Wajahat Ali, Ibrahim Abdul-matin, Michael Muhammad Knight, and G. Willow Wilson speak about art and community

Wajahat Ali, Ibrahim Abdul-matin, Michael Muhammad Knight, and G. Willow Wilson speak about art and community

Columbia sure does know how to put on a good show as demonstrated by the annual “The Muslim Protagonist” hosted by the Columbia Muslim Students’ Assocition. Knowing it would be quite the event, Bwog sent symposium guru Fainan Lakha to this year’s symposium to see what it was all about.

Last weekend Columbia hosted what—for those aware of its context—was an exciting moment for American Islam. Columbia Muslim Students’ Association’s writer’s symposium “The Muslim Protagonist” brought together voices from a variety of backgrounds (including non-Muslim backgrounds) to explore, as it is put on the website, “literature as an agent of social, intellectual, and spiritual change.” Given the distinct issues that the community faces, as well as the relative youth of its population (with the exception African American Islam) the conference was one of the first times formal conversation was had around the formation American Muslim culture.

The people speaking and attending were young, conscious of the scrutiny a community puts itself under, and conscious of the feeling of marginalization and defensiveness that characterize the post-9/11 Muslim experience. Those are deep and heavy ideas that receive very little acknowledgment within the community though they desperately demand it. And as young, educated people of the faith, I think it’s a desire among several students to have discussions that increase inclusiveness and belonging that exist outside of the Mosque community and that happens between young people participating in this new third-culture phenomenon.

In recognizing that need, Columbia MSA brought together writers, filmmakers, and scholars to speak about the culture, thoughts, feelings, struggles, and histories of American Muslims, particularly in terms of what is socially just. The conference spanned over three days, beginning on Firday with a “story slam” featuring Muslim American storytellers in competition, a full day of panels on Saturday, and four seminar sessions with some of the writers on Sunday.

As far as the content of the main symposium went, it was exciting. Fiction writers like Saladin Ahmed, author of Throne of the Crescent Moon, a fantasy novel steeped in Arab culture and G. Willow Wilson, author of Alif the Unseen, a fresh sci-fi novel set in a fictional military state in the Gulf, as well as the most recent edition of Ms. Marvel featuring a Muslim-American protagonist talked about what it’s like to engage with a culture that is being formed and addressed what it feels like to be breaking ground. They spoke to the ways their books were relevant to Muslims here, but how they also allowed for a kind of authentic participation for people outside the community.

Others like filmmaker Alex Rivera, artist Nsenga Knight, and writer Sofia Quintero CC ’90 spoke about what it is to create art as person from a minority background in the US, how one claims one space and makes references, and how commentary that challenges the dominant story can be beautiful but also critical. Quintero in particular, in speaking about her own experiences writing as a Latina, expressed to the audience that her attempts at writing about “Latinidad” were challenging and contested by other Latinos. Such a message was received as directly addressing what the desires of Muslim Americans today are facing, as talk of fearing criticism from the community for ‘airing out the dirty laundry’ filled the days.

A favorite of the weekend, Michael Muhammad Knight,  was one of two converts to speak at the event and is a bit of a controversial figure in the Muslim community, particularly for his writings on punk Islam, drug use, and general rabble rousing.  Knight came and spoke about the Islam’s accessibility to anyone who affirms the faith, and his own experiences challenging its limits. I’m actually a totally fanboy of his and getting to speak to him and hear his thoughts on issues of faith, which he’s now pursuing a PhD in at UNC Chapel Hill, was totally enlightening, yo. But the importance of his being there, speaking at an event which is something he doesn’t usually get to, shouldn’t be lost.

Other speakers included several scholars and journalist, including keynote speaker Wajahat Ali, host of Al Jazeera America’s “The Stream,” brought in their own stories of American Islam. Their stories provided for many of us a feeling of relief — that our struggles with faith and culture are not unique, and are not wrong, is a relieving thing indeed.

Perhaps my recollection is fragmentary, it might be, and it is, in part, hard to relate some of the conversations out of the context in which they were had. The history is deep and the issues that the American Muslim community faces complicated, but they are not unrelatable. The fact that some of the weekend’s most significant contributions were made by people entirely outside the community speaks to the degree to which it is accessible to people outside of our community, and my sense is that those who attended found a lot of value in what was said at the event as well.

The weekend had a major impact for me and really deepened my understanding. I hope you can come next year and do the same.