Belongingness, Identity and Self, An Ecuadorian in the Muslim American Community

April 3, 2010

“His approach to religion suits my personality. It is socially conscious and grounded in reality. And yet, as much as I find this approach appealing, it is precisely its attention to a particular social context that today makes me wonder about my positionality in a forum of this kind… what am I, an Ecuadorian, doing here?”

Dear Papaito,

Last night I attended a panel on gender roles in Islam and in culture, and this weekend I am attending a lecture about tazkiyyat al-nafs (purification of the soul), organized by the Islamic Center at New York University.

You know, it doesn’t matter what the theme of the event is, these lectures and panels always discuss the state of the Muslim American community.  Yesterday’s lecture was no exception. Even a theme as supposedly abstract as ‘purification of the soul’  is tied to American Muslim issues; the historical differences between the ‘native’ Muslims and the ‘immigrants,’ Islam and American culture, etc. Granted, this has a lot to do with who the speaker is. Our speaker this weekend has spent the better part of his life thinking about explicitly Muslim American issues, so he is the perfect candidate to make these connections and ground them in this reality.  But is it my reality?

His approach to religion suits my personality. It is socially conscious and grounded in reality. And yet, as much as I find this approach appealing, it is precisely its attention to a particular social context that today makes me wonder about my positionality in a forum of this kind. The social context is America, 2010.  Not America north and south, but the United States of America. So what am I, an Ecuadorian, doing here? True, when I listen to these lectures I forget I am not United States of American; I listen to the lecturer and engage the issues he describes the same way I have observed them since I arrived to this country in Fall 2008: closely, and as though they were mine.

Possibly, these issues become mine momentarily. I don’t undermine the role of bodily acts in shaping our perceptions of self and the world around us.  Listening, a powerful bodily exercise, has the power to override complex spatial and temporal considerations through its effect on our sensorium (it is through our senses that we engage and understand the world,  and listening, like seeing or touching, mediates this experience). So while the realities the lecturer describe are not my history, and may never be my future, I still experience them as though neither past nor future mattered. I am here now.

But even this unquestionable present (I am here now) is not so simple when I seek to understand how it may entitle me to the kind of participation my American Muslim brothers and sisters enjoy in this setting. I am here now, but to what extent is a short, perhaps transitory present, sufficient grounds to make a claim to this reality? Am I entitled to participate in these debates because I share with these people one of the descriptive words that make up their hyphenated identities (American-Muslims)? I know I could make an argument for why, Ecuadorianness aside,  as  a Muslim I should concern myself with the situation of Muslims everywhere, including those in this country. But when every discussion is framed in terms of a North American Islam, a native North American Islam, how far can I push this argument? And do I want to?

How interesting is the nation-state.

Well, these are just some preliminary thoughts on this matter, and I have a lot more to say about this, but it is April. All my time and efforts should be directed towards my thesis. Until a next time then, God willing.

J.

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