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Maladies of Muslim Societies in America – I : Intro April 3, 2011

Posted by ctwayfarer in Life's Lessons, Muslims, Travel.
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Making a diagnosis

Making a diagnosis (via chaparral @ Flickr, by-nc license)

As I struggle to complete a number of assignments set for myself before academic burdens take sway, I’ve procrastinated for far too long in order to get on top of this important topic. Part of the reason was deciding whether or not to write a single post as opposed to a continuing series. Since the subject is vast in scope I’ve decided on the latter. It would do more justice for me to elaborate on details and incorporate new observations as I continue to experience them.

Why is this important?

Well firstly because in my opinion, you might say as a doctor, you can’t treat a problem without coming to a truthful and accurate diagnosis. In my travels and experiences in various regions of the world, I’ve observed that a lot of times, thought suppression plays a key role in allowing maladies to fester among populations. When people prefer to stay in denial and would rather not confront their demons and engage in wishful thinking, this gives rise to assessments of things that don’t match in their severity with facts on the ground. And America and regions similar to it are no exceptions. You see like for many denizens in India going about their daily lives, the America of its dwellers is an America of their silver screens. An America of the mind. Illusory, filled with all kinds of bedazzling spectacles and promises and an America that the American as well as the Indian villager, each lost in his very own catacomb, finds for the most part all good and dandy.

I think there are times in history when matters have to be handled minus the sugar-coating. When a tumor needs to be called a tumor. No matter how hard such a fact might be to swallow. Without such honesty it is hard to devise proper solutions.

As for the risk of sounding holier-than-thou, let’s face it, patients still find use for their doctors even if they have unhealthy lifestyles. I guess the following hadith, demonstrates the value of this process too (quoted in part, emphasis added):

Bukhari Volume 2, Book 26, Number 797 (also found in other places):

Narrated Abu Bakr RA:

The Prophet delivered to us a sermon on the Day of Nahr. He said ” […] So it is incumbent upon those who are present to convey it (this information) to those who are absent because the informed one might comprehend it (what I have said) better than the present audience, who will convey it to him. […].”

I’m no murshad. And nor should you be some mureed. Allah SWT knows best what faults lie within us all and may He grant us all the hidayah to overcome them. Ameen. Sometimes I feel like I ought not to speak. At other times I think the lid needs to be blown off.

My second reason is that for many Muslims, including those who haven’t yet reached its shores, Muslims in America represent some kind of panacea for the Ummah‘s problems. The fountainhead from which a future renaissance might spring forth to be absorbed like sponges by the rest of mankind loafing around in the backseat. Popular sites like Islam-Online (the English version of which, for some reason, is now basically in shambles), MuslimMatters, MSA listservs, etc., where-from I myself at one point in my life used to draw assessments, give to rise to a profound selection bias that serves to perpetuate this misjudgment. Also because many young readers in the world, succumbing to environmental pressors, have dumped their own languages in the pursuit of English and are thus left with a limited number of options, often foreign, in order to make sense of their native surroundings. Given these conditions, it is no wonder that for some of our arguably deranged eschatology experts, “the sun will rise from the West” is interpreted in this rosy-eyed manner, that ‘the sun’ here refers to Islam and ‘the West’, places like America.

In the end, what is hoped to be achieved is a better understanding of where sections of the Ummah stand in places like America. Our individual and collective failings. And lessons to be drawn and to be applied to local problems, no matter where in the world we are. And for those of us who still have any glimmer of hope left, a starting point to build a list of things-to-do with our short, transitory lives. In the interests of maintaining a little balance, I’m going to start a series in the near future on some of the positive aspects of US Muslim societies insha’Allah.

The Milieu

You’ve heard it before. But let’s just go over the basics once again. US Muslims fall broadly into two groups: those whose history stretches waaaaay back – Turtle Islanders, Caucasians who came in from Europe and elsewhere and African-Americans and other groups – and those whose history is more recent – economic migrants from all over the world, from Japan to Argentina.

In the first category, African-American Muslims, who have had historic struggles with slave trade and destitution stretching continuously to the very present, I’d say have played the most prominent role in US history.

As for the second category, we find that America represents the grass that’s greener for huge swathes of underprivileged Muslim people (way better off than those who’ve migrated to Europe, as Tariq Ramadan confirms). While it’s true that for many, from an economic perspective it represents a step-up from their present circumstances, I think the tendency is to paint it all in one giant brush-stroke, dark green. Very dark green. Heaven on earth, in short. Nuance is lost. And what surprises me is that this tendency sticks long after that fateful migration has taken place. Muslims who’ve immigrated to erstwhile Turtle Island, will desist taking a critical appraisal of their environment, the many pressures and pressure-valves it presents and their own role, as khalifas, in helping shape its future for their own betterment and of those around them. You could argue that some of these traits spill over into Muslims of the first category too.

America poses several challenges for healthy living. And not just for Muslims. But as khalifas you’d expect to see some kind of effort being put into doing something about it by Muslims. And it really is saddening to see that like Muslims elsewhere in the world, US Muslims are lost grappling with themselves, let alone showing their neighbors what to do. With rare exceptions, it’s all pretty much go-with-the-flow.

For starters, let’s just focus on the economic system. Ruthless and unfair capitalism guarantees a workaholic life. If you don’t put in your 110% and do extra hours, there’s a good chance that someone else will. And because greed drives everything, despite namesake laws that exist to dissuade employers from this unscrupulous behavior, there’s a good chance that you’d get fired to be eventually replaced by a new workhorse. If it’s in your taqdeer to get a severance package, you might be able to weather the ensuing storm until you find new employment. Those who don’t, find the pink slip treatment a lot harder to bear. There’s that 30-year hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars-worth mortgage to pay off. For that’s what owning a home costs in Umricaland. And then there’s the 2-3-year tens-of-thousands-of-dollars-worth car loan (reliable public transport in the US is virtually non-existent except for pockets here and there. The automobile corporations made sure of that). Unpaid credit card bills. Four kinds of income taxes to deal with depending on where one lives. Day-care. College. Healthcare insurance premiums (sorry, ain’t no such thing as free public healthcare here). Food & utility bills that run into the hundreds. Crippling costs of living in short.

Workaholism demolishes not just the individual but family life as well. The individual finds no time for developing a complete personality. No time for books. No time for exercise. No time to pursue a hobby like art. No time to dwell on current affairs and peer behind 30 second soundbites on news channels. No time to learn history. No time to do justice to his part in the decisions his political shepherds make. And so on. As for the family, BOTH spouses will feel obliged to work to make ends meet. While they’re at it, neglected children will develop a deeper attachment with their daycare providers rather than their parents. Until ultimately by the age of 16, most will want to live away from parents. They call this “emancipation“, you see. Ironically, Kaplan Medical’s book chapter1, Social Life in the US (a must read for anyone interested in US social life) states that it has been statistically found that spouses find more happiness when they’ve sent their children away. I guess they’ve used an odd definition of happiness. Or could it be that the threat their kids will report them to child protection services for doing their job, finally at last ceases to loom over their heads? Or could this just be a reflection of how depressingly standards and expectations about kids change with successive generations? Allahualam.

For new migrants coming from societies where kids form an important social support mechanism for the elderly, this comes as a profound culture shock and something to come to terms with as their children are influenced by social pressures in public schools. These social pressures also include things like fornication, STDs, teen pregnancy, drugs, guns, crime, gambling, boozing, you name it. One obscure but shocking statistic from this article is that nearly HALF of all Muslim college students have at one point or another taken to alcohol. Such a shame! This kind of decay really gets in their faces when the more God-fearing US Muslims look for spouses. Under these circumstances, I find it no surprise that many families prefer to find for their kids spouses from their lands of ethnic origin.

Discontent, abandoned parents ultimately end up in nursing homes at the fag end of their lives.  Some, foreseeing the inevitable, try to plan and make arrangements in advance with their riba-riddled retirement saving plans. Richer ones will find suitable nursing homes that go with their status. Like glass houses. Sparkly. Fragile. Sometimes when you pass by these edifices, with their glowing lights and chandeliers, you wonder what a hollow life it all is. The lengths people will go to to keep up appearances, while remaining moth-eaten inside. Sadly, meeting with parents and family become once-a-year events during occasions like Christmas or the more fake, Thanksgiving (more on its history later for there’s nothing really to give thanks about. Quite the contrary in fact). An occasional phone call or two between siblings and family members the only tenuous threads that remain. People who come from backgrounds that place a strong emphasis on keeping in touch with extended family gradually begin to change their conception of what is normal. From a transitory phase of unease and inner conflict it becomes natural and EXPECTED to meet with close relatives rarely. Anything more than a visit or two in a couple of years becomes just too much to ask. What’s really quite depressing is that a LOT of US Muslims have acquiesced and mentally come to peace with this lifestyle. Failing to understand that some of its origins could have to do with what some authors have called a low-context culture, that deprecates close interpersonal relationships.

While the national average for the failure of marriages is that half if not more are likely to end in divorce, Muslims aren’t far behind with percentages ranging in the 30s. Result? Soaring depression rates and broken lives continually yearning to fulfill some or the other unmet need – physical, economic or psychological – until the day they depart this life, hopefully naturally. And like the rest of America, Muslims swim in debt and interest. For as long as they live, there’s no real mental peace.

From an economic standpoint, it’s not as if Muslims don’t have a choice. They do, to a significant degree. When everybody else happily accepts debt and riba to pursue unsustainable goals in life that have faaaar reaching consequences, the pressures to stay in the game and compete are pretty high. It’s a question of one’s social standing, you see. A question of impressing upon fellow men the image of conformist sanity. There’s a lot of groupthink inertia to deal with. The IMAGE is what everyone’s after. And breaking with the flow becomes a momentous task. It becomes hard to say NO to that large, half-a-million dollar house. To say NO to that gas-guzzling, expensive, first-hand car. To say NO to that extra bonus for the nights spent away from family. To say NO to more unnecessary work life. And so on. It’s all about the FASHION of living beyond one’s means in the end – from an economic as well as social perspective. There’s frankly little surprise in my mind about the fractures that come for free along with this deceptive and costly product that everyone falls for. I mean, isn’t it obvious what to expect?!

Riba and debt are a topic for a future post, insha’Allah. The US social fabric EXPECTS you to have a history with debt. They call this a “credit history“. And with it comes a FICO score. Without it, sometimes landlords will refuse to offer homes for rent. Car dealers will refuse to sell their merchandise and so on. And debt and interest form the bedrock by which new currency is produced. So it isn’t that simple to eliminate in toto.

What brings profound dismay, is that far from being conscious of these issues, confronting them, proposing solutions and implementing them in their daily lives, Muslims in the US seem to have been swept away by the tidal force of this hedonism. Continuously reacting in maladaptive ways and seeing no way out, clamoring to conform as best as possible whilst their shuyookh and ulema, the appointed social engineers of Muslim societies to whom this task has been relegated in the most irresponsible spirit imaginable, chill out with other priorities.

Tisk tisk. Is there any real hope left?



1. Behavioral Science Lecture Notes for the USMLE Step 1 & Step 2CK – Kaplan Medical


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