‘Being Muslim’ offers an alternative history of Islam in America

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Men pray at the Alrasool Islamic Center in Taylorsville, Saturday, Jan. 10, 2015, as Shia Muslims celebrate the Prophet Muhammad's birthday.

Sylvia Chan-Malik never expected to become Muslim, let alone an expert on Islam in America.

A scholar of American and gender studies at Rutgers University, she was raised in California by Chinese immigrants who were culturally Buddhist but not religious. In high school, she was nearly baptized but decided against it. (The pastor said she couldn’t attend a Madonna concert). When she began working on her doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley in 2001, shortly after the Los Angeles riots, she wanted to explore the intersections between Asian- and African-American communities.

Then the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened.

She soon began collaborating on anti-racism initiatives with Muslim and Arab activist groups in the Bay Area. “I quickly realized that the same racial dynamics that I was studying between African-Americans and Asian-Americans were all present within Muslim communities,”Chan-Malik said.

She began documenting the ways U.S. Muslims were trying to constitute their identities and grapple with cultural differences to find a political voice. In the course of her research, she found herself drawn to the faith and converted in 2004.

Her new book, “Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in American Islam,” walks readers through the largely forgotten history of Muslim women of color in the past century. She begins with black women in the Ahmadiyya and Nation of Islam movements and ends by exploring how women of color today defiantly practice Islam against the backdrop of the Trump presidency and the ongoing war on terror. “In the narrative of American Islam, there’s this complete omission of these black Muslim women who are so critical to its making,” she says.

Chan-Malik spoke to Religion News Service about Islamic feminism, the fixation on the veil and why it’s critical to understand American Muslims through the lenses of race and gender. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your book diverges from the popular narrative of Muslims becoming American to look at people in America being Muslim. How does your personal background shape your research?

In my own experience learning how to practice religion, I’ve always been very intimately aware to do it against whatever people were thinking — in my family, my community, my work, even walking down the street. “Being Muslim” is a thing. You not only have to think about who you are, but you have to constantly be aware of how other people are perceiving you in your current environment, what happened in the news that day, how people are looking at you. That’s what being Muslim is: a constant, active insurgency. You feel it in your body. To choose to be Muslim, even against all these things that might cause you harm or stress, is an insurgent act.

So “being Muslim” is something that connects all Muslim woman, as opposed to “becoming American,” which is an experience something that’s restricted mostly to immigrants over the past several decades. But it’s the experience that’s most often associated with Muslims today.

Can you have this experience of “being Muslim” without being Muslim?

The actor Aziz Ansari wrote in The New York Times about how he left Islam a while ago. But the political climate has made him say, “OK, this is how I identify as a Muslim because of the ways in which other people see me and my parents.” So he recognizes that he shares this experience with other Muslims in this country.

That’s in line with the experience of racialized minorities in this country. If you think about what connects Asian-Americans and African-Americans and Latinx people — there is no real common thread except for how they’re racialized in the same way.

Today you can’t really talk about Muslim women without discussing the hijab or burqa. Has that always been the case?

In the U.S., it only starts coming up at the end of the 1970s. In my own research combing through all The New York Times and other news coverage prior to that, they would just mention in travel coverage that, oh, they were in Morocco and the women dress like this. It wasn’t something stressed in media coverage, and it definitely wasn’t demonized or fetishized how it is now.

This really changed in 1979. It was never seen as a threat until the rise of oil politics became the pre-eminent marker of our relationship with Iran and the region. That was also a moment in which the second-wave feminist movement was looking for an international cause. This issue then connected oil politics with the ways in which white feminists were trying to go global. They could say, “Hey, we can go there and be useful to these poor women around the world and show them how our values are superior.” So the veil became a useful and convenient symbol.

The mention of women also cues up questions like: Is Islam compatible with feminism, and is there such a thing as Islamic feminism? How have Muslim women in the U.S. dealt with these questions?

A strong desire for women’s empowerment and gender agency has been at the core of women’s engagement with Islam for the past century. Even within what we might see as traditional, conservative family frameworks, they were trying to express agency and power in order to uplift their communities. Many Muslim women themselves would not call it feminism; they’d say, “I’m trying to empower my community” or “I’m trying to submit to Allah.” I argue that this constitutes a desire for gendered liberation.

In a lot of Islamic discourse and mosque communities, there’s a visceral rejection of the word “feminism.” It’s seen as a sort of destructive force within our community. But there’s another tradition of feminism called womanism in the U.S. that goes back to Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells and enslaved African women fighting for freedom. They produced a different version of feminism that I see as being much more in line with the way Muslim women have found Islam as a source of empowerment.

What’s missing in popular depictions of Muslim women?

Women of color who engage in grass-roots community building, activism and cultural production, especially African-American Muslim women. I’ve seen a lot more films being done by those women themselves, but nobody else is really striving to tell their stories. There’s a whole generation of African-American Muslim women who are now in their 70s, 80s, 90s who have so much to tell. They have entire archives on how they created the first Islamic schools in their communities, they have all these documents and photographs in their homes, and nobody is interested.

I’d love to see young Muslims try to preserve and explore and learn from these stories.