An Open Letter to Muslim Americans: Stop Self-Segregating

In this May 6, 2011 photo, Muslims pray at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich. The killing of Osama bin Laden, a
In this May 6, 2011 photo, Muslims pray at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich. The killing of Osama bin Laden, a man who was America's face of evil for nearly a decade, left Christians, Jews and Muslims relieved, proud or even jubilant. For their religious leaders, it was sometimes hard to know just what to say about that. There is at least some dissonance between the values they preach and the triumphant response on the streets of New York and Washington to the death of a human being _ even one responsible for thousands of killings in those areas and around the world. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

My fellow Muslim Americans,

I'm endlessly proud to be part of our community, but I still recognize that you, my fellow community members, and I have a huge problem when it comes to our integration and assimilation, both with each other, and with larger American society. A quick disclaimer: This isn't a call to action to give up cricket for baseball, tell our women to take their hijabs off their heads and wear them around their necks, or start calling it "chai tea" (honestly, I cringed even just typing all of the above). What I do mean, though, is that there's a reason other religious groups in the U.S. have what the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) President Trita Parsi calls a "critical mass" of political-ideologically similar people, and therefore don't have to fight as hard to get their voices heard when it comes time for Congress to vote on certain issues.

Right-wing conservatives are actually correct in saying that this problem does stem partially from immigration, though they're wrong about in what sense. It's not that too many Muslim immigrants are causing a safety hazard by coming to America -- it's that too many of us are coming and self-segregating. There is a lot-I repeat, a lot-of structural and institutional racism that goes into this segregation, but it is also at least in part undeniably willful. Many families, portions of mine included, emigrated from their homelands to the U.S. (and even Canada) with the intention of simply gaining a degree from a good university before going back to their homes and living the good life. But whether they left and could not return because of political circumstances or by choice, the fact remains that these families are still here, gravitating towards each other, and sticking to themselves.

Despite only consisting of a few families, the Muslim community I grew up in still fell victim to this alarming trend; everyone's children would play together, but as the community grew larger and larger, ethnic subgroups began forming: Pakistanis in one corner, Bangladeshis in another, Arabs in another. Black Muslims were few and far between in our tiny area, but had they not been, they, too, would have likely been boxed in by themselves. Of course, this is not always the case- as one of my friends very wisely put it, self-segregation is truly a spectrum of which there are varying levels. Nonetheless, whether obvious or implicit, the condition is ubiquitous.

It's at least partially due to this implicit racial superiority that every ethnic group feels over the other that Muslim Americans ourselves have forgotten what we look like. The first image that jumps to mind when we hear the word "Muslim" is of a bearded man in a kufiya or lungi. We've started to equate "Arab" with "Muslim" and vice versa -- despite the fact that Black Muslims make up the largest percentage of American Muslims in the country.

This is extremely problematic, especially given our country's current political climate and the current state of race relations in America. How can we continue to stand by while our Black brothers and sisters face double discrimination? Worse still, how can we ourselves continue to contribute to this discrimination by otherizing the largest group of Muslim Americans by casually throwing around racial slurs, with the excuse that it must be okay since that's how it was in our home countries, or that here in America, we're minorities, too? If we cannot tackle issues like racism within our own community, how can we expect to be taken seriously when we protest targeted surveillance and discrimination against all of us?

"Intersectionality" is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the academic world these days. In the two weeks that I've been in DC alone, I must have heard at least a hundred times, and for good reason: It's the key to overcoming our individual differences and engaging with each other. After all, it's commonly defined as "the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another" -- the exact opposite of single-issue activism and self-segregation. But for all of our talk about intersectionality, Muslim Americans fail to recognize and exercise it within our community.

I saw the beauty of intersectionality in practice for myself this past winter when my fellow Northwestern University students passed a resolution through the student senate calling for divestment from corporations complicit in the Israeli Occupation of Palestine. The issue on its own was so contentious (for whatever reason) that had other minority groups on campus -- from members of MeChA to those of For Members Only to those of the Rainbow Alliance, and all those in between -- not also seen how the debate affected them and identified with it, the resolution would most certainly have failed.

It's time that we Muslim Americans in general learn from groups like NUDivest, and come out of the shadows of their own separate corners and engage with each other first, and then identify with other communities outside ours as well. No, we do not have to play to the critics and actively condemn terrorist attacks (both attempted and executed) by people who have warped interpretations of our peaceful religion, especially when all of White America and Christian America has yet to apologize for colonialism and the Crusades respectively. But we must recognize that we are all by default the intersection of various identities. We cannot pretend that we can separate out our ethnic parts from our Muslim parts, or that Islamophobia can be tackled without also addressing the racism our Black brothers and sisters face.

Our struggles are one and if not exactly the same, at least similar and connected enough that we must address the issue of intracommunity racism and embrace intersectionality head on. The fate of the Muslim American community is dependent on this. After all, if we do not overcome our own differences with each other and speak collectively on our own behalf -- who will?