You Don’t Matter. Our Image Does

Originally published via MuslimMatters.org

‘And here is the tragedy. Muslims, African-Americans, and other oppressed groups learn that suffering is something they must endure “for the greater good.” So private abuses and traumas are kept quiet so as to not upset or disrupt an already fragile reputation and tenuous image. You don’t cry out when you’re in pain, and you don’t seek outside help when you need it, because this (you’ve come to understand) is itself a crime. And what right do you have, sufferers ask themselves, to commit a “crime” while seeking healing from another?’

—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah

When I was struggling to hold on to my Islam, no one knew about it, not even those closest to me. During that time, I was trying to make sense of things that didn’t make sense. I’d learned to keep quiet about my pain and confusion, which was at least in part inspired by the continuous mistreatment I’d faced from Muslims from my childhood community who ostracized and slandered me after I began to practice Islam in a way that differed from the teachings of their favored imam.

The mistreatment was cruel and relentless and knew no bounds. Nothing was off limits, not even my husband and daughter, whom they spoke to directly about the negativity they saw in me (evidenced by my wearing the hijab of “foreign Muslims” and not listening to music). One elder in the community even placed predictions on my husband divorcing me, and he said this to me, my husband, my mother-in-law, and others.

I was called crazy, extreme, and even Shaytaan (the Devil) himself. I received cruel phone calls, some purely for the “fun of it.” One time an elder brother in the community called me and pretended to ask me a question, and when I proceeded to answer, he put the phone down and blasted music into the receiver. I could hear him laughing as I stumbled in speech, trying to figure out what was going on. Then in a taunting voice, he said something like, “How do you like that music, huh?”

An elder sister in the community called under the pretext of asking how I was doing. At the time that she called, I was suffering from depression and was lying in bed feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Because she was someone I’d known and trusted since childhood, I confided in her about some personal struggles I was going through. Then she said, her voice tight in detest, “That’s what you get. The reason you’re suffering is because you’ve decided that you’re right and everyone else is wrong.”

Another called me to ask advice about something she was going through, only to call me back the next day to say it was all a test to prove how “arrogant” I was. “And I was right!” she said. “You were really comfortable giving me advice.”

Once I was even verbally attacked for reciting Qur’an to a sick Muslim. “How dare you,” one sister said who was present. “You think you’re better than everyone else.”

And the list goes on.

I withstood this treatment for over fifteen years before I decided to remove myself from their presence. But it wasn’t easy. It had been drilled in me since childhood that I had a religious obligation to the “wombs that bore me,” which in this context was not limited only family relations but also to the elders and imams of the community who had nurtured me from young and taught me about Islam. I’d taken this “responsibility” to heart, at least until Allah intervened.

The Muslim “Bey Hive”

Recently, I wrote the blog “What Muslims’ Celebration of Beyoncé Says About Our Souls,” in which I mentioned some of the harassment and mistreatment I’d experienced in my childhood community after I began to wear a full khimaar (and ultimately niqaab) and stopped listening to music. I shared this story to draw parallels between the mistreatment I’d experienced from my community to the mistreatment other Muslims are facing for not celebrating Beyoncé due to the visual and verbal indecency that appears in her songs (however fleeting or pervasive the indecency may be, depending on the song or video). Hence my reference to obvious sin or wrongdoing when I said:

“It is chilling how quickly and staunchly we find the good in the most blatant displays of sin and wrongdoing, and how quickly and staunchly we find the evil in the most obvious efforts of living righteously and calling to good.”

In my blog, I stated outright that I am not saying that Muslims should shun Beyoncé. In fact, as I explained to a commenter, I personally have no problem with Muslims appreciating the singer for the good she’s done, as long as we place this appreciation in its proper context with regards to our souls.

My point was that it is not a religious obligation to celebrate Beyoncé or declare her a symbol of empowerment. That is purely a personal choice (which you certainly have right to). But it is a religious obligation to love your Muslim brothers and sisters for the sake of Allah, to make excuses for them, and to support them in their efforts to fear Allah, even when they seek spiritual safety in staying away from your symbol of empowerment. And this requirement of supporting each other is even more pronounced when you know full well that their seeking of spiritual safety is inspired by the presence of obvious sin, however “insignificant” it is to you or however miniscule it is in comparison to the time spent on positive things.

But when we find a way to excuse and overlook obvious indecency (as defined by our Creator) to appreciate a “deeper message” conveyed in an overall context of good (as defined by us) in Beyoncé’s words, yet we refuse to do the same for our Muslim brothers and sisters who are committing no “crime” other than fearing Allah, then this is where we are putting our souls in danger.

If we are truly sincere in our efforts to merely appreciate and celebrate the good in Beyoncé’s message (which is undoubtedly there), then our hearts would automatically allow us to appreciate more the messages of concern from our brothers and sisters who are staying away from these videos and songs for the sake of their souls. Because that’s how a spiritually healthy heart reacts to a fellow believer’s decision to please their Lord.

No, we will not all draw our lines of spiritual safety in the same place, or even in the same way. But it is inconceivable that a believer would show anger or offense toward a Muslim for merely striving to protect themselves from Allah’s displeasure.

“How Could You Portray African-Americans That Way?”

While there were many Muslims who seemed to understand my point, may Allah bless them, there were many others who began criticizing me for “tearing down” a fellow black woman, and some even accused me of unnecessarily portraying African-Americans in a negative light. “We get enough bad press,” I was told.

This criticism gave me pause. Not because I agreed with it, but because it demonstrated precisely what I was addressing in my blog. I explained this point to one of my critics:

“As I said in my post, my blog was NOT about encouraging us to shun Beyoncé. Nor was it about tearing down Beyoncé. It was about how MUSLIMS are raising their level of celebration to a point of disdain for other Muslims who are seeking to fear Allah.

Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with someone appreciating Beyoncé and finding this ‘empowering’ so long as we ALSO place it in its proper context with regards to our souls.

The problem we’re facing is this conversation itself. You found a way to understand Beyoncé, but you didn’t find a way to understand me. You call me out for tearing down a black woman, but you have no problem publicly tearing down a fellow Muslim.

Why?

In Beyoncé’s lyrics themselves, she ‘tears down’ black men, according to *your* definition of ‘tearing down’ as she expresses her pain. Yet when I express my pain, you can’t hear my heart like you heard Beyoncé’s.

That’s why I say this is really a spiritual issue we’re facing. Our Muslim brothers and sisters become invisible, yet we SEE everyone else. And we need to rectify that.”

Personally, the criticism that I found most triggering was the claim that I was negatively portraying African-Americans in my post. This criticism was particularly triggering because it reminded me of the message I’d repeatedly received during those more than fifteen years of enduring mistreatment in my childhood community: “You don’t matter. Our image does.”

In other words, they felt the ends justified the means. I was collateral damage in the “higher cause” of protecting the African-American Muslim image. Because I’d decided to practice Islam in a way that they felt betrayed African-American cultural pride, any harm that came my way was justified. I needed to learn my lesson.

And I was hearing this same message in the critics who said that my sharing of my personal pain was an unnecessary negative portrayal of “our people.”

SubhaanAllah, I thought to myself. I pored my heart out regarding the pain I experienced in my life and what I learned from it, for the sole purpose of sharing a beneficial spiritual message. Yet still I am invisible. Still I don’t matter. Still this elusive “image” is more important than the human beings it is supposed to protect.

Truly, this experience has highlighted for me that I don’t have the capacity to grasp on this “image” that Muslims and other minorities are trying to maintain. I only know that I sometimes feel as if this “positive image” doesn’t involve me or other Muslims as we seek emotional or spiritual safety, or even protection of our honor and reputation in this world.

In fact, it is as if we don’t matter at all. We can be harassed, abused, mistreated, and slandered; and so long as we suffer in silence, thereby paying homage to this “image,” then we’ve achieved some great feat as Muslims or oppressed minorities. So if someone hears in public a single peep from us regarding our pain, suffering, or frustration, then we are immediately criticized and attacked for destroying a “positive image.” Thus, our every word is dissected and presented to us in the worse way, as if it is some assault upon Muslims or other oppressed people.

Yet Beyoncé (our symbol of “empowerment” and positivity) can strip naked (or have others do it), shake her butt in our faces, rage against “haters,” tell people to make sajdah to her (i.e. “bow down b*tches”), throw up her middle finger in the faces of audiences, say f** you to those who hurt her, and speak angrily to and about men of all races (for their cheating and heartless ways). But none of this harms the “positive image” of African-Americans we wish to maintain. And none of our enthusiastic public Muslim support and celebration of her harm our positive Muslim “image.”

However, somehow a single believer (i.e. myself) speaking from the heart and saying in the most respectful way, “I hurt” and “Please, let’s protect our souls,” has managed to be a public embarrassment to both Muslims and African-Americans, and a deep tarnish upon the flawless reputation that Beyoncé has miraculously managed to grant both groups.

So I apologize. I admit to my crime of imagining that my pain and my words would matter to you at least as much as Beyoncé’s. And that our souls would matter to you more than either of us.

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