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In Their Own Words: Mapping the Contours of Muslim Journeys, Identities, and Triumphs in the United States

This is a guest post by two staff from the Muslim American Leadership Alliance: Ahmed Omar (Deputy Director) and Andrew McDonald (Program Associate). In 2017 the American Folklife Center hosted staff from the Alliance along with contributors to their “Muslim American Journeys” project to participate in a public listening session at the Library of Congress, which you can watch at this link. In this post, Omar and McDonald update us on recent Alliance initiatives.

Muslim American Leadership Alliance (MALA) launched the “Muslim American Journeys” storytelling project in an effort to celebrate, record, and preserve the self-told narratives of Muslims in America.  Through a community partnership with StoryCorps, oral histories are recorded and then archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Since its inauguration, the oral history project has recorded and archived hundreds of unique stories told by Muslim Americans from all walks of life. This collection is open to the public, and creates a platform for Muslims in the U.S. to discuss heritage, struggles, triumphs, histories, and identity on their own terms. The archive of these stories further allows for the preservation of the diverse and vibrant communities that are fused into the American experience.

Image depicting speakers at an event hosted by the American Folklife Center in July 2017. The event was in the Jefferson Building and featured speakers affiliated with the "Muslim American Journeys" project. From left to right: Zainab Khan, Zabi Rahat, Supna Zaidi, and Ahmed Salim. Photo by Stephen Winick.

In July 2017, the American Folklife Center hosted an event in the Jefferson Building featuring speakers affiliated with the “Muslim American Journeys” project. From left to right: Zainab Khan, Zabi Rahat, Supna Zaidi, and Ahmed Salim. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Given the vast scope of MALA’s story archive and the diverse individuals it represents, a close look at some of the demographics and common thematic elements it reflects has the potential to illuminate the personal experiences of Muslims in the United States for generations to come.

MALA has worked to build effective outreach strategies to represent a diverse range of individuals and communities.  “Muslim American Journeys” currently features storytellers from over 35 different countries around the world – stories of Americans who hail from Kazakhstan, Albania, Algeria, Bosnia, Guinea, Siberia, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Mauritania, Egypt, Mali, Nigeria, Morocco, France, Greece, Libya, Tunisia, Palestine, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and more have been featured by MALA.

Featured storytellers range from first generation to fourth generation Muslim Americans, and include converts, reverts, and individuals from multi-faith and intercultural backgrounds. Their stories hold incredible potential to bolster community engagement and build bridges of understanding, all while stressing the importance of diversity and inclusion.

In assessing the breadth of MALA’s story collection for the “Muslim American Journeys” project, we find certain prevailing themes which appear across the body of unique stories, and could perhaps be used to better understand the broader experiences of Muslim communities and individuals in the United States.

For example, a significant portion of MALA’s storytellers identify as immigrants or refugees, and many of the stories collected are told by first-generation Muslim Americans. Thus, not surprisingly, the recounting or documentation of family history is a prevalent theme in Muslim American narratives. The preservation of oral histories from families helps to satisfy a need for remembrance, and many of these stories include harrowing tales of success and redemption. Archived histories of survival, courage, and escape under circumstances of genocide, extreme poverty, and devastating geopolitical conflict, and the search for freedom from closed societies, help to bring closure and catharsis for many of MALA’s storytellers.

The struggles and successes of immigration stories are crucial because, similar to family histories, they are not often documented.  This lack of documentation makes it difficult to reflect or recall the struggles and stories of individuals immigrating to the U.S. during different historical periods of time.

Another notable and particularly encouraging trend in the “Journeys” project is that the majority of storytellers identify as women. This affirms that MALA has been and continues to be an effective and supportive platform for Muslim women to share their personal journeys, struggles, and successes. Thanks to the trust and courage of storytellers, the “Journeys” project features crucial first-hand accounts of issues of gender-based violence, such as female genital cutting, forced marriage, and child marriage.

MALA’s story collection also features the stories of individuals who identify with LGBTQ+ communities. These narratives offer valuable perspectives on their struggles with gender identity, sexuality, and self-expression in Muslim American communities.

Discrimination and prejudices based on race and religion, both within the Muslim community and outside of it, have also proven to be prevalent in stories MALA has collected. While MALA illuminates narratives to highlight impact and potential, the pervasiveness of the search for belonging and the drive to transcend challenges in America have remained complex themes.

Education and the pursuit thereof is also a central theme in stories shared with the “Muslim American Journeys” project.  As a general principle, education seems to be a high priority, and the pursuit of education in the U.S. specifically is referenced as a benchmark for achieving the American Dream.  Education is articulated as a means of personal improvement, as a tool for community growth and prosperity, and as a universal necessity for intergenerational progress.

Image depicting MALA's Deputy Director, Ahmed Omar, and story-teller Nazah Khawaja at the StoryCorps booth in Chicago. Image provided courtesy of MALA.

MALA’s Deputy Director, Ahmed Omar, and story-teller Nazah Khawaja at the StoryCorps booth in Chicago. Photo courtesy of MALA.

Beyond collecting and archiving these stories, MALA also seeks to create programs and events for public engagement.  MALA recently teamed up with the Chicago History Museum for a listening party to mark the one-year countdown to the opening of the Museum’s “Chicago Muslims” exhibit, which is set to launch in October 2019. Attendees listened to a selection of stories curated through the “Journeys” project, and had the opportunity to reflect and process the significance of these oral histories in a panel discussion with the storytellers. MALA is an advisor for the Museum’s exhibit.

In 2019, MALA is privileged to launch two new initiatives to collect, spotlight, and archive the voices of men and women who have served our nation. There are so many Muslim American veterans living today, each with a unique story to tell: we want to hear them all.

We are excited to partner with the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress to record, preserve, and archive the stories of Muslim American veterans who have served this country and are to be recognized as an integral part of the American fabric of society. The purpose of the Veterans History Project (VHP) at the Library of Congress is to collect, preserve and make accessible the personal accounts of America’s wartime veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand their selfless service.

MALA will additionally be partnering with the National Home Front Project to record, preserve, and share audio interviews with Muslim Americans born in or before 1940. Histories of World War II too often omit the experiences of “home front heroes”: the men, women, and children who bought bonds, built planes, endured sacrifices, and kept families together while loved ones served on the front lines. MALA is honored to spotlight Muslim American civilians who contributed to the war effort or whose family members served in World War II as part of “The Greatest Generation.”

MALA has also dedicated to expand its collection on the extensive experiences and histories of African American Muslims to shed light on the community’s depth, diversity, and growth. This is a community whose members have been part of America’s fabric since the country’s inception, and we continue to spotlight their establishment and resilience over time.

Our hope is to continue our community mobilization events and oral history programs in order to support storytelling, heritage, and fostering pride in identity amongst the Muslim American community. These narratives, which will now be preserved for generations to come, offer insight into the multifaceted and dynamic layers of Muslim American experiences. They point to the fact that this broad and vast community in the United States does not constitute a monolithic group, but rather a plethora of unique journeys intersecting in, out, and through storytelling.

Oral histories can be accessed on MALA’s SoundCloud channel and the MALA website.

2 Comments

  1. Leon J Wright
    February 14, 2019 at 11:51 am

    History is yesterday, today and tomorrow. We must share our Joy, sorrows, fun and family. With love and experience ❣️ will enhance our generations to come. I am glad to be a part of the Veterans History Project. Read my history and see why I I teach

  2. John Fenn
    February 15, 2019 at 10:00 am

    Thanks for reading, and thanks for participating in VHP!

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