Saturday, June 24, 2006

what would a white mosque be like?

Umar Lee starts off his recent piece: The white masjids of the future by saying:
An African-American Muslim brother recently told me that Islam would be a true success in America when we have mostly white masjids in cities throughout America like we have predominantly African-American masjids in every sizeable American city (and several in many).

Then the African-American brother mentions what he thinks such masjids would be like ("in the suburbs with a golf course and akin to a megachurch") and Umar fleshes out his own conception with a lot more detail. My own experiences with white (i.e. Anglo-American) Muslims have been generally positive. I would just add two general observations or impressions to Umar's vision based on my own experiences.

Firstly, the white Muslims I've met are overwhelmingly Sufis (Naqshbandis and Shadhilis mostly) at least compared to Muslims in America as a whole. In fact, the only times I've been in a gathering with mostly white Muslims were Shadhili dhikr sessions. (This reminds me of a Chicano friend of mine who was nominally Catholic but was a "political Muslim" if you know what I mean. He once said to me "White people sure love Rumi".) So I would strongly expect that in the future "the white masjids" would probably be pretty Sufi-friendly. (Furthermore, if it weren't for groups like the Nation of Islam, Moorish Science, etc. it is very likely that the face of American Islam today would be overwhelmingly white Sufis)

The second feature is more of a question in my mind than a distinct impression. And I'm not sure if I totally understand the trajectories which a typical white American would take to Islam, but I wonder if there is a tendancy towards a kind of conservatism.

First, I should probably say that in general, I've found that it can be difficult to put Muslims into a small number of simple ideological camps. Muslims can be right/left on social justice issues, conservative/liberal on "family values" issues. Muslims will take different stances on foreign policy questions. On matters of religious practice, an individual can be strict or liberal. But a seperate question is whether you are traditional/orthodox, Salafi/Wahabi or something else. And it is possible to find Muslims which are examples of every possible combination of positions.

And I should note that just the fact that a white person would be willing to convert to an "Oriental" religion and join a community where they would be a small minority speaks to a certain amount of open-mindedness when it comes to racial/multicultural issues. And that might tend to be associated with being politically "liberal".

But apart from that, one thing which which makes me wonder if white Muslims have a conservative streak is the fact that a significant and vocal group of Western converts to Islam identify themselves as "Traditionalists". (While I admire some of their writings, I sometimes have to wonder about them because intellectually they share some influences with honest- to- goodness Fascist movements.)

Furthermore, there is the example of someone like Stephen Schwartz (Suleyman Ahmad Al-Kosovari) who is somewhat of a neo-con and even has his articles posted on the conservative Front Page Magazine website.

And in general, I've often wondered to what extent Muslims in America are taken in by the religious right's bait-and-switch of right-wing politics and religious values (Especially after an umbrella group of Muslim organizations endorsed George W. Bush in the 2000 Presidential election). African-American political wisdom encourages Blacks not to conflate the two, but I honestly don't know what the trend is among white Muslims.

So the white mosques of the future, will probably be full of Sufis, and could possibly lean to the right. what do you think?

14 comments:

izzymo said...

What do I think?

Hard to say but I do agree about the Sufi part. It's best not to judge now and wait and see how this all develops. Great essay.

Al-Hakim said...

The term white should be clarified. Do you mean of non-African, Arab or Oriental origins? In other words of European origin... or do you mean skin color.

Statements like this are good and interesting however without clarity they can cause more trouble than they are worth.

Abdul-Halim V. said...

What I meant by white was mainly non-immigrant European-Americans. So Westerners, not Arab, not Turkish, not Bosnian, etc.

Anonymous said...

Salaam 'Alaikum

I think one has to look at the add'l aspect of class. My personal experiences are that many White Muslims who are into tasawwuf, including the Shadhilis and all the others, tend to be from middle and upper middle / upper class backgrounds. Other White Muslims I know from working class backgrounds tend to be more of an ICNA / ISNA type or a Salafi. This is just general. Of course some White people from an upper middle class background might very well follow Salafism.

I never met more than a handful of White Muslims (all married to Arab men) until I wandered into a "Sufi" masjid in NYC. I was stunned, seriously.

I believe Stephen Schwartz is an anomaly, and not unlike people like Amir Taheri or Wafa Sultan. I don't think he is at all representative of even a significant minority of the minority called White Muslims.

My personal experiences among White Muslims, from the tasawwuf oriented to the Salafi oriented, are that they tend to avoid politics, or involvement in political issues. Not all of them, of course, I'm just saying most of the people I've known in my life so far.

Umm Zaid

Abdul-Halim V. said...

That is an interesting point about class. I think you are probably right. The working-class white Muslims I know who come to mind are also non-Sufi in terms of leanings.

This may sound snobby, I sometimes whether the basic issue is attitude towards education or hierarchy. I'm sure that certain practices that may be associated with Sufism, (e.g. learning a seperate litany/wird/dhikr on top salat, following a sheikh, studying abstract philosophical ideas) might seem strange and alientating to a certain kind of person. Something more "egalitarian" seeming like Salafism might be more comfortable. I don't know.

Also, I'm not sure how much of an anomaly Schwartz is. Remember, a lot of Muslims largely endorsed Bush in 2000. In response, some African-American Muslim organizations spontaneously formed to endorse Gore.

Basically, there is a large group of Muslims who would probably vote with the religious right under certain conditions.

Abu Noor al-Irlandee said...

As salaamu 'alaykum,

The most correct statement is Izzymo's -- it's best not to judge now and wait and see.

However, as a Muslim of Irish-American heritage (I reject the term 'white' for myself) I would make the following points:

1st, Schwartz is an anomaly, for sure. The decision to endorse Bush was made by immigrant Muslims maybe in small part due to notions of social conservatism but basically due to silly political games playing (they acknowledged us..oooh wow now we're really important). Bush's war on Islam means that it will take a long time for Muslims to endorse republicans at the national level with a straight face and perhaps longer for them to have any credibility no matter whom they endorse.

Second, on a more important issue. The class aspect may be one part of it, but even more than that one has to consider the fact that, as Dr. Jackson terms it, to be a so called white person accepting Islam in America up to this point (and perhaps more so in the 'war on terror/Islam' environment) is an act of cultural apostasy for a 'white' American. Those who do so are at the least willing to have others look at them as if they have rejected their country and culture even if they may try to argue that they have not. Many are happy to have rejected their culture, at least when they're young, while they may mellow with age and try to reclaim and/or come to terms with their American-ness.

Almost all white Muslims I have met are progressive to radical in politics. To think a conservative 'white' person in America would adopt a religion where they would undoubtedly be a minority in an African American or immigrant controlled mosque and have the same religion as the country's 'enemy' is extremely unlikely.

Of course, the reason I started with the idea that we have to wait and see is that the question was about a hypothetical time in the future where there are 'white' masjids and presumably there are therefore a large percentage of 'white' American Muslims. In that environment maybe becoming Muslim would no longer be 'cultural apostasy.' I know this is the efforts of certain segments of the leadership. Due to the war on terror/Islam I don't see this happening in the near future, although surely it will happen someday.

Allaah knows best.

The main caveat to this piece is this idea that there are presently large numbers of 'sufi' white Muslims. If we are talking about Shari'ah based sufism then I stick by my analysis. If we are talking about some 'white' people who like to read Rumi and are part of groups where one doesn't have to be muslim to be sufi (i.e. non-Shari'ah based sufism), then I think such people are irrelevant to discussions of Islam and Muslims in America.

Allaah knows best.

Abu Noor al-Irlandee said...

None of my above analysis is meant to ignore the point that believing Muslims are socially conservative on the present day American spectrum.

However, in the context of all the issues I've mentioned this takes a back seat to other issues. In many cases it may also come across in their own personal life or what they prefer for the Muslim community but they may realize from their own background that morphing those values onto people who do not have shahada is largely irrelevant in the context of things.

I know this thought needs to be explained further, but I didn't want to leave my original comment without acknowledging what was a big part of the intial essay's analysis.

bin gregory said...

is an act of cultural apostasy for a 'white' American. Those who do so are at the least willing to have others look at them as if they have rejected their country and culture even if they may try to argue that they have not. Many are happy to have rejected their culture, at least when they're young, while they may mellow with age and try to reclaim and/or come to terms with their American-ness.
Hullo, have we met? Seriously, I don't think you could possibly nail that more accurately.

Abdul-Halim V. said...

Abu Noor, I think a lot of your comments are right on. I tried to be a little nuanced about what "conservative" meant but I could have been more careful.

I often have the sense that all the different labels people use, conservative, liberal, radical, right, left, progressive etc. need to be used more carefully when describing Muslims.

I think that the cultural apostacy issue which you mentioned, plus solidarity with the Muslim world in these times, definitely should make the typical Muslim, "white" or otherwise, willing to participate in coalitions with people who are called "liberals" or "progressives" on the American political spectrum. But I'm not sure if that means the Muslims who do this are *actually* progressives... it smells more like a tactical alliance.

I think I agree with what you said about social conservatism being there, but taking a back seat. I mean, you don't see Muslims in the streets demonstrating to bring back Prohibition but you would see Muslims in the streets (with leftists and others) protesting Israeli government policies or the Iraq War.(I've also seen Muslims in the streets in *favor* of having the US intervene in Bosnia.)

I often wonder how much of that
(the positions we take as a community) are ideological and how much of that is just rooting for Muslims?

And if its really the latter can it really be called "progressive"?

About one other comment: When I say "Sufi" I really do mean Shariah-based Sufism. I think that the Shadhilis I met may have taken a "you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" approach when it comes to following all the details. But they did tell the members to keep to the pillars, etc.

Anonymous said...

Funny how a site based on the third resurrection and the rejection of stereotyping would make suppositions like this.

But as I have learned both in the Muslim and Non-Muslim Community
I ain't all right, unless the one youre talking about is white.

Abdul-Halim V. said...

In some ways that's a "fair" criticism. But From another perspective, I would say it is generally valid to talk about demographic trends. I know that my own intentions certainly aren't to degrade any one group, but just to understand and discuss possible differences with other groups. I wouldn't want to make sweeping generalizations and treat them as if there were never exceptions.
Also, the characteristics being discussed (Sufism, conservatism) are relatively neutral. For example, if someone wanted to discuss why so many African-Americans vote with the Democratic party I'm not sure if you could call that a "stereotype" in the negative sense.

It might be more emotionally laden if you were trying to discuss crime, intelligence, etc.

Anonymous said...

''To think a conservative 'white' person in America would adopt a religion where they would undoubtedly be a minority in an African American or immigrant controlled mosque and have the same religion as the country's 'enemy' is extremely unlikely.''

what a way to show the 'effects' of conservatism has on a 'white' individual choices!

luckyfatima said...

salaam, i got to u from Muslim Hedonist but it looks like I am a little late for the discussion. Still I felt like adding my two-cents just because I found this to be interesting.

Usually I frequent blogs where either convert women married to 1st generation Muslim immigrant men, or Muslim born children of immigrants, are postulating on being bicultural. Some of the things I read by converts married to born Muslim immigrants actually have undertones of cultural chauvanism and disdain for the dysfunction these women feel when dealing with differences that arise in intermarriage. So basically I have come across a lot of white N. American women sort of analyzing and critizing other cultures, not necessarily maliciously, but still, in the end it is a white person putting non-white people under the microscope. So seeing an analysis of white converts from a non-white perspective, both your's and Umm Zaid's, are very refreshing.

I am a white female convert from a lower middle class background. Perhaps what Umm Zaid says is true about being from lower and middle class origins, because it rings a bell about some (though not all) of the more "traditional" women whom I have met. Including myself.I am traditional in practice but progressive in outlook, I suppose.

Funny cuz I have NEVER met these Sufi weirdo types in my almost 9 years of Islam, though I have seen books by them. Are there really that many? Where are they? Perhaps these are the same white people looking for ancient Oriental pearls of wisdom in their modern fast paced yuppie lives as those who turn towards Anglo versions of Buddhism and Hinduism, and more recently Kabbala.

White mosques? Well I hope all the segregation and underlying historical and modern racist social structure that creates white churches and white schools and so forth don't ever come into play in mosques because that isn't what Islam is about. Okay I am off to read what Umar wrote.

Abu Sinan said...

Well, I am a white convert who comes from a conservative background. I think there are more of us out there than you might think.

Rumi and Sufism, nice to read about, but if I had to put a label on myself, I would say Salafee.