The Muslim as the "Other":
Representation and Self-Image
of the Muslims in North America
Abubaker Y. Al-Shingiety
The politics of representing Islam and Muslims in American cultural and political discourse and the Muslims' reponse to it in how they interpret Islam and identify themselves, reveal a dialectical relationship between Western representations of Muslims and Muslims' self-image. In this dynamic process, the "otherness" of Islam and Muslims has two functions. It acts as a dynamic of identification, by default, for the American. At the same time, it is appropriated by the Muslim as a form of self-identification. Both functions are germane to a mode of representation characteristic to a particular and dominant political and cultural discourse in the United States: a mode that is essentially ethnocentric.
Instances in which Muslims have broken off or started to break off this ethnocentric mode of representation show the same signs: abandonment of absolutism and racism as an ideology; a move toward a more "orthodox" interpretation of Islam as a comprehensive way of life; demystification of social forms of organization, cultural symbols, institutions, and practices; identification with a broader Islamic political and social reality, which extends beyond the boundaries of the American experience geographically and historically; and finally, recognition of the American context as the ground for self‐ identification in a way that is more complex and sophisticated than earlier separatist beliefs and practices.
I have chosen to focus on the experience of the Nation of Islam to illustrate this thesis for two primary reasons: First, it is the largest organization to succeed in generating mass appeal based on its claims to Islam and black nationalism. Second, the kinds of ideological, political, organizational, and other forms of symbolic transformations the Nation of Islam has witnessed since it was founded in the 1930s provide a paradigmatic case for the study of the dialectic of representation and self-image.