On Saturday, right before the fajr dawn prayer, and after a series of text messages, I decided to attend, "The Muslim Protagonist," a writer's day-long symposium sponsored by the Columbia Muslim Student Association. There is something to be said for spontaneity and the blessings of fajr.
"America," Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, author of "Green Deen," and one of the speakers at the symposium said, "is a nation of immigrants, audacity and ideas." I think very often, as a Muslim student in American academia, whether I believe that claim. Are Americans audacious? Is the diversity we so boldly claim to be such champions of, ours to claim? What many of the speakers alluded to was the lack of presence of the Muslim protagonist, but also to the common occurrence of the Muslim antagonist. Of course this, in itself, is a testament to a lack of diversity, but there is another. I think that the community of Muslim artists, a good deal of it, is not very different from the rest of the American public.
American history, like the history of many countries in the world, has undergone dramatic changes, and even if we all agree that our changes have been the most dramatic, or that we have undergone the most change over such a short period of time, at any cross-section of time, is there really much diversity? I extend this question to the community of Muslim artists -- are we just a different version of the typical democratic left-wing artistic American? Or is there something really audacious about the majority of Muslim artists?
The first panel, on speaking truth to power, reinforced the idea that artists are the real forces of change, the revolutionaries, and the most difficult problem for dictators. A wonderful truth. a truth which was brought up in the context of the Arab Spring. As an Arab, and an aspiring writer, I can really appreciate that. But we tend to forget that if the other side of the world is suffering from dictators in the flesh, we suffer from dictators of thought, and what we've taken for granted as "progressivism."
On the same panel, we were told that artists don't have to chose, that they ought not just submit to be compartmentalized, but that they can become as many people as they want, and pursue any and everything they desire. It was advice to the audience not to submit to pursuing a career in what Wajahat Ali, playwright and attorney, called the Holy Trinity for Muslims (medicine, engineering, and law), but to venture into the arts as well. But the majority of the Muslim community that identifies as conservative is not persuaded by this advice, though they could do well to submit to it. But also, it is important that members of the Muslim community who identify as liberal not classify the more conservative members as "the other," and simply revive a different version of Orientalism, Islamophobia and stereotyping of Muslims often attributed to the "West." This, I would argue, would be the saddest testament to a lack of audacity, acceptance and diversity.
I could not remain for the entire symposium, but I have nothing but a great deal of gratitude for those who put it together. It has inspired me and given me energy, but it also has left me very introspective about the state of the Muslim community in America. Will we be a force to be reckoned with? One that speaks truth to power? Or will we merely speak to defy an authority and submit to another which suits our taste? Are we really striving to be a special group which promotes positive change, or just submitting to the "progressivism" of the age?