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ISG Event: Being Muslim In My America

Panel Discussion "Being Muslim In My America" hosted by the Interfaith Study Group, of which PJTC is a part.

For the month of February, the Interfaith Study Group welcomed Imam Ahmad Deeb, Imam and Director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo. who spoke about “Being Muslim in My America.” He described his journey growing up as an American Muslim and the various challenges and hurdles he faced in his quest to form an American Muslim identity.

Ahmad Deeb grew up in Florida in a family of Syrian Scholars.  His family immigrated to the United States when he was five years old.  He recalls being fifteen years old when he went through an existential crisis, which began his search for identity and belonging.  He was having a difficult time in High School and was informed that if he took the California High School Proficiency Exam, he could skip High School and go straight to college.  His father sent him to Glendale, California to live with a dentist family friend.  The plan was to study hard, take the exam, go to college and eventually to Medical school. By the grace of God, he passed the exam and started college before he was sixteen years of age. He got a degree in Psychology, graduated at nineteen years of age with the plan to continue to Medical school.  However, he was still young and found it difficult to focus on Medical school.

Ahmad went to Flint, Michigan, where he worked as a youth coordinator.  This inspired him on a journey to study the Islamic religion more formally and was introduced to important Islamic figures like Sheikh Hamza Yousef and Dr. Sherman Jackson, who were instrumental in his education.  From there, he went to Cape Town, South Africa to study at a Seminary.  For the first time, Ahmad recalls, understanding the meaning of racism and Apartheid.  His friend took him on a ride through the township, which were the slum areas where the black and “colored” live. Then they went through the nice and fancy areas, which was where the white people lived.  The whole time Ahmad was thinking of the impact of identity on people growing up here and how do they develop a sense of belonging despite the cognitive dissonance they face.

Ahmad came back from Cape Town and moved to Allentown in Pennsylvania.  He got together with some friends, mentors, and teachers and tried to set up an intentional community, a cultural village.  Then he took a post at the Islamic Society of Akron and Kent, but eventually ended back in California, where he pursued his master’s degree at the Claremont School of Theology.  Ahmed traveled overseas again to England and Egypt.  He met his wife in England.  He returned and settled in the U.S. and now serves as the Imam and Director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo.
Ahmad believes that we are at a critical juncture where we are negotiating the question of what it means to be an American.  This comes after the realization that there is not just one America; black America is just as American as white America.  These differences are healthy in his opinion, for it allows and forces us to negotiate questions like what an American identity even means.

In a quote from Dr. Sherman Jackson, Ahmad describes what his America looks like:
“As the German intellectual Josef Joffe put it, ‘America was of Europe, but it left Europe and it was to be the un-Europe’. And as the Irish American immigrant, Alasdair McIntyre noted, America is a country that is always in a state of becoming, always ‘not yet.’  Europe never saw itself as a ‘nation of immigrants.’ As such, it never had the deep racial, cultural or historical diversity that characterized America from the very beginning.  Europe attempted to curb wars of religion with secularism and liberalism, but America’s strongest personalities such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Mohammad Ali were driven by religious commitment.  We must understand that they are America, and America is not Europe.  It is not whiteness.  America is becoming, its fate is yet to be known.  When did we become God to say we decisively know what the future looks like for America.”

Ahmad relays another quote from Dr. Jackson that says: “Administrations come and go; American society is the constant.  As such, being sincere to American society is not contradicted by the fact that I may see fit to criticize or oppose this or that American domestic or foreign policy.  In fact, civil disobedience may at times be the only morally or religiously responsible option in the face of abuses of power.  But this should never be mistaken for a rejection of the basic American constitutional order.  No one would claim that Rosa Parks was committed to overthrowing, taking over or destroying America when she refused to follow the law that required her to give up her seat to any white passenger on an Alabama bus.  In a similar fashion, mine shall always be a ‘loyal dissent,’ never a treacherous one. “

Ahmad stressed that if you were to ask him what his America looks like, the above quote from Dr. Sherman Jackson sums it up.  It is an America that honors diversity and cultural differences.  It does not mean that we want one big hegemonic monoculture that everyone melts into, rather it meanly truly honoring different experiences of people that exist in America. 

He explains why he thinks this quote is worth mentioning.  Growing up as an American Muslim, he had to navigate through multiple different self-realizations to craft his own identity:

  • He was a Muslim, who grew up post 9/11 and had certain religious values that were important to him.
  • He knew he was an American who loved his country.  When he visited Syria, he did not feel that it was his home; home was in the U.S.  He loved America and that is where he felt he belonged. 
  • Due to his skin color and religious beliefs, he was not sure “America loved him.”

As a result, he stressed that crafting an understanding of identity is central to what it means to be a Muslim in America.  Furthermore, he recognized that there are multiple ways of existing in America and they are all equally authentic.  Listening to Dr. Jackson and being part of black America made him realize that there is a way for him to authentically exist without agreeing with many things that are present in our dominant culture.   Also, American values manifest differently depending on the geographical location and depending on the time and place of American history.  That is why we are at a critical juncture where conversations like what is an American identity and what does it mean to be an American are no longer side conversations, rather they are being discussed at the forefront.  Diversity in America does not simply mean invoking different colors and different ethnicities.  We will not have true diversity until the differences amongst the various groups in America are self-authenticating in their identity as Americans.  For example, the experience of an American child of Syrian immigrants raised in Florida should be just as authentic as the experience of a white American who grew up in Massachusetts.
Ahmed concluded by explaining why he became a religious leader and why his position is so relevant to his journey.  He felt that the most profound thing about America and what makes us the greatest democracy is the fact that our attempt to remedy the pain, heal the wounds, and rectify the evils are informed by religious commitment.  Important figures in American History like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were also know as Minister or Pastor King and Imam Malcolm.  Religion cannot be irrelevant to the concerns and ill of our society rather it must be at the forefront to address them.  His role as a Muslim is to support the already existing good and remove the existing harm and work with others across theological differences to accomplish these goals that are universal to humanity.

Ahmad feels that religion has always been at the soul of America and instrumental in allowing for continuous re-envisioning, a continuous state of becoming that, God willing, lands us in a future that is more equitable for all. 

Sat, April 20 2024 12 Nisan 5784