One Muslim Chaplain's Blog

Here’s How to Love Me: The Zero-Sum Game of Social Justice Solidarity

In Politics on January 6, 2016 at 12:17 am


A Christian professor faces pressure from her co-religionists for wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women. A Muslim woman who doesn’t wear hijab asks that hijab not be the rallying symbol. Yet another woman expresses solidarity with Blacks by claiming blackness despite being born white. Everyone wants allies but we still want to be in control of how solidarity looks like. Should it mean making oneself resemble the Other, as a symbol of compassion? Or is that “cultural appropriation” or reductionism? Who should get to tell us what solidarity looks like?

The firing of a Wheaton College professor for wearing hijab acts as salt in the wound for Muslims in the age of Islamophobia. At the same time, a careful read suggests that the decision was based on what the college called “an unqualified assertion of religious solidarity with Jews and Christians.” Interestingly, this suggests that they are not against a show of support per se, but an unqualified one. Does this mean she could advocate for Muslims but must, as a faculty member of a religious seminary, include a nod to salvational exclusivity of their brand of Christianity? It is of course in their right to “protect their brand,” so to speak, but we cannot know for sure what kind of qualified assertion would have been acceptable. Certainly there is always the risk that interfaith solidarity will blur the lines until there is no meaningful distinction between the faiths. Is this what Wheaton feared? That Christian exceptionalism was at risk?

I appreciate the gesture of the Wheaton college professor but discussing a theology of the Other is a discussion for the Christians of that institution to have and not one that I, a Muslim, and comfortable agitating for. At least now this professor knows where they stand and she can make decisions accordingly. She’ll either have to bring herself in line with their dogma on the subject, or she’ll learn that this denomination is not for her.

Additional salt in the wound came internally, when in the Washington Post, Asra Nomani rained on the Muslim parade by exposing the fault lines between hijab wearers and non-wearers. Her caveat that non-Muslims wearing hijab in solidarity reduces Muslim women to a hijab is an important one to consider, but she errs in turning around and doing the same thing: portraying refusal to wear as the result of reason and reflection and hijab wearers as unsuspecting ploys in Iran’s Islamic Revolution. I sense that it really boils down to her not being seen as the definitive Muslim, despite very much needing to be seen as one, since she lays claim to the mantle of “Muslim reformer.”

Black Lives Matter is another phenomena calling for solidarity and perhaps getting lost in the details. There was, for example, the”die-in” in which white allies are instructed that they can observe but cannot “die” because, well, they’re not black (but, you’re also not really dying at a “die-in” but who’s counting…).

I’m not a believer in the much-abused concept of “cultural appropriation”; at the same time when we make it so hard to be an ally, does this result in the extreme end of things where we leave people feeling that there is no choice but to “become” them in order to show affinity with them? Could this have been Rachel Dolezal? There are obviously a lot of factors that went into the making of Dolezal and her choice to identify as Black despite being born white. I suspect there is a lot more at play than simple charlatanism. Maybe when we accuse others of ignorance when they disengage and appropriation when they do engage, we leave people in a zero-sum situation where they feel the only way they can express solidarity is through the impossible task of becoming the Other.

Some would say that to love the Other is to necessarily blur the boundaries between I and Thou to the point that they disappear. That’s a strong idea and not one I’m prepared to deal with here. But it sure does seem that being a person of conscience is becoming more difficult, not least because of the ID checkers at the door.




Have Yourself a Bad Day (Alternate title: The Burden of Representation)

In Politics on December 22, 2015 at 9:04 pm

I would love Black people even if there wasn’t a story of a Black kid who got into all the Ivy League schools. I would love them even without pictures of young Black men in suits. I would love them even if there weren’t Black dynasties and kingdoms that aren’t the focal point of history books. I would love them in a boat, and in a coat and…well, it looks like I’ve been reading my children too much Green Eggs and Ham!

To be serious, I understand the negative characterizations that these images are meant to counteract. I am not Black, but I belong to another group that are not faring well right now: Muslims. As a Muslim I also know that the burden of representation is very great, and sometimes it seems that we live our lives as if we are trying out for a movie role where we never get a call back. I find myself wanting to share and spread positive articles about Muslims, but at times I hesitate. Am I sharing this because I’m really interested in it? Did I even really read it? Or am I sending it out into the Internet ether hoping someone will love me a little more for it? Is that a bad thing?

My volunteer at the prison (a young Muslim woman) shared a story with us about how she was sharpening her pencil at school and was going to walk away but then wondered if maybe leaving the pencil shavings wouldn’t make Muslims look like messy, careless people.

Pencil shavings.

With so few Muslims to go around, maybe our actions do take on a gravitas that we didn’t ask for. Yet I want to make sure we know that we should expect (even if we don’t always get) the love and forgiveness of our fellow humans. Even if we didn’t rule a vast kingdom, wear a three piece suit, or get into Harvard. Even if we didn’t have a clock-tinkering kid making us all look smart. Maybe we even deserve a basic amount of kind treatment when members of our group act criminally?

We shouldn’t be defined by our extremes: neither very good nor very bad. Most of us are middling. And that’s OK.

If you’re feeling the need to “perform” for your marginalized group, remember that you are allowed to have a bad day. You will not make or break the group to which you belong. And no one can sustain that image for so long without losing touch with themselves. So go on…be awesome, be exceptional, make your people proud, make humanity proud. Make God proud. But you are also an individual. So have a bad day. Chaplain’s orders.


Me, being a terrible poster child for Muslim golfers.

Winning Hearts and Minds…At Home

In Politics on May 25, 2015 at 6:51 pm

Let’s ignore the fact that I haven’t blogged in a year and jump right into my reflection on this Memorial Day, shall we?

Years ago I was scanning the aisle of a plane to find my place when my eyes fell on a seat right next to a middle aged white man in army fatigues. It triggered something in me that had to do with what I thought he would think of me and what I think a lot of people in Muslim-majority lands feel when they see a military uniform. In a word: it is loaded. I stifled the thought and sat down, nodding towards him. Not much time passed before he broke the ice. Well, more like took a sledgehammer to it:

“Excuse me but, are you wearing that by choice?” he said, referencing my headscarf (hijab).


“Oh! OK, good,” he said, visibly relaxing at the response.

I could have gotten upset. I could have demanded a seat change. I could have gone back to Facebook and shared a story about a bigot on a plane. But I thought it was really interesting that he didn’t ask me why I wore a headscarf, nor did he persuade me not to. The overarching concern for him was whether I did so freely. I felt there was nothing more American than that. Sure it was probably prejudicial to assume that a scarf, in particular, is most likely worn by force. But I chose to remain open in my body language which caused him to talk to me more.

Eventually he asked me about myself and I shared with him that I am a convert to Islam and that in my community I often feel as if I function as a kind of ambassador between two civilizations: American and Islamic. Listening to my story (which sounds rather grandiose but probably echoes what most American Muslims feel tasked with), he said that he felt his task in Iraq is the same thing. His task was to be on the ground, interacting with Iraqis, and “winning hearts and minds” as the familiar phrase goes. He clearly believed in what he was doing, and he felt he was a bridgebuilder…like me. I am not sure if Iraqis experienced him as such: maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. But what I felt was more important was that he identified with me.

By the end of our conversation, he exclaimed excitedly, “You know, when I first met you I thought one thing. But now after talking to you, I feel like you’re the Muslim Joan of Arc!” (Talk about grandiose.) He seemed very happy to conclude this…as if he was relieved because he really didn’t want to have to harbor negative feelings about a Muslim. Let’s face it: resentment is a burden. The widespread post-9/11 PTSD of the American people is a burden. Much of what is called Islamophobia is, I believe, the result of collective traumatization that has gone untreated, and even been inflamed.

But I like to think that henceforth this same soldier might hear others making remarks about Muslim women and I see him in my mind’s eye sharing about “the Muslim Joan of Arc lady” he met on a plane.

As simple as these episodes are, it is profoundly important in a country where in 2010, 62% of Americans reported that they had never met a Muslim. Another quick example? My husband recently got rear-ended while driving his car. The man felt terrible and was ready to whip out his insurance card. My husband saw only a dent and told the guy not to worry about it. “But,” he said, “do me a favor. I am a Muslim. Next time you hear someone saying bad things about Muslims, remember me.”

If we can stomach just a bit of rudeness, and let some assumptions pass without immediate correction, I think we might be able to connect with others on a human level. I know that it is hard to swallow one’s hurt feelings. I don’t pretend this method will work with everyone. I don’t advocate this method if one is physically threatened or chronically harassed (report that). But if we can see the person, and not the microaggressive act, then maybe in turn they will begin to see us and even see themselves in us.


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