Community leader Ilyas Ba-Yunus: In praise of “Uncle Phil” and his generation

Leaving something behind for us

In an episode of the 1990s hit sitcom Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the show’s star, actor Will Smith, was once again jibing his Uncle Phil. The remark elicited the usual laughs from the audience. But in this particular program, Will’s grandmother was visiting. “Respect your elders, son,” she warned her teenage grandson.

That’s a message many in my generation of Muslims, born and/or raised in North America, desperately need to hear. I was reminded of this when I learned of the death of Muslim Students’ Association pioneer Ilyas Ba-Yunus last week.

For those unfamiliar with the basic theme of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the story goes like this: actor Will Smith plays Will, a high school student from Philadelphia sent by his mother to live with his Aunt Vivian and Uncle Phil in Bel-Air, California. This so that he can escape a life of violence and attend a good private boys’ school. Fresh Prince focused on Will’s adventures on a weekly basis, with much of the program’s humor coming from Will’s exploits at his high school and jabs at his Uncle Phil.

Many Muslims born and/or raised on this continent have, like Will, a long history of disparaging their own “Uncle Phils”, especially if their parents are immigrants themselves, and minimizing their contribution to Islam and the Muslim community here. The disdain is often expressed by mimicking the accents of our “uncles and aunties” at social functions, youth programs, online, on YouTube or onstage during Muslim comedy shows. You can even find it on the first Muslim sitcom in the Western hemisphere, Little Mosque on the Prairie, in the characters of Pakistani immigrant Babar and Lebanese immigrant Yassir, who both come across as bumbling idiots a la Homer Simpson.

Ironically, this mockery comes from a generation of Muslims who mostly attended public schools where making fun of a person’s race, ethnicity or religion is considered off limits. More disturbingly, it is coming from a group of Muslims who have directly benefited from the resources and institutions set up by their immigrant parents, ranging from mosques to full-time and weekend Islamic schools, as well as youth camps and centers.

Turning to the late Dr. Ba-Yunus, who came to the United States as a student in the early 1960s, we can credit him and a small core of immigrant Muslim students with setting up this continent’s first organization for Muslim students. If you, like me, have ever benefited from an orientation session, lecture, Islam Awareness Week exhibit or even helped organize these types of activities, thank Dr. Ba-Yunus and his contemporaries, those “uncles” whose accents we love mimicking.

My question to myself and many in my generation of North American Muslims, we twenty- and thirty-somethings with our accent-free English, our professional degrees, our MP3 players, McMansions, minivans, and mochas from Starbucks is: what have we done for Islam lately? Compared to people like Ilyas Ba-Yunus, Islam is merely a scratch on the surface of our comfortable lives.

While we may have established barely a handful of viable organizations that are doing good things for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, for the most part, we are better at ranting and griping about the problems in our Masjids and in our community instead of resolving them or developing alternatives (kind of like I’m doing in this piece).

There is no question that there are major deficiencies in what can be termed “immigrant Islam” in North America: the exclusion of and/or discrimination against women and barriers to their participation in mosques and community life; the marginalization of youth; racism and a strong ethnocentrism. These are just some examples. While not all immigrant Muslims are guilty of these ills (nor are North American Muslims necessarily less guilty of them), they tend to be found in more abundance amongst communities with a heavy Muslim immigrant population.

Nonetheless, using the older generation’s idiosyncrasies as fodder for humor smacks of arrogance and an utter lack of respect unbecoming of any Muslim. As the Prophet advised: “He is not one of us who shows no mercy to younger ones and does not acknowledge the honor due to our elders” [At-Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud].

Like Will’s consistent put-downs of Uncle Phil in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it is callous the way we North American Muslims make fun of our immigrant Muslim parents, the generation that helped us get to where we are today and who started institutions which, Alhamdu lillah, are still in place today.

We will not resolve the ongoing tensions between young and old by letting off steam through such mockery, acting like thirty-year-olds going on thirteen. It’s time to end the disrespect and grow up. Let’s go and hug the Uncle Phil closest to us today, before we lose more of our immigrant Muslim pioneers like Ilyas Ba-Yunus.

Samana Siddiqui is a Chicago-based freelance writer.


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