A New Tune

Author: Ali Elashram

Disclaimer: The ideas espoused by guest authors do not represent the views of the Center for Muslim Life at Maryland. They represent the views of the author and the author only.


A few days ago, I came across a research paper that attempted to justify its author’s diagnosis of a faith and identity crisis among American Muslim youth.

To me, the paper is a great case study in the difference between agents of change and agents of improvement that Chaplain Tarif highlighted last week.

Same story

The study reads as a repackaging of a long discussed, reactionary discourse delivered within a familiar framework that has shown little results – a framework of protagonist versus antagonist.

The idea is, essentially, that Muslim youth in urban American settings are being bombarded with offensive attacks from “Islamophobes” telling them they are part of a backward, violent tradition.

The author then makes the claim that these youth need to be served better by their communities and equipped with more knowledge in order to effectively combat their adversaries in the hostile environment they find themselves in.

On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much to take issue with.

However, there is a question I think we should be asking: why is the solution to an offensive attack by those who benefit from distorting Islam to go on the defensive to begin with?

If these people didn’t distort, would we be any less responsible for understanding our faith properly? Do we only need to understand in order to refute others?

In my view, we do not need to understand our faith better to inoculate ourselves against “Islamophobes”; we need to understand it to be proper humans. That is a proactive imperative that is independent of political trends.

The proactive imperative puts us on an even playing field with those attempting to subjugate us to their discourse. When we refuse to be their subjects, we have asserted our equality and dignity before saying a word or lifting a finger.

If we accept their discourse and work off of it, we will invariably be vanquished, no matter how admirably we fight, as the discourse is based in distortion – facts aren’t the currency of the debate.

A defensive strategy forces us to play on someone else’s home court. It places us behind the eight ball because we are consumers of popular discourse and our ideas are simply derivatives of it.

There must be an effort to liberate ourselves from these frameworks and make our own, proactive decisions for civil assertion – not settle for platitudes.

New tune

I would like to offer a new tune to the worn vinyl of the American Muslim identity crisis broken record.

For those of us who are feeling a crisis of identity or faith, I offer the following points that may help unravel the angst many of us feel and provide an alternate framework for improvement and, ultimately, a path towards empowerment:

  • The United States of America is a figment of political imagination, as is any nation-state

  • National identities are political performances

  • Identity is more of what is in crisis in the modern day than is faith

  • Identity crises can often be traced to a lack of feeling love and belonging

  • Attempting to gain acceptance into a national identity that is built upon exclusion is futile

  • The only reality to our citizenship is our role as stewards of the land we live on

  • We can find belonging in becoming intimate with our surroundings; a belonging that no one can give to us or take from us

With those points in mind, I’ll try to bring this all together.

Operating within a framework where our sense of belonging is in the hands of others is not wise. The popular idea that having better counselors, more loving parents, more welcoming mosques, less patriarchy, etc will lead to a sense of identity and the location of belonging in society is not incorrect, but it is indirect.

While those would be positive changes if implemented, I don’t think they would be addressing the direct cause of many modern-day crises of belonging: people lacking a sense of place.

Many Muslims, especially those living in suburban environs, in the USA today aren’t very familiar with their surroundings. We go from home to the car to work or school or entertainment venues and back home.

This lifestyle leaves little chance to get intimate with the land we live on – the real constant that surrounds us physically every moment. Politics are immaterial ideas that come and go. The land we live on is home and offers an open invitation to the belonging we all need on our way to self-actualization.

Getting out and walking the parklands, trails, and streets and taking part in the institutions of arts and culture that have come to define our localities is a concrete way that we can start acting upon our desire to belong.

Finding ways to source our own food via gardening or farming and foraging water from natural springs is a next-level way to belong to the land we live on.

We all have different capacities and opportunities for this type of intimacy with our surroundings, but as long as we do what we can we will gain some grit, lose some domestication, and learn a ton in the process about how our society works, what is good about it, what needs improvement, and where we fit into it.

We will be equipped with the knowledge and experience at that point to produce something meaningful, not simply consume what is already here. We can draw from the well of our faith to inspire creative improvements for society.

Both agents of change and agents of improvement begin their journeys as consumers. However, agents of improvement are the only ones that break free of their cocoons and fly as producers.

When we do that we will taste the empowering truth that our sense of belonging is in our hands and we are not forced to gain it from others who play judge as to whether we fit their mold or not.

We will face society not as protagonist versus antagonist, but rather as protagonist and protagonist. We will have improved our lot and become equal members of the society in which we live.

It’s all in our hands. What a sweet tune, indeed.

Ali Elashram is an alumnus of the University of Maryland (’12) and resident of Baltimore, MD. He benefitted greatly from the presence of Chaplain Tarif Shraim in his formative undergraduate years.

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