NOTE: The following is a mildly edited transcript of the keynote address given by Dr. Jackson at the Annual Community Dinner of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago held on October 15, 2011 in Rosemont, Illinois. It has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.
I’m told that I’m supposed to speak on this incredibly complex topic and to say something cultured and coherent all in a couple of minutes. So I’m going to try to use my time wisely, and hopefully I’ll be able to live up to the very daunting task that I’ve been assigned. But before I do that, I really do want to say at least two things: First, I want to thank the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago for affording me this opportunity to come here not only to speak but to witness and to enjoy the incredible fraternity and sorority that exists in this room.
Second, I think that, as Muslims in America, from time to time we should take a moment to really reflect on the blessings that we enjoy when we are able to come together in spaces like this to celebrate our collective and communal existence as Muslims in America. I think oftentimes we forget that that there are many, many communities across the globe who are not afforded this particular opportunity. And it would be remiss of us to neglect to thank Allah for this opportunity to come together and enjoy one another.
As I said, I have been told that I only have 20 minutes, so I’m going to try to go straight to the issue. And the issue is our communal mandate as Muslim Americans in the 21st century.
Way back in 1928, there was a very influential public relations expert by the name of Edward Bernays who wrote an important book entitled, “Propaganda.” The first paragraph of that book reads in part as follows:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in our democracy. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism in society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power in our country.”
Bernays was pointing to a very powerful and profound reality. And part of what he was pointing to is the fact that despite all the talk about the importance of power, of reason and rationality—the true holders of influence in any society know that people’s sensibilities, that is their fears, their passions, their aspirations and, most importantly, their sense of self and identity, these are the real keys to shaping their actions and their reactions. Now, what Bernays was pointing to is not something that we, as Muslims, should be unaware of. In fact, the Quran itself is very specific in this regard. And since I don’t have a lot of time, I’m going to read the translation, or rather summarize it. The Quran speaks of the fact that, although God sent many prophets to many communities, oftentimes the movers and shakers in those communities were able to craft a communal identity that aligned their personal interests with what they claimed to be the community’s interests, in such a way that anything that came to that community that threatened what they perceived to be their interests, they could portray as being a threat to the community’s interests, in fact, to the community’s sense of self or identity.
And so what we find is that many communities in the Quranic depiction end up rejecting the messengers, not because they believe that what the messengers are bringing is not true. Not because the messengers are unable to appeal to their reason. But because the movers and shakers in that society are able to craft a national sense of self, a national identity as it were, that they can then say is threatened by what the messengers are bringing. And so despite the fact that some of the people to whom these messengers were sent actually believed in the message that was brought, they rejected it because it was not consistent with what they were taught was their own identity. Clearly, this phenomenon is a part of modern, American society as we know it.
Privileged classes know almost instinctively that those “beneath” them typically aspire—and I use “beneath” in little quotations; we’re talking about power here, not inherent value—they know that the less enfranchised aspire ultimately to be like them. And so their plan is, as I said, to fix a communal sense of self that aligns their personal interests with communal interests. And this is a part of crafting what one may call “a cultural orthodoxy.” Once that cultural orthodoxy is established, they can ex-communicate those who seem to violate it, as having gone against who “we” really are, of having betrayed “our” true sense of self.
To a real extent, this is what is happening in America today. Certain forces are very deliberately manipulating organized habits and opinions—the sensibilities of their population—to the end of shaping a national identity that basically excludes Muslims and casts their religion—not only as a threat, but as a violation of our national identity, a sort of cultural or even racial apostasy according to which Islam and Muslims are portrayed as representing an entity that violates who we as Americans really are. And I think that it’s important that we do not overlook this reality.
Now part of what I’m going to talk about—with, I guess, the 10 minutes that I have now left—is what we as Muslims are going to do about this, particularly in the context of our recognition that we are a part of the American mosaic. But before I get to that, I want us to be clear about what is happening here. I know that Dr. Zahloul mentioned—this, in jest I hope—the whole issue of President Obama being Muslim. And I think that Muslims and non-Muslims who care about the integrity of America as America need to understand what was going on with that whole controversy. I remember just before the election, Rush Limbaugh came out and very explicitly denied that Obama was black! He said that Obama is not black—and I quote—”he has not a shred of African blood in him. He’s not an African American. He’s an Arab.” (And if you want I will give you the website and you can go and look at it yourself.) My point here is that, Why was he trying to cast Obama as an Arab? And, in fact, why was he even trying to negate his status as an African American, as a Blackamerican? It’s because he recognized that Blackamericans have a secure place in the national identity that is America and that you cannot alienate people and have them cast as being non-, un-, or anti-American simply by calling them black. We passed those days many, many decades ago. But to cast them as Arab today is to place them outside the boundaries of acceptable American identity. And then to go on he very surreptitiously crafted sentiments basically designed to encourage people to abandon all empathy that they might have for this person as an Arab. In other words, Rush Limbaugh understood that America was serious about cashing in on this opportunity for national redemption, that they had an opportunity to right many, many decades, indeed centuries, of racial wrongs and that it was serious about cashing in on this opportunity to redeem itself. And Limbaugh wanted to undermine the whole redemption vote by casting Obama as an Arab. This is a part of what I’m talking about in terms of how certain forces are attempting to craft an American national identity that excludes Muslims and places their religion in a very negative light. This is the moment that we are in. And our mandate for the 21st century is how we as a community are going to respond to this moment.
Now, the forces that seek to manipulate the sensibilities of Americans do so to the point that even if non-Muslim Americans know nothing about Islam and have never met a Muslim in their life, their sensibilities are negatively predisposed toward Islam and Muslims. And there are three ways—there are many ways, but since I only have now, eight minutes; I’m only going to be able to talk about three of them—two of which I think are rather ineffectual, if not ultimately counter-productive, and one I think will show us the way to our future.
The first response is to try to refute the rhetoric and false charges and depictions that are cast against Islam and Muslims. And by this I mean that we want to take all of the books and speeches and statements that are made by the Islamophobes and we want to refute this. And I mean we really want to refute it. In fact, if I hadn’t already committed to this wonderful event, I was actually invited to an event in Washington DC to sit on a panel that was about how to answer difficult questions about Islam. “Dr. Jackson, come and help us develop some “knock ’em out” answers so we can do away with all this Islamophobic nonsense.”
The second way of dealing with these challenges is not to try to refute these false charges and depictions of Islam but essentially to reject and resist them through the development of essentially a counter-culture, a counter-identity, which essentially accepts exclusion. It is to say, “That’s right, I’m not an American, jack; I’m a Muslim. If you want to exclude me because I refuse to be what you say I should be, then fine. I accept this exclusion,” and then I go on to try to develop — in fact I do develop — a counter-identity, a counter culture, as it were, within America.
Now the problem with these two approaches as I see it, are as follows: Rational arguments are fine. I’m an academic. I believe in the power of ideas. But the reality is that rational arguments are limited in that as a rule they tend only to change minds. They rarely change sensibilities. They can change how people think about an issue; but they can’t change how people feel about that issue. If I come to you as a person whom you do not trust because I’m black, or because I’m male, or because I’m handsome, (laughter, smiles), I can present to you with all of the rational arguments in the world and you may even agree with my rational arguments. But you will still not come off of the position that you are on, because you don’t trust me. Rational arguments can appeal to minds; they are far less effective in appealing to hearts and souls and sensibilities.
The second problem with rational arguments, at least as I see it, and I think that there is some confirmation of what we’re seeing in the Muslim community today, is that by pursuing this attempt to always respond with a rational argument to every charge that is made against Islam and Muslims it is very easy to end up adopting someone else’s agenda without even realizing it. This is because you only discuss the issues that they raise. You only respond to what they say is the issue. And what ends up happening—and this is happening now—Americans at large come to know what “jihad” is. They know what “shariah” is. They even know taqiyah is. But I’ll give you 100 dollars—this is not gambling [light laughter]—I’ll give you a 100 dollars right now, right out of my pocket, if you can go and find me 10 non-Muslims who know what tawhid means! The very essence of Islam is unknown to the majority of Americans, who can talk till they’re blue in the face about jihad and hudud and taqiyah and burqah….and, and, and. And we, as a Muslim community, find ourselves in a position of perpetual apology. We cannot open up our mouths and simply say, “This is who we are.” Rather, every time we open up our mouths, we must do so from a posture of apology. This is the problem with pursuing purely rational arguments. And I want to underscore this again: I’m an academic. I live in the world of ideas. I believe in the power of ideas. And I believe in the power of wisdom. But I also know that reason has its limits. And that we, as human beings are not just minds. We are hearts, we are souls, we are hopes, we are dreams, we are fears, we are aspirations. And we see and process reality through the prism of all of this.
Now, the second approach is the approach of the sort of counter-culture and the rejection of presumed roles. And I hope that I have enough time here and that Allah will bless me with the clarity to make clear what I’m trying to get at. The problem with a counter-culture is that it essentially does all of our adversaries’ work for them. They want to exclude us; we help them out. And what we end up doing is rejecting all kinds of aspects of our collective heritage as Americans and as Muslims, not on principle, but on blind reflex. We reject things not only that should not be rejected, but things in whose rejection we are reduced to the most remote and bleakest margins of society, from which posture we are denied the resources, connections, political and social capital that will actually enable us to control our own destiny. Our future, then, is determined totally by someone else and not at all by us. And I want to make it clear for those of you who might be wondering: critical engagement of our society and the very complex problems, challenges, dislocations and exploitations that exist in it, this is the job of us all. And I don’t want to be a part of any society in which I cannot critically engage. That is to say, where I cannot stand up and to say, wrong is wrong, injustice is injustice, selfishness is selfishness, and greed is greed. Counter cultures, however don’t allow us to do that, at least not with any real effect. The problem with what I’m talking about in terms of this sort of counter-culture is that it does not critically engage. It does not critically reject this or that. It only blindly does so. And in so doing, we end up in giving our society over to the very people who have reduced us to these extreme counter-cultural margins to begin with. This is a dead-end approach.
Rather than receding to the extreme margin, the approach that we need to ingratiate ourselves with is the approach, in my understanding at least, that was followed by the Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam). That approach is not an assimilation into someone else’s definition of America. Nor is it a rejection of your own heritage as an American. Rather, it is the production of an alternative modality of being an American. Our own modality of being American.
If we look at the career of the Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam), and some of us sometimes I wonder as Muslims even, do we read Quran? Do we read the Seerah and the Sunnah of Muhammad? Some of us act like the situation that we are in now—where people vilify us, where people misrepresent us, where people spread lies about us, where people spread false fears about us—some of us act like this is something new. The Prophet was a man who was lied about in his own society. He was a man who was physically attacked in his own society. He was a man who was forced to leave his own homeland and go elsewhere because he could not sustain his physical integrity in his own place of birth.
And yet, did the Prophet reject Arabian society? Ah, you don’t know how to answer that. Well, I’ll answer it for you. No, he did not reject Arabian society. Nor did he disassociate himself from his own society. He never said, “These pagan Arabs, who are lying about me, who are fighting against me, who are vilifying me—I have nothing to do with them. I ain’t no Arab, I’m a Muslim.” He never said that. He never disassociated himself from his own birthright to be a member of his own society. He never gave his society over to those who would try to cast him in a negative light. Rather what he went on and did was to claim his membership in that society, and from that posture--from that posture!—to develop an alternative modality of being Arabian.
They said, if you want to be a bona fide Arabian, you have to have so many gods. They said, if you want to be a bona fide Arabian, you have to worship your idols at the Kaaba. They said, if you want to be a bona fide Arabian, then burying your daughters alive is a part of your national culture. He said, What? No. I can be a bona fide Arabian worshiping God and God alone. I can be a bona fide Arabian not worshipping idols at the Kaaba. I can be a bona fide Arabian by refusing and condemning the burial of girls alive. I have an investment in my own society and I do not intend on being despoiled of my rights to be a member of my own society. America is and always has been a negotiated pluralism. I’ll say that again. American is and always has been a negotiated pluralism. This is the land of Elvis Presley and James Brown and J. Lo. and the Everly Brothers and country music. We are a negotiated pluralism, and the real enemies of America are those who refuse to negotiate who we are and who seek to impose upon the rest of us their self-serving definition of who we are. These are the real enemies of America. These are the real enemies of America. And Muslims have to understand that the choice is not between assimilating to somebody else’s definition of America or rejecting America wholesale. There is a third way: and that is crafting our own modality of being American.
Let me try to give you an example. As promised, I’m going to end soon. I know you’re getting nervous about the time. I can feel it; it makes me nervous. I want to give you an example, though, of what I’m talking about in terms of crafting alternative modalities of being. I don’t like to talk about myself, but I’m going to use myself as an example. When I was a child in elementary school, I was always smart in school. But by the time I got to Jr. High school, the cultural orthodoxy of the ’hood—for those of you who don’t know: urban America—would not allow me to fully engage my intelligence. Do you understand what I’m talking about here? Young black boys are not stupid. Many of them simply are in the grips of a cultural orthodoxy that does not permit them to demonstrate their intelligence. And I was partly a victim of that –gangbanging on the streets of Philadelphia since I was 11 years old. (Don’t tell anybody that.) But something happened around the 1970s. There was a revolution in poor Black America, where I was from. And this revolution was spearheaded by the Nation of Islam. By the way, for those of you who are wondering, I was never a member of the Nation of Islam. So I’m not talking about the “good ole’ days.” I’m talking about historical reality. And what the Nation of Islam was able to do was to bring in an alternative modality of being black. To be black now meant that you were a respectable young man—a clean-cut young man, a well-dressed young man, an intelligent, educated, articulate young man. And that redefinition of black cultural orthodoxy in urban America gave me — and many others! — permission to indulge our intelligence. So people like me could go on to graduate from the Ivy League with honors, get PhDs and all those kinds of things.
What I’m talking about here, for us as Muslims, is, again, developing an alternative modality of being American whereby being Muslim stands in no necessary, inherent contradiction with being American. And that is a cultural project, not simply a political one. And it’s one that we must pool our resources to be able to rise to. We, as a Muslim community, do not want to destroy America. This is really a crazy idea. This is home! We do not want to destroy America. We don’t even want to take over America, certainly not by force. What we want and what we shall have is the right and duty to carve out a dignified and God-pleasing existence for ourselves as Muslim-Americans. This is what we want. But here this brings me to one of the difficulties involved in this whole enterprise. Because the reality is that if you want to change the way people feel, change perceptions, change sensibilities, you can’t just have ideas. You have to find ways of translating ideas into movement, into trends, into fads, into social phenomena. That takes numbers! None of us as individuals can produce an alternative culture. We can only produce that as a collective. And this means that one of the first orders of business, for us as a community marching forth in the 21st century, is that we must get united. We cannot produce alternative modes of anything if we are disunited. But, you see, unity, meaningful unity, requires trust. You can’t be unified in any way that enables you to accomplish anything if there’s no trust. Because any challenge that’s worth confronting is a challenge that comes with liabilities. There’s something to lose, and I have to know that you will be there along with me when the going gets tough. And this is why without trust, there’ll be no unity. But even before that, without honesty there can be no trust. And this brings me to the most difficult challenge that we have confronting us as a community moving forward: We have some very difficult conversations that must take place in our community, conversations that require honest, honest, engagement with each other and with the issues. That requires of many of us that we put some of our feelings aside, that we do not allow all of the issues to get personalized, that we find a way to deal with the truth of our existence here, as Muslims in America. For without this honesty, there can be no trust. And without this trust, there can be no unity. The only unity that we will have is as the Prophet himself described it. Many of you know this hadith: That there will come a time when you will be very ineffective. They asked the Prophet, “Will it be because we are few in number?” He said, “No, you will be many, many, but you will be like foam, like the foam on the ocean. You will have no substance. Your unity will have no substance to it.” And this is part of what we must avoid.
Now I want to very quickly, in order not to wear out my welcome as a guest, to say just a couple of words about some of the conversations we need to have. There are four of them that stand out most strongly for me.
The first conversation, that we as a Muslim community have to have, is the conversation about this immigrant-indigenous thing. We have to have a conversation about that. Especially if what we’re talking about is our enterprise of crafting an alternative modality of being Muslim-American. And I want to say here that none of us should come to the table with the presumption that we have all the answers. All of us should come to the table prepared to learn. But we must understand that we are talking about an alternative modality of being American –not of being Syrian, not of being Egyptian, not of being Nigerian.
I know this doesn’t sit well with many of the people here. But I’m going to invite those very people to go back to the Sunnah of Muhammad with me, salla Allahu alayhi wa salam, who himself was an immigrant. Where was the Prophet born? (Mecca) Where did he die? (Medina).
Many people think that Medina is across the street from Mecca. It is not. It is 200 miles away; a very different socio-political order; a very different culture. And the Prophet came there and carved out an alternative modality of being Medinese. He took Medina seriously. And he erected the kind of filters that allowed him to accept what was good and to filter out what was bad. This is the challenge for us moving into the future here.
Many of us in this room, we have a cultural constitution that was quickened and set someplace else. I’m not saying that that is wrong, certainly not in the absolute. What I want you to think about, however, is what will be the reality of your children and your grandchildren, who are born in this place, in this time, who know no other home but this. We must have a serious conversation about some of the poison and prattle that goes on in our community over this immigrant-indigenous thing. And there are some on the indigenous side who need to take greater responsibility too. Just because you are born here, just because you are indigenous, doesn’t mean that you are right! We have values in Islam, we have rules in Islam, we have a structure in Islam. And all of us are bound by that. I don’t get to say that I’m right just because I was born here. And you don’t get to say that you are right just because you weren’t. We have to have a conversation about this immigrant-indigenous thing.
We have to have a conversation—I’m really going to be quick here—but we have to have a conversation about this male-female thing. Because the reality is that while there’s much to be said about this topic, you cannot tell me that Allah and His Messenger delivered a religion that was meant to disempower women, to render them powerless so that they themselves cannot rise to the challenges that any human existence will present us with. We need empowered women – not just politically (which is what everyone immediately thinks of) but spiritually, psychologically, with inner strength — because part of the whole point of being empowered is that the issue ceases to be a contest between men and women, but rather a cooperative effort from both to live God-pleasing lives.
You see when you are disempowered—this is what some of the brothers don’t understand—people who are disempowered are always reacting against people who they think are in power. That’s reality. And part of the point of empowering our women is for us to have healthier communities where they are not reacting against us. We are not the enemy; we are not the adversary. We are the partner. And we are mutually bound, male and female, to what Allah and His Messenger have said. Our role in this life is to try to come up with that which best serves that interest. We have to have a conversation about this male-female thing.
We also have to have a conversation between the youth and old heads. And I just want to say this: Those of us—or those of you, who are more senior in their years—we know many things. Life has taught us many things. We have had longer to study and we have had longer to make our mistakes. But we should not assume that in the world of experience, we know everything. There are things that our youth know that we do not know. There are realities that they confront that we are totally unaware of. And we need to establish more of a partnership with our youth. We need to open up and listen to them. Not spoil them, but to listen to them—to bring them into a conversation that’s about mutual benefit, mutual enhancement. We need to have a conversation between the youth and the old heads.
Finally, we need to have a conversation about the pluralistic nature of Islam. Enlightenment liberalism did not invent tolerance. And anyone—Muslim or non—who studies Muslim history knows that as a fact –not as propaganda, as a fact. And one of the most devastating and heart-wrenching tragedies for me is to watch modern Muslim communities totally squander their own legacy of pluralism and tolerance. We have to have a conversation about this.
We are—and the key to this conversation is this—one of the things that is critical to reestablishing the pluralistic nature of Islam—and what do I mean by pluralism? What’s the right way to pray? This way [right hand over left on his chest]? This way [hands on his stomach]? This way [hands to his side]? All of these are legitimate ways of praying. And there’s no reason for me to attack or to have this rancor in my heart, you know, about any of these. In fact, not only should Muslims recognize the pluralistic nature of their religion—that there are Maliki ways and Shafi’ ways and Hanafi ways and Hanbali ways—not only should they recognize that here [points to side of his head], but they should actually practice another way from time to time, just to get that rancor out of their hearts. This is our nature as a community. And one of the things that we have to do is we have to establish what our essentials are, because if we don’t establish what our essentials are, everything becomes essential. And that is a sure killer of any pluralism.
These are some of the kinds of conversations that we have to have if we are to be able to forge the kind of unity that will enable us to produce an alternative modality of being American.
In closing, however, I just want to read a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King. Because I think that one of the things that we, as Muslims, must recognize is that there is an urgency to the moment in which we are living right now. Many of us will leave this hall and go home and just go back to business as usual. We as a community cannot afford this, because there is such a thing as being too late. We have to take advantage of the circumstances that we enjoy now. For they are not guaranteed for tomorrow. This is why, to quote Dr. King, he said:
“In this conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is the thief of all time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and rejected, with a lost opportunity. The ‘tide in the affairs of men’ does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out, desperately, for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’”
It’s too late. Your chance has passed.
I ask Allah that He bless us so that we can seize the moment that we are in, and that, when we are gone and dead, our children and grandchildren will not look back on this generation and see cast above our memory the pathetic words “Too late.” I ask Allah to bless us to recognize that we are here in America not by accident, but by His will, and God does not make mistakes. I ask Him to bless us to see the importance of who we are, where we are, and what we are, and to transform that into a dignified, God-pleasing existence for us and for our country.
Thank you very much. Asalaamu Alaykum
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