A Traveling Islam
AbdouMaliq Simone

There is little need to reiterate the long history of U.S. governments going wherever they have wanted and doing whatever they have wanted. The question is how Muslims navigate through the political and economic architectures that ensue. Certainly, Islam has long valued extending itself throughout the world. Travel is primarily a modality for accumulating knowledge, acting on the desire to know, and then, only secondarily, is that knowledge used as a means of imbricating the "presentation" of Islam within heterogeneous settings. The historical challenge for Islamic missions, armies, scholars, traders, and sojourners was how to maintain the coherence of the faith in foreign spaces simultaneously considered within and outside of the Islamic world.

The question was how to maintain the absolute authority of Quranic guidance while propagating Islam and ruling Muslims in ways that were of necessity—if Islam was truly going to spread—highly decentralized. The practices and beliefs of foreign cultures were considered to already embody significant aspects of Islam; they were to be seen as already "leaning" toward the faith. How then to be sufficiently flexible enough to engage the particularities of worlds external to Islam so as to know them well enough to be able to steer these societies into the fullness of the faith. The question was one more of pragmatics than of essential differences between societies. For the issue was to have Islam practiced in specific ways across diverse settings so that Muslims would not only be recognizable to each other but able to use the religion to collaborate in new and unanticipated ways in all domains of life.

The present issue is the extent to many devoted Muslims have either significantly attenuated their engagement with larger worlds or are capable of doing so only by being equipped with highly truncated, and thus violent, notions of Islam. Too often the highly stultifying, even claustrophobic urban environments in which the young must operate—overcrowded apartments, overcrowded informal sectors, households who keep children withdrawn from the public street, narrow confines of public expression—is compensated only by the narrow confines of highly formulaic relationships within mosques, medressas, and welfare agencies. Although Islamic institutions can be highly proficient in mobilizing a broad range of information and communication technologies, the open-ended possibilities facilitated by these tools continue to convey restrictive narratives and representations of what are the "right" ways of being in the world. A religion rich in expressive possibilities and rich ways that people can interact with each other, where the possibilities of discourse among many are themselves many, the actual day to day conversations in the mosques are frequently impoverished.

The possibilities of engagement and the practices of being flexible and expansive in face of an uncertain world are an integral part of the very capacity to maintain the coherence and integrity of a faith in motion, of a spreading faith. Today's apparent circumvention of these possibilities implicitly reflects a lack of confidence in that very faith itself. To be without the faith, and thus the need to defend it at any cost, then appears a more immanent and horrible reality to increasing numbers of Muslims.

Yet, the "terrorists" have traveled. They have come to America. And for many, they must have found America also stultifying, living as they often did in vacuous suburbs with strip malls, Chuck E. Cheese, and sports bars. Where did they think they were in their everyday exchanges with private mailbox services, gas stations, supermarket checkout counters, flight school trainers, rental car dealers, and pizza deliverers? In the aftermath of the attack, with the alarm expressed that America's way of life was under siege, what did the insurgents actually conclude about what that "way" was? What common ground did their images of America and their experience of it share?

This is an America that also supports the diasporic economies of many Muslims who, without being in America, could not support households within the dense slums of the Muslim world. It could be argued that without such a "safety valve," Jordanians, Palestinians, Yemenis, Sudanese, Syrians, Somalis, Senegalese, Algerians, Pakistanis, Afghanis, Nigerians and so forth might be forced to more effectively confront the sedentary political and economic structures of home. Yet, through them, and their interactions with each other, an incipient form of a renewed cosmopolitan Islam can emerge. The challenge is how such a cosmopolitan Islam can be nurtured, what does it need, what is the best way to invest in it, and in such a way that Islam remains recognizable and that the Quran continues to be the unyielding and salient reference.

It remains a question as to the extent to which such investments can be nurtured within diasporic communities, especially within the United States. Muslim institutions have usually been divided along national and ethnic lines, as they become focal points for ensuring the integrity and assuaging the anxieties of specific communities. They have usually proved inadequate for opening up new avenues of engagement and shared responsibility. The sermons and pedagogy they issue still tend to remind the faithful to be diligent in face of the "earthly life"—as represented by American consumerism and moral laxity.

Muslim immigrant communities have often been tactically proficient in acquiring resources and implanting themselves in the fabric of American life—acquiring homes and businesses. But they have been less willing to make themselves visible in a wider array of settings and deliberations. As a result, Islam in America has shied away from having something to say about how neighborhoods can be preserved or rehabilitated, how public schools can better educate children, or how companies could be run more effectively and judiciously. Of course, America will not be a most receptive host for such contributions and has proven in the past to be hostile and dangerous to Islam. Of course, American will have to make stronger efforts to understand that Islam is also a global reality, that there are more Muslims in Indonesia, Nigeria, Malaysia, and Central Asia combined than there are in the so-called Arab world. But Islam has long faced a lack of reception.

The antagonism of the West is reaching a new, perhaps unprecedented scale. From the pulpits of mosques around the world, Muslims have long bemoaned the lack of unity among them and the lack of commitment from the faithful to really pose and demonstrate an alternative to a Western "way of life." There are too many arguments about correct behavior, too many arguments about apostasy, and too much emphasis on what physical bodies do or don't do. Unity is too often conceived of people doing the same thing, thinking the same way. Yet, from its inception, Muslims were to actively seek out every place where human life showed itself and to find within it something useful, some hook that would it allow to be drawn, step by step to being nurtured by the faith.

If Muslims are to strengthen their capacities in a changing global landscape, Muslims from different walks of life must find new, innovative ways of talking to and working with each other, of talking and working with the non-Muslim world. We must go into the world in all of its dimensions, all of its every multiplying spaces and experiences and find within them a vehicle that would allow those ideas and values that we cherish to take root. There are no formulas here, no pre-mapped practices to specify how such experimentation at interchange should be conducted. Although steeped in a very particular "American history", much can be learned from the experiences of Black Americans and the generosity of spirit which has often characterized everyday relationships between Muslims and Christians. Whatever steps we as Muslims take, we should have sufficient faith in the power of our faith to know that we will persist through this and all things. We should know that it is within our capacity to bring America to Islam.

AbdouMaliq Simone teaches in the Graduate Program in International Affairs at New School University and is the author of In Whose Image?: Political Islam and Urban Practices in Sudan (University of Chicago Press, 1994).


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