Sajed Bhandari

America, Books, Cooking, Muslims and some other things

On Changing Perceptions. Article 1 of 3

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“On Changing Perceptions.  Article 1 of 3”

Sajed Bhandari

I used to think in terms of mutually exclusive identities.  The identity I would like to address in this series of articles is the Religious and the National.  Growing up Muslim in America in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I had to come to terms with my religious and national identity on top of the general issues that come with adolescence.  My thought process was an evolution from understanding identity as being one-dimensional and contradictory to a multi-dimensional and interrelated.  I envision this being a set of three articles discussing the effect of this shift in perception on self-identity, morality and finally, the interests of the civilization that I belonged to.  This initial article will discuss the two conflicting identities and a third that seeks to transcend mutually exclusive definitions of identity.

I grew up in a predominantly white and upper-middle class neighborhood on Long Island.  I spent my formative years in such a setting.  My closest friends in elementary and middle school were an Irish Catholic, an Ecuadorian Jehovah’s Witness, a Korean Protestant and a White Methodist.  Prior to entering high school, the only thing that being Muslim meant to me was that I did not celebrate Hanukah or Christmas and I did not eat bacon.  However, it was not until high school, and particularly the terrorist attacks of September 11, that I began to be conscious of what it meant to be a Muslim.

It was the first or second day of school.  I had just started high school and was sitting in my global studies classroom.  The teacher, Mrs. Murphy was preparing to start the lesson when an older student came into the classroom.  He said that two planes had crashed into the Trade Centers.  Most looked blankly trying to understand the situation while others simply laughed because they thought it was a joke.

Mrs. Murphy gathered us in the adjacent room with a working television.  We stood in horror watching the towers on fire.  I nudged my friend and asked if he thought it was the Japanese Kamikazes again.  It did not hit me how traumatic of a situation this was going to be for the world and myself until days later.

I preface my article on Muslim and American identities with a brief recollection of that day because that was the beginning of my conscious life.  The emotions of that day, however, are beyond the scope of this article and will be addressed in a separate essay.

The Muslim extremists view the world as dar al harb and dar al Islam, the domain of war and the domain of Islam respectively.  In their minds, there exists a dichotomy between the lands that harbor their violent bands and the world outside.  It is important to understand that in Muslim extremist ideology, the lands controlled by Muslim governments are considered part of dar al harb including Mecca and Medina as the Saudi Royal family controls them.  According to their worldview, the entire world has become dar al harb.  The Non-Muslim world is given such a status because many nations are seen as being hostile towards Muslims i.e. America, Israel, Britain, Spain, China and Russia to name a few.  This hostility is seen as both direct and indirect.  Direct hostilities include the Russian war against Chechnya and Israel’s occupation of Palestine.  Indirect hostilities include American support for Israeli actions as well as strengthening regimes such as Mubarak’s in Egypt and the Saud family in the Peninsula.

The nations within the Muslim world are given the same designation because they are seen as secular and not implementing Shariah law.  Because Shariah Law is not being implemented, the argument goes, the rulers over the Muslim lands have committed apostasy.  They have become apostates because they establish themselves as Associates and Partners of God by legislating laws.  This act of legislating is held to be only the right of God and any who seek to implement laws other than the Shariah are thus polytheists for setting themselves up as Gods amongst men.

This worldview of the Muslim extremists rests on the idea that one cannot be a true Muslim and a true citizen of a western nation.

The opposing worldview that was available at the time was that primarily defined by Neoconservatives.  I would write Neoconservative Extremists, however, this would be redundant.  The Neoconservative doctrine on identity at that time can be described by the then President Bush’s phrase, “You are either with us or against us.”

The foreign policy espoused by neoconservative ideologues was that promoting democracy in the Middle East worked in the interests of the American republic.  Along with this principle, the neoconservatives also believed that the use of force in pre-emption of an attack was also justifiable, if not necessary.  This was the line of logic coupled with illusions of WMD’s that led to the American invasion of Iraq.  However, what is important for our discussion on identity is not the political actions taken by neoconservatives, rather it is this notion that is present amongst much of the right wing in our nation that to be American or to hold American values, one cannot be a Muslim or hold Muslim values.

It was told to us that somehow the values of life, liberty and the pursuit of property were not values Muslims hold.  They said that Muslims were a Fifth Column and that they sympathized with foreign terrorists.  Fundamental to this ideology by the right wing extremists was that one could not be a true Muslim and a true citizen of a western nation.

It seemed as though both the Muslim extremists and the right-wing extremists had come to the same conclusion.  Being Muslim meant not being American.

It was this definition of identity that I found myself encountering as a 14 year old.  It was not until the election of President Obama that I stopped seeing things in such polarizing terms.  President Obama had a profound impact on the definition of identity.  No longer would there be a conflict of interest, rather there would be a confluence of interest amongst the two civilizations.  This however, is the primary focus of the third and final article of this series.

I was giving a speech at this New Years event held by a Muslim youth group on Long Island.  I looked around the room and saw dozens of individuals.  They knew no other homeland but America.  They knew no other faith but Islam.  I saw their faces and realized that this is what the extremists on both sides feared.  There was no need to have a theological or philosophical discussion on whether it was possible to be Muslim and American.  Here, in front of me, was living proof of Muslim-Americans.  Here, in front of me, was a community, fully Muslim, fully American.  This was the reality that scared the Muslim and right-wing extremists the most.  They had become irrelevant.  Irrelevance is the greatest fear of extremists, and we were that thorn that would burst their hatred.

I began to understand identity from a value-based perspective instead of a rules-based perspective.  The American Revolution was fought for the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of property.  The higher objectives, al maqasid, of Islam are the protection of life, faith, intellect, lineage and property.  The principles of the revolution and the higher objectives of my faith began to seem no different from one another.  My national identity as an American need not conflict with my religious identity as a Muslim because both aim to protect the same virtues.  It was from this understanding that I began to form an identity that transcended the mutually exclusive terms offered to me by the extremists.

To be continued.

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Written by sajedbhandari

February 23, 2010 at 12:22 am

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