What Do We Call it When Minorities Berate Their Own?

What language do diversity progressives have when marginalization is occurring but it’s not because of racism, colonialism or white supremacy?

January 16, 2019

I typically like having a Muslim taxi driver. We offer our salaams, exchange pleasantries about our families, speak of our love for the Prophet Muhammad and complain about Islamophobia and Donald Trump.

But every once in a while, the conversation goes sideways.

“Do you believe in your religion?” Akbar asked me as we headed out from the Phoenix airport to Scottsdale.

“Of course, I love my faith,” I said.

“What I am asking,” he said in broken English with a strong East African accent, “is are you really a Muslim?”

“How do you mean?” I asked, even though I had a pretty good idea where this was all going.

“Do you pray five times a day? Do you fast all throughout Ramadan? Do you give your zakat (charity)? Do you do dawa (preach Islam for the purpose of conversion)?”

“Well,” I said, “I don’t think we’re the same kind of Muslim. You see, I’m an Ismaili. We’re a small Shia community that’s a little like a Sufi Tariqa. We have a Mawla (spiritual master) named the Aga Khan who guides our religious practice. We pray three times a day, but if that’s not possible because of work or other duties, we are guided to remember God with our prayer beads. Fasting for Ramadan is encouraged but it’s not required.”

I was fully prepared to keep telling him about a Muslim community he’d clearly never heard of (multicultural education, right?), but he cut me off.

“What is this Shia Sufi you are talking about? There is no Shia. There is no Sufi. There is no Ismaili. There is Islam. There is this,” he said, and held up the Qur’an that he kept next to him in the passenger seat. “Do you read this in Arabic?”

I said I did not.

“Then listen to me,” he said sternly

He repeated his lines about prayer, fasting, charity, preaching.

“You’re good at this,” I said. “Sounds like you’ve practiced it.” 

He seemed pleased that I’d noticed. “Muslims have to correct each other. I need to bring you, my brother, back to the straight path.” This was his way of being helpful.

“But what about diversity within the tradition? How can a religion of 1.6 billion people that is 1400 years old and spread across over 100 countries be expected to have uniform interpretation and practice?” I asked.

“What is this diversity you are talking? Islam is one. You are either Muslim or you are not.”     

And so it went for the entire forty minute drive.

Let me be clear: my driver was perfectly polite. I never felt threatened or anything close. But he viewed my religious identity as wrong, and he was not shy about telling me.

Let’s do a little thought experiment: If this was a rich white guy telling me that the only way to be American was believe in Jesus, say ‘Merry Christmas’, support Trump and tattoo a flag on my arm I’d know what to call it: racism, oppression, colonialism, white supremacy, etc., etc.

What words do we diversity progressives have for what this guy did – for drawing the circle of Muslim identity in a way that drew Muslims who are different (in this case, me) out?

Interesting to note: this guy was, by the standard measures, in a less powerful social position than me. I’m upper middle class, he was (probably) lower middle class. I’m a highly educated creative type in the knowledge economy, he drives a cab. I’m a second generation South Asian who speaks the kind of English you hear from a white television anchor, he’s a recently resettled refugee from Somalia with broken English and an accent.

He’s got no power in the way we normally talk about power. He can’t give me a job or get me fired from one. He can’t tell the police to be suspicious of me.

But in his particular orthodoxy and with his distinctive knowledge base (reading the Qur’an in Arabic), he can draw a circle around an identity in a way that draws me out. He can make me feel bad about my particular interpretation and practice of Islam (if I let him, which I might well have at an earlier stage of my development).

His antipathy can spread beyond the personal to the social. He can make his mosque an uncomfortable place for me. He can write a letter to a Muslim publication denouncing Shias, Sufis and Ismailis. (Let’s be real, it’s not like these things never happen).

If he could get me fired or get the police to surveil me, we diversity progressives would have language for it – structural power.

But these other things he can do – define an identity and its corresponding spaces in a way that draws some people out – how do we talk about that kind of power?

My purpose here is not principally to explain diversity and divisions within the Muslim community. I think every ethnic and religious minority community has dynamics like the ones I describe above. A good deal of 20th century literature about ethnic and religious minorities (Chaim Potok, James Baldwin, Amy Tan) includes themes about how minorities negotiate orthodoxy and heterodoxy within their own communities. What does it mean to be black/Chinese/Jewish enough? The people who get to decide may hold no power in the white world, but they can make you feel very small within your own identity community, and they can shut you out from its comforts and alliances in a way that is excruciatingly painful.

It sometimes feels like the vast majority of Trump-era progressive diversity discourse misses this dimension, focusing only on how straight wealthy white Republican men beat up on “women, people of color, LGBT folks, immigrants and Muslims” (all of whom, by implication, agree on everything important and always lift each other up).

It seems to me that this paradigm misses vast quantities of human experience.     


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