The good in Muslim hearts offers a better self-portrait than violence
A distinct American Muslim voice is quietly emerging in the arts.
CHICAGO — Last summer, in the wake of the July bombings in London, Muslims in both the United States and Europe made appearances on television and released statements to the press that condemned the violence. They assured people that those responsible for the bloodshed were inspired by a darkness of thought that Islam and its scripture rebuke.
The Muslim foray in the public light was formal and expected, given the gravity of the situation, but it was also too brief. Shortly thereafter, it was back to an anonymity that has kept this burgeoning community essentially veiled from society at large.
A growing discussion among American Muslims centers on this observation: We are missing from the diverse cultural space of American life. The focus on terrorism and the vague war against it threatens to relegate and typecast Muslims forever. What more can we do to encourage and empower American Muslims to produce and show their art, to express what they value through literature, theater, film, song, visual arts, and even humor?
There have already been some efforts to respond to this concern. For example, in 2003, a theater group, founded by a Muslim woman who is also a Chicago-area attorney, put on a play inspired by a popular cinematic hit. The production, "My Big Fat Arab-Indian Wedding," focused on the sensitive strife between Muslim immigrants and their American-born children, especially when it comes to marriage. More than 800 people attended the play performed at the University of Illinois, Chicago. The attendance surprised everyone, even the producers. And since then, more Muslim students have signed up for scriptwriting classes.
Muslim film festivals have steadily gained in number, with the talent increasing each year. For instance "Muslim Boarders," a short 2005 documentary, follows a group of young Muslim men and women as they snowboard down a slope. As they pause among snowdrifts and relax in the ski lodge they share their candid views of Muslim life in America.
Literary voices are also slowly starting to emerge. Young Muslims are inspired to write fiction and, especially, poetry, following the examples of Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore and Michael Wolfe.
The signs are there, but they're still "signs." American Muslims in their 20s and early 30s easily admit to the struggle of presenting spiritual traditions in the face of cultural anonymity and journalistic repetitions that link violence to a great world religion. But it is naive to expect the American public to independently reject mendacious labels about Islam if the flavorful and extraordinarily rich traditions of this religion and its people are kept secret.
A vigorous cultural presence, one hopes, can help a people reclaim their right to show who they really are while protecting the interior narrative of their faith from being co-opted by fringe extremists, whose deeds, then, are trumped up by media "experts" who often peddle medieval fears about Islam with impunity. When people are known at a visceral level - something pushed along by the puissance of art - their place in society becomes layered and authentic. Their sense of belonging strengthens, as does their voice in public debate.
Prominent American Muslims have advocated this cultural emergence. Among the compelling articulations is that of Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, scholar at the Nawawi Foundation in Chicago. "Sustained cultural relevance to distinct peoples, diverse places, and different times underlay Islam's long success as a global civilization," he writes in "Islam and the Cultural Imperative." His essay makes the case for an American Islamic identity, in which Muslims are "producers of culture, not passive consumers of it."
But there are also cynics who look askance at topics like art and culture, believing them to be unimportant, if not sedating, because they detract from the "real" issues of the day, which apparently are always political, always international, somewhere over "there." It is often the case, however, that slow work - like the emergence of a distinctive voice - is undervalued. Many American Muslims realize this as they pursue and hone their art and reclaim their right to tell their stories, whether familiar or countercultural.
• Ibrahim N. Abusharif is editor of Starlatch Press, a Muslim publishing house in the Chicago area. He has recently completed a comprehensive index to the Koran.