Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem
Modern day Tribalism within the American Muslim community
by Tanim Taher
I am writing this article based on my ‘experiences with’ and ‘observations of’ the Muslim community in the US over the past eight years. It is not based on any one specific event with any specific person or group of persons, but rather is a summary of my collective experience over the years. If anyone feels that I wrote this because of him or her, then that is a completely incorrect conclusion.
Also, the objective of this article is not meant to complain, criticize, vent steam, demean any group, or anything negative like that at all. The sole objective is to identify and acknowledge that there is a problem of tribalism within the modern day American Muslim community; and once we realize this is a big issue – then through this article, I intend to shed some light on some possible solutions.
Throughout this article, I use terms like Arab, Desi, African American, ABCD, ABCA, FoB just to communicate clearly and emphasize how much tribalism has seeped through deep into the core of our mental lenses and our everyday conversations. These labels that I will use – I understand that some of them are indeed disrespectful. However, my intent is not disrespect; nor do I intend any hurt or insult by using such terms. Furthermore, the acronyms are used for the sake of brevity in an effort to keep the reader awake – as opposed to putting him/her to sleep if I were to say each time “a Muslim person who was born and grew up in the US” or “a Muslim person who grew up outside the US and came here later on”. So no hurt intended via the labels.
Finally, I do not want the reader to think from this description that tribalism is widespread in the US. It may or may not be, but that is really besides the point of the article. Rather, I want the reader to analyze his or her own behavior, thoughts, sayings and actions in an effort to rectify them and avoid any personal tribal tendencies.
The Oft-used verse from the Quran:
Muslims in the US like to say that we are united. We proclaim that we don’t have any divisions. We like to take pride in our wide diversity in the US and claim that we are brothers and sisters regardless of our ethnicities, skin color and social background. The unfortunate truth is, there are so many divisions amongst us – Arab, Desi, ABCA, ABCD, FoB, Revert, African American, etc, etc.
Allah says in the Quran – “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).” [Surah Hujurat (49), verse 13]
Funny thing is we use this verse a lot, and we quote it all the time to show how Islam is race-blind. And yet we Muslims really do not understand the meaning of this verse. If anything, our behavior is in reality the polar opposite of what this verse tells us about.
The most common types of Neo-Tribalism in the US Muslim community:
One huge division – Arab (middle-eastern Muslims) vs Desis (Muslims from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh). There are Arab masjids and desi masjids where 80 or 90% of the mosque community are from one background. And to sustain this division, the lectures and khutbahs are all given in that specific language, whereas English could have been used easily to overcome this.
Then there are the all pervasive stereotypes: Arabs may think that Desis do bidah (innovated) religious practices, and Desis are so concerned about how Arabs can eat non-zabihah meat and own so many liquor stores. The problem is that people tend to generalize a few cases and expand this to the entire community of the “other” people. After the stereotype and divisions have been set in the group psyche, people have feelings of superiority complex or inferiority complex on account of this. This leads to dislike, which invariably leads to division. This is the structure of neo-tribalism in the US – Muslims belonging to the Arab tribe and Muslims belonging to the Desi tribe.
This racial tribalism (Arab vs Desi) is still at a relatively high level. But then there are more picky types of tribalism. For example, Hyderabadi Desis will stick with Hyderabadis, Bangali desis won’t like Pakistani desis, and vice versa; Lebanese Arabs won’t mix with Palestinian Arabs, etc, etc. Especially when it comes to marriage, parents will force their child to marry a person not only from the same country (read as larger tribe) but also from the smaller specific tribe – like Memons marrying Memons, etc.
There are a couple of things that has made this Desi vs Arab tribal division as big as it is today. I already mentioned the single community mosques and the meatatarian zabiha vs halal divisions. Then there are famous Muslim comedians, but all their jokes are about stereotyping – like how a desi uncle talks, or an Arab person with a car trying to “bark” his car. The problem with comedy is that it makes serious matters non-serious, and makes unacceptable divisive stereotyping acceptable in society by labeling it as “harmless fun”. Stereotyping sustains tribal divisions, and Arab and Desi jokes sustain this stereotyping business.
Now let me move on to the second biggest type of neo-tribalism – ABCD or ABCA vs FoB crowd. ABCD stands for “American born confused desi”; ABCA stands for “American born confused Arab” and FoB for “Fresh of boat”. The first 2 acronyms refer to “a Muslim person who was born and grew up in the US” and the last acronym refers to “a Muslim person who grew up outside the US and came here later on”. As you can see, each of these 3 acronyms are disrespectful on their own.
The ABCD vs FoB tribal division has all to do about superiority and inferiority complexes. I am biased in my opinion with regards to this, so chances are my next claim will not be very objective. So I apologize beforehand. The claim: this tribalism is caused because an ABCD person may have a slight superiority complex over an FoB, thinking that – “this person is from overseas and hence is beneath me. So I’m not going to talk to this person.”
This is the most baffling kind of tribal division to me. I simply fail to make heads or tails of why this even exists. Both an ABCD and FoB person are exactly the same, well almost exactly – they have the same skin color, eat same foods, from same race, same Islamic faith, they understand the same languages – albeit, with a difference in the accents with which those languages are spoken. Despite this, the neo-tribal division in this set extends to near despising in a few rare cases.
Recently a Muslim ABCD girl ran away, but she seemed to have staged this as a kidnapping. People talked and talked and talked about this sad story. Some people actually supported her actions and put all the blame for this drama on the husband! Why? The only reason was he was FoB. In their eyes, the husband being a FoB was a bigger crime than the offences committed by the ABCD girl (which were wastage of hundreds of thousands of tax dollars spent searching for her, heartache by her parents, siblings and the Muslim community who were worried sick, putting the lives of the volunteers in harms’ way as they searched for her in freezing weather within the deep forest, etc.).
How has this tribal division between ABCDs/ABCAs and FoBs cemented itself within the US Muslim community? Again, comedies/parodies/jokes and the like. The other day, I was watching a youtube video with the title “Stuff hijaabis say”. To be fair, this video was hilarious; but it was interesting to see how much dislike and superiority complex that the video displayed towards FoBs. This was obvious from the tone of saying “Why are all these FoBs friending me?” To be fair, the sister was joking; but again, why would this not-funny joke be acceptable and actually seem funny had not tribalism become firmly rooted in our Muslim psyche? The other reason for the spread of this form of tribalism is that people get rebuked by their peers for hanging out with the “other” crowd. Their peers might say, “Hey bro, why you hanging out with those FoBs/ABCDs?”
The other major type of tribal division is age related or a generational division - the tribe of Uncles and the tribe of the Youth. You go to any party, and you see the youth living in a world of their own upstairs or in the basement, and the elders in the living room. It’s as if the house exists in two parallel universes with the youth in one and the elders in another. There is so little communication between the youth and the elders, and most of it is non-constructive. The youth say, the elders have no clue about our problems. While the elders say, this young generation is lost and is losing its Islam. The youth disrespect the elders so much these days, and the uncles and aunties feel that they have to speak in an alien language to reach across to the youth.
If we go back to the example of our righteous predecessors and examine the lives of the Sahaba, we see that there was no divide between the youth and the elderly. Prophet Muhammad (saws) made Usama Ibn Zaid (rad) lead an army which had much elder sahaba in its ranks. Aisha (rad) was one of the best teachers after the death of the Prophet and yet she was young compared to some of her students. The elder Sahaba respected the younger ones. And the younger ones loved and respected their elders and communicated with them well.
I left out class divisions and tribalism based on social status. That’s a genre on its own and would fill up another ten pages. I also did not talk about the tribal issues which African American revert Muslims or any convert has to face. They are unnecessary here as we have already gone through a long list of tribal tensions to establish the fact that neo-tribalism is ripe among American Muslims. And we have seen that tribalism is really tearing apart the unity and social cohesion amongst us. Such that a simple issue like moon-sighting is exacerbated by our tribal divisions, and we have forgotten to celebrate Eid together and in happiness. May Allah help us!
How are we supposed to interpret that verse:
The root of the tribalism problem is, that we stick to these labels (Desi, Arab, ABCD, FoB) that we identify ourselves with. And we build walls based on our like for a certain label to box ourselves in. And we build barriers standing on the foundations of stereotypes and differences that we assign to people with “other” labels. We love to build a fortress of identity for ourselves and a castle of stereotypes for the others, and we love to push each other away.
For me, how do I personally understand these tribal labels and titles? I do not box myself with any of the two labels which could be applied to me (Desi and FoB). Neither do I use the identity labels of the other people I meet to separate themselves from me. However, I do use their identity labels for ice-breaking.
For example, if I meet an Arab brother, I ask him if he has eaten in this awesome shawarma and kabab place. If I meet a desi uncle, I ask him about politics in their countries – like how is Mr 10% doing in Pakistan? When meeting a new American born Muslim – I’ll say some comments about football or basketball (not baseball though, I hate baseball); with a young kid – I’ll use his “young kid” label to indicate to me that I might be able to get a conversation going by talking about the Mario Kart Nintendo DS game or something like that. If the label "the Arab/Desi who just came to US" applies to a new person, I can ask, “how are you adjusting to the Chicago cold?" With an American revert, (in general, this works for any American too) – the de-facto icebreaker is “weather talk”. In summary, I use the labels to quickly zero in on a topic for ice-breaking. Once that is accomplished, the other person feels that despite the differences in our “labels” I am a normal person just like him, and then we can get to “Know each other and not despise each other”.
“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other).”
So in my limited understanding of the Quran, I think that Allah advises us in verse 13 of Surah Hujurat to use the labels of our identities and tribes as ice-breakers so that we are able to get a conversation going, and we are able to then know each other. You can use the “nations and tribes” labels as cues for breaking the ice, to start a conversation, to build a bond of brotherhood or sisterhood. The verse tells us not to misuse the labels to make a mental fortress within us and feel superior or inferior and despise the fellow Muslim.
“Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).”
Feeling superior or inferior is not what we should be doing, as it is only Allah who knows which of us are superior or are inferior, and this has nothing to do with our race and tribal labels. But this has everything to do with how we love and obey Allah and his prophet, like when the Prophet said in khutbatul wadah (the last sermon): “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.”
So what is the cure for this Tribalism?
What’s the solution? I hate to be like the people I see who always complain and complain, but when it comes to trying to fix the source of their complaints, they are gone. Thus far I’ve complained about all that I saw as wrong within the Muslim community in the US with regards to modern day tribalism; so now I’ll talk about what can be done to remedy the situation.
First, never use the labels like ABCD or FoB, Arab or Desi, to describe a group of people. Use the difference indicators and titles ONLY as ice-breakers as they are meant to be according to the interpretation of the Quranic verse. And keep these labels INSIDE YOUR MIND and NEVER IN YOUR TONGUE.
Inter-racial marriages are effective in breaking down barriers. For example, Rasul (s) married the daughter of Jewish tribal chief to end the division; and he married women from different tribes to cement tribes together, etc. The modern day equivalent of this would be for more Desis to marry Arabs, Arabs marrying Desis, for Bangalis to marry Pakistanis, Pakistanis marrying Hyderabadis, and more marriages between ABCDs and FoBs. That is to break down the strong US Muslim neo-tribal barriers with the strongest bond, which is the marital bond.
Next, we Muslims should not focus on trivial things like “where did the meat come from”. Or whether to use calculation or sighting for the moon.
We also need to stop generalizing things about the other community. Please realize that every community has good and bad people – do not use the bad examples to paint everyone else in that community with the same brush. Surely as a Desi, you wouldn’t want someone to do a similar broad brush painting and call you “ahle Bidah”? So if you don’t want others to do something to you, then don’t do it to others.
If you are a part of a Muslim group or circle, like in a MSA, take extra effort to have people from diverse backgrounds – Arab, desi, ABCD, FoB. This will force you to interact with Muslims from all backgrounds with whom you wouldn’t have normally talked with before. This will broaden your horizons inshallah, open your mind, and break down any tribal hostilities that you may have been feeling.
Next: Stop criticizing, Start appreciating. If you don’t like something about someone say, I appreciate this and this and this about you, but I think you could change this one thing.
But perhaps the most important thing is: Humility, humility, humility. When I feel better than this other person and am proud of myself and I start getting carried away with my ego, I remind myself this verse: Awalam yaral insaanu anna khalaqnahu min nutfatin fa idha huwa khaseemum mubeen. “Does man not consider that We created him from a [mere] sperm-drop - then at once he is a clear adversary?” [Yaseen, verse 77]
It does not matter if you are as strong a man as Hercules, or as beautiful a woman as Helen of Troy, or as smart a man as Einstein, or as smart a woman as Marie Curie, you were created from the same dirty despicable drop of semen. The same kind of drop - from which the poor homeless man in rags was also created. It does not matter what language you speak, what accent – whether you call parking ‘Barking’ or are proud of your American accent, your origin is still from a dirty drop. If you can really understand this, then you can never be proud. You will be humble towards your Lord and towards His creation.
Final advice is if you identify yourself with a group, then talk to them about this issue. People are less willing to change their behavior based on my advice to avoid tribalism as an outsider, but they’ll listen to someone who belongs within their own group. Tell all people to stop this neo tribalism non-sense. Explain to them the meaning of the verse from Surah Hujurat, that Allah created tribes for us to know each other. That is to get cues for ice-breaking and starting conversations.
Shall I make a khutbah out of this long article? From my experience, people dislike to be told why they shouldn’t dislike a people whom they have disliked and stereotyped their entire lives! So one khutbah won’t work, may be a series of khutbahs is in order. Or perhaps this written piece will inshallah start off a discussion and encourage people to talk more about tribalism in the US. Inshallah, I hope all of us feel encouraged after reading this to throw out tribalism and to rectify ourselves personally.
Whatever good comes from this post is from Allah alone and any mistakes therein are mine.