2012-10-23

The Unbearable Difficulty of Community

Both the fictional characters in the The Taqwacores, and the real-life American-born young-adult Muslims who resonate with the novel, have choices. Many of them are first-generation Americans, children of middle-eastern or Asian Muslim parents, and many of them are many-generation Americans, like Michael Muhammed Knight himself, who were drawn to, and converted to, Islam as teenagers. These are American young adults who are choosing to leave behind their parents culture, either by becoming Muslim or by submerging in the punk scene.

They’re choosing to go in for a practice with a lot of rules. Even the hard-partiers generally get up before sunrise to make fajr. A number of them take on more rules, and adopt the straightedge identity: abstinence, no alcohol or drugs. And, no pork, five prayer times a day. Strict discipline.

The rules give life structure, and the structure gives life meaning. Most of all, rules give us belonging and community. You know you’re in the community of those who follow those rules, and it flat doesn’t matter if the rules are arbitrary.

Following a rule, adhering to precepts, gives followers a label, and, yes, labels have their shortcomings. Labeling others always leaves out most of who they are. When we choose a label for ourselves, though, it can be a validation.

When I was a graduate student, my mentor professor happened to mention his birdwatching hobby. He was a birder. For some reason we were discussing whether it mattered that there were other people who were also birders. He indicated that if there weren’t other people doing it – creating and maintaining the institution of birdwatching – then going out with binoculars on cold winter mornings day after day would be this weird idiosyncratic odd thing that he just wouldn’t have the energy to work out how to explain to himself or others. But participating in a widely shared practice – which means taking on a label – in this case, “birder” – gave the activity a meaning, a way for it to make sense and be understood.

The need for identity – for “this is who I am, so this is what I do” – is a universal human need. It’s nice to have identity: Muslim, Christian, UU, Punk, Democrat, Republican, teacher, lawyer, doctor. It’s nice to have the words to say who you are -- and whose you are.

The Taqwacores explores the interplay between the call of the rule and the countervailing call to freedom, acceptance, and diversity. On the one hand, a community based on shared rule-following requires putting some energy into policing those rules: making sure everyone follows them: pretty much, most of the time. I understand the impulse to orthodox judgmentalism with its rules and strict procedures. If we don’t all follow our rules, then who are we? We don’t get to have the connection of a shared life pattern if you don’t follow the pattern.

On the other hand, I also understand that part of the human heart that rebels against orthodoxy’s constraint. A part of me -- and of most of us -- cries: come on, lighten up, open up, accept and embrace diversity of belief and of practice.

Community is hard, and it’s always falling apart, and we’re always looking for it, trying to find it, or build it.

Community based on strict rules can be very attractive: it’s so clear and direct. But there’s a price to be paid for those rules.

The Unitarian Universalist approach to community is to have very little in the way of rules, to eschew the very idea of orthodoxy or orthopraxy, to celebrate diversity. This means that it isn’t so clear what binds us together. For a lot of people, religious liberalism doesn’t feel very satisfying. There’s also a price to be paid for minimalism on rules. Community is hard, anyway you cut it.

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This is part 3 of 5 of "Punk Islam"
Next: Part 4: "The Tolerance Paradox"
Previous: Part 2: "Yeah, But What Type of Punk Muslim?"
Beginning: Part 1: "Nailings"