’s empowerment (which I believe is the one definite goal of all feminisms) and am disgusted by the way their proud servility feeds (literally and figuratively) white male capitalism.

Reading Rouse’s Engaged Surrender has completely changed my view of black women’s conversion to Islam. Although there are still some gender-related limitations which I think are morally wrong (homophobia in particular) I am very much in favor of the inherently feminist discourse which naturally emerges from the African American Sunni Muslim community. And, now that I have a better idea of the praxis of Sunni Muslims, I believe that feminist praxis has great potential to improve its local community and perhaps the black American community at large. In the next few posts in this thread I intend to examine the feminist discourses and attitudes facilitated by Islam as they have been written about by Rouse. I also intend to deal with other examinations of black Islam in different contexts. I am particularly interested to learn about the experience of black Muslims who were born into the religion and its way of life, as opposed to choosing it as an act of independence.

Please note that, as white atheist or not, I do NOT intend my attitude toward and individual understanding of African American Sunni Islam to be seen as advice to group of which I am not a part to convert to a religion of which I am not a part. Instead, I am working to understand how women in different communities create different routes to empowerment. Though some strains of feminism resonate more strongly with me personally, I believe that the development of a greater variety of effective feminisms will result in a greater variety of empowered women. I do not envision utopias, but I see no logical reason to disbelieve that if one half of our population is granted the same respect, support and validity as the other, much less distrust will hinder our progress and vastly more capable individuals will contribute to the greater good.

Filed under: education, Personal, Philosophy & Theory, Society, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Huffington Post Starts a Religion Section

I am 100% ambivalent about Huffpo’s new Religion section. While I am in favor of a section for important religion related NEWS, I have been bothered by statements that are dismissive of the atheist population while trying to be inclusive. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Journalism, Personal, , , ,

Support Hameda Hasan

From Ms. Hamedah HasanHuffingtonPost comes Hameda Hasan’s impassioned plea for clemency from President Obama. She is now serving the 17th year of her 27 (!!!) year sentence for a non-violent, first time, drug-related offense involving crack cocaine which she never used or dealt. As Hasan rightly points out “Had I been convicted of a powder cocaine offense, I would be home with my three daughters and two grandchildren by now.”

Please read Hasan’s whole letter. It is an amazing personal story, one which has moved many organizations, including the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative and the ACLU, to act on her behalf. I hope President Obama is compelled. My one fear is that her Muslim name will make clemency a politically unpopular move. Obama and his team (and media outlets other than Fox News) have finally quieted most of the racist and anti-Muslim shit spewed by Tea-Baggers and the like. At this point I’d be surprised if the “secret Muslim/socialist/racist” memes regained strength, but I hope that Obama’s memory of such malicious lies doesn’t interfere with his consideration of Hasan’s clemency plea.

For some background on the issue: Systemic racism is perpetuated by the unequal prosecution of crack and cocaine cases.

Filed under: activism, Current Events, News, Politics, , , , , , , ,

Symbolic Reconciliation Between Mother Bethel AME and St. George’s UM

After centuries of separation the congregations of Mother Bethel AME and St. George’s United Methodist will worship together once again as a symbolic gesture of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, at Sixth and Pine, is one of the most historically pregnant places in Philly. I’ve been atheist for a long time now, but I still value the history that I learned through my experiences of the city’s religious institutions. Though we never attended AME on a regular basis (my family went to Old St. Joseph’s Jesuit Church), friends of mine did and a few times I attended with my mom. I’m pretty sure we also attended St. George’s a few times, but I don’t remember it well. My grade school and its church, St. Peter’s Episcopal, was two blocks away from all of these religious institutions and this proximity allowed for great field trips in which we learned about how religious tensions shaped Philadelphia history despite freedom of religion being the law.

Like many other nine year old girls of the early 1990’s, I was obsessed with the American Girls doll collection and their corresponding book series. I had Felicity, the Colonial/Revolutionary War red-headed doll– probably because my mom thought she was the most tastefully styled. Felicity’s books were ok, but Addy’s were captivating. Addy was the runaway slave American girl doll. Her books tell the riveting story of her escape with her mother from the plantation all the way to Philadelphia. When they finally arrived in the city, their mentors took them to AME where they received a warm welcome and were helped to find an apartment, clothes and schooling. This pre-adolescent reading experience was highly formative and is definitely a part of why I love of Philadelphia and its historically progressive institutions, one of which is AME.

Filed under: Current Events, education, Personal, Philadelphia News, , , , , , ,

M.L.K as Atheists’ Kryptonite

From my perspective as an atheist, I have been dumb-struck and awed by Martin Luther King Jr more than by any other religious leader. I will argue against religious faith when it is clearly used for evil (interesting comments in Coates blog about how Pat Robertson’s various bigotries all stem from his religious bigotry). I will argue against religious faith when it is employed with benign intentions, but has pernicious effects (take your pick from European colonial motivations, Catholicism’s condemnation of sexuality, contemporary evangelical Christian attempts to ‘straighten’ gays, the list goes on…). I even tend to take issue with–though I do not necessarily argue against–perfectly benign  individuals (some close family members) who seem to be religious primarily for self-satisfying reasons because I think that’s disingenuous and that greater satisfaction could be reached in other ways. Point is, when considering religion and deist beliefs, ESPECIALLY when they are employed unabashedly (as King did) as a means to an end (a very worthy end in this case) I approach skeptically 98% of the time.

The life and invaluable accomplishments of Dr. King leave me in awe and at a complete loss for criticism. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: activism, Personal, Philosophy & Theory, , , , , ,

MLK: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”

Huffington Post’s headline for Martin Luther King Day, 2010, is the MLK quote above. It is a headline which links to a listicle about the myriad ways you can (and should!) contribute to the relief efforts in Haiti. I am embarrased to say that, due to my current lack of funds, and an old cell phone that is so broken that it would be a waste of time to donate, I have done no more for the people of Haiti than to encourage Ben to donate more. He did. And that’s great. But it felt easy. I do not feel as though I have actually DONE anything for the people of Haiti, and I think I will feel this way once I do have funds to donate. In this case though, our own satisfaction with our actions is really not relevant and should not be used as the metric by which the value of effort is determined. It is the money that matters.

However, I think it’s time that I address this most persistent and urgent question in terms of my life as whole. After all, my stance in life as an anti-racist and explicitly in this blog is that actually helping the people whose subjugation we decry is FAR superior to merely cultivating a guilt-ridden awareness of the many ways in which we, merely for being white, have benefited from undue privilege. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: for a white anti-racist to focus primarily on white-privilege issues is to disengage from the ongoing problem of racism.

So, here goes! This will be a series of posts, for brevity’s sake. (Sorry I’m long winded sometimes!)

I must say, I fear that the forthcoming posts will seem horribly self-congratulatory and will be of only minimal encouragement to others. I think this process is necessary though, seeing as I only have a few vagueries in mind of what I actually do that could conceivably make a difference. I would love to be challenged. I know I could do more; every person could do more. But, I don’t think that every person needs to be an overt activist for society to be changed. I don’t think that ‘walking the walk’ is only defined by large, easily identifiable, singular actions. It is my hope that the actions I take and the choices I make outside of the blogosphere are up to snuff with the beliefs I express here.

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