From a Redneck background in Mississippi, Muslim chaplain Shane Atkinson strives to acknowledge his Southern heritage while challenging racism and white supremacy. Redneck Muslim documents his life as a chaplain in-training and founder of the on-line group the ‘Society of Islamic Rednecks’
Redneck Muslim follows Shane Atkinson, who is training to be a chaplain at a North Carolina hospital trauma centre. From Mississippi, Shane converted to Islam in 1999. Building bridges in Muslim communities and working to deconstruct prejudices embedded in the background he comes from, he says “We can make a contribution to standing up for justice. Someone was asking me about this – what would motivate white people to do that because you don’t really have anything to gain, you’re just going to give away your privilege – but I’m thinking you gain your humanity by doing that. You’re true to your soul – that you don’t brutalise other human beings.”
Alchemiya spoke to Shane recently about how things have changed since Redneck Muslim was made in 2018.
A Muslim Chaplain in North Carolina
Shane is now working as a chaplain at a private university in a rural area in North Carolina. There are not many Muslims at the university, and Shane is often one of the first Muslims people there have met. This was the same in the hospital he was working in before, where a lot of white people from North Carolina were flown in.
“I think sometimes maybe they would think that I was Jewish or something…” Shane explained. “But I would be there, trying to support the family, and when it came up about religion and that I was Muslim, a lot of them would say, you know I’ve never met a Muslim person before, but we really appreciate you coming and you supporting our family.”
While there are some Muslim students at the university, they may be more reticent about talking about their faith with other students. Shane realises that as a white Southerner he is able to bridge this gap more easily.
“There may be some kind of apprehension about how they may be received, whereas, being white, I know it’s easier for me to connect with people just because I may look like them, I may sound like them, so there’s already maybe some affinity before I let them know just how different we are. I can kind of get a foot in the door, whereas I know other people can’t do that.”
A life-changing interaction
Shane knows people who were once in white supremacist groups but who are now Muslim because of time spent around Muslims, although he said this is often not enough to change people’s entrenched ideologies.
“A lot of the people that I’ve met that are Muslim, that are white people from the South, it was an interaction with someone. Like myself, I was at a Rumi festival. I lived in Mississippi, but I went to North Carolina in 1999, and I met an Imam – a white Imam that had studied in Mecca and Medina and Sudan. It was just a five minute interaction with him. And just the way he carried himself, he was super laid-back and sweet, but he seemed at peace, and I had never met somebody like that. So just that interaction with somebody, especially people who are maybe connected to spirituality in Islam, something about the state they’re in can really touch people. You know if someone’s just saying something it may just go in your ear, but that state seems to kind of touch people’s hearts.”
After the making of the documentary, Shane found it stimulated dialogue, and more people reached out, someone perhaps feeling like they were the only Muslim in a city, “other people taking their shahada with me but not really sure how to be a Muslim in Alabama or whatever because they’re the only person there.”
The Society of Islamic Rednecks
Shane explained the background to the Facebook page he started which was called “The Society of Islamic Rednecks” before he changed the name to “Southern Hospitality Islamic Collective”:
“There’s a Black American scholar, Dr. Sherman Jackson, who is traditionally trained. I was with him at a gathering one time and he asked, ‘Who’s taking Islam to working class white people?’ He was asking all kinds of interesting questions like ‘Why aren’t there white masjids?’, and people were kind of having knee-jerk reactions to him, but I felt like I was getting what he was saying – like, ‘What’s blocking this reaching a critical mass in these communities?’, And so after, it took a while, because he was saying, ‘Why doesn’t this white scholar do this, or this white scholar do that?’, and then after a year or so I realised, ‘oh, I’m the person from that socio-economic class, from that community, I may be the person to translate that from English to English.’”
When Shane came up with the name “The Society of Islamic Rednecks” he was trying to explore ways of communicating with people from his own background. Another white Muslim scholar from Georgia had once asked “Are there any Islamic Rednecks out there?” Shane realised that he knew Muslims from a Redneck background, who were still culturally, in terms of the language and the way they dressed, from that background, although their ethics and morals had changed. However, by the time he was approached by the filmmakers of Redneck Muslim he was thinking about changing the name.
“They caught me at a time where I felt like I should probably take that word Redneck out of there, and I’d wrestled with that because I didn’t want to offend Black and Brown people, but I was also modelling this kind of on the Nation of Islam, where they didn’t just say initially ‘Ok, here’s the Quran’. There was an in-between step where they tried to connect with people and speak to them in their language and kind of slowly. I know this is generational what we’re talking about – maybe it’s going to be quicker than that but, I would think this is a long term thing, and we have to be sensitive to people’s fears, and that’s part of it, just navigating people’s defence mechanisms. In a wise way, how do you speak to people?”
Racism in America
The documentary resonated with both white Southern Muslims and Black and Brown Southern Muslims.
Describing the response to it, Shane said, “Race is not real but racism is very real. Black or Brown people were saying ‘I’m from a family where some of my family members are white and they’re Republican. I almost felt like giving up on them, like there’s no hope for us to reconcile or be on the same page, but watching this documentary kind of gave me hope.’ I never expected to hear that from people, so I’ve tried to keep this going, because I guess for some people it’s their only connection with anything Islamic if there’s not a masjid near them.”
Discussing racism in America, Shane explained that it differs from place to place:
“America’s not a monolith, it seems like when people talk about racism and whiteness, a lot of times they’re talking about it like a monolith, like people in New York are the same as people in Alabama, or the people in the Bay Area are the same as the people in Chicago, and it seems from region to region to region you have a lot of differences, but we can’t deny the history of this country, of course, is very deeply steeped in racism. It seems as people research racism it has more to do with economic gain than hating people that looked different from you. We’re so steeped in that that we don’t realise it I think, but the South is unique and that’s why I’ve tried to stay focused on the South, not speaking to all people, because I don’t expect all people to relate. People in the South, white and Black people, especially working class people, have a history of hundreds of years together. For sure, there’s the Ku Klux Klan and things like that, but there are also a lot of people helping each other across lines of race, especially working class people. I think for me as I get older I’m becoming more and more convinced that a lot of this anger with white people does have everything to do with Black and Brown people, but it’s really because they haven’t been able to heal this break between them and the other members of their human family. I think it’s really connected to the fitra of people – to this innate knowing that we are one family, and we’ve been born into a country that socialises us to be racist. We’re socialised to be white supremacists, and it goes against what we know in our hearts is right. I think it’s coming to a head and the answer, maybe it’s counterintuitive for people. It’s not to deport people and get rid of people, but it’s to repair and go hug those people, but of course there’s a lot of manipulation and politics and things to try and use people’s fear against them. In grad school almost everything I’ve written has been about race and the intersection of Islam and the South and so it’s kind of speaking to some of this.”
Racism since Trump
After Trump got into office Shane says it seemed that people felt they had permission to say things that wouldn’t have been socially acceptable to say openly before.
Discussing how racism varies generationally Shane said, “Even a racist old man in the South that doesn’t want their daughter to marry a Black man, would still probably hold the door open for an elderly Black woman. Or if there’s a Black family whose car’s broken down on the side of the road, he will still probably stop and help that family.” Shane points out that while there may be fewer racists in younger generations, those who are racist can be more intense. “The great replacement theory is being spoken about on Fox news, where I guess some people on the right are saying the Democrats are trying to reduce the population of white people for voting reasons – so I think people are getting amped up. There may be less racists, but maybe they’re way more intense than they were, or the intensity is going back up.”
“I think if someone’s sense of self-worth is just their colour and then they see the demographics of the country changing, so many Black and Brown people that are successful, then I think maybe it makes them question that assumption, well what are the redeeming qualities about me?… Sometimes you call people in to take a long hard look at themselves, and the way they react is to be violent with you. A lot of younger people don’t have issues, they get along with each other, but it certainly seems like there’s a certain percentage of the population that’s doubling down and wants to move backwards in time..”
Bridging the gap
Straddling seemingly polarised identities, Shane tries to act as a bridge between people, working to unpick prejudices in his daily interactions. “Interacting with people one on one can be really beautiful. I always dress kind of country, but I have a kufi, and it’s intentional. In this country it seems like if you’re a white person that’s [visibly] Muslim, it seems like Black and Brown people are more at ease around you, than if you wear a cowboy hat or something. It communicates something to people. Also for white people, especially where I work, more in the country, I’m conscious about how I’m interacting with people. I do get to have conversations with people every day.”