Alif Laam Meem is the first Muslim Fraternity in America. This recent post-smore roasting fireside talk with potential new pledges sheds some light on the beginning of their search for identity, community and a fun yet discilpined college experience.
After spending some time in Palestine this summer, I arrived home with a new perspective about Arab and Muslim cultures and it was definitely very different from what I’d been taught by the American media and the people who shape their beliefs around such information. This new understanding hit me really hard and was one that I hoped I could transmit to others in time. After sharing some of the work I did there I started getting emails from friends in various communities. Some of my Christian friends who often express hope I will one day join their faith seemed concerned about me posting photographs of Muslims praying in the desert. My Jewish friends with allegiance to Israel were equally confused, one even saying, “I thought you were on our side.” He quickly understood when I said my work is about eliminating sides and that the Holocaust is a great reminder about where sides can lead. I also think I may have lost a few rural Texas facebook friends that just weren’t real comfortable with seeing images portraying in a positive light a people that Post-911 America has taught them to fear. All this got me thinking more and more about current states of inequality and subtle oppression and what that looks like for Muslims in this country. I felt led to learn and talk about this some more. And right about that time I found Alif Laam Meem.
ALM started this spring at UTD and is the first Muslim fraternity in our country. I contacted the founder Ali Mahmoud a few weeks back and asked him if I could become their shadow and document their early days. After a few conversations that proved us to be aligned, he and the council voted and decided to let me come along for the ride. Conveniently i showed up right in time for rush week which saw a whole gang of pledges turn out to try and join the existing 13 members of the frat. Some of the week’s events included Information Day, a meet and greet dinner at a Muslim Chinese restaurant, a bonfire with smores followed by fireside talks about Islam in America and of course some dodgeball at a mosque in Plano where the new jacks took on the existing members. I even played in the last round and i still got the moves... kinda.
I laugh a lot with these guys and it's been a good escape from a growing pressure within my own life. My time with them has revealed that these are just regular college kids, mostly born and raised in America. One fella is even a self-described redneck and wears a fishing hook on his ball cap. They have their share of fun like any other dudes their age-pranks, nut slapping and all that good stuff. But they also differ from your typical fraternity in a few ways. Their priorities and even requirements are growing closer to Allah, serving their community, diligence with their studies and obedience to their parents. Oh, and they also don’t drink and are celibate until marriage. At least im pretty sure most of them are.
During a post-smore bonfire talk last Wednesday, they were sharing how they often find themselves in a no man’s land in not being thought of as American but also not being thought of as a member of their country of ethnic origin. This reminds me how on a subconscious level, many still think to be American means to to be white and possibly even Christian. When Ali and I were having lunch the other day he told me it was customary for him to offer to get lunch because of his Egyptian roots. I countered that I was a southerner and that its’s in my roots too. He just looked at me and smiled and said, “Hey, i’m a southerner too, you know.” These false ideas really do run deep in even the most inclusive of us.
They’ve received a good deal of press lately and there was an article in Huffington Post i believe, where someone wrote in the comments, “The best kind of Muslim is a dead Muslim.” Most of us know that the comment section in most online publications seems to be where the most judgmental and venomous amongst us usually bravely share their ignorance. As a result of that comment though, one member’s parents made him step away from the fraternity. Sounds like a small thing to some but this really wounded a lot of the guys in ALM and one guy told me it was the most direct and hurtful example of Islamophobia he has experienced. He said that whoever that person was likely had no idea that lives were altered due to his or her careless words. I can’t stop thinking about that and how our casually spent words extend further than we realize.
Despite there being some of these heavier topics under the surface thoguh, that there's really nothing controversial happening here. Just young men getting an education and banding together because of the paths and faith they share. Im pretty sure we won't even raise eyebrows about this after a while, just like we don't notice anything strange about a black baseball player these days. Despite our flaws, there is something within us that eventually roots out and eradicates inequality. And some of us won't stop til everyone is free, even though that's just another pipedream.
So, i'll be kicking it with the fellas for a while and i know i have stumbled yet again into a story, a film this time, that was born from relationship. The guys have been more inclusive and welcoming to me than i could have hoped for and it's another instance where i feel huge amounts of gratitude for being allowed into another piece of American culture. It's a piece i think we all will benefit from witnessing.
More after a while.