By Su’ad Abdul Khabeer
Department of Anthropology, Princeton University
Critical Self-Definition is the most significant challenge facing American Muslim communities today. This challenge is the product of an all too popular conversation on “Muslim pathologies” i.e. a “culture of terrorism” created by institutions and individuals who benefit materially from demonizing Muslims. Unfortunately, under the pressure of this pervasive discourse many American Muslims have let this external narrative determine how they see themselves and what their communities’ priorities should be.
Thus, the challenge before us is to reclaim our sense of who we are from those who believe the benefits of being American belong to only a chosen few. When Muslims engage in Critical Self-Definition we act in the world according to our own terms, rather than compelled by external threats of violence and marginality. What are these terms?
They are principles and values rooted in the Islamic intellectual tradition and the lessons we learn from the everyday work of being Muslim. Yet this process of definition on our own terms must be critical. It demands that we are serious about what it means to do the messy and difficult work of introspection. This means that Muslim communities must be open about our shortcomings, bound not by a fear of “airing dirty laundry” but by a deep commitment to eradicate social ills in our communities such as racism, misogyny, and elitism.
It also demands that rather than accept the “culture of terror” wholesale, we must critically examine the claims being made against us and stay alert to the way this narrative reinforces structural inequalities which bar not only American Muslims, but other historically excluded communities of Americans from engagement in all sectors our society. This type of consciousness allows Muslim communities, even while under the harsh glare of the spotlight, to resume the work of being human because at its root Critical Self-Definition is the refusal to relinquish our humanity.
This refusal to be anything less than fully human means the challenge of Critical Self-Definition is productive and as a result becomes one of American Muslim communities’ greatest opportunities. Being fully human creates the possibility for creation and innovation, the room to take risks, to stumble and to try again, to work with passion and conviction toward the ultimate goal of humans everywhere: true emancipation.
Su’ad Abdul Khabeer is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University.