About Us Without Us

A Call to Our Unitarian Universalist Siblings from Muslim Unitarian Universalists

“Though you’ve broken your vows a thousand times…”

Unitarian Universalists, particularly white Unitarian Universalists, today are facing the call to reconcile with the white supremacy roots of our tradition and society. One of the first steps in this process is to acknowledge the ways in which (white) Unitarian Universalists and UU institutions have both 1) been complicit in allowing white supremacy to sustain itself in our faith and 2) Acted in ways that uphold and even benefit from white supremacy culture. While this work needs white Unitarian Universalists to actively engage this call, historically this effort to dismantle white supremacy culture has occurred with UUs of Color, and People of Color organizations like DRUUMM (Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries), and more recently BLUU (Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism) leading the way.

The same complacency and benefitting occurs when we examine how Unitarian Universalists have engaged faith traditions we include as our “sources,” particularly traditions with deep roots in communities of color. The openness of Unitarian Universalism and its theologies is incredibly healing and welcoming. However, this spaciousness of what is considered “the sources of our living tradition,” can also be deeply harmful if not engaged with intention, accountability, and – perhaps most of all – humility. Without these three spiritual orientations, Unitarian Universalists approach to our “sources” can and do recreate the colonization and appropriation of cultures embodied by white supremacy.

As Muslim Unitarian Universalists, we have observed the ways in which our sibling Unitarian Universalists have misappropriated and harmed the faith of our communities, families, and ancestors. We write this statement today to both name this reality in greater depth, and to make asks out of love for our faith and our Unitarian Universalist community.

We know it is often with the best of intentions, but it must be acknowledged and addressed:

Unitarian Universalists have been culturally misappropriating and exotifying the Islamic traditions in many ways for many years.

UU Minister, the late Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley defines cultural appropriation as,

“First, it is most often a form of racial or religious prejudice, or in the most general terms, cultural appropriation is a form of plagiarism. It is consciously or unconsciously seeking to emulate concepts, beliefs or rituals that are foreign to a particular framework, individual or collective. It is incorporating language, cultural expressions, forms, lifestyles, rituals or practices, about which there is little basis for direct knowledge, experience or authenticity, into one's being. It is also the superficial appreciation of a culture without regard to its deeper meaning. And finally, cultural appropriation is acting in ways that belie understanding or respect for the historical, social and spiritual context out of which particular traditions and cultural expressions were born.”

Bowens-Wheatley lifts up the importance of self-determination that is often squashed by cultural misappropriation and cultural racism,

“Cultural racism finds its roots in the legacy of White supremacy and in placing more value in imagination than in history or facts. Toni Morrison's book, Playing in the Dark is a literary critique of one form of cultural racism which focuses on the White imagination. One of the most widespread assumptions of White supremacy within the system of free enterprise is that the images, symbols, rituals, practices, and/or religious expressions of any culture can be freely appropriated by another, with or without permission.The power of the White majority to decide what is valued as ‘normal’ or acceptable, and to impart subtle and often unconscious messages about what is ‘right’ and what is not, is especially critical when we consider children”

 

For a Muslim and UU Muslim, the process of interpreting their sacred texts into practice is a matter of self-determination and (potentially) invitation. When UUs without a deepened knowledge of Islam nor a relationship with Muslims, use Islamic prayers and sacred texts to create “feel good” interpretations, then you impede the self-determination of Muslims and UU Muslims. As Rev. Bowens-Wheatley says, “I would extend the definition further to say that self-determination is a basic human right. In a Unitarian Universalist context, it also means the right to interpret one's culture and theology”.

When white and/or non-Muslim Unitarian Universalists engage with the Islamic traditions with an orientation of self-development or self-gain. The implicit question of this orientation of a white/non-Muslim engagement has been “How does this piece feed me as a Unitarian Universalist?” without considering the communities and cultures being taking from. This orientation “draws upon” the Islamic traditions as a source of our faith only in the sense that it selects the beautiful pieces that “feel good,” while not attempting to deepen understanding of where those pieces – and the ones being ignored – come from, and how they are important to those who call the Islamic traditions their spiritual home. This orientation white-washes and seeks to “sanitize” a complex collection of traditions, selecting only what is a “good fit” for  the existing majority culture.

For example:

  1. If you have ever used something from one of the Islamic traditions holy sources because you thought it was “beautiful” or “powerful,” without deepening your understanding of its meaning and context, you have culturally misappropriated from and/or exotified the Islamic traditions.
  1. One recently shared instance is this “Muslim Prayer for Peace” on the UUA’s Worship Web, which not only combines two random verses of the Qur’an, but also fails to name the chapters they were pulled from and ignore their broader context in the surrounding verses and in the history of the Islamic traditions.

  1. If you have selected readings from Rumi, Hafiz, or any other Sufi mystics without informing yourself and others of their Muslim origins and beliefs, you have culturally misappropriated from and/or exotified the Islamic traditions.
  1. One common instance is the UU hymn “Come, Come, Whoever You Are,” which uses words from a poem by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, but fails to include the theologically essential words “though you’ve broken your vows a thousand times.” These omitted words highlight the merciful nature of Allah - central to Islamic theologies - and the acknowledgment that it is human nature to make mistakes, including ones that cause harm.

  1. If you have participated in “Wear a Hijab”-like actions in solidarity with Muslims who choose to cover their head without expanding your understanding of the myriad of reasons as to why some Muslims embody their faith in this way, you have culturally misappropriated from and/or exotified the Islamic traditions.

Once again, we know that these actions by Unitarian Universalists are done with the best of intentions. However, in the ongoing struggle for our mutual liberation from white supremacy culture, we must acknowledge that even with no intent to harm, there can and is still an impact.

The treatment of the Islamic traditions as something to engage only when beautiful or convenient has unfortunately also led to practices that have erased and/or ignored the presence of Unitarian Universalist Muslims. For example, for the last three years, our faith’s General Assembly has overlapped with the sacred month of Ramadan – with virtually no acknowledgment, or invitation to engage it in relationship with Muslims/Muslim Unitarian Universalists. Imagine what incredible possibilities for faith formation and justice could have come from acknowledging and centering the experience of our neighbors UUs are often saying “we love” or “are welcome here,” typically at times when those neighbors have been attacked.

Are Muslim UUs really welcome in UU spaces? Or is it simply our pain and our poetry?

Perhaps one of the most egregious erasures in recent years occurred at the 2016 General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio. The planners of the Opening Ceremony chose to move forward with its celebration of “interfaith engagement” despite the planned Muslim speaker being unavailable. Was any effort made in attempting to find another voice, perhaps even a female, trans or genderqueer one? Or was it too inconvenient to ask one of the several UU-Muslims sitting in the front rows? Unfortunately, the decision to omit the existence of Muslims – both beyond and within UUism – in this ceremony was not only insulting because of its erasure of our existence, but also deeply painful and traumatic. When highly politicized statements came from a Jewish leader invited to speak, there was no opportunity for a Muslim perspective to respond or counter. There wasn’t even an attempt to address or apologize for this appalling oversight by UUA leadership. The events of that General Assembly clearly demonstrated that failing to engage in accountable relationships with Muslims and UU-Muslims not only exoticizes our experiences, it also enables the oppression and destruction of our communities.

In the wake of the latest terrorist attack on Muslims in New Zealand, many Unitarian Universalists are yearning to show their reactionary solidarity with “Muslims.” That pain and grief is real, and the love behind that yearning is beautiful. However, it is not nearly enough. Unitarian Universalists must grow beyond this reactionary solidarity model of showing up, and develop the spiritual practices of committed partnership and ongoing relationship that are essential to dismantling white supremacy in our engagement with the Islamic traditions and their followers. How and when Unitarian Universalists, particularly white Unitarian Universalists, show their solidarity with marginalized communities matters.

Part of the “solidarity with Muslims” that has shown up among Unitarian Universalists has been the search, creation, and promotion of materials for worship. Materials that – almost entirely – have been generated by white, non-Muslim Unitarian Universalists. Materials that – almost entirely – remove the context and history of the content being shared from institutional platforms. Materials that have been shared without consultation from the very people who would be most fed and sustained by them – Muslims. Unitarian Universalist Muslims.

This statement is not about intention. At this stage in our conversations and self-assessment of the insidiousness of white supremacy culture within Unitarian Universalist culture, we should not have to clarify that this statement is not about intention. It is about the impact of intentions shaped by white supremacy culture. It is about the impact of intentions formed in a culture that does not observe a spirituality of humility. It is about the impact of intentions formed in a culture that does not require accountability to the people and cultures that have been historically treated as “less than.”

We write this statement to call on Unitarian Universalists to engage in accountable, intentional, and humble solidarity with Muslims, including Muslim Unitarian Universalists. We write this statement to call on Unitarian Universalists to stop acting for us and start acting with us.

Include Muslims and Muslim Unitarian Universalists in our conversations about solidarity, relationship, and the Islamic traditions as one of Unitarian Universalism’s “sources.” Include us in this faith, not just our trauma, our poetry, and our holy texts.

As Muslim Unitarian Universalists, we invite our non-Muslim kindred in Unitarian Universalism to explore the following ways of beginning to dismantle its practices of exotification, white supremacy contributing to cultural racism, and cultural misappropriation of the Islamic traditions, and move forward with the spiritual orientations of accountability, intention, and humility:

  1. Recognition of Unitarian Universalist Muslims
  1. Lifting up of OUR voices, not the white voices that have found our words
  2. Creation of space for Unitarian Universalist Muslims in collaboration with us
  1. Consultation on methods for incorporating worshipful, prophetic, and lifespan religious education content from the Islamic traditions
  2. Building ongoing relationships with Muslim communities and individuals beyond the reactionary solidarity that follows traumatic policies or attacks
  3. Expanding understanding of Muslims beyond “mosque-going” Muslims, and engage in intentional relationships with “un-mosqued” Muslims, which includes some of our LGBTQ+ Muslim siblings

In solidarity,

Ranwa Hammamy

Sana Saeed