Thursday, March 01, 2007

Linguistic accommodation

It's rather curious that the central pillar of the Prophetic legacy is communication, yet Muslims invest the fewest funds in finding and training qualified spokespersons. We have many eloquent speakers in our communities, but when it comes to deciding who will sweat in the spotlight, we end up picking people who have a very poor grasp of grammar and more importantly local dialect – BUT of course, they take from the Qur'an and Sunnah — so it doesn't matter how inept they are at taking sacred truths and making them contemporary realities. It's very frustrating to hear people say "And God did not beget a son!" Who really speaks Old English anyways? And furthermore, while I have no desire to limit Muslim immigrants from the podium, I think accents have a big effect on how people perceive Muslims and the Islamic tradition, especially if audience members are more concerned with parsing each word to figure out what it means than with what the overall message is and how it relates to them.

I've found a lot Muslims who when speaking to non-Muslim audiences just drop scholar's names and terms such as sunnah (prophetic tradition) and tafseer (Qur'anic commentary) without any forethought as to how these terms will effect the audience in its perception of the message. And this shouldn't be limited to non-Muslim audiences. Even during a kutbah (Friday Prayer homily), when non-Muslims have been in attendance, there is still no real thought to how we can tailor this message so that it revives hard hearts, yet captures many more that have no real experience with the Islamic tradition or Muslims.

Not only does our lack of accommodation alienate people because Islam looks inaccessible to them with the language barriers, but also alien because common values are not named and thus unable to enter the discussion. This limits Muslim space in many public forums because we don't allow people of other faiths the ability to see that our spiritual tradition speaks to their concerns. Only when we begin to transcend myopic visions of what we as Muslims are comfortable with and begin to concern ourselves with makes members of the dominant culture more comfortable with our tradition and our place in this society, will we make strides in making Islam not only organically "American," but a tradition where all (immigrants, converts, indigenous Muslims) will have a place to shapes its further development. And making others feel comfortable is not appeasement or dilution, it is the pure and simple sensitivity that we want to be shown ourselves, especially when our sisters need to be accommodated at the local swimming pool or our brothers need to attend Friday Prayer.

This is important because as one female convert, who is also the MSA spokeswoman, said this evening in a presentation, "I can speak to those from without, but not from within" the Muslim community and thus tradition because no one will really take her ideas seriously. They just see her as another white convert who should heed Arabic speakers with training in engineering and not in the Islamic tradition and also as someone to proverbially pat on the back after she creates a press release or speaks to the local media. I hope she sees herself as someone who can and should be actively engaged in shaping the American Islamic tradition because if not, those that have the greatest grasp of what it means to be an American will have little do with carving a viable existence in this country for the next generation and generations to come to build on.

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