On May 2, 2018, CNN published its “25 Influential American Muslims” list. After claiming that no one speaks for Muslim Americans, the list pushes forward 25 names derived from a year-long series of conversations with a mere hundred American Muslims — the amount of people you could expect in a manufactured focus group.
A demonstration of media-backed social engineering, CNN’s top 25 list adds a thick coat of primer over the seismic movements and rapid growth taking place within the American Muslim community. As American Muslims, we have worked tirelessly to build a unique agora, a digital and realtime coming together of innovative Muslim thinkers and critical Islamic theory. The top 25 Muslim influencers list was an opportunity for CNN to tap into the coursing vein of American Muslim dialogue as we create a pivotal chapter in Islamic history. Instead, CNN presented a lobbying of Sunni hegemony and sanitized some of the deeply trouble associations and behavior practices of several people.
CNN’s emphasis on influence is also problematic. In 1938, even Adolf Hitler was named “Man of the Year” by Time Magazine. The almost cultish fanfare and systematic signaling of tokenized Muslim voices only influences American Muslims by radically uniting us against a forced normative identity.
We reject the normalization of a terrorist-sympathizer and race-baiting propagandist like Linda Sarsour, whose support for Louis Farrakhan is especially problematic given our nation is currently struggling against the racism deeply engraved in the American psyche.
We reject the manipulation of intersectionality as a means to advocate for Sunni Muslim conservatism or orthodoxy. Zaytuna Institute’s Imam Zaid Shakir has been tagged by the organization to represent black Muslims, going so far as to mold speech patterns of black preachers and Malcom X to draw back Muslims into his circle, who are then lead back to Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and his religious orthodoxy. We see the bedrock crisis of American Muslim identity when these neat spheres of influence overlap, as they did when Sheikh Yusuf faced intense backlash for his comments on Black Lives Matters and the politicization of Islam. Sheikh Yusuf was both correct and incorrect in his comments, though there was no opportunity to have that conversation due to the curdling of radically honest dialogue and the insistence that Muslim faith and identity is a monolith.
As with Sarsour, the Zaytuna Institute is excellent in concealing how their efforts drive segregation and racism. Shakir heads Zaytuna’s Lighthouse Mosque, a black mosque in Oakland that was created to house black folks, while the other piece of Zaytuna’s influence for all “others” is expressed in the Berkeley Mosque. These, along with a few others on CNN’s Muslim Influencer list, are part of the well-camouflaged religious orthodoxy who will not speak openly on their stances on defining topics including FGM, polygamy, child marriage, dis/honor killings, physical and psychological violence against women, segregation of women, homophobia, sect-based supremacism, and the extremist rhetoric of hate imams.
A top 25 American Muslim influencer list should look beyond surface-level narratives that rise simply because they are the most well-funded and media-supported. It should look to who is most impactful and of benefit to the construct of an American Muslim identity. Without personal bias, those names include:
- Amina Waddud, Professor
- Imam Daayiee Abdullah
- Azizah Al Hibri, Islamic scholar
- Kashif Chaudhry,
- Omid Safi, Professor
- Kecia Ali, Department of Religion, Boston University
- Jaha Dukureh, anti-FGM campaigner
- Aman Ali, Comedian
- Ani Zonneveld, Muslims for Progressive Values
- Sheikh Hisham Kabbani
- Sheikh Hossein Nasr
- Professor David Mavani, Claremont College
- Qasim Rashid, Author and Speaker
- Kaamila Mohamed, Somali American poet
While CNN’s list includes some heavy-hitting voices among American Muslims, it is dangerously void of any controversy or diversity of opinion that reflects the rich tapestry of American Muslim. We urge media outlets to be more well-researched in the anti-American attitudes adopted by figures they choose to applaud with time-slots, interviews and laurels. It is highly irresponsible to conflate commendable voices within the CNN top 25 list with voices that routinely strangle Muslims with one hand while raising fist to air in demonstrations against the same marginalization and supremacism they complain when they cry “Islamophobia.”
The media (along with philanthropic organizations and political influencers) must understand that emboldening and supporting American Muslims means understanding there are many sides to Islam. Our voices are not the minority nor are we a fringe. Since Islam does not have — and should not have — centralized power, maintaining balance in how American Muslim are portrayed is pinnacle to ensuring integrity and respecting our faith. Anything else and you are culpable in establishing an American caliphate.
American Muslim Reformer
Female Imam and Founder of Qal’bu Maryam Women’s Mosque
Muslim Subculture Analyst
Professor of Religion, San Diego State University
Sheikh Uthman Khan
Academic Dean, Critical Loyalty
Mansour Abu Maryam
Writer and Journalist