Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Khalid Latif: Who Speaks for American Muslims?

Sherman Hemsley passed away yesterday. For those who don't know him, he played the character "George Jefferson" on the TV sitcom "The Jeffersons." He and his wife "Louise," lovingly called "Weezy" at times on the show by her husband, brought a lot of different laughs and lessons to me growing up. My family would regularly watch shows like "Good Times," "All in the Family" and "Sanford and Son," each funny in their own way, and at times purposefully educational. Many episodes dealt directly and indirectly with issues of race and racism, privilege, socioeconomic reality and culture. Watching Archie Bunker deal with the reality that a black man moved into his neighborhood, or George Jefferson interact with Tom and Helen, the interracial white husband and black wife with a daughter named Jenny, presented a good tool for learning about life experience of others. In homes that would never allow people of different skin colors in through the front door, the television was bringing them in and letting stories be heard that needed to be. Muslims can learn something from this.
Muslims today find themselves in a place where our narrative is being told by others. Many equate a normative understanding of Islam to something that is radical in its nature. Politicians are making absurd statements to further their campaign goals bringing into question anyone who is Muslim for no other reason than they practice Islam. Most recently, Michele Bachmann tried to link Huma Abedin, wife of Congressman Antony Weiner and aide to Hillary Clinton, and others working in government to the Muslim Brotherhood. As ridiculous as her conclusions are, the sad reality is that there will be some who will actually believe her voice and since Muslims wait for a voice to speak before speaking ourselves, we are one step behind. 

Most of time we find ourselves reactively saying what we are not. We are not violent, we are not terrorists, we are not oppressive to our women. There can be a value in this, but in only saying what I am not, I am not saying what I am. Television, and other mediums of art, pose a very important solution to this problem. 

So tell them the story, so that they may reflect --The Holy Quran 7:176

It's exciting to see the surge in Muslim artists taking the scene these day. People like Musa Syeed, Mustafa Davis and Qasim Basir, Aman Ali, Preacher Moss and Azhar Usman, G. Willow Wilson and Wajahat Ali, Yuna and Brother Ali, among many others telling the Muslim story to audiences that religious leaders, scholars and activists would never have access to. On a larger scale, people like Lupe Fiasco, Zain Malik and Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) show us the potential that can be reached. And it's not just the sheer numbers that they have access to, but the retention factor of the audience is different because the way the stories are being told are different. 

People these days are not really swayed as much as they used to be by conversations on theology or law. They want to see how you being a practitioner of your faith is something that is positive for people. Not how your being a Muslim brings benefit to you, but how your being a Muslim brings benefit to the society around you. Our artists can tell that story in a very powerful way. 

The unfortunate reality is the Muslim community is not very good at supporting the Arts. On a broader level, our understanding of institutional development is quite weak. Most communities support the construction of a mosque and then perhaps the building of a school, but then stop at that. The creativity of our generation is stifled at the absence of funding to support that creativity. Our counterparts in other religious communities have millions of dollars flowing through foundations and other mechanisms that provide fellowships for new artists, funding to filmmakers, seed money to fashion designers, and much more. Our most talented end up struggling to find investors who will give them something, and when they eventually do they have to decide whether they will give themselves a salary or hire a better editor. Somehow, they still manage to produce a product of such great quality that it wins award after award, and along with it the hearts of many. Imagine what would happen if they actually had meaningful support of some percentage of the 1.5 billion Muslims who are out there. We're lucky that there are those who are not Muslim who see the importance of having the Muslim story told, that provide the support that some of our artists need. Am I saying the Arts is the only way to go? No. But it an important way and expanding our understanding of what Art actually is and encompasses can help us see that. 

Support your Muslim artists. Whether they are producing "Muslim Art" or simply art as Muslims. Invite them to come to your mosques, your conferences and conventions. Bring them to your universities, high schools and elementary schools so that students with aspirations can be inspired to tap into their creativity. Art is an essential part of the cultural fabric of society, and we find the Muslim voice beginning to enter that realm. Our support will only help to amplify it, and in turn better the understanding that many people have of our Faith in general, and we as practitioners of it in specific.

For those looking for a different read on the Muslim American experience, two books that I would recommend that just recently came out are "I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim" and "All American:45 American Men on Being Muslim," both of which are collections of short stories of personal narrative that highlight, in my opinion, quite well the diversity of Muslim experience in the United States. 

My thoughts, prayers and condolences to the family and loved ones of Sherman Hemsley.

Follow Imam Khalid Latif on Twitter: 

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