Muhammad Ali, Mohammed Atta, and Me

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]

“Can you float like a butterfly and sting like a bee?” This is what people used to ask me, a boy of five or six, when they heard my name. A child called Mohamed was still something of a rarity in Toronto of the 1970’s and 80’s. But everybody back then knew who the real Mohamed was, the great Muhammad Ali. And so the punches my name earned me were, at least most of the time, affectionate tributes to a namesake everybody loved. But this was a brief interlude in the long history of the reception of the name of the Prophet in the West, the most popular name in the world, as I had been taught to remind doubters. So common was it, in fact, that I couldn’t have been surprised to hear it again and again in late 2001, now with the surname Atta attached to it.

So in 2004, as I was traveling to Chicago for a job interview, I was pulled aside at the airport in Montreal and taken to a US immigration officer. “You have a very interesting name,” he told me. I had to agree, and I thanked him. He corrected himself, “You share your name with some very interesting people.” Again, I had to agree: my great-grandfather, as well as the millenarian leader of the community my maternal family belongs to, and an independence era Urdu writer all shared “Syed Mohamed Mehdi” with me. But I was sure that the immigration agent had others in mind. Finally, I passed his muster, showing him philosophy papers that were sufficiently boring.

When I got the job, while packing up my Montreal apartment, I heard John Ashcroft on the radio warning Americans to look out for South Asian and Middle Eastern men in the age range of 20-40 who seemed to be out of place and isolated in their neighborhoods. A few weeks later, this is precisely what I was: a lone South Asian Muslim living in a black neighborhood, across the street from the beautiful Al-Fathir Mosque and up the street from both Muhammad Ali’s old mansion and Farrakhan’s home, also known as “Muhammad’s Residence.” But rather than suspicious sidelong glances, I received welcoming smiles and nods and outstretched hands. I was one of only two South Asians in the large courtyard building. Almost everyone else was African American. Relatives wondered why I wouldn’t live in Rogers Park with the rest of “my” people. The well documented segregation of the American city was, for the first time, starkly real to me. And yet I admit that I rejoiced at being able to live, in the middle of America, in a place where white faces came as a surprise. The street life, the voices in the courtyard, the songs from the sidewalk, the easy, frank conversations with neighbors and strangers, the hawkers of batteries and socks, the dvd pirates, the “loose squares”, all of these combined to evoke something unexpected: the Indian city. Often I was greeted with “Salaam Aleykum” as I walked down 47 Street, my face and my name suggesting a faith that, truth be told, I did not profess. So I often returned to my sleeper cell (a studio apartment with only enough room for a bed) feeling at home.

A Muslim means, literally, one who submits. In one sense, being a Muslim means actively affirming one’s faith in God and in the Prophet’s message. I had been raised, though, by a father who is a scientist and a staunch Atheist, a non-believing mother, a grandmother who loved her Scotch, and a grandfather who was a Communist. I had been taught not to pray, but to question. But “I am not a Muslim” seemed to be the wrong answer both to the immigration agents and to those who greeted me as a brother. This raised questions that I continue to struggle with about what it means to be a Muslim or to call oneself a Muslim. These are not idle questions of categorization or personal identity, but concern political responsibility. As I write this, congressional hearings are taking place in the US about the radicalization of Muslims. In particular, they are premised on the claim that Muslim Americans have failed in their duty to address this problem. This is part of a broader attempt, which also underlies the outcry against the community center in lower Manhattan, to suggest that all Muslims are complicit in violence committed in the name of Islam. To the liberals who distinguish between moderates and extremists, Peter King and others like him reply that there are only shades of extremists. But the moderate-extremist distinction is itself deeply problematic. It has come to be part of the self-understanding of Muslims in this country, who sometimes say such things as “I am very moderate.” I never really know what they mean. What is the axis on which moderation is being claimed? Does it mean that one’s faith is moderate: I believe but not too much? Does it mean that one is moderate in the extent to which one hates America? I hate America but not too much? Or does it mean that one is moderate in the extent of practice? I pray, but not too often? The moderates, we are told, are in the majority, but we don’t know what exactly they are moderate about. The implicit suggestion is often that they are moderate precisely in their Muslim-ness. The extremists carry Islam all the way to its logical conclusion.

I, of little faith, should have no place in these debates, nothing to say to calm the tempers of Muslims. My name, and the responses it gives rise to, remind me that this cannot be the case. A name is not like skin color. It can be shed. It can be adopted. But very often, it is a marker of one’s history, a history that one often feels compelled to engage with. It is an indication that in the politics of Islam and America into which I have immigrated, it is not only an inner faith that gives one a stake, but the outward connections to community built over a lifetime and more, that make their appearance in one’s appellation, tastes, language and, of course, values.

If Muslims are being asked to search their souls, then the first question we ask should be, what is really important to us about Islam today? But the answer to this question will surely determine who is part of this broad community and the traditions it values. Thus, the soul searching must be as inclusive as it can, involving those who have been raised in Muslim traditions, who admire the sense of social justice in Islam, its artistic achievements, its stories, its music, its historical figures as well as those who pray and seek eternal reward. People who are inspired by social justice have, in recent years, come to find strong support for it in the ethical core of Muslim teachings, as alliances are drawn between secular and devout Muslims. In the same way, Muslims have in the last 10 years begun to revisit the moral basis of the religion, and to connect with others struggling for justice. New stories must begin to be told, of Muslims who fought for justice, especially Muslim women, like my grandmother, who shed her veil to practice politics, who fought for the economic uplift of Muslim women in Hyderabad, but who never shed her faith, or her love for the Prophet Muhammad. With these stories, I hope, Muslim radicals, those who are extreme in their devotion to justice and moderate in their self-righteousness, will explode the false distinction between moderates and extremists.

Living on the South Side of Chicago, on my namesake’s old street, reminded me that the name Mohamed is, even today, much more than a marker to be negotiated in the midst of the “War on Terror.” It is an opportunity and an opening to discuss shared histories and ideals, to dig up and re-think old stories from new angles. This experience contains many lessons for all of us who are finding a home in a new place. I will mention two. First, what may have seemed a barrier to connecting with others can in fact be a bridge. Second, rather than define ourselves in relation to binaries proposed by those who fear us—moderate vs. extremist, hard-working vs. dangerous, legal vs. illegal—let us define ourselves according to our shared experiences and ideals, and let us be extreme in our desire for justice, for freedom and for brotherly and sisterly love. ◊

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