By Sylvia Chan-Malik
I am the mother of two mixed-race Muslim American girls, ages 7 and 5. When my husband and I decided to have children, we agreed upon three things. First, we would raise them as Muslims, with spiritual and ethical foundations we hoped would facilitate their growth, happiness, and fulfillment through an ability to make good choices. Second, we wanted them to understand themselves as people of color—or alternately, as non-white—not racial anomalies, but as part of the polycultural center of this nation’s history, present, and future. As the children of a Black American father and a Chinese American mother, we knew they would visibly be identified as Black, yet wanted—needed—them to understand both the primacy of antiblack racism and the intertwined histories that have produced what folks call “race” in this country, histories of slavery and colonialism, of immigration and exclusion, of struggle and faith. Thirdly, we wanted to raise brave, resilient, and principled girls who would, in turn, grow up to be brave, resilient, and principled women. For us, this meant much more than Disney-fied notions of “girl power” or stereotypical notions of female autonomy. Such an outcome, we agreed, would require us to teach them how to know themselves and God, to crave justice, and to carve straight and honest paths towards their best destinies. All three points were mutually codependent—one could not be without the other two—and together, these would constitute the moral and ethical foundations of the development of how we envisioned their identities as “Muslim American” women, identities we hoped and prayed would someday lead them to build alliances and seek justice with larger communities of hope and struggle.
Of course, there is what you want, and what actually happens. Most parents, I think, quickly find they are not the only source of information or guidance for their children. The world is vast and their eyes are wide, and we live in, as rapper Mos Def says, simultaneously diabolical and marvelous times. So to speak of race and religion, gender and violence, racism and empire with children, with anyone, is a tricky business. For those who identify as Muslim, in no small part, this is due to the fact that in the past decade, “Islam” has emerged in the nation’s racial imaginary as a series of grotesque orientalist distortions, with the terrorism and the Poor Muslim Woman at the center of these caricatures. Yet it is also because, in these same times, it has become practically impossible to talk about race, let alone racism, in the public sphere, while “feminism” is maligned by both the Tea Party and young starlets, neither of whom would be able to differentiate the second from the third from the “post-“ feminist wave if it crashed into them. Further, and perhaps most of all, it is difficult because children—at least my children—are literal, contradictory, and wildly, amazingly imaginative: pushing against those boundaries we make to keep them safe, to guide them, to make sense, upholding those divisions we want them to tear down. They say girls wear dresses and boys are superheroes, but they are Ninjas who do taekwondo and ballet. They tell me they are “Half-Muslim, half-Chinese, and half-Black,” and look at me with blank stares when I try to explain the difference between race and religion. They want to wear hijabs to school but not for prayers. They want to be Broadways stars, artists, architects, doctors, chefs, mommies, and the President. Someday, they say they will travel the world, but for now, they close the doors to their rooms tightly and dream. They are protected by their privilege, but also exposed. Nuance and irony are illusive, paradoxes abound. And outcomes are always, maddeningly, unknown.
So how to grow these girls—and other girls like them—into strong and confident Muslim American women? How to teach them Islam as a religion, while also explaining anti-Muslim racism, e.g. that to be Muslim in the post-9/11 U.S. means to be subjected to a process of state-sanctioned racialization? How to express their connections to a global community of Muslims, while also emphasizing their identities as women-of-color; the continuities and intersections between their lives and Islamic feminists in Egypt, female imams in China, and with legacies of abolition and suffrage, settlement and exclusion, internment and internationalism—with all the brilliant and brave individuals who have peopled these histories? How to explain sectarian and doctrinal differences within Islam, and the charged domestic, diasporic, and transnational contexts out of which they have grown? How do we encourage and foster a space for them to experience themselves as what Latin American feminist liberation theologian Maria Pilar Aquina calls “a physical, psychological, and spiritual whole,” to take what African American Muslim feminist scholar Amina Wadud has called a “holistic” approach to their understanding of Islam? How to teach then Islam’s history as an American protest religion, yet, also, ineluctably, that it exceeds politics at every scale of their lives (the body, the masjid, the state, the nation, the world, the ummah)? Finally, how do I teach my daughters, and others like them, to seek compassion and peace, to choose vast expanses, to fight for justice, to know when to rest and pray, to be fearless and persevere through both triumph and failure?
These questions are where I begin, and where I always seem to return, in my work as a teacher and scholar. They drive my research and writing about this history of Islam in the United States, about race, empire, gender, and justice. As the recent work on affect within scholarly discourse reveals, what we feel is inextricable from state power; that issues of safety and intimacy are, and have long been, determined by frameworks of colonialism, imperialism, and nation-making. Thus, theoretically and practically, I want to know: how do we equip Muslim American girls to become Muslim American women in the post-9/11 United States with what Toni Morrison, in her novel Sula, called “a safe harbor”—a place between girls where they can “afford to abandon the ways of other people and concentrate on their own perceptions of things”? Can girls like my daughters ever abandon the ways of others and concentrate on and deeply feel their own perceptions of things? In an age of social media, of the endless news cycle, when we voluntarily carry hand-held tracking-devices and relentlessly document our lives, do safe harbors even exist? If so, what do they feel like? Look like? Are they political, social, cultural, psychological, emotional? And if one chooses to raise children as Muslims in the U.S., does—should—“Islam” constitute a safe harbor? In an age of surveillance, terror, white supremacy, is this possible? What is the relationship between religion and safety, choice and doctrine, belief and will? And how to tease out these relationships in, to borrow more words from Toni Morrison, the “wholly racialized” spaces of the United States?These are the questions I pursue in my current book manuscript Insurgent Traditions: Race, Gender, and Islam in the United States, 1923-2013. In it, I explore how Islam and Muslims in the U.S. have been continually constituted through what I call the insurgent traditions of American Islam. The term denotes how being Muslim in the United States is always bound to being insurgent and tropes of insurgency; both in how Islam and Muslims are perceived as insurgent and how to be Muslim and/or to be associated with Islam is to participate in various forms of insurgency, whether voluntary and involuntary, intentional and unintentional. Throughout, I situate Muslim women as central to an analysis Islam’s racialized, religious, and gendered presence in the U.S. and to the formation of Muslim American subjectivities and identities. I argue that Muslim women in the U.S.—working within, against, and across categories of racial and ethnic difference—have critically shaped Islam’s meanings as an insurgent racial-religious-gendered presence in the national imaginary, and have acted as primary architects and agents of ways of being, feeling, acting, and living “Muslim,” all of which are critical, I contend, to identifying and understanding Islam’s insurgent traditions in the U.S. In doing so, in my own small way, I hope to carve out a “safe harbor” for my girls and all the other girls like them, one that allows them to have their own perceptions of things and to express themselves vastly and expansively as Muslim American women.