When I first heard that the American Muslim hip-hop group Native Deen had a new album out this winter, I wanted to buy it right away. Native Deen’s earlier album, The Deen You Know, was played more-or-less non-stop in my car for months, at the request of my young sons who loved to rock out to the title track (“deen” means religion in Arabic). At the December Eid al-Adha celebration in Washington D.C., I brought my sons over to buy the new CD, Not Afraid to Stand Alone, from none other than Joshua Salaam — one of the three members of Native Deen, who also happens to be the youth director at the ADAMS Center, my own mosque. My sons shyly handed over the money, thrilled to see a “celebrity” they admire face to face.
For American Muslims who are integrated into American culture but who want to give their children a distinctly Muslim identity, Native Deen offers a seemingly perfect product. The hip hop is not cutting edge, but the production values are high, the lyrics are relevant and even funny, and the message is all about fearing God, doing right, and proudly bearing the label “Muslim” (though very conservative Muslims might find Native Deen too assimilated and the use of music itself religiously questionable). So if there is a musical face of mainstream American Islam, one that is polished and popular enough for non-Muslims to notice, it is surely Native Deen. They have little competition for this mantle.
In many ways the album is full of treats for a hip-hop appreciating American Muslim. It has many excellent songs, including one or two that simply set repeated prayers to a contagious beat, putting an ultramodern spin on the age-old Muslim tradition of dhikr, or constant prayer. And songs like “Labbayk,” about making the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, are just fast and fun (”And you ain’t done nothin’ til you done Zamzam!”) Even the old Muslim standard “Tala’al Badru,” the song that followers allegedly sang when the Prophet Mohammed finally arrived in the city of Medina, gets a fresh new beat.
But three songs, including the title track, are frankly troubling. All three present American Muslims as beaten down by some inexplicable prejudice, hounded by an unjust government and a malicious media. The refrain of the title track — “I am not afraid to stand alone when Allah is by my side” — reflects the spirit of the album, which is that American Muslims have to be their own cheerleaders because they are religiously persecuted in this country. These themes of victimhood are a departure from Native Deen’s earlier album, which was far less political. Could it be that as American public opinion hardens against Muslims that American Muslims, in spite of being “middle class and mostly mainstream,” are hardening in their own way?
The title track, “Not Afraid to Stand Alone,” tells the story of a single mother who coverts to Islam (in the music video, she’s represented as a white American) and begins wearing a headscarf. Struggling to raise her two children, she goes back to school and is about to say yes to a corporate “dream job” that was close by and well-paid. But when she goes for the final interview:
They brought her in, said she’s the number one pick,
“You got the job, but you gotta lose the outfit.”
The woman responds:
It’s a tough position that they put me in
Cause I’ve been struggling with my two children
But I’ll continue looking for a job again
My faith in my religion now will never bend
It’s a clear-cut case of workplace discrimination. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate on the basis of religion. Religious dress is usually protected under this law, unless it somehow interferes with health or safety. Muslim women who encounter discrimination like that described above are advised to reason with employers, and failing that, file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There are many cases in which employers have been forced to backtrack on their anti-hijab stand.
So my question to Native Deen is, “Why emphasize the victimhood angle here?” For one thing, Muslim advocacy organizations like CAIR (which Joshua Salaam himself used to work for) are constantly trying to educate American Muslims about their rights. Simply from an education standpoint, then, this song and video send the wrong message, which is that if you are discriminated against because of your religion at work, you have only two options: compromise or find a different job. The take-away is, indeed, if you are an American Muslim, you will have to “stand alone,” because no one will defend you.
In fact, this message runs exactly counter to very thing that many American Muslims most appreciate about the US – the freedom and legal protection to practice their religion. In one of the album’s “interludes,” in which prominent American Muslims praise Native Deen and their message, activist Rami Nashishibi reminds Muslim listeners that they stand alongside the Muslim “ummah,” or community, around the world, “a billion strong.”
But if that sense of solidarity and global awareness were really that strong, Native Deen might think again about spreading the message that American Muslim women have it bad. Headscarf-wearing women in Turkey are not even allowed to enter government-run universities. Compare that to state universities in the U.S. where Muslim students organize and often have college-owned facilities in which to pray. On the flip side, as in Iran or Saudi Arabia, women are legally compelled to cover — a government mandate Native Deen and their mainstream audience would probably dislike. Both of these situations are far more compelling and important and in need of attention that routine workplace discrimination for which American Muslims have clear avenues of legal redress.
“Like 23 agents lookin at me”
If the title track irks me, it is a later song, “Still Strong” that I actually try to skip over when my children are listening, in an attempt to shield them from its wrong-headedness.
The song’s story starts out with an American Muslim guy enjoying a lazy Sunday morning with his wife and kids, “minding my biz,” when suddenly a loud knocking comes at the door:
I open the door, and what do I see
Its like 23 agents looking at me
They threw the cuffs on my hands and my face to the floor
Dragged away, my family crying at the front door
Here we have a completely innocent Muslim man, ripped from his home by a gang of rude federal agents. You can guess what happens next:
And they was asking me that and asking me this
Accusing me of being on somebody’s terrorist list
I had to resist, I want a lawyer ’s all I would say
But they said that they would torture me all night and all day
And so I would pray for God to give me strength to get through
If the evidence I knew, I would prove it untrue
Osama Bin who? They want to say I support him
If I don’t give in, I’ll never see my family again
Threats of torture, forced confessions, deprivation of legal counsel, unlimited detention. Sounds pretty dramatic. Of course that description resonates with stories out of Guantanamo, and even some of the conditions encountered by unfairly treated American Muslims like now-exonerated Muslim Army Chaplain James Yee — these serious human rights abuses have come to light, and justice needs to be done.
But are these gross violations really so common that the average Muslim can expect to be dragged from his house by “23 agents” and threatened with torture? I find that extremely unlikely.
Sure, a number of American Muslims have been tried and convicted in spite of protests from the Muslim community. In Northern Virginia, which Native Deen calls home, for example, Ali al-Timimi, a Muslim scholar and local leader, was convicted in 2005 of inciting terrorism and sentenced to life in prison. The local Muslim community protested an “overzealous investigation,” in which al-Timimi was convicted only for what he said in lectures, rather than any actual terrorism organizing.
Okay, there may have been freedom of speech issues here, but let’s make one thing clear: Al-Timimi is not the kind of guy you want to line up behind. Shortly after September 11th, witnesses reported, he called on others to fight “violent jihad” against American military targets (though Al-Timimi has since made multiple statements condemning terrorism). Even Mahdi Bray, executive director of the MAS Freedom Foundation, a Muslim advocacy organization, called Timimi’s statements “repugnant and inflammatory.” He was hardly a guy just “minding his biz.”
Reinforcing the “US=Crusaders” mentality
When this “Still Strong” song appears in the context of the Native Deen album, which otherwise mostly focuses on real-life issues facing Muslim teens especially (such as a song warning against downloading porn and sneaking out of your house at night to party), it reinforces the idea to American Muslims that they face immediate and real threats to their life and well-being from the federal government. And sadly, this idea needs no reinforcing. Around the world, Muslims are convinced that the US government is out to get them, on a “crusade” against the very essence of their faith.
I recall a telling moment in 2003, while living in Muscat, Oman, when I visited a small local museum while wearing a headscarf, as I did regularly at the time. The woman who took my ticket was surprised to meet an American Muslim and asked me what conditions were like, post-9/11, for Muslims in the US, especially those who wore headscarves. “It’s not too bad; actually it’s fine,” I said. The Omani woman, who had never been to the US, disagreed. “No, it is very bad.” Even my first-hand testimony could not dislodge the conviction the global Muslim perception that the United States is actively anti-Islam.
This is not to say that Native Deen now has to start working for the State Department (although they have), promoting the wonders of Islam in America to Muslims abroad. But at least they should not publish songs that reinforce the distorted perception that any American Muslim, at any time, is in danger of being “disappeared” by federal agents for no cause whatsoever. That simply feeds into the Muslim rhetoric that the Global War on Terror is actually a Christian crusade to eradicate Islam.
“Osama bin who?”
The final point on this song is about the line “Osama bin who?” Nowhere in the album is there any recognition that Americans might have a reason to be predisposed to dislike or fear Muslims. For an American Muslim to pretend like they’ve never even heard of Osama bin Laden — come on. Of all things, Muslims should be deeply concerned about Osama bin Laden. For one thing, al Qaeda has made it clear they have absolutely no problem with killing fellow Muslims. For another thing, nearly any problem American Muslims have in the US can be traced back to 9/11. Not that discrimination or hate crimes or bigotry should ever be justified or rationalized. It’s just that if your teacher punishes the whole class for the bad behavior of one student, should you be mad only at the teacher? How about having a word with your peer that provoked the situation?
The last song that bothers me is more personal, because, in “Be at the Top,” Native Deen takes on the media, of which I am a proud member. Okay, guys, be ready to take what you give. They ask in the first verse:
How come every time I go and I flip on the news channel
I see these images of Muslims having crude manners
Angry men, holding guns and a few camels
Terrorist pumping fists with their rude banners
Hmm, could it be that, in fact, there are lots of angry Muslims doing ridiculous things, often seeking out media attention? If Muslims are rioting the streets of Khartoum because an English teacher named a teddy bear Mohammad, well, that’s nobody’s fault by theirs. The song continues:
You get anxiety, from symbols of our piety
Cause they don’t show us Muslims who contribute to society
How come they don’t show us doing positive things
We get abused and harassed so many problems this brings
Whoa, did they just say “they don’t show us doing positive things”? The American media, particularly small-town newspapers, are absolutely filled with sympathetic Islam-101 stories. Indeed, some of this coverage has been so simplistic and affectionate that I have complained and asked journalists to be a little more probing in their reporting.
This assertion that the media never covers anything positive about Islam is all the more nonsensical and untrue coming from Native Deen, which has itself received oodles of positive press coverage. Check out their recent interview on CBS. Even Fox News covered them sympathetically. The Washington Post… the list goes on. Not only that, but Joshua Salaam is an active member of the ADAMS Center, which, as a relatively “progressive” mosque (though they probably wouldn’t use that word), gets lots of warm coverage, including a long article in Time Magazine about ADAMS Center leader Mohammad Magid, who works closely with the FBI to stamp out any signs of home-grown terrorism.
So what “media,” exactly, is Native Deen referring to when they rhyme: “It’s the media. Feeding lies to the people, can’t you see that bro?” This conspiracy-theory view of a monolithic media is absurd, and the members of Native Deen themselves clearly know better. If Muslims around the world make headlines for blowing one another up, or protesting cartoons, or killing their own daughters, well, maybe they should think about changing their own behavior — and leaving the messenger alone.
Borrowing advice meant for Mitt Romney
The point of all this criticism is not to say that everything is perfect for American Muslims in the US. As a chilling story on NPR’s This American Life recently related, some individual Muslims, even young children in school, face daily harassment on account of nothing more than their religious affiliation.
The question American Muslims have to answer is: How are they going to respond to this treatment? Because when you get right down to it, asking for fair treatment is really asking to be accepted into the mainstream of American life, asking for a country in which being Muslim is no more “weird” or threatening than being agnostic or Jewish or Catholic. But if it’s all about acceptance, then what’s the point of building up a bunker mentality, in which you accuse non-Muslims of maliciously attacking you?
Interestingly, Mormons–another somewhat unpopular religious minority in the US–have faced a similar issue. Through their history, Mormon believers have suffered very real persecution at the hands of the federal government and common citizens alike. On the eve of GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s December 2007 speech on religion, historian Wilfred McClay said, while speaking to a group of journalists, that although he doesn’t fault Romney for being angry about Mormon persecution or religious bigotry, it would be a mistake, politically, for Romney to play up this history of victimhood. Said McClay:
[Romney] can’t say, ‘Damn it, you have no right to be suspicious of me; [now] vote for me!’ I just don’t see how that is a workable approach.
American Muslims would do well to take this advice. If your goal is to live an unmolested life as an American, which means being accepted and welcomed by the bulk of Americans, then you probably want to think more about winning people over than lashing out at enemies, real or imagined.
This point of view does, thankfully, make a brief appearance on the album. Ingrid Mattson, the Canadian-born president of the largest Muslim group in North America (ISNA), says in her shout-out to album listeners, in one of the album’s interludes:
I want to remind all my brothers and sisters out there that I know it seems like times are tough, and there’s a lot of bad news, but at the same time, there are a lot of people out there who want to hear from us. They want to see that Muslims are their neighbors, are their friends, are good people. So hold your head up, keep that smile on your face that opens up hearts.
Andrea Useem, a longtime freelance journalist and creator of ReligionWriter.com, writes and produces content on religion and other topics for national news outlets. She lives in Northern Virginia with husband and three sons. This piece was originally published on ReligionWriter.com.