This opinion piece is by Hussein Rashid, PhD, founder of islamicate, a consultancy focusing on religious literacy.
President Trump is expected to appear Saturday at an interfaith service at Washington National Cathedral where Mohamed Magid of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society will offer the Muslim call to prayer.
Several outlets reported a controversy over Magid’s participation in this service. While there may be fellow Muslims who disagree with the decision to participate by Magid or any other faith leader, that should not serve as a distraction. The larger controversy over an imam’s inclusion of the event demonstrates a continued lack of understanding of Muslim spiritual life and acceptance of Muslims as inherently different than American.
The adhan, or call to prayer, is an important aspect of Muslim devotional life. It can be prayerful, but it is not part of a formal prayer. To suggest that Magid is praying, presumably for the success of Trump, is mistaken. When Magid calls out “I bear witness that there is no deity but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God,” there is no benediction for anyone. There is only the praise of the divine. By framing it simply as a prayer, someone who is unfamiliar with a quarter of the world’s population may think that despite Trump’s hateful rhetoric to his fellow Americans, they are ready to submit to him unconditionally.
What makes Magid’s participation controversial for many Americans is that he is Muslim with a religious leadership role and a congregation. Yet many other faith leaders are also at this event, and no one seems to see their presence as controversial.
The implication is that it is unsurprising that other religions would support racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia, while Muslims are considered more politically progressive. The other way to understand this is that many Americans expect non-Muslims to be fully human and capable of dealing with nuance and conflicting ideas, but they believe Muslims are not human enough to do so.
Only a few people have noted that at the inauguration itself, there were no visible Muslims on stage. And, when Muslims were mentioned, it was in the context of terrorism — not as citizens, not as fellow Americans and not, in the case of black Muslims, as the people upon whose backs this country was built. Franklin Graham, an inauguration speaker, has explicitly said in the past that Islam is not American, despite the Founding Fathers explicitly planning for a Muslim president.
Unfortunately, much reporting on Islam and Muslims has not grown more sophisticated or nuanced in the decades since they have been part of the American consciousness. When you read about Muslims, there is rarely a sense of a spiritual tradition or a rich artistic heritage for them. The Muslim faith of Rumi, one of the top-selling poets of America, is totally erased. The concept that Muslims pray, and praise Moses and Jesus, and share an ethic of service similar to Sikhs, is generally not understood.
Those who are tempted to frame the controversy around Magid as the most important concern for Muslims this weekend highlights how little understanding there is of what is at stake for Muslims and many other minority communities in America: the simple recognition of the fact that we are American, with the same inalienable rights as any other citizen. The framing of controversies surrounding U.S. Muslims often carry the attitude that Muslims are foreign and inherently not American.
When Kanye West was told he was not invited to perform at the inauguration because the organizers wanted something “traditionally American,” there were reports on it, but few prominent thinkers called out the implicit racist thinking in that construction of America, the same logic that is being applied to Muslims. Focusing on a supposed controversy surrounding Magid means we do not do the hard work of understanding what was actually presented at the inauguration itself.
Hussein Rashid is an adjunct professor of religion at Barnard College.