Duo seeks to complicate the narrative about Islam in America

by Jeff Sykes | @jeffreysykes

Two Greensboro residents have decided that the best way to combat the divisive rhetoric coming from the likes of Donald Trump and other right wing politicians is to host a community conversation in which Americans of the Muslim faith will answer your most basic question.

Do you take the hijab off in the shower?

Can you really have four wives? What’s the difference between a Sufi mystic and a Sunni cleric? When did Muslims first come to America?

These are just some of the questions that the sponsors of “Ask a Muslim Anything” expect to be answered during the first dialogue session scheduled for 7 p.m. on Jan. 5 at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro.

Bookstore co-owner Steve Mitchell, who also contributes book reviews for YES! Weekly, and Deonna Kelli Sayed, a southern girl from Florida who converted to Islam in 1996 while pursuing a master’s degree in geography at East Carolina University, hope that the series of three monthly sessions will counteract some of the ignorance and divisive rhetoric being spewed by so-called “leaders” on the American political right.

“I wanted to create an environment that isn’t a lecture, but more of a conversation and storytelling, where people can ask any question they wanted to about Islam, even if it sounds ridiculous,” Sayed said. “We’re going to have a way for people to ask anonymously. There’s so much misconception out there, and sometimes the best way is just to ask.”

That’s in line with the path that led Sayed to Islam and her eventual conversion to the faith, due in part to its intellectual and social justice components.

Sayed grew up a Southern Baptist in “Floribama”, a tri-state region near the borders of Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Her understanding of the Middle East was limited to those colorful maps in the back of the Bible, which she studied during church as a youth.

Sayed later attended the University of Toledo in the early 1990s. It was during this time that the first Gulf War broke out. As a seeker of truth, she was drawn to learn more about the region from Palestinian activist groups on campus. Most of those student activists were also Marxists, she said, but also staunch defenders of Islam.

“As I learned more about (Islam), I became attracted to the intellectual and spiritual side of the faith, which is not always apparent in the media narratives of Islam,” Sayed said. “I found in Islam that intellectualism is part of your worship. Growing up Southern Baptist, that was never the focus.”

Despite the fact that Islamic scholars saved much of the ancient world’s knowledge during the European Dark Ages, not to mention that the system of numbers we use in the west is derived from Arabic numerals, Islam is often depicted in the form of its worst and most violent extremists. Much of that is driven by a continued reaction to European hegemony over foreign lands in the past several centuries.

“Even among Muslims globally there is still a move toward fighting the legacy of colonialism, so there are multiple ways in which people identify with Islam,” Sayed said. “Unfortunately, some of that can be very harmful as we see with ISIS. But this (intellectual and social justice) tradition has always existed.”

While Islam is often defined in the media in terms of extremists from the Arab world and South Asia, Islam in America is dominated by African Americans and African immigrants. This also answers the question, “When did Muslims first come to America?” “Many slaves from Africa were Muslim, so there has always been a Muslim presence in the United States,” Sayed said. “That tradition, in some ways, is still practiced. Africa is a huge continent and there’s a lot of Muslims there. We tend to forget that and think that Muslims are just Arab or South Asian.”

The role of women in Islam is often marginalized as well, she said.

“I don’t know what that’s about at all because the women I know are activist and leaders in some capacity in their communities,” Sayed said. “They may not be leading prayers, but they are the ones getting everything else done. If you go to the mosque on 16th Street, it is women that are probably making everything happen behind the scenes. At a national level, Muslim women are incredibly involved in the national dialogue regarding all sorts of issues: civil rights, community issues, and raising awareness.”

Sayed believes the stereotype of the submissive, veiled Muslim woman is propagated by the media because it’s easily digestible by the middle class consumer.

“I don’t even know how to answer that because I know so many women who are on the national level on media all the time talking and advocating,” Sayed said when asked how to combat the stereotype. “I think all of these things are out there in the media, but the problem is that I think people can’t hear it because they are so ingrained with this certain idea of Islam so that when they do see a woman Muslim speaking eloquently in the media, it’s like an isolated incident to them and not the norm.

“The media is propagating one narrative of Islam that most Muslims don’t even recognize as their own story,” she said. “We don’t recognize it as our own story.”

Sayed’s personal story is rich with experience. After moving to New York City after graduate school she met an Afghani diplomat who was on the 1997 team that won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to ban landmines. The couple married and she lived in South Asia and then Bahrain before bringing five stepchildren and one son back to the states eight years ago so the children could settle in to school. Her husband remained overseas and now works as an international banker. The couple separated after four years of living apart.

Sayed’s son is 13 and attends Kiser Middle School. She often worries about how he will deal with being singled out for his brown skin and foreign-sounding last name.

“I think about him having to go out into the world where he does experience microagressions at school,” Sayed said. “It slides off him because he’s thick skinned, but it’s scary to suddenly find yourself as part of a community that people want to put in a database. It’s an America I never thought I would have to experience.”

Mitchell, the co-owner of Scuppernong Books on Elm Street in Greensboro, said the bookstore was conceived in part to be a space where complicated issues could be addressed. The business isn’t afraid to take controversy head on.

“We are surrounded by controversy in this store,” Mitchell said. “You can’t be an independent bookstore and step away from those things. Brian (Lampkin) and I talked before we opened the store, and continue to talk, about how we want to engage the community in things that are happening. We want this space to be a neutral space so you’re not going to a church or a mosque to do this, you’re coming into a mutual community space where people can come together. Books are about ideas and bookstores are about ideas. Hopefully they are the place where people come in contact with things they might not normally see or read or hear about. For us, that’s what a bookstore is.”

The “Ask a Muslim Anything” event is designed to be a conversation, not a lecture. The first event has two committed participants, both women active with the immigrant community via Faith Action International House. One participant is from Niger, the other a Pakistani-American, Sayed said. She intends to recruit a few more participants for the first event. Other events, scheduled for the first Tuesday of each month through March, will bring in Muslims from across the state to discuss their daily experience.

“Islam is always seen as a religion that inflicts pain, but not a faith that can be joyful and also help people heal,” Sayed said. “I want people to see that it can be a living, healthy way to be in the world.”

Mitchell related the story of a friend who met Sayed recently. The friend’s reaction to Sayed’s faith was “great, I didn’t know any Muslims before.” Mitchell said that because many people often don’t know Muslims on a personal level that it distorts the public perception of Islam.

“Everything that Islam says to us is what’s been fed to us in the media instead of a conversation with people about their own beliefs and their own ideas and their own faith,” Mitchell said. “In the end it’s about actual human beings that live in our community that have different cultural experiences that are just as valid and real and whole and supportive of our mutual humanity as anybody else’s.”

Sayed hopes that the discussions will “complicate the narrative” about Islam and add depth and meaning to people’s understanding of the faith. She hopes to show the complexity and diversity of the religion.

“Islam is not a monolith,” she said. “We may not agree on everything, just like any other faith, but we can come together and we pray side by side.” !