united shades season 2 episode 4 RON1 USOA Muslim_00000607.jpg
Exploring Islam's American history
00:45 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: W. Kamau Bell is a sociopolitical comedian and the author of the new book, “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6’4”, African-American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian” (Dutton). Tune in Sundays at 10 p.m. ET to watch the second season of CNN’s “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.

Story highlights

W. Kamau Bell: I sat down with an Iranian imam who voted for President Trump

Muslims living in the Detroit Metro area are striving to live the American dream, he writes

CNN  — 

There’s no religion in this country that is more misunderstood, mis-categorized, and misidentified than Islam. Whether it is Sikh men in turbans being attacked because people believe they are Muslims (HINT: They are not), or so-called liberal allies encouraging Muslim women who wear hijab to “liberate” themselves by taking it off, or all the confusion and fear around Sharia, halal meat, and Muslim-American sports heroes, we have a lot to learn. I’m looking at you, President Trump.

W. Kamau Bell headshot contemplative

I will be paying attention to President Trump this weekend as he is scheduled to give a speech in Saudi Arabia on — wait for it — Islam. Donald Trump giving a speech on Islam is like me giving a speech titled, “The Best Haircuts to Have If You Really Want to Succeed in Corporate America.” I could do it. But I’d mostly be making it up as I went along.

There’s no better place to go to attempt to deconstruct all this confusion and fear than the Detroit metro area, and so that’s where we headed for this week’s episode of “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell.”

We spent most of our time in Dearborn and Hamtramck, two cities whose very existence and whose — and I say this with all due respect and love — boring-ness should completely unravel what we might call the Fox News version of Islam. Hamtramck is a majority-Muslim city with majority-Muslim city council. And Dearborn is 30% Arab-American. Dearborn and Hamtramck are like any sleepy suburban towns all across America except because of the Middle Eastern culture the architecture is more interesting and the food is way (WAY!) better. And also because of the influence of Islam many of the women dress more modestly than most American cities. At least they dress more modestly in public. There is a Forever 21 in Dearborn after all.

But other than that, Dearborn and Hamtramck are ideal (and classic … and even conservative) small town America, filled with people working hard for their piece of the American dream. And if all of that is news to you, then that should be all you need to know about how nonsensical the demonization of Muslims really is.

But of course I can’t just stop there, having made that simple point. For one thing, I can’t turn in a one-minute-long episode. CNN has made that clear … several times. And for another, unfortunately when you are a member of an oppressed group, it’s not enough to just be a good person. You are expected to, every day, deconstruct the narrative that someone else imposed on your group in the first place. And if you don’t do it on demand, then your silence is often perceived as agreement with the worst of the people you are associated with. And as Black person I know what’s that’s like. So I’m hoping that maybe the next time an Arab and/or Muslim person gets asked by a stranger or a neighbor or a political commentator to account for the actions of ISIS … or the actions of an individual criminal who claims to be a Muslim, that the Arab and/or Muslim being questioned can just send over a link to this episode. And then hopefully, everyone can just get on with their day.

If there was ever a week when I wished we could have had more than an hour for the episode, it was this week. There are so many outright lies about Islam circulating out there that stand in stark contrast with the real people I was meeting and learning about. I with talked Rima Meroueh, a mom and graduate student in Near Eastern Studies, about hijab, burkas, and feminism. I shared hookah with a bunch of Millennial Muslims and talked with them about how they remain true to their faith in the modern era … something that Millennials of other religions seem to have trouble — or lack of interest in — doing. I was invited to witness how meat is made halal, by witnessing a lamb slaughter at Berry & Sons Islamic Slaughterhouse. It was not my favorite thing to do in the show’s history, but it certainly demystified the experience for me. And no, it didn’t turn me into a vegetarian.

In fact, during the episode I also went to the incredible Middle Eastern restaurant, Al-Ajami, in Dearborn. And I shared a meal with Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. We ate and had deep talk about how Muslims are often heroes in the Black American community. And we also talked about how narratives of white supremacy often turn white Christians who kill people into “mentally disturbed people,” but then turn Muslim people who kill people into terrorists. It was a lot to cover over lunch. But we did it. I was hungry. And I’ve never felt so much like Anthony Bourdain in my life.

I visited two different mosques with two very different approaches. One, the Islamic Center of America, is the largest mosque in America. It has its own elementary school. It goes out of its way to welcome visitors, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. It even has a gift shop. The other is more traditional. And they welcomed me into the prayer room, not to simply observe prayer, but to participate in prayer. So much for the secrecy of Islam that I hear about in the dark corners of the Internet… and cable… and from the Bills (O’Reilly and Maher).

And I also talked to many people about Islam and homophobia. Because I know if I didn’t, YOU would say I was afraid to. And yes, I found Muslims who — like many Christians — believe that homosexuality is against the tenets of their faith. But then I took it a step further and sat down with Hussein Ayoub, an openly gay … wait for it… devout Muslim. I’ll let him explain. These aren’t my stories to tell.

My only wish, again, is that the episode was longer. I also hope that people realize after watching this episode that Islam is not a monolith. (I don’t know if I have big hope for that hope, because it hasn’t worked that well for those of us trying to explain the same thing about Black people either.) But it is true about Muslims… and all groups. And in a nearly unbelievable turn of events, The United Shades crew was in Hamtramck right after the presidential election. And after my friend, host of the award-winning podcast “Good Muslim / Bad Muslim,” Zahra Noorbakhsh, texted me, worrying about what her Muslim family’s future would be with President Trump in office — I flew her in to talk with me about it on the episode. I felt lucky to share this moment with my friend. She was very clear about what was at stake for her family (and all Muslims) with Donald Trump in office. She said, “People need to wake up.” In many ways she proved to be prescient.

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    And during that same week, I also talked to an Iranian imam on the streets of Dearborn (Well more accurately, in the parking lot of Al-Ajami restaurant). He had no reason to talk to us, but he was happy to. During our brief talk he admitted that he voted for Donald Trump. I say “admitted” because he was sheepish about it. While he stood by his choice, he knew it was not a “good look”. But he also urged me to give President Trump one more chance. This was in November, before both iterations of his so-called Muslim ban. I sometimes wonder if that imam is still out there urging people to give our President more chances.

    The people I most hope watch this episode are those Americans who have never had a conversation with a Muslim. I want them to watch not so they can give Muslims one more chance, but so they can give themselves one more chance to really understand the true experience of Muslim Americans. And if that doesn’t work, as I said before, I at least hope that the next time a person commits a crime in the “name of Islam” that instead of a completely unrelated Muslim being dragged into a seemingly endless conversation about “IF ISLAM IS A RELIGION OF PEACE THEN HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THAT?” that they can just send a link to this episode. And then get back to pursuing their own piece of the American dream … or taking a nap … or watching Netflix … or eating empty calories … or … anything other than defending their right to exist.