Theme Park Segregation: The problem with “Muslim-only” days

Playing it safe?

Recently, news broke in the United Kingdom of a “Muslim-only” day being organized by a local Muslim community at an amusement park. I’m relieved that it turns out that the hysterical reports have been, as so much news concerning Islam (e.g., the Miami 7) is, exaggerated to conveniently dovetail with the bigoted stereotypes and political agendas of Islamophobes, but the issue raised by these reports remains relevant and worth exploring. The idea of a Muslim community renting out a venue and then seeking to exclude non-Muslims from it in order to maintain some imagined atmosphere of purity is not all that farfetched and is in keeping with the thinking one encounters in some Muslim circles. So, at the risk of beating a straw man, let’s pretend for the sake of conversation that this was truly a Muslims-only event.

Given how fashionable it is today to seize on every manifestation among Muslims of natural and inevitable ethnic and cultural differences as signs of religious extremism or subversive isolationism, it should noted there is no reason to treat this case that way, as it seems rooted in worthwhile concerns about accommodating legitimate Muslim needs and preferences that often get neglected in the public square. It’s also very important that we not feed into all the hysteria and hype by making a mountain out of a molehill and treating what is a mundane social event as some kind of ideological statement. Recreational venues are rented out exclusively all the time by families, religious groups, companies and political organizations. Muslims communities shouldn’t be expected to be an exception to this trend.

It is equally important to note the very different social context for Muslims in the UK from the USA (which recently had its own Six Flags Muslim Adventure Day). While I still consider such an approach mistaken in the USA, it is less of infinitely less concern here due to the far more successful integration of Muslims into American life (as The Economist insightfully noted recently, “the United States has a substantial Muslim population which on the whole seems pretty comfortable there, and has produced some of the world’s best Islamic thinkers.”) than in Europe. Today’s American social and political landscape is certainly not free of prejudice, discrimination and exclusion against Muslims, but by and large American Muslims are not struggling against the terrible demons, internal as well as external, as their British (and French and Danish) counterparts. Consequently, the risk of separatism resulting from such occurences on American soil is minute by comparison.

Having said all that and being fully conscious of how understandable the decision is, I still feel a policy of artificially sealing Muslims off at such an event is counterproductive and shortsighted, even if the policy is an informal or partial one (e.g., by limiting ticket sales to a mosque). I find it is objectionable on numerous grounds.

First some general observations lest I be taken for one of these nativists who extol a narrow, Procrustean vision of integration and unity that are increasingly prominent in the debates of our day.

I don’t mind a bit of “balkanization” or, a la Arthur Schlesinger’s famous diatribe against multiculturalism, some “disuniting” in American life. Some kinds of “unity” are actually a cover for the tyranny of the majority and, thus, need to be challenged for all to enjoy their due freedoms. I am not a fan of the unity of the goose step. So I think some mild balkanization quite natural and indeed inevitable in any complex and dynamic modern society. In my case, as a white American who does not speak Spanish and who with the exception of a brief business trip years ago to Guatemala City has never set foot in Latin America, I shouldn’t be surprised if my Latino neighbors differ from me culturally in significant ways. Those differences make them no less American, and if I find their differences threatening, that’s ultimately my problem rather than theirs.

Whatever values of social unity we may formally espouse, when it comes to the great social dividers of race, class, religion and language, the proverbial birds of a feather continue to flock together in Western societies. Sure, the old lines dividing communities are a little fuzzy and sometime even porous,partly because once firm identities (especially religious affiliations) are often so lukewarm and muddled in our postmodern age. The bottom line remains that most people still stick to “their own kind” in their private lives. Whites tend to hang out with Whites, Blacks with Blacks, Christians with Christians, professionals with other professionals, and so on.

Despite the incredible diversity of modern America㡠lace where the world’s geopolitical Hayfield’s & McCoys can find themselves neighbors and coworkersгͯt people do not interact on a regular basis with members of other races or religions. Thus, most people today Ӭ̥arnbout others not through personal interactions but by consuming popular culture, especially television and films. (Incidentally, as a result of this dynamic, Hollywood�politically correct, feel-good portrayal of American race relations arguably increases race problems by convincing many WhiteA mericans that America is far more integrated than it really is and that racism is a thing of the past. Such a rosy view is refuted by the daily experiences of many other Americans.)

So I don’t tend to fret about national unity I see Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria, Jews hanging out with fellow “members of the tribe”, Asian coworkers of various origins (east, southeast, south) instinctively socializing together at the office, etc. etc. This is human nature. So long as this practice does not result in injustice to others, there is nothing wrong with choosing to spend one�time with people who happen to share more of your interests by virtue of their similar background.

This is a convoluted way of saying that I see nothing wrong with Muslims organizing events that cater to their needs and where they can, if you’ll forgive the un-Islamic expression, collectively let their hair down. I understand and support the idea of creating an environment where Muslim families can relax and interact, knowing that legitimate needs will be accommodated (e.g., facilities for public prayer, halal food being available) but I do not accept the premise that one needs to surgically remove any non-Muslims from one’s vicinity for this to be possible. I see lurking in this assumption a host of the unhealthy cultural hangups masquerading as religious needs. This yearning for communal purdah is not only entirely unnecessary, but quite harmful in the long run for Western Muslims.

Let’s look at the arguments and their problems:

Privacy for Muslim Women. Irrelevant, as women who hijab and otherwise dress modestly do so for all ghair-mahram men regardless of religion. No matter how you interpret the requirements on dress, they don’t change depending on the religion of the onlooker.

Halal food. Totally unrelated, and pork products can be removed from the menu that day (and without infringing on non-Muslims’ rights; see comments below on alcohol and cheese burgers below)

Prayer. Equally irrelevant to the presence of non-Muslims. All that is required is the proper facilities being dedicated for such use throughout the day.

Social pressure against praying in public. This can admittedly be a real issue for Muslims going about their business in Western societies, but it seems an unlikely problem if it’s officially “Muslim Day” and if the place is crawling with Muslims. (If anything, this would make for dynamite dawah to the few non-Muslims adventurous enough to attend amid a sea of thobes and shalwa khameezes.)

The presence of alcohol. This is the one potential problem I see, but even it doesn’t require such a draconian measure, either. It’s just a question of removing the alcohol from the menu that day. The solution is to remove the alcohol, not those who might want to drink it. If you can have a Muslims-only day, you can certainly have an an alcohol-free day (something that would appeal to some non-Muslims, as well, btw).

Personally, I don’t accept the notion that it is always haram for Muslims to be in the vicinity of non-Muslims consuming alcohol. (Is it haram for a Muslim to observe a Catholic Mass or attend a Jewish Seder, rituals which by definition involve alcohol?) Alcohol is haram for Muslims, but that doesn’t make all alcohol consumption by non-Muslims inherently corrupting debauchery. I think context (for both parties involved) is key.

Still, I don’t enjoy being around it and I can certainly understand how many would find the presence of alcohol in any form very uncomfortable (especially parents who quite understandably don’t want to expose their children to the sight of alcohol).

And, no, the drinking alcohol at an amusement park is not a civil right. That right is no more sacred than my right to eat a cheeseburger 㠷ich violates Jewish kosher laws, since it mixes meat with milkȳɮa Jewish deli. (Far from resenting that limitation on my dining options, I revel in it. It’s wonderful. Jews should have places where they can observe their religion’s dietary rules without interference from the majority.) A business is under no legal or moral obligation to serve alcohol.

Avoiding exposing families to inappropriate dress and behavior. As a father of a 3 month-old girl, I find myself increasingly able relate to those Muslims who – like many Christian and Jewish parents – must ceasely work to limit their children-Ӡexposure to behavior or dress that they consider indecent, but I think this approach while theoretically appealing is out of touch with reality in this case. Without getting into the impossibility of preventing children from witnessing things that one disapproves of㉭ reminded of the Buddhist tradition that the father of the the young Siddhartha futilely contrived to prevent him from coming to know the evils of human life through careful control of his environment. Inevitably, he eventually discovered the universal hardships being hiding (aging, suffering and death) when he took a walk outside the city gates without his handlers. This approach rests on the assumption that such vices are unknown among Muslims, which anyone whoͭӠbeen to the ISNA bazaar lately knows is a rather optimistic view. Unless one is ready to mandate burkas and thobes for all, artificially separating Muslims from others doesn�solve that problem.

A far wiser approach, in my estimation, is to grudgingly accept as inevitable some uncomfortable moments and be ready to transform them into opportunities to teach one�children about Islam and Islamic values. I would also contend that the long term benefits for children of interacting with different kinds of people at an early age in safe, controlled environments far outweigh any likely negative affects. Keeping our children sealed in a bubble is not the answer. Better to constructively shape their exposure to other ways of living and thinking while they are young rather than allow them to discover it all on their own when they are older and out of our control.

Creating a social space where Muslims feel safe post-9/11. Some Muslims feel, quite understandably, unsafe in today’s climate of rampant Islamophobia, but the solution to this is to organize and support one another, not to exclude others arbitrarily. There’s safety in numbers, and declared “Muslim Day” at an amusement park is guarateed a whole lot of Muslims without artificially gerrymandering the attendence.

There are numerous weighty arguments against having a Muslim-only day. Here are a few:

It’s chum in the water for Islamophobes. This sends a message to fellow citizens that Muslims reject those around them. Of course, that is not what’s really happening (at least for most people involved), but that’s the end result politically today. Especially given how unusual such an arrangement is today.

It encourages dysfunctional attitudes in the community. This reinforces the message peddled by reactionaries and pehndus (Urdu: “redneck”) that it is haram for Muslims to participate in the social and civic life in the West.

It isolates Muslim women. Let’s face it: A major if not the driving force behind these kinds of arrangements is sexist neo-Victorian attitudes among some Muslims that treat Muslim women by a completely different standard from Muslim men. These attitudes are religiously unjustified and rooted in a perception of society that no longer exists just about anywhere (whether in the West or in the Muslim world).

If innocent day-to-day social interactions between Muslim boys and non-Muslim girls don’t pose a dire threat to the Ummah’s survival, neither do those of Muslim girls with non-Muslim boys. And if we’re not talking about boys or girls – if we’re talking about adults – then mind your own business.

Most Muslim women do not live any kind of purdah from the world around them, but the minority that do are the ones most likely to be harmed by community events that implicitly validate dysfunctional and utopian norms which discourage women from developing the practical and social skills required to function in modern society.

Community events need to be structured in such a way that they respect Muslim needs and legitimate preferences without catering to illegitimate ones or compounding existing social problems. Leaders need to draw a line between the understandable concerns of privacy and modesty on the part of rank and file Muslims – some of whom are recent arrivals who are still acclimating to Western life – and harmful cultural practices wrongfully being passed off as “Islamic” values. Most importantly, a minority must not be allowed to impose its hangups on the rest of us.

Svend White is an IT consultant and Muslim activist in Washington, DC. His blog is at http://akramsrazor.typepad.com


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