Dream of perfect conformity. / Nicholas Rénac
Rafia Zakaria,  August 1

Ode to the Liberal Muslim

A survey sings of assimilation

Dream of perfect conformity. / Nicholas Rénac
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On the second grim Friday following President Donald Trump’s victory in the November elections, I attended a Friday service at the Women’s Mosque of America. Held at a community center in Los Angeles, the service was organized entirely by a group of women seeking to further women’s leadership within the American Muslim community. Unlike other mixed mosque congregations, women deliver the call to prayer, they give the sermon, they set up and they pick up, they talk and they pray. We did all of those things that day; we also worried and cried and listened to announcements about self-defense classes—very important, the speaker emphasized, given recent developments. I left both drained and heartened, feeling at once unsure of an America mired in Islamophobia and yet hopeful for an American Muslim community led by women. Could the two co-exist, I wondered? How long before the demands of survival as American Muslims wipe out the efforts of resisting patriarchy as American Muslim women?

The same amalgam of terror and hope I felt that day is reflected in the results of a Pew survey[*]  on American Muslims released last Wednesday. According to its results, the American Muslim community has changed markedly since the last time Pew polled them ten years ago. From the viewpoint of an ever-suspicious America, unsure of the assimilative abilities of troublesome American Muslims, the news is mostly good. Muslims are now “more liberal,” a fact meant to be celebrated. To get the party started, CNN helpfully highlights a statistic telling us that the numbers of those American Muslims who believe society should be tolerant of homosexuality has nearly doubled (up from 27 percent to 52 percent), with millennial Muslims leading the charge of change. Nearly two-thirds of Muslims believe in the validity of varying interpretations of faith, and 6 percent more than in 2007 self-identify as politically liberal. To top it off, the vast majority—nearly eight out of ten of the roughly 1,000 polled—voted accordingly, casting their ballots for Hillary Clinton.

At the same time, while American Muslims are more liberal, they are also rather replete with dread, or, like me, just plain terrified. Nearly two-thirds are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, seven in ten say Trump makes them worried, and 45 percent admit that he makes them angry. Those final numbers, if sad, are generally predictable given all the disparagement directed at Muslim Americans since America embraced Trump.

The nub of the Pew survey, however, lies not in these generally discussed and dissected bits but in a detail that reveals how the tiresome burden of an Islamophobic president settles disproportionately on American Muslim women.

The Pew survey found that Muslim women are far more likely than men (57 percent to 43 percent) to say that it is harder to be Muslim in the United States today, 54 percent admit that Trump angers them, and only 44 percent believe that Americans are friendly toward Muslims.

A community under siege threatens to become a community in stasis, inching toward stagnation.

At the outset, the discrepancy can be explained away by Trump’s general misogyny, and the fact that American Muslim women, especially those who wear the headscarf, have borne the brunt of attacks, jibes, sneers, and stares from emboldened Islamophobes. There is more to it than just that. In an America bloated on stereotypes of Muslims, where both the Right and the Left rely on a caricatured, demonized Islam (let’s not forget Clinton’s recipe for a good American Muslim was one willing to be “our eyes and ears on our frontlines”), Muslim American women have been doing the unglamorous work of improving the inside of their communities.

In the years since 2005, when American Muslim scholar and activist Amina Wadud led a mixed-gender prayer in New York, similar initiatives have sprouted all over the country. The Women’s Mosque of America is one; another, Masjid Al Rabia in Chicago, is specifically geared to providing a LGBTQI-friendly spiritual community. They aim to change the way congregations are organized and led. In the past couple of decades, Muslim American feminist scholars like Asma Barlas, Laleh Bakhtiar, and Asifa Quraishi-Landes have pioneered reinterpretations of doctrine from a feminist perspective, challenging patriarchal interpretations and jurisprudential positions like stoning and amputations.

To put it squarely, while America has been hating, American Muslim women have been trail-blazing, doing the work in the trenches that doesn’t make headlines but that makes all the difference.

A community under siege, however, threatens to become a community in stasis, inching toward stagnation. Geared to protect itself from a meddlesome and finger-pointing American mainstream, American Muslim women will inevitably have to focus less on internal reform and more on simple survival. In an Islamophobic age, it is not only the haters who harm; this minority within a minority must also ward off the injuries inflicted by the well meaning, the saviors who come to liberate them.

When it’s demanded as forced obeisance, “liberal” is no more, having morphed into the decidedly illiberal.

Run through the machinery of saviordom, the efforts of American Muslim women to transform their communities become indictments of American Muslim men, their work of feminist reclamation now evidence of the intransigence of a pre-reform Islam, the “bad” Islam to be bombed and blasted away. This, then, is the implicit rubric of polls such this one; saluting “liberal” Muslim Americans is code for reiterating that only some American Muslims are acceptable. When it’s demanded as forced obeisance, “liberal” is no more, having morphed into the decidedly illiberal. With this minefield of haters and saviors milling about, what else can Muslim American women be, but rightly, deservedly mad?

I am one of them, these angry American Muslim feminists, whose rage is reflected in the numbers in the percentages and the variations separated out by gender. The results of the Pew survey are not a surprise to me. I knew they would come. Ten years ago, when I was in graduate school, the Muslim Student Association at my university held a Friday congregation at the student union. Males had one side of the room and females the other, and either one could be elected president. I knew then that the American Muslim community would look different and work differently when a new generation was in charge, and it does.

What I never expected was that I would worry about looking too Muslim at the airport, console my friends whose parents are banned from visiting, and discuss whether internment of all Muslims would be upheld by a conservative Supreme Court. On the way out from the Women’s Mosque of America, I happened to speak to the female security guard posted outside. I asked her if they were deployed at all of the many religious events held in that space or just for us. “Only for you,” she replied. “Only for Muslims.”

 


[*]  Correction: This article has been revised to correct the original claim that Pew and CNN had partnered on the survey. In fact, CNN was not involved in the survey, but only reported on it. Thanks to Pew for bringing the error to our attention.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for The Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publications.

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