Amidst the climate of increased anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and the cacophony of noise decrying the evils of islamophobia and the islamophobes, confronting Muslim sectarianism is not a palpable topic for front line attention. Why should American Muslims even stop to think or care about sectarianism within our own ranks, when everyone is worried about islamophobia?
Why consecrate cerebral real estate to thinking about deep-rooted division within the Muslim body when Muslims are being harassed, harangued, mowed down and killed in the streets? That’s a good question. After all, as American Muslims, there are more immediate things to contend with; our honor, our reputation, our dignity and our lives that are at stake. Islamophobia is an assault on all of that. However, what many of us fail to realize is; so is sectarianism. It’s easy to look at islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment and think that is was formed in a vacuum and simply came out of nowhere, or that is fueled by pure ignorance, and good old fashioned American bigotry, without there being any underlying factors that contribute to anti-Islamic sentiment.
Such an assessment is flawed, and underscores just how much more Muslims need to understand the American people and how we form our ideas, and even our biases. What many people fail to understand is that there is a direct link Muslim Sectarianism and islamophobia. They are connected in more ways than many of us are willing to concede.
Sectarianism, extremism and racism, are the trifecta of pathology in moral dysfunction that plague Muslims world-wide. If you look at the fighting in Iraq, the fighting in Syria, the fighting in Pakistan, the bombings of mosques, and the war lording factions in the Muslim world, you will see Muslim sectarianism. Despite the blame we can attribute to western powers and their meddling in the Muslim world, there is still at the core a basic concept of Muslim on Muslim killing, legitimized through ethnicity, sect, and sub islamic ideology, especially between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and through racial differences. But what does one have to do with the other, and what does any of them have to do with islamophobia?
Muslim sectarianism is not an imaginary monster; it is not a fairy-tale or a Hollywood horror movie. it is real, it is pervasive, and it is consequential. Obviously we can see its results in the Muslim world, but we can see it’s consequence as well in various and sundry ways in our own American Muslim sectarianized communities. These are not imagined problems; these are real shortcomings that affect Muslims and non-Muslims alike. When Muslims emigrate to the United States from the places where sectarian strife is ingrained in the society, it is only reasonable that some people will be concerned that some of this sectarian modality that we’ve become famous for, will germinate here in the United States. You can call such a person an Islamophobe, but others would say that such a person is a pragmatist. I’m not justifying bigotry, or generalization, or implying that this is always the case, but what I am saying is that is grossly unintelligent to suggest that it is never the case. Furthermore, by our own admission, we are a sectarianized community on many levels, and if such be true, then it is a reasonable assumption that this could be a contributing factor to anti-Islamic sentiment. Whether or not Muslim sectarianism should influence people’s views about Islam and Muslims is another conversation. However, the fact remains that it does, whether we think it should or not. Not only that. sectarianism affects us morally and spiritually and it raises important questions about who we are as a religious community.
Amongst the thousands of Muslims with whom I have spoken, interviewed, taught or lectured during the last twenty years, there is an almost unanimous consensus that Muslim sectarianism is a ubiquitous cancer affecting our communities here in the United States. It is problematic, it is ugly, and it affects our lives and the lives of our children. If it is present, and if it affects our masaajid, our interaction with each other and contributes to our division, then it goes without saying that these eventualities could and are likely to influence the way that people look at Muslims, and contributes to anti-Islamic sentiment, or what people call islamophobia.
Therefore, American Muslims cannot adequately address islamophobia until we address the irrefutable dynamics that help define the narrative of our civilizational personality of which sectarianism is at the top of the list. The Muslim ummah in many ways is against itself and against each other according to race, nationality, ethnicity and sub-religious doctrine. We ourselves cannot deny that. We ourselves complain about it, talk about it and write about it. It is flippant to think that the world has not taken notice of that. It is intellectually disingenuous to think for moment that the way we are as a Muslim people, does not influence the way that people look at us. More importantly, it is close to heresy to believe that the way we are in reality does not determine how our Lord looks at us.
Anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States is directed at immigrant Muslim and immigrant Muslim communities in a much higher proportion that it is directed at African American or white American Muslims who were born and raised here. In the inner cities, people are changing their attitudes towards African American Muslims not because they are Muslim, but because of their association with immigrant Muslims who are viewed as racist and some of whom capitalize on drug, alcohol and gambling addiction, by selling crack pipes, meth pipes, liquor, lottery tickets, blunts and pornography in inner city neighborhoods and then shutting down for two hours on Friday and heading off to the local mosque. People see that. People are aware of that, they talk about it, and it contributes to anti-Muslim sentiment and there is nothing irrational about that.
It goes without saying that as Muslims, we should be very concerned about islamophobia or anti-Muslim rhetoric and we should do whatever we can to curb it. However, recent history has shown that in spite of all the resources that Muslim American organizations have put into combatting islamophobia, the incidents of anti-Muslim rhetoric, hate, violence and vandalism is as high as it has been during the last 16 years.
That does not mean that we should not try to present a positive image of Islam and Muslims but it’s increasingly difficult when people are acutely aware of the factionalism that we practice is our faith. Notwithstanding that placing responsibility for Islam’s image on other than ourselves is a flawed and unstable paradigm that siphons away valuable time, energy and spiritual as well as temporal benefit. It distracts us from individual and collective responsibility and sets in motion as’baab (causative factors) that could deprive us, at this critical juncture in our history, of what we need most: divine intervention and support. This can only come from Allah.
One of our problems is that Muslims only like to discuss what they perceive to be external threats, whereas the Prophet ﷺ, in addition to addressing external threats to Islam and Muslims, spent a great deal of time addressing internal threats to our religion and to our moral well-being. Our relationships inside of our faith were very much a part of his messaging. All these issues have been bottled up, but at this point is history, there’s no place left to bottle them up any more. Islamophobia is just another type of sectarianism; it’s non-Muslim against the Muslim. From a non-Muslim perspective, why should people be hands off about Muslims when Muslims aren’t hands off about Muslims?
Division within the Muslim body only emboldens anti-Muslim antagonists.
One sure way that the American Muslim Community will have a positive effect on the Greater Community is to address racism and sectarianism within our own communities. Racism is the major unresolved issue in the united states, if Muslims send a message that they not only cannot deal with the racial issue; they will not deal with it or face it, it says that we have not matured as a socially conscious community. It says that there is a flaw in our moral foundation. It also says that we’re hypocrites. I’m not calling anyone a hypocrite, but that is certainly the visual takeaway.
Sectarianism is the most widely used and most successful weapon against the Muslims. The first racist was Iblis. “I am better than him; you created me from fire and you created him from must”. Ever since then, Iblis has used racism and sectarianism to diminish the message of Islam and to enable us in writing our own self-destructive narrative.
In not addressing the racial and sectarian divide in Muslim America, we are, instead of solving sectarianism, cultivating new strains of it. All of this is happening at a time where our country has made fighting violent Muslim extremism a priority, and while Muslim communities have made fighting islamophobia a priority. Violent extremism is fueled by sectarianism, and sectarianism is a subtler form of racism, and all three; extremism, sectarianism, and racism are inextricably connected and Muslims are dead in the middle of it all. So where do we go from here?
American Muslim communities (where applicable) should embrace this conversation, and work more to open their masaajid to more indigenous and convert Muslims (of all races). Because this would produce a diversity of thought, a diversity of policy, and solutioned approaches to other and broader issues affecting our Muslim communities. Muslim communities need to address these things not just on the surface, and not just with pats on the head and the Bilal story, or the Suhail ar-Rumi story, but on their boards, in their leadership, in their decision making, in their community strategy, as well as in their core ranks. And I’m not just talking about superficial talking points; we’ve already been through that. African American Muslims especially have dealt with bigotry in this country for a very long time and we shouldn’t dismiss their experiences like they’re new to this, or insult each other’s intelligence. Both communities could learn from each other.
The more people outside of Islam view our communities as foreign, and behind the times on the issue of race, the more likely people will express and act on their bigotry and dislike for Islam and Muslims. Of course when we seriously start to address racism, we would have to deal with other issues like sectarianism. If we unpack sectarianism, we will find extremism and if we unpack extremism we will invariably find racism. Racism is itself an extreme ideology that presupposes that Allah is not a just Lord, and that He sanctions the subjugation, disparagement, and marginalization of one race of people over another simply on the basis of skin color. Islamophobia, the Muslim American Godzilla, is simply another form of racism; it’s just that the shoe is on the other foot. At some point, we’re going to have to resolve this issue of racial, ethnic, and religious discord within the ummah. It is inevitable. Our future is connected to it.
Imam Luqman Ahmad
Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad, a Philadelphia native, is a writer, a researcher and Imam of the Islamic Society of Folsom, in Northern California. He is a former executive committee member of the North America Imams Federation (NAIF), and the CEO of ‘Mosque Without Borders’, an organization that address Muslim sectarianism in the United States. He is also and the author of the new book, “Double Edged Slavery “, a critical and authoritative look at the condition of African American and convert Muslims in the United States, and the book: “The Devil’s Deception of the Modern Day Salafi Sect “, a look at the ideological underpinning of modern Salafist extremism. He blogs at imamluqman.wordpress.com, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.