When I tell people about the activism work I do, many people wonder if I'm a Muslim, and when I tell them I'm not, they're either confused or intrigued. Sometimes both. They wonder what it is that makes me want to be an advocate for Muslims even though I don't practice Islam. My work seeks to educate Americans about Islam and I'm affiliated with several American Muslim organizations. My activism involves film-based dialogues, training, speaking, blogging and managing a number of national programs that seek to shatter prejudices and myths about Muslims and Islam, and restore a greater sense of civility in the otherwise controversial and polarized topic of Islam in America.
This work is immensely satisfying on a personal level as I encounter people all the time that want to learn, to open their mind and to engage on this issue. When I'm able to share an insight, or a resource to help them see things in a different way, or in a different perspective, I feel grateful for being called into this line of work.
While I wouldn't define my work as "Muslim activism," it is often interpreted by Muslims that I work with along these lines. The umbrella of Muslim activism is broad. Some see it as education, others see it as service, or social justice, and many see Muslim activism as a form of da'wah (a calling to Islam).
Da'wah is one of those concepts that is so broad that its meaning is highly subjective for most Muslims. It's not a part of the five pillars, and is defined, practiced and understood in any infinite number of ways. Even though da'wah is most commonly translated as making an invitation to Islam, most Muslims that I know see da'wah simply as the example that a Muslim should set in public, at the workplace, and in the larger society. Da'wah is, in short, being the best Muslim that you can be for others. It is well established that Muslims do not see any compulsion in religion, and most Muslims do not see or enact da'wah as proselytizing at all times.
It's less well known that in the first 300 years of Islam, there were no forced conversions. Muslims have always been very certain not to make their conversionary activity overt or forced. This is especially true for the Sahaba, the close companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Despite this history of a tolerant and pluralist relation with people of the book (Jews and Christians) and even jahiliyya Arabs (pre-Islamic tribes and polytheists), many Muslims in today's world have developed a very narrow conception of da'wah, and many Islamist movements have sought to focus da'wah on overt proselytizing.
The United States is a country founded on religious freedom, and out-and-out proselytizing happens on a daily basis. We've all experienced the Mormon missionary, or the Seventh-day Adventist at the front door handing out their pamphlets. Da'wah, as a calling of people to Islam is a vital part of any mosque in America, and it is rarely, if ever, done in these sorts of overt manners. Most da'wah in American mosques consists of outreach projects that include interfaith dialogue and relations, community service and other social service initiatives. The vast majority of American Muslim communities do not adopt any supremacist ideology that supports non-relations with kufr (those that reject Islam, or nonbelievers).
On the contrary, the challenge of defining or expanding ones sense of da'wah is more ambiguous than this, and it goes beyond what any theological modifications might do. What is at the heart of any effort to overtly convert someone to your religion is a desire to gain a sense of recognition from the other. The recognition goes to satisfy and fill over a perceived sense of inadequacy of one's own identity. Many Muslims in America today face a sense of inadequacy from the larger culture, a phenomenon that goes along with the struggle of being an "out-group" in America.
If the other converts to Islam, it not only goes to fill over this lack, it also validates something about the person's identity deep down and reaffirms a wounded self. American Muslims under this mindset face a sort of double consciousness, what W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as a form of consciousness that embodies absolute self-certainty and no certainty simultaneously. Interestingly, Du Bois used the metaphor of the veil when describing the manifestations of double consciousness. For Du Bois, and the entire generation of blacks of his time, "life behind the veil" led to a feeling that, "God had made him an outcast and a stranger in his own house." Many American Muslims work through identity challenges that come with inhabiting a hybrid identity, which is made acute because it is in the context of the persisting myth that any coexistence between "Muslim" and "American" identities are somehow impossible, and that the two identities remain dissonant, or difficult to fit together at best.
In the afterward to the "Souls of Black Folk," Du Bois argues that we must lift the veil of double consciousness by imagining a new America, where the black can come to see themselves as a "better and truer self" and white Americans might one day see blacks as if they were looking into a mirror. This inability to actually see the other in their full humanity was the root of the cause of double consciousness for Du Bois. For Du Bois, to change this system, what he called the color line, we must assimilate the differences to render the particular identities respectable to one another. Is this not what our relations should be right now between Muslims and the larger society?
When we work on activism that seeks to repair the image of Islam for the betterment of the world, we must broaden the terms of inclusion. We must also be very careful to separate any overt or covert attempts to proselytize and leave that at the door. To truly cultivate better understanding between Muslims and others in America today, we have to be exceedingly humble and very careful. Noble efforts backfire quite frequently. Interjecting into this fragile process of learning a proselytizing form of activism is not only counter productive, it is offensive and will do more harm than good. There are any number of ways to develop a validation for one's identity, and as someone who is not a Muslim, but works for the cause of improving Islam's image and educating people about Islam, I can assure you that I am proof of this.
One of the unintended results of my activism is that it has made me feel more rooted and adjusted to my own religion of Christianity. Perhaps it has something to do with being around my Muslim friends and colleagues who are rooted in tradition and practice and who bring a spiritual routine that has made me long for bringing back this sense of religiosity to my own life?
Whatever it is, working with Muslims has grounded me more in my own faith tradition. This alone, I would hope, is proof that we can indeed expand our understanding both of what "Muslim activism" is and perhaps even what da'wah is.