Where is my Islam? The identity crisis of 21st century Muslims

My most treasured childhood memories are colored by beauty associated with what Islam was in the society that I was born in and raised.

One vivid memory of this childhood involves regularly sitting on the edge of my father’s prayer mat, made from goat-skin that became supple over years of usage in nomadic hamlets in central Somalia.

I can still feel the texture and smell of the hide, though my father passed on over 30 years ago. My father and his three brothers were Koranic teachers in central Somalia, traveling from hamlet to hamlet, teaching children, mostly boys, to memorize the Koran, and often returning with goats that were given them as payment for their labor. In addition to teaching, which carried great prestige for both teachers and disciples, these men of religion performed marriages, tended to the sick and performed burial rituals.

The Islam that shaped my childhood also included my mother who could neither read nor write Arabic, who memorized few verses of the Koran, and whose daily life was consumed with the financial and emotional needs of her family. My mother’s work in a meat market in central Somalia required extremely long hours, with prayer rituals a luxury that she and many of her female co-workers could never afford. But this lack of “practice” was devoid of shame, nor was there any articulated distinction between a Muslim and a practicing Muslim.

A young Nigerian arrives with his prayer mat to pray at the Isa Kazaure praying ground in Jos on July 17
A young Nigerian arrives with his prayer mat to pray at the Isa Kazaure praying ground in Jos on July 17

Life in Somalia, until my teens in the 1980s, defied this dichotomy, with Muslim identity being part and parcel of being a Somali, regardless of adherence to any particular ritual.

Evolving nightmare

Over two decades later, I feel fortunate to be able to hang on to those memories, but saddened that my American-born children will come of age with an Islam that is tangled with terrorism.

Until very recently, I jolted every time I heard the word “Islamic” and “terrorism” lumped so intimately. While new extremist discourses gained prominence following the 9/11 attacks against the United States and the disastrous American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, this discourse now overshadows the Islam of my childhood.

An evolving nightmare for the world in general and Muslims in particular, from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Al Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the newest extremist group of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) now dictate our lens towards Muslims and Islam.

Muslims are the primary victims of these groups’ wrath, all of us numb spectators of the daily slaughtering of innocent civilians. Just over the last three weeks, we saw Boko Haram’s massacre of over 50 people in Nigeria, ISIS’ beheading of Khaled al-Asaad, an 82-year-old Syrian scholar, the bombing of hotels by Al Shabaab in Mogadishu with dozens of victims, as well as bombing of busses, an airport and other public sites by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Alien dogma

Though the groups executing these atrocities represent an extreme in their readings of Islam, a less brutal but still potent literal interpretation of Islam is also spreading around the world. This trend translates to the demise of varying contextualized flavors of a dynamic Islam that accommodated differences in culture and history.

Islam as an organic text that adapted to the socio-economic and environmental needs of particular peoples (Somali nomadic women’s earlier dress choices adapted for the need to work, build huts, load camels with newborn goats, children, the elderly, for example) is now replaced by prescriptive Islamic interpretation that is policed by individuals and at times militant groups.

The non-dogmatic reading of Islam that I grew up with, religion as an identifier of who people are and not what they do per se, is now under assault (i.e. the destruction of Sufi and Shia shrines with the intention to erase centuries of social, cultural and historical worldviews).

Islam in the majority of the Muslim world, through new technologies and charity with petrodollars, is increasingly defined in rigid terms. The yardstick used by Al Qaeda, ISIS, Al Shabaab and Boko Haram, not only towards women but also towards religious minorities, politics and history is informed by an uncompromising dogma that is alien to most of us who were born in Muslim-majority societies.

Reclaiming Islam

My sense of whirling like a dervish in making sense of the schizophrenic identity crisis of Muslims everywhere at this beginning of the 21st century is due to the current condition of the Muslim world.

Saying that a dismal number of Muslims engage in terrorism does little to change the enduring damage inflicted on Islam and Muslims everywhere. This brutal minority has become the de facto defining feature of the Islamic world, not only driving European and American political and military interventions in the Muslim world, but also anchoring the rhetoric of dictatorial leaders in all Muslim-majority countries. The fight against “Islamic” movements is not only on the agenda on America’s War on Terror, but that of Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Tunisia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

My fear and the fear of many Muslims around the world is that Islam’s standing is severely damaged and the Islam of our childhood might as well belong to another era. Confusion, shame and victimhood might define the future memories of Muslim children, with the binary of “Islamist militants” and “moderate Muslims” permanently tainting both groups for generations to come.

It will require a revolutionary Muslim introspection to reclaim Islam for future generations. Such introspection would not only reject and mobilize against extremists’ fossilized and doomed version of Islam but also against Western-backed brutal dictatorial regimes in the Islamic world that use the war on terror to terrorize their own citizens as well as Western neo-imperial policies and projects.

Cawo Abdi is author of Elusive Jannah: The Somali Diaspora and a Borderless Muslim Identity. Abdi is associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and a research associate in sociology at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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