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In Defense of the Immigrant Uncle

October 4, 2012

kr’s note: It’s been nearly five months since I’ve done this. I’ve been meaning to write about several things during this timespan, but have never managed to sit down and get all my thoughts together. I finally decided I had to sit down and write on this topic before something else came up. It feels good to write again, especially being able to write and not having to whittle one’s thoughts into a clever statement 140 characters or less. Also, my recent hashtag character of #OverzealousUncleGuy is to use humor as a vehicle to point out certain idiosyncrasies demonstrated by a small minority of immigrant uncles; it certainly is not meant to classify all immigrant uncles into this stereotyped character.

We live in an interesting period of American Muslim history. It is a time when a critical number of first generation, young indigenous and convert Muslims comprise a significant portion of the American Muslim community. Undoubtedly, this is a good thing. With a background of uniquely American life experiences, levels and types of education and commonalities, this younger generation is able to speak across cultural and social borders as well–this is not to say we have reached a Muslim utopian community. But at least the conversation is civilized (generally speaking) and has started.  Add to this a growing discussion and awareness in conversations, both scholarly and lay, regarding a variety of never-before-discussed social and religious topics.  Sprinkle in a pinch of institutionalized revival in learning the sacred sciences and a dash of social-media, bake for 20 years and voila, you have a new generation with its own ideas and desire for change.

These conversations, by and large, are well-intentioned and stem from a desire to improve the American Muslim community. Many of these conversations, such as a critical examination of race issues and developing an understanding of healthy sexuality, are long overdue. But among these topics, an unfettered wave of criticism directed towards a certain group within the American Muslim community has reared its ugly head. Recently, it has become popular and commonplace to cast the immigrant uncles (and by extension, immigrant aunties, but for the sake of this essay, I will refer to this demographic with a male pronoun and abbreviate this using IU) as a major problem with our communities. Social media feeds, speeches and common conversations are filled with an invective directed against the IU as a backward, over-the-hill figure that doesn’t understand the needs of today. And while the IUs are not without blame, I believe we must understand the story of the IUs, how they brought us here and how to interact with them during this transition phase wherein the banner of American Islam, for better or worse, will be passed to our generation. Before we take this baton, we must understand where they have run first.

To recount how we got here would involve a re-telling of recent American Muslim history, with a particular attention devoted to the inevitable effects of 9/11, but that is not the scope of this essay(side note: perhaps this is a topic for a future essay). Instead, I wish to highlight a few key components of this story to address an issue that has been gaining steam for quite some time now.

We should first understand that the vast majority of the IUs did not come here to spread Islam or escape persecution in their homelands. This was certainly no hijrah. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 opened the doors for immigration from the Middle East and South Asia, heralding a wave of  immigrants who came to the United States with the quintessential of American niyyahs: to have a better life for themselves and their families. Many of them came to pursue higher education while others came to find better careers. As is well known by now, the IUs gravitated towards engineering and medicine. This did not happen by mere coincidence: a shortage of skilled professionals in these fields served as an impetus for these fields being filled by the IUs. In general, these early IUs were incredibly intelligent, ambitious, resourceful and possessed an ability to leave behind family, delay marriage and immerse themselves in studies to  an admirable degree of dedication. The stereotype wealthy-doctor-uncle worked his tail off in the early 1970s to get to where he is today. And we must not be foolish to think there were no temptations at this time–while there may have been no FaceBook and social media,  America as a nation was discovering free love, drugs and rock & roll and healing from the scars of the psychological scars of Vietnam with a revolt against the relative conservatism that had dominated its social history. Trust me, there were plenty of temptations for that generation.

For many of the IUs, coming to America was not unlike Prince Akeem’s character in the movie by the same name. While they didn’t come to find a queen to take back home per se, the vast majority of them had no real long term plans of staying. They wanted to go back home, and initially, they never thought America could ever be home. I find it historically fascinating and inspiring that in this backdrop of transience and temptation,  these IUs soon realized they had to establish something to hold onto their identity.  In this context, in Champaign, IL, the first Muslim Students’ Association was formed, eventually spreading to other campuses and serving as the father that sired ISNA and other American Muslim organizations. And lest we forget, it wasn’t a glamorous, convention-holding, rally-organizing, fastathon-sponsoring Muslim Singles/Shadi Association (relax, kidding on that last one…) that we know and love today. For many of the IUs, it was their only connection to their Muslim identity. And for many of the IUs, it was a rediscovery of a religion that they had not fully appreciated in their native lands. Indeed, many IUs learned, came back and committed to the deen as a result of their experiences in the MSAs, and as a result became better educated and practicing Muslims than they were in their native lands.

It is a miracle that Allah brought about a change of hearts and intentions in this generation of (mostly) young men whose initial intentions were not to propagate Islam or establish institutions, but rather to make a quick buck and return home. But Allah brings about change when, how and where He wills. And so the IUs, the most unsuspecting of characters, were cast as the lead actors in the play of their lives. They were not given any script, there were no directors and they didn’t even know they were being filmed by the lens of history.

An interlude is necessary here. The above narrative thus far should not not diminish the existence of Islam already present in the indigenous American population (especially amongst the African American community; for more on this, Dr Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Blackamerican and Richard Brent Turner’s Islam in the African-American Experience are essential reads), but this is not the focus of this essay.

So while Islam remained a presence in the inner cities of America, the suburbanization of American Islam was a uniquely IU-led phenomenon. An influx of wealth into the IUs made it possible to bring Islam into a completely new arena of the suburbs, that part of America where it had never gone before. (Side note #1: one could argue that the concept of suburban Islam is a uniquely American one since Islam in the old world was either urban or countryside as the concept of suburbs really didn’t exist until very recently. Side note #2: I wish someone, much smarter than me, would write a PhD thesis on this subject). These same IUs had the inspiration and foresight to start building masjids, stores and restaurants. Whether they knew it or not, their works led to the formal arrival of Islam into this part of America. And by Allah’s Grace, it flourished in this new landscape all across the country.

Were mistakes made? Undoubtedly so. Were there mistakes made in planning masjids? Was there overt racism directed towards Americans, especially African-Americans (including, embarrassingly enough, African-American Muslims)? Were many political and cultural differences unfortunately the reason for splintering of groups into different organizations?  Did ego play a role (and continues to play a role) in mismanagement of affairs within mosques and organizations? Did they not figure out a way to effectively engaged the youth, minorities, converts and women? Did they not establish better transfer of leadership within institutions and masjids, including developing leadership training programs? Do our institutions suffer from a lack of professionalism and trained professionals to deal with social, psychological and cultural issues that plague the Muslim community? Yes, yes and yes to all of the above.

But we also cannot deny the obvious good that came from this generation. The Qur’an tells us: “Say: The evil and the good are not alike even though the plenty of the evil attract thee. So be mindful of your duty to Allah, O men of understanding, that ye may succeed(Sūrah al-Mā’idah, Verse 100).” This suggests that any beneficial goodness, no matter how small, still outweighs the harm of a thing, no matter how plenty and should be appreciated. Of course, its application to matters of Sacred Law is different (for example, one cannot say that alcohol is now permissible because good is present and it outweighs the harm). Furthermore, a ḥadīth states: “What is small and sufficient is better than that which is numerous and diverting ( أَلهَى) driving this point home.  In this case, the contributions of the IUs to the American Muslim community are beyond just “good”: they are sufficient and good because they have brought us to where we are today.

Again, let me be clear: this is not to condone them for the mistakes, but this is an unpayable debt that we owe to the IUs. We are privileged to pray in masjids now while many of them actually did pray jumu’ah in basements and closets. We are blessed to have Muslim schools and stores while these were only a fantasy when they were our age. And even some of our advanced discussions, such as machine-slaughtered meat vs. hand-slaughtered meat and moon sighting methods–we are fortunate enough that we are in a position to even have these discussions now (never mind the rulings or the positions on such matters), because in their days, it was not even possible to fantasize about these matters. There were no zabihah meat stores. There wasn’t awareness regarding moon sighting methods. (Some may argue these were simpler, better times, and I can’t disagree). Efficacious Islam, not necessarily a “more authentic” Islam, dominated the discourse. More real, tangible things had to be done so that today we can have the luxury of sending our kids to Islamic schools, buying zabihah meat, praying in luxurious masjids and even having these discussions. Like the coffee drinker who sips his morning caffeine unaware of how it got there, we sometimes forget all that happened that even makes it possible for us to enjoy our position. We see further because we stand on the shoulders of recent giants — unwilling at first, and perhaps not the tallest — but we stand on them nonetheless. And I would dare argue that if my generation was in their place, it would not have been able to do what they were able to accomplish. God knows best.

And so while we criticize the IUs as doctors and engineers as wealthy suburbanite fobs whose times have passed, let us not forget who funded the masjids, schools and projects in the first place. While we criticize them for “hanging on too long”, let us not forget who worked tireless hours at masjids, taking them from humble beginnings to the mega-masjids we see today, not taking a salary for their work. And while we find fault with them for a hundred other things, let us not think that we would have done a better job had we had to do it all over again.

The first step is to show appreciation and give credit where it’s due for what they have done. The second step is for us to study this recent history, taking notes of the successes and shortcomings and keeping these as references as we begin our own community services. We should also embark on this transfer of leadership giving the utmost attention to maintaining their dignity and propriety, recognizing them for their services and allow them to graciously exit into the sunset as heroes, instead of unceremoniously tossing them aside like milk past its expiration date. Yes, this transfer may often happen with a great deal of tension, as some of them may stubbornly hold on even when its time to leave… but we should ask ourselves if we would not do the same if we were in that same position? We would do the same exact thing. Only a foolishly self-righteous person would think he would behave otherwise. When you have been doing something so long, it’s hard to let go. This is a human flaw and we are all flawed beings in a flawed world. So gentleness and understanding must dictate our speech and actions rather than anarchy and an indignation of demanding what we think is rightfully ours at the American Muslim table.

Whereas the IUs faced the challenge of establishing a Muslim identity and building institutions, our generation’s trial will be to honor their legacy by building upon their foundations, fixing the cracks in the wall and making beautiful the overall construction. Eventually, we will be in these positions of leadership and we should appreciate a simple fact and embrace a subsequent responsibility:

By the overwhelming Grace of God, they succeeded. History will bear witness whether our efforts are similarly blessed.

  1. Anonymous permalink

    mashallah, well written, Allah bless you.

  2. This is a very well written article, I enjoyed reading it very much. I agree with the overall message of your article. Hope you write more like this! Salam.

  3. guess who? permalink

    AAWW bro,

    Now the responsibility lies on our shoulder to take over from IU’s to relive them and show that we can hold one end of the Rope of right and the other end hold by “ALLAH”(swt) so that they can witness that they did their job,and delivered message to us.
    May “ALLAH”(SWT)bless you and keep on right path.


  4. Abdullah permalink

    I don’t have much hope on the current generation. After traveling across the US, I see that most first generation Muslims care very little about Islam. Future looks bleak.

  5. Khadija permalink

    It’s like you read my mind and plagiarized everything that I’ve been thinking for years. Spot on brother! Having sat and talked to one of the founding Chicago uncles about the early days when there was no MCC or IFS, there was just one basement the families of Chicago prayed in, I have ears first hand about the incredible foresight and vision these IUs had. While it is sad to see all infighting now taking place in these venerable institutions, I think we should still not be in too much of a hurry to “replace” them. We need to find a way to work with them and learn their history which is our legacy.

  6. Azam Hussain permalink

    Considering how much they had to adjust to and how quickly times have changed, many IUs are more progressive than our generation would like to admit. To be honest, I have far fewer criticisms of the IU generation (especially after this excellent essay) and am far more concerned about our generation’s apathy – people say that the IUs won’t step aside but I think our generation refuses to step up.

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