Tuesday, April 1, 2008

What is "normal?"

Scenario 1: Not long ago I was complaining to a family member about people (namely non-Muslims) seeing me in hijab and automatically assuming I'm from another country. I wanted to know why African-Americans, who are very much aware of the existence of African-American Muslims would assume the same thing. We discussed my facial features, the influx of East African Muslim population to our city, and the media's depiction of Muslims as foreign. In the end, my family member concluded that I did not dress like a "normal" American so people (rightfully) assumed I was from "over there."

Scenario 2: In the Muslim community, there are practices which some people consider "the Islamic norm." Certain people have claimed authority when it comes to Islam and the interpretation of Islamic principles. Sometimes the authority is proclaimed by virtue of the person's family lineage (alleged kinship to the Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w.), the place where they were educated (Al-Azhar or The Islamic University of Madinah for instance), or sometimes by virtue of their being from a predominately Muslim country. Often, the person's cultural norms, beliefs and practices are thinly disguised as being Islamic in nature. Therefore, it's "normal" or "natural" that certain people should become the imam, sit on the masjid board, posit themselves as a state's Islamic authority, or claim to speak on behalf of the Muslim community. When the excluded disagree we are accused of trying to divide the ummah or "imitating the kufaar." All we essentially need to do is fall in line. We need to go with the established Islamic norm.

I am currently reading a very insightful book written by Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg called, Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy. I came across two very valuable quotes which I thought I'd share in relation to the two scenarios posted above.

Norms reflect the privilege of being taken as the standard of the everyday, and those who establish this standard of normality are able to do so because they have more power than other groups. Again, many may exercise that power and privilege without recognizing it as such because norms often operate invisible to those fortunate enough to find themselves comfortably within their bounds (pg. 64-65.)

Norms are often so pervasive in a community or society that they are not explicitly taught but rather implicitly transmitted from generation to generation. The passing comment of a mother about "those people" or the wrinkled nose of an uncle's disapproval at the sight of "one of them" represent but one more stone in the foundation of norms by which a child increasingly engages the world. Although those who do not fit the norm are more likely conscious of these expectations, many of them will likely internalize the norm and may even disparage themselves for not "living up" to it (pg. 91.)

The rhetorical question remains: What is normal? Who gets to define it? Who is placed outside of the norm and why?

1 comment:

Charles Hassan Ali Catchings said...

Are you familiar with constructivist political theory? You have asked good questions. The short answer to "who?" is the status quo. I think the author of teh book you're reading drove the nail. The status quo exercises power and prestige sometimes unconsciously, and at other times, purposely. Because they feel they are a majority it is only 'natural'
that they should have more influence. What is wierd though, is that that makes the minority more of a minority.