Since the tragedy of September 11, Muslims in America have been expressing their patriotism more often than in the past. Virtually every Muslim organization and community has touted its American-ness. And rightfully so; we are Americans. Some of us were born here, and others are naturalized citizens. Many who are not yet American citizens certainly aspire to be.
Here we are, attempting to define ourselves as true Americans while holding onto our Islamic heritage and values. But defining Islam is far easier than defining American culture. Some would argue -- especially those not raised in America -- that there is no American culture. I disagree. While it is true that this culture is an ever-changing amalgam of ideas, values, cuisines, styles and ideologies, some imported and some born of this soil, there is a national consensus about what is distinctly American in the modern age.
Some say that a pronounced, anti-Muslim; anti Arab and anti-immigrant vein runs though this country. That does not represent the views for all Americans. And, remember, people can change. Many Americans have no real problem with Islam in their midst. They just want their shake and fries with it. We have always embraced other cultures; we just like to add our own twist to it. Just look at how we embraced pita bread! I remember the time where about the only place you could get pita bread on the East Coast was to go to Malko Brothers on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Now you can get it at just about any major supermarket in the country, and in different flavors too! At least 19 towns in the United States are named for Lebanon, six for Jordan, four for Egypt, and three for Palestine. There are four Cairos, six Damascuses, two Arabis, and at least one Baghdad. There's even a place called Mecca, California. History has shown that Americans are open for new ideas.
Many American converts to Islam are ambivalent to downright indignant about being told that they must abandon all of their American-ness if they are to fully embrace Islam. Undeniably, there is such a thing as American culture -- and its subscribers cherish their way of life. And if we are to truly find our place here as Muslims, it may help to understand just what it is to be an American.
American culture is Super Bowl Sunday, cheese steaks, and high school basketball. Its block parties in the summertime, coming from a neighborhood and always being able to go back and see the people you grew up with. America is the electoral process, with all its flaws, corny campaign ads, debates, and voting machine function and malfunction. America is savvy commercials, the local shopping mall, and Wal-Marts from Harlem to Middletown, USA. It's Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali and the resilience of Lance Armstrong. That's America. Its opportunity, sometimes equal, sometimes not, getting your mail delivered in the driven snow, and 24-hour Jack in a Box. That's America.
American culture is public debate about racism, affirmative action, and the success story of Tiger Woods. It's Girl Scout cookies, camping trips, and summer vacation from school. It's your alma mater, baby boomers and the quest for early retirement. America is John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field. It's Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Saturday morning cartoons. America is good neighbors, back yard barbeques and a manicured lawn. It's sitting on the front stoop in the summer time eating Italian water ice.
Where else but in America can you go to Friday prayer at the mosque and find a person of African origin with an Irish last name wearing a shawal khameez from Pakistan, with a Saudi abaayah, khuffs on his feet, and Stacy Adams wing tips? That's America.
Of course American culture is much more what I've listed. America is changing and so are Muslims. Always looking to expand, American advertisers have taken notice of Muslims. We spend, and we spend big. Maybe that's a bad thing and maybe not. This is a wealthy country with a high standard of living. Perhaps that's one reason why we like it here so much. Hey, al-humdu lillah that we're not doing so bad financially. We just need to remember who to thank.
Some of American culture is at odds with our Islamic values, but thankfully we are free to take or leave these aspects. I abhor street gangs and the pervasiveness of sexual promiscuity.. I hate parking tickets, high taxes and corporate welfare, but let's not throw out the baby with the bath water. There are certainly a lot of things wrong with our country, but there are so many wonderful things to enjoy.
I gave a sermon (khutba) last summer about watching Fourth of July fireworks, something I have always done with my kids. Someone asked me, "Imam how can you sanction such a thing?"
"Hey, I like fireworks," I said. "Besides, the First Amendment is what assures me the freedom to practice my religion." Does that make me a dyed in the wool patriot? Not necessarily. But I will take advantage of the liberty to practice Islam, pray at the Masjid, enjoin the good and forbid the evil.
America is protest, public criticism and freedom of the press. It's feeding the homeless, community volunteering, and pesky telemarketers. It's rooting for the underdog, having reliable firefighters, and being able to dial 911. America is public service, shoveling snow for twenty bucks per house, and bright yellow school buses. America is break-dancing, home stereo systems, and jazz. Granted, some music is haram but you won't win too many points in America by attacking John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk.
America is lot of things to a lot of people -- but I wouldn't condemn her just yet. I expect to get some flak for this article, and that's okay; I can live with that. I sense that we like this country more than some of us are willing to admit. We've been told that America is the Great Satan. Well I've got news for you. The Shaitaan (Devil) is an equal opportunity deceiver; he respects no borders, color, nationality or even religion. Yes, it is true that Shaitaan is busy in America, but he's busy elsewhere as well. Somehow all of the forces of the devil did not stop the athaan (Muslim call to prayer) from being called from Sarasota Florida, to Sacramento California. Tolerance -- that's America. When the hijab was banned in France, Turkey and on public TV news in Egypt, it prevailed in America. That alone deserves a hearty "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great).
So you see that Americanism and Islam are not mutually incompatible. The relationship between the two just has to be tweaked a little. The Sunna (tradition) of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (May the peace and blessing of Allah be upon him) is applicable for all times. Every mubah (permissible) and even some makrooh (disliked) actions can be enhanced with a sprinkling of Islamic flavoring. Instead of the Saturday bath, we have the weekly ghusl for Jum'ah. Instead of church on Sundays, we have prayer on Fridays. On Super Bowl Sunday, we replace Coors Light with Passion juice from the Garden of Bilal, a Muslim restaurant in Philadelphia. We replace the Boy Scouts with the Jawala scouts, a Muslim scouting organization. Just as the MSA has become our cleaned-up version of the college Fraternity, thikrullah (remembrance of God) and nasheed can replace nursery rhymes. (Come to think of it, nursery rhymes aren't all that bad, anyway.) And we can replace hardcore rap with the innovative beat of Native Deen. Instead of pork chops or baby-back ribs roasting on the barbeque grill, we have halal hotdogs and lamb chops from the local halal deli. Heck -- if suits your fancy, you can simply go out and slaughter your own meat or poultry. That's America.
The term "God bless America" is not out of sync with my creed as a Muslim. Yes, I do want Allah to bless this country and make her better, to conform her to His divine guidance. Allah guides whomever He pleases. Every sane human being has the capacity to submit to Allah's will, to raise their moral standard. Otherwise He would not hold them accountable. Loving or hating American culture is not a necessarily a condition for being a Muslim. But knowing what makes this nation tick certainly eases our transition into being American Muslims in the true sense. Understanding American culture is just one step in that direction.