Friday, May 8, 2015

Some Observations about Cultural Appropriation in the name of "Islam"

Some Observations about Cultural Appropriation in the name of "Islam"

by Sean Jobst

May 8, 2015

The following are some observations and comments I made on a video entitled "Native American Islam before Columbus?," a lecture by the American Muslim scholar Shaykh Umar Faruq Abdullah: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDpksYeQ7Xs . My reasons for publicly commenting in this manner are given below, so it should not be misconstrued in any way other than what I intend - whether as a criticism of the Shaykh (which it most certainly is not) or a comment on theological or spiritual issues (which is not expressed in this article).

On the contrary, my issue is with a broader trend that I have witnessed among many Muslims. I am secure enough in my faith that many efforts of apologetics "rub" me the wrong way, certainly being flimsy and sloppy efforts to "prove" faith (an approach I see as inherently weak and materialistic) or otherwise reaches into history and other cultures, and projects one's own values onto something that should not be "owned" that personally. I foremost admire this same Shaykh who has openly said that "Islam is not culturally predatory," and expressed how accommodating Islam as a faith has been to various cultures.

Although of direct (recent immigrant) European descent, I'm very sympathetic to the Indigenous struggles on Turtle Island. Aside from historical preservation work (coinciding with journalism) here in Alabama with local Mvskoke (Creek) mounds, it also included an eye-opening two weeks on the Pine Ridge reservation which shook so much about how I see life on this continent and foremost how non-Indigenous, Wasicu' society treats Indigenous culture and people physically or psychologically.

With due respect to Shaykh Umar Faruq, I see this lecture as indicative of a growing trend I have witnessed among many Muslims which reeks of the very same type of cultural appropriation of Indigenous history, culture, traditions and spirituality as exhibited by certain other groups. My sense of historical honesty, love for truth and foremost sincere respect for Indigenous cultures compel me to speak out against this lecture and address some of my problems with it.

Certain white supremacists and black supremacists have long gone to great lengths to "prove" their own people native to this continent, while this trend of certain Muslim apologists does the same with the only difference being its a religious-based superiority rather than racial - and mention should also be made of the absurd efforts by "Ancient Alien" theorists who seem to love attributing every single stone, mound and other building or spiritual concept of Indigenous people to "aliens".

The underlying assumption of each one of these theories, no matter what pseudo-historian or "archaeologist" is peddling in them or for what agenda, is a racist assumption that is inherently paternalistic, as it looks at Indigenous people and traditions not on their own merit, but assumes their achievements "must" have come as the result of being taught and influenced by people from outside these shores. That the variety peddled in this by many Muslims might seem innocent and possibly come from a well-intentioned apologetic, does not absolve even this effort of any indictment despite being couched in "Islam" by its proponents and peddlers.
 
As for the substance of the lecture itself, he starts by noting the highly-accurate maps made by many medieval Muslim scientists which purport to show the coast of what is now Brazil. I don't dispute the maps, personally seeing with my own eyes the map of Piri Reis in Turkey, for example. Hypothetical trips along the peripheral coasts of what later became known as the "Americas," is not the same as influencing Indigenous nations like he seems to be implying.
 
@1:24: The statement of some "Cherokee Muslims" is not definitive proof or necessarily credible. First, as anyone who has grown up in the South and neighboring areas can attest, many people claim a Cherokee heritage often without any proof. I have experienced first-hand in the presence of authentic Indigenous people, how hurtful and angering these phony "Indians" can be. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of them because it comes from a lack of identity and a subconscious colonial effort to be "American".
 
Second, the Cherokees as one of the so-called "Civilized Tribes," were a people who became very assimilated and lost much of their original culture in the process. This is certainly compared to the Indigenous nations in the Plains, for example. Finally, the unnamed source Shaykh Umar uses is not an automatic expert in Cherokee traditions even if he is truly of Cherokee ancestry.
 
@1:36: "His grandmother was from the wolf tribe of the Cherokees, which is the shaman tribe."
 
Here, he makes at least two common errors expressed by many non-Indigenous people when they assume they know about Indigenous cultures. First of all, the Cherokee are themselves a "tribe", so it is an oxymoron to say "Wolf Tribe of the Cherokee." Now, there IS a Wolf Clan or Aniwaya - a clan within a "tribe", but not a separate "tribe". Perhaps I'm nitpicking here, but its a must to know the actual structure of an Indigenous society without throwing around such terms as "tribe" - a term that is itself problematic, but that's another topic.
 
Second, there is NO shaman among the Indigenous people of Turtle Island and just because its constantly repeated by countless historians, "archaeologists" and academics of wasicu' society does not negate the inherent appropriation in that term. The reality is that the term "Shaman" relates to the people native to Siberia and surrounding regions in Central Asia. It is not applicable to the native people of this continent, because that is confusing very different spiritual and ethnic concepts that must be seen in their respective contexts.
 
@2:14: Contrary to what he implies, the turban is NOT native to the Cherokees or any other indigenous people. The actual story behind how the turban became common among certain segments of the Cherokee actually begins in 17th century England and not this continent. Some Cherokees accompanied a group of Englishmen back to England. The Englishmen decided the Cherokee were not "properly" dressed to meet with the King, so they instantly decided to dress them in turbans and robes that had been brought by some English from India.
 
@2:55: The conquistadors did not "discover mosques everywhere they went in America." Despite his brutality and naked thirst for power, Cortes was an intellectual - itself an interesting insight into the complexities of human behavior. He was known in his various letters and writings of using poetic devices; in the passage Shaykh Umar cites, Cortes only uses the description of "mosque" once and then proceeds to use other descriptions - indicative of his tendency to poetry.
 
@3:25: "If you had Native American rugs here you would think they're from Afghanistan." This is a very broad-sweeping generalization, that is meaningless because there is no single one "Native American" style of rugs. There are distinct cultures with different styles of art. Even with my own limited knowledge, merely by visits to museums, I have seen the differences of such rug-weaving between different Indigenous cultures.
 
@3:32: What does Muslims "coming here long before the Europeans" have anything to do with the matter? There are theories that even before that time, the Phoenicians and Vikings came to these shores, etc.. The point is, these are theories just like all the theories of Muslims coming to these shores "before the Europeans." And even if they did, does he imply that somehow there weren't already developed Indigenous cultures and traditions in Turtle Island?

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