American Hero: Imam W.D.

What’s happened to “Star Trek”?  It’s gone mass appeal with little time for a story in between faser fire, fisticuffs and bodies spit into space.  This is not your parents’ action and adventure of the old Indiana Jones days.  No, today it means convincing, gratuitous violence, thank you J.J. Abrams (the over-lauded young director).  The title “Star Trek into Darkness” is entirely appropriate.  Yes, I admit I’m a bit of a Trekkie.  I like that it was always easy to find several interesting heroes in a “Star Trek” episode or movie.  Still, the question this disappointing movie made me ask is: who are our heroes?  What constitutes an American hero these days?

First of all, there’s trouble with the word ‘American.’  Linking our identity to this continent reminds us (or should) of the historic fact that the Europeans stole this resource-rich continent from the Native Americans, along with economic prosperity for the elite built on the backs of African (et.al.) slaves.

The exploitative heritage of this country is often glossed-over, or worse, a cliché.  In fact every time I look at Andrew journey-into-america-cover211Jackson on a $20 bill I shudder.  His systematic and unapologetic intention to exterminate Native Americans would easily be called genocide by today’s standards.  Author Akbar Ahmed assigns him the category of “predator” in describing “three distinct but overlapping identities – primordial, pluralist and predator,” in Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, (p.45).  Ahmed’s examples and explanations of these identities are interesting, but for the sake of brevity in this column you can take them at face value, using Dick Cheney and Andrew Jackson as examples of predators, Thomas Jefferson being a pluralist, and the Puritans primordial.  Ahmed looks at these conflicting identities and their impact on society, and foundational for the conflicts we all live with today.

The book flap of Journey into America said, “This eye-opening book also offers a fresh and insightful perspective on American history and society.”  I’m backing into the story of this book because reading about my own country’s history through the eyes of immigrants was powerful.  I was not ignorant to America’s inglorious past, but Ahmed put some of this country’s history in the context of how Muslims are currently treated in America, immigrants and natives.  Not surprisingly, he reveals story after story of bigotry, though this book is much richer than any of those stories in isolation.  In fact, the context he provides is what makes reading Ahmed compelling.  It matters in general, but also because there are six to seven million Muslims in the U.S., and globally, one of every four persons is a Muslim (p.7). 

Ahmed chairs Islamic studies at American University in Washington, DC and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.  He chose an anthropological methodology because, “Anthropologists believe that society consists of interacting parts, and that anthropology is therefore the only discipline attempting to study society as a whole,” (p.10).  Ahmed travelled the U.S. and beyond with a team of researchers for visits to mosques and personal interviews, as well as collecting 2,000 questionnaires from people of all backgrounds all over the country. 

With all these stories, from first-hand accounts and from history, there was one person who especially struck me as what I think of as a real American, and my idea of a hero.  Ahmed described him by saying, “The genius of Imam W.D. was that he single-handedly moved the African American community toward identifying with a pluralist American identity while moving away from Black Nationalist Islam,” (p.174).

In my effort to get to know him better, a well-informed source referred me to two books.  Both are dated, but offered me a fuller picture of Imam W.D.  In American Jihad: Islam After Malcolm X (1994), author Steven Barboza titled the chapter on W.D. Mohammed “Prodigal Son,” (p.94).  (The Black Muslims in America, 3rd Edition 1994, by C. Eric Lincoln was also consulted for this column.)  Over time, the world would see how W.D.’s interpretation of Islam differed from his father, Elijah Mohammed.

Barboza’s book had an undertone of disappointment that W.D. did not build on his father’s legacy and empire, which was successful, but harsh.  As one example of sanctioned non-religious activities, the Nation of Islam (NOI) under Elijah Mohammed had a team of “enforcers” (“Fruit of Islam,” FOI) which were known as the ‘punch your teeth out’ arm of NOI.  That may well have been the case since there was a story of ten people killed ‘for no other reason than they didn’t want the FOI completely dominating their lives,’ (p. 96).  Imam W.D. also ended the exclusion of whites (p.95-6).  Louis Farrakhan and his followers eventually split from Imam W.D., retaining many of Elijah Mohammed’s doctrine and practices.

Akbar Ahmed compares Imam W.D.’s impact on American Islam akin to Martin Luther’s impact on Christianity (p.173).  In 1992 he was the first imam to offer morning prayers in the U.S. Senate (Barboza, p.98).  Not only did he make great strides in pluralism, he also taught his followers how they could be good Muslims as well as patriotic Americans.  Another imam said of him: “He is the greatest inspiration to us; he inspired us to accept our obligations and responsibilities as Americans.  Since 1975 we have identified as Muslim Americans.  We have rights, duties, and responsibilities as Americans.  We have to support good wherever we see it,” (Ahmed, p.192).

I now see the late Imam W. D. as a peaceful, devout spiritual man who sacrificed and persevered to lead people of his own faith on a devout path, while maintaining and building inter-faith relationships.  In this country he was a pioneer in teaching a more Orthodox, compassionate Islam.  He’s not taught in American history classes.  Probably many more non-Muslims think of Louis Farakhan or early Malcolm X.  Imam W.D.’s influence was quieter, but likely more widespread, and more spiritual than political.  That was heroic.

With no disrespect to Imam W.D. or Akbar Ahmed, I leave you with something less lofty.  I have been enjoying Canada10340‘s Islam-light on Hulu.com.  Take a look at “Little Mosque.”  It’s not quite a sitcom, but it’s not drama either.  It is an everyday interpretation of the lives of Muslims in a small town in ‘America’ (remember Canada is on the American continent).  This show makes me makes me smile, and sometimes laugh out loud.

“Little Mosque” on Hulu.com

Asalaam alaikum: peace be unto you. –J.B.

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