Muslim in America: Identity and Isolation

An early morning flight to D.C., day-long conference and empty cityscape drained me of energy.

Exhausted, I stepped out of my nondescript hotel into the street and felt a heavy air pregnant with moisture.  Heading down the sidewalk to find dinner, I came across the shadow of a man who had the unmistakable gait of a beggar.

The homeless in D.C. are different from the homeless back home in New York City, where amid a shifting and seamless mass of indifferent women and men they are frequently seated — if cold concrete can be called a seat — with despair dampening their eyes and quarters rattling in their cups.  Here, the homeless seem to move with the crowd but are not of the crowd.  They zigzag aimlessly, hands often outstretched — and equally often, empty — amid professionals in pressed suits who stride by with confidence and turn at square angles.

Tonight, however, there were no crowds.  As the man in the street stumbled toward me, he asked with some urgency whether I knew where the nearest mosque was.  I hadn’t gone to a mosque in years aside from Eid functions, never mind one in the capital.  I responded flatly: “No.”

But his question was actually an introduction.  The man came closer and began to relate his story; gesticulating with a hand two fingers short, he claimed that he had a wife and child but lost his job, and asked me politely and pleadingly for any spare change I might have.

I paused for a moment, nodding my head understandingly but not reaching for my wallet.  As I contemplated what to do, the sky cracked loudly with thunder and a rumble tore through the air as raindrops tapped the pavement, as if on cue in a cliché movie scene.  I took this as a sign that I should help this man in some small way, so I unfolded my wallet and handed him a five-dollar bill.

In the Qur’an, after all, God constantly and insistently speaks to Muslims about His signs as expressed through nature; each “verse” in Islam’s holy book is called an ayah, or Arabic for “sign.”

“Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for those who are endowed with insight” (3:190).

Taking the bill from my hand, the man smiled at me broadly and thanked me profusely.  He reached slowly for my face and, with a laugh, tugged gently at the end of my beard, saying, “I knew you were a Muslim because this” — meaning the beard — “is Sunnah,” or a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad.

I returned his smile — even a smile is charity, Muhammad had said, although I suspect the money might be more helpful — and laughed appreciatively.  I said nothing else as he thanked me yet again and went on his way.  I did not bother to tell the beggar that my beard, which was neither close-cropped nor particularly long, wasn’t an example of Sunnah but apathy: I had simply not bothered to shave it amid the stress of the past few days.

Jogging back to the hotel to wait out the rain, I felt refreshed.  In truth, I didn’t know whether this man had a child, a wife, or a need to find a mosque, but none of this really concerned me.  What I was reasonably certain of already assured me: He was a Muslim, he was in need, and I felt a higher power had prompted me to brush aside the curtains of irritability and exhaustion and crack open a small window of kindness.

Meeting the poor man in the street reminded me of my own poverty in Muslim companionship.  I realized that this was the first time I had even met another Muslim spontaneously in a long while.  I had spoken to Muslims for articles, columns, and interviews, but this random, fleeting incident was the first time I had approached — or been approached by — a complete stranger because of a shared Muslim identity.

Despite my conscious attempt to learn, read, and write about the history, politics, and ethos of Islam, my personal lived experience with Islam in America was, I realized, impoverished.

My own neighborhood is only a mile away from significant Pakistani and Arab populations, where I frequently see women in gowns and headscarves and men in shalwar-kameez and prayer caps.  Yet I had almost never introduced myself to any Muslims.

I often walk by a mosque and think about entering.  But then I think again: Will they understand me?  Are they “old uncles” with no experience of growing up as a Muslim in America?  What is expected of me by others?  Are there FBI informants here, those a little too eager to befriend and quiz newcomers?  This barrage of questions has served as a barrier between me and a fuller realization of Muslim identity.

Such isolation may seem odd in America.  Freedom of religion is a guaranteed and enshrined right.  But the law does not preclude the existence of a chilling effect.  Indeed, the very presence of law forces discriminatory groups to seek avenues more inventive than outright, crude repression.  Consider, for instance, the vilifying smears, lies, and stereotypes paraded before the public in the run-up to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A naive observer may assume that such propaganda produces an impact only upon those predisposed to prejudice, leaving everyone else magically untouched.  A more judicious observer, however, understands that the rhetoric of demonization ricochets and resonates: it creates a clanging noise that rings loudly in the ears of the target, and it desensitizes others such that the loud shouts of hatred gradually fail to register as even a whisper worth notice.  How else to explain the relative ease with which reality has been stood on its head the past few years?

A monumental upset of reason has allowed forces once — and still — deemed “extreme” and “crazy” to implement deadly agendas with scant and scattered opposition: an invasion spun as liberation in Iraq, ethnic cleansing and occupation defended as justifiable security measures in Israel, a program of perpetual war hailed as part of the presumed path to peace, among other absurdities.

A complementary cavalcade of jargon, doublespeak, and coded terminology still marches triumphantly out of pundits’ mouths and across the newspapers, trampling plain language and clear thinking, which are conspicuous only by their absence.

What prominent national figures have spoken out in the last nine years not in the name of rubberstamped strategies, buzzwords, or mantras, but in the name of ordinary Muslims — the supposed beneficiaries of this gigantic war effort?  Our television screens splash our retinas with images of young American soldiers killed in combat, and now, Iranian protesters brandishing a slain woman‘s picture.  Where on these screens are the images and names of the tens of thousands of ordinary women and children slain by our own bombs and bullets in the Middle East?

It is in this searing political context that I consider myself connected to Islam.  I feel an inseparable link to those abroad, whose names I do not even know, who have suffered the impact of modern weapons unleashed on ancient pretexts.  I insist on this connection precisely because the full weight of national propaganda is aimed at erasing, ignoring, and discarding the memory of these victims, these invisibles.

The cost of this remembrance, however, is alienation from Muslims around me.  Just as an Islamophobe’s mind may produce menacing images when he encounters a Muslim, I see Muslims through the lenses of war, occupation, invasion, and torture.

If I see a woman in a hijab, my mind races to a recent surreal murder or questions about whether it reflects, for this particular person, a conscious choice of modesty, the inertia of tradition, or the weight of oppression.  If I see a man in chapals and shalwar-kameez, I immediately begin to speculate about his politics, what grievances occupy and animate his mind and his degree of reconciliation with modern life.

In this politicized projection, the actual human being at the other end of one’s tinted lenses never comes into focus.  The Muslim greeting assalam-alaykum, “peace be upon you,” is shorn of meaning because peace is neither in me nor bestowed upon most Muslims in these times; a few have violently rejected the concept altogether and have instead embraced a mindless nihilism.

The inversion of rational thinking that lies behind this absence of peace leaves me drained, tired and deflated.  And it will, I think, take more than a chance encounter in the streets and a clap in the clouds to change it.

M. Junaid Levesque-Alam writes for his blog, Crossing the Crescent, and for Wiretap Magazine.