Not too long ago, I had dinner with a Muslim religious leader who works primarily in the suburban parts of where I grew up in the "Gateway Region" of northeastern New Jersey. His traditional education is unquestionable and his knowledge expands into a number of other fields, yet his obliviousness to some important matters in local and foreign history and politics, coupled with a false confidence borrowed from his expertise outside of these fields, was wholly disappointing. During our after-dinner conversation, he was adamant in his assertion that it had been Rachid al-Ghannouchi, intellectual leader of the Tunisian Muslim democrats, who followed the ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali as President of the Republic of Tunisia, and not Moncef Marzouki. In spite of my conversation partner's adamance, Ghannouchi, founder and president of the Ennahda, Renaissance, Islamic democratic political party, was never the president of Tunisia, and was vocal in both his refusal to run and in his criticism of the Egyptian Freedom and Justice Party, aligned with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, for nominating a presidential candidate, in the 2012 Egyptian presidential elections.
Even more disappointing, and hitting much closer to home, was his denial that a specific neighborhood in downtown Jersey City now populated by numerous South Asian restaurants and businesses, had historically been a Puerto Rican neighborhood. It was an erasure that denied the histories and contributions of a people that included my own parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, who in the 1950s and 1960s populated many of the old apartment buildings and brownstones that still stand today.
This ignorance of the stories and struggles of certain non-white communities, those descendants of the survivors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the genocides and ethnocides of indigenous peoples who do not fall under the label of "model minority," remains prevalent. A glaring example of this is to be found in a 2016 article by Eboo Patel, which speaks of a class divide that pits privileged Princeton liberals of color protesting racism against working-class whites embodied by the cab-driver who took him from the "Brick City" of Newark to the quaint university town of Princeton.
An excerpt on his conversation with Mickey the white working-class cab driver (click to enlarge):
And yet, had Mr. Patel decided to take the cab before or behind the one fate led him to choose, he more likely than not would have been faced with a working-class black or Latino-American driver, much like my own uncles and cousins and father for a period of time, people that Mr. Patel seems even more unacquainted with than working-class whites. These are a people who often worked in factories like Mickey, or in shipyards like those of the Bethlehem Steel and Shipbuilding Company that employed many of my own relatives for 30-plus years, that also closed up and moved away. The problems faced by these other groups of working-class Americans in terms of job loss, family life, health and mortality rates, etc., are further aggravated by an attitude of white supremacy that still pervades much of white working-class consciousness, best exemplified in the 1848 speech by South Carolina politician and Vice President under John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) and Andrew Jackson (1829-1832), John C. Calhoun (1782-1850):
"With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and the poor, but white and black, and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals, if honest and industrious, and hence have a position and pride of character of which neither poverty nor misfortune can deprive them."
A version of what follows was written several years ago. The names of people and places have been removed out of respect for those involved who have passed on and in the hopes that those now in positions of leadership will work towards positive change without feeling shamed in any way.
The Bigoted Imam:
I have attended ****** numerous times between the years 2003-2009. It is an institution, like other institutions, composed of individuals, some who are right for the job and some who are not. This letter is regarding the Imam of ******, a man who, in my estimation, is not worthy of being a leader over even one person.
Here is a man who has said that "Spanish" people are lazy, all the while surrounded by Mexican immigrants working on new construction for the Islamic center of which he serves as Imam. Here is a man of Levantine/shāmī descent (from the area comprised of Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria) who said that North African Arabs (Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans, etc.) were fornicators and adulterers, and that black and Latino men should not be trusted when marrying Arab women, while Middle Eastern men seeking US citizenship were encouraged to marry black and Latina women, hiding information about other wives in their home countries, divorcing the American women of color after becoming citizens, and obtaining sole custody of whatever children were had without any censure. These are the words and practices of an ignorant man.
The Imam needs to be reminded of a few facts regarding the place he now calls home. America has had to suffer a long time with the problems of racism. The Imam himself, in his physical appearance, clearly displays what in Spanish is referred to as mestizaje, mixed racial ancestry, specifically of sub-Saharan African ancestry. If he is ignorant of these facts regarding his adopted country and regarding himself, the burden is on him and those around him to make himself aware, especially since he is in a position of leadership in the Muslim community of ******.