Recently NPR interviewed a rapper and activists challenging the stereotypes of an American Muslim. Brother Ali, a practicing Muslim, draws attention to the suffering felt by many Americans in his new album, Mourning in America, Dreaming in Color. On the provocative album cover, Ali kneels in prayer on an American flag.
He explained to NPR: “It was meant to be a literal depiction of the album title,” he says. “That the things that we believe about our country — freedom, justice, equality, life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, all people being equal — that these things are on the ground, these things are suffering, and so I am kneeling and praying for it. The meaning behind kneeling in this reverent way and praying is only a problem if [people] have believed this lie that somehow being a Muslim and being an American are mutually exclusive.”
Brother Ali’s bold visual representations of American identity reminded me of other Muslim Americans pushing mainstream assumptions about Muslim American identity specifically and American identity more generally: Taqwacores.
As I’ve written about at Religion Compass, Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel and the community that inspired and was inspired by it also use artistic expression to bring life to a “punk Islam.” As Knight begins his novel, he explains the ethos behind the creativity and adaptability of his “punk” Islam: “punk is like a flag; an open symbol, it only means what people believe it means. …Islam is itself a flag, an open symbol representing not things, but ideas. You cannot hold Punk or Islam in your hands. So what could they mean besides what you want them to?” (Berkeley: Soft Skull Press, 7)
Together, the Taqwacores and Brother Ali illustrate the variety of Muslim American identities, especially those who do not feel represented in mainstream Muslim-American organizations, by “ordinary” Muslims like those on the now canceled TLC show All American Muslim, or by the glitzy stars of Bravo’s Shahs of Sunset.