Thursday, September 22, 2016

Terence Crutcher, May God grant him the highest level of Paradise


Yesterday morning, I cried as I prepared my body, mind, and soul for the dawn prayer. My tears were for Terence Crutcher. I admit, I do not always cry when innocent lives are taken, not even every time a black man’s last breath is snatched away by a bullet. But this time, I could not stop.


I felt the urgent need to write to the women with whom I regularly share my life struggles. They are Muslim women, except for one Christian. They are mostly African American women, except a third of them are the daughters of Muslim immigrants, of South Asian and Arab descent.


But this urgency to share my burning feelings and to call us to some form of action was tempered by the fact that it was time to turn to God, literally. The dawn prayer, and the remembrances of the Divine that I carry out every morning, could not be put on hold. It was a keen reminder that there is no help, no assistance, no mercy, no justice, no truth, no peace except by God, through God, and with God.


Once I completed that which I owed God, I wrote this letter to my circle of women, women like me--prayerful women, educated women, mothers, wives, aunties, activists. Women who are shaping the world, starting with our own children. It is within this context that I wrote these words:


The night before last I read to my sons the story of the first man who died a martyr in the Battle of Badr. Later that night, I read the news of Terence Crutcher. Anger overcame me: “How is it that they manage to keep alive an armed man whom they suspect set off bombs to kill people but shoot down an innocent, unarmed black man?”  


Then I remembered what I read to my sons. My anger quickly turned into hope, the only possible bright side at that moment, that Terence Crutcher died a martyr.


Turning to God and active protest against injustice and inhumanity have always characterized my people's fight in this country.


At ISNA, I talked to the mostly immigrant and second-generation American Muslim audience about Black Lives Matter and how it related to our unique struggles and hopes in this country. Tariq Ramadan spoke after me and referred to my talk more than once. He reminded us that as Muslims, who carry the prophetic legacy to improve our own character and to bring good to the world, to be spiritual requires that we be political. We have no choice except to be a part of the movement for black lives.


It meant a lot for me to hear a distinguished leader in our community say this because years ago I complained that immigrants and their children did not see African American struggle as “a Muslim cause.” My Muslim peers focused on struggles abroad, I wrote in my first book, “believing that Muslims in the United States needed to support Muslims suffering in Palestine, Bosnia, and Kashmir. I accepted these as legitimate struggles for which I should show some concern. But I also found that many of my peers were not willing to see the African American cause as a Muslim cause.”


Much has changed since my research conducted in 2002. Nonblack Muslims have taken on social justice issues in ways that continue to surprise and impress me given my early observations and have been at the forefront of Muslim involvement in Black Lives Matter.


Still, the reminders that Dr. Ramadan and I gave are needed as we grow into seeing the Black cause as a Muslim cause. Many of us, black and nonblack, struggle with answers and strategies to address the violence and injustice against African Americans in this country.


Oprah likes to say, “Start where you are”:  A prayer for African American people, Black men, women, and children, our ancestors, our progeny; a prayer that we remove from our hearts our prejudice and hate against black people and blackness; believing that the legacy of slavery continues to impact us in profound ways and reading history and literature about that legacy; making sure that our children love themselves and love black people; inundating our shelves with beautiful children’s books with African American characters.

(Personally, though, I have not introduced literature highlighting slavery and segregation to my children under 9 years old as I believe, as do many experts, that children should be able to live freely as children; at an early age, their hearts should not have to struggle with the hate that others have inflicted upon their people as introduced in books addressing the heavy aspects of black life; I choose to build their hearts and minds with books on African culture and history and everyday African American children’s experiences; award-winning titles that come to mind are The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, The Paperboy by Dav Pilkey and The Talking Eggs by Robert D. San Souci, and even Muslim literature like Cinderella: An Islamic Tale and Bismillah Soup; and of course Uncle Remus and the Tales of Brer Rabbit, based on the folktales told by enslaved Africans.)    


As did our ancestors, resist and build in your own way. For me, that means joining the homeschooling movement and not placing my children in an institution that has become for too many black boys a pipeline to prison. That's my way, not necessarily your way, but find your way while you first ensure that you keep yourself, your family, and community well and sound.


We cannot afford to be silent; we must pray; we must act.

#BlackLivesMatterToGod


* Act now by joining the National Muslim Call to Action for Black Lives.





Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Our Black Mothers Wrote, Fought, and Died for Us


I once explained to an Arab Canadian Muslim friend, "The black freedom struggle is spiritual for me." I am reminded of this as I prepare for a conversation at Duke on "Islam as Black History" and listen to the words of Black women scholars like Nikki Giovanni. 

Their words kindle emotions and aspirations to be a part of something higher akin to the way reading the Qur'an and listening to the lovers and friends of God leave me in yearning for the Beloved and His beloved, the Prophet Muhammad, prayers and peace be upon him.

Here is the parallel: My yearning for God comforts every part of me as it grants certainty of why I am here and where I want to go. Similarly, the words of the great African American women and men before me touch every part of me, assuring me that their words were written for me to claim and make my own, infused with the sweetness of my faith and struggle. I am here to continue their thoughts. I am humbled. I am flowing with joy.

So much so that I post on fb:

The defining concept in black feminism/womanism that has shaped my work, expressed cogently by Nikki Giovanni:

“When we look at the history of slavery, we have a whole situation where no one cared if you were woman or not; you had to get out into the field. After freedom, no one cared if you were woman or not, you had to work to support your family. So for black women--that’s one of the problems with women’s lib in relation to the black woman; they look at themselves as woman but we’ve had to look at ourselves as black.”

And here are my words; I shared them Sunday at Northeastern University as I've shared them with you before:

"During slavery, our foremothers worked alongside men in the fields sun up to sun down, even as they endured the critical phases of motherhood. Their babies kicked in their wombs as they were forced upon, beaten, and hung.

By leaving work, I saw myself inheriting the legacy of women who were forced to do it all and, therefore, I embraced the privilege of not having to do it all."

I now see it. I am claiming and declaring my womanhood. I am a woman, a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a teacher, and a scholar. And I seek to experience all of it profoundly.


Our mothers prayed for us to be seen and treated as women. They fought for us. They died or were ready to die. We inherit their words, we inherit their work. We ask God for our success. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

My HuffPost Piece: Why I Expect African American Families to Stand Against Islamophobia

My sister, Ayisha Karim, and my cousin, Mareisha Reese
In the fight against Islamophobia and racism, I collaborated with my aunt Mary-Frances Winters, owner of diversity and inclusion firm The Winters Group, to contribute companion pieces to HuffPost Religion Blog.

Mine: "My Cousin Is a Muslim/Why I expect black families to stand against Islamophobia":  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jamillah-karim/my-cousin-is-a-muslim_b_8908934.html

Aunt Mary's: "My Muslim Family Taught Me That Love Is the Foundation of All Faiths": http://www.huffingtonpost.com/maryfrances-winters-/my-muslim-family-taught-m_b_8908252.html



Friday, April 10, 2015

Civil Rights before Women’s Rights, Revisiting Malcolm X and women at Howard University

Speaking at Howard University for the first time, I revisited the legacy of Malcolm X. A month ago at Duke University, when I spoke on the legacy of Malcolm X and Muslim women, I strategically prioritized the struggle for civil rights over the struggle for women’s rights, though I honored both.

Malcolm X did not play a direct role in advancing women’s status in the Nation of Islam. Worse, Malcolm X made chauvinistic comments in his autobiography. Despite these problems, Malcolm X had a profound impact on women as he raised the race consciousness of both women and men and led thousands to Islam through his autobiography.

My challenge, therefore, was to show the way in which Malcolm’s legacy elevated women at the same time that I recognized that gender justice was not Malcolm X’s legacy. Reconstructing what his legacy has done for women without carrying out a feminist critique of Malcolm X, I strategically prioritized the race struggle over the gender struggle. At the same time, I constructed a narrative of gender liberation and demonstrated Muslim women’s leadership and resistance.

As I revisited Malcolm in preparation for my Howard talk and picked up the book Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement by Lynne Olson, I realized that through my approach to Malcolm, I was following in the legacy of black women civil rights activists who helped to inspire the women’s rights movements through their leadership but, at the same time, saw alliance with black men, even when they were sexist, an important strategy for race liberation.

I began the Howard talk highlighting my appearance on WUNC’s “The State of Things,” and describing how my interest in contextualizing Malcolm X’s powerful but patriarchal words instead of critiquing them demonstrated one of the ways in which I negotiate race and gender struggles as did the countless black women activists before me.  

Here’s the beginning of my Howard talk:

February 21, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X. That Friday, I was a guest on WUNC’s “The State of Things,” alongside two other Islamic Studies scholars, discussing the legacy of Malcolm X. The host, Frank Stacio, broadcasted this audio clip by Malcolm X: (It's always better to hear Malcolm X in his own voice; the start of quote highlighted by Stacio begins at the 2:15 mark of youtube video.)


"The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman. And as Muslims the Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us to respect our women and to protect our women and the only time a Muslim really gets real violent is when someone goes to molest his woman.

We will kill you for our woman.

I’m making it plain, yes. We will kill you for our woman. We believe that if the white man will do whatever is necessary to see that his woman gets respect and protection, then you and I will never be recognized as men until we stand up like men and place the same penalty over the head of anyone who puts his filthy hands out to put in the direction of our women."

Addressing me after the clip, Frank Stacio noted that Malcolm’s words "do not sound terribly progressive from a feminist point of view, [this idea of] women needing protection, a kind of infantilization; you can read it that way in that context. Also,” Stacio continued, “it rings of the very provocation for lynching which began around the turn of the twentieth century: this idea that we white men must protect our women.”

Stacio’s comments echoed the black feminist critiques of the Nation of Islam and other black power groups, particularly SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. From a feminist perspective, the problem with Malcolm X’s words is that they present men as the ones who control women. Men must control and protect women; and men’s manhood is defined by their ability to do so. Women and their bodies are objectified. They are the symbol of a race’s honor; and the protection of women serves as the justification for violence against men who violate the race. 

As Stacio suggests, the idea that men must protect women provided white men the rationale to lynch African American men for the “protection” of white women, and ultimately, the white race. Not only does Malcolm X borrow from the ideology of the white oppressor, he unapologetically brings attention to white men’s violence in the name of protecting women when he says, “We believe that if the white man will do whatever is necessary to see that his woman gets respect and protection then you and I will never be recognized as men until we stand up like men and place the same penalty over the head of anyone who puts his filthy hands out to put in the direction of our women."

Indeed, this idea that black men can only be men if they stand up to white men speaks to what visionary civil rights and women’s rights activist Pauli Murray wrote in her 1970 article “The Liberation of Black Women.” 

“For all the rhetoric about self-determination,” she wrote, “the main thrust of black militancy is a bid of black males to share power with white males in a continuing patriarchal society in which both black and white females are relegated to a secondary status.”

But of course, I did not outline the problems with Malcolm’s words when I responded to Stacio because I was not interested in carrying out a feminist critique of Malcolm X. And Stacio did not ask me to. After suggesting the problems with Malcolm X' s words, he asked, "Heard with this historical distance, how do you place that in context?"

I answered that Malcolm X’s words must be understood in the context of his goal, and that was to highlight the systematic sexual violence against black women. After giving this issue more thought, I would further answer that Malcolm X was not trying to be a feminist. He was a man of his time, when the women’s rights movement had not yet gained the momentum and raised the consciousness that it would in the late 1960s and beyond. The goal of the black freedom movement was to dismantle racism. Given this objective, Malcolm X’s words are remarkable and effective. They profoundly resonated with black women and men, which is clearly demonstrated in the applause of Malcolm’s audience. 

His words are brilliant because they immediately evoke the brutality of white racism and bring attention to two of its devastating practices: 1) the systematic rape of black women during and post slavery, and 2) the lynching of black men.

Malcolm X’s lack of gender consciousness is characteristic of the black freedom fighters of the 1950s and 1960s. Sexism existed in almost all of the civil rights organizations as they denied women formal leadership positions. Johnnie Carr, a member of the Montgomery Improvement Association, remarked: 

"Now of course when you spoke out against things like that, a lot of times you were even criticized by other women that felt like...this is not what we ought to be doing. I think we just accepted the servant role and ...[did] what we could because we felt like togetherness was the point.” 

White women civil rights activists, on the other hand, finding themselves increasingly alienated from the movement, created alternative spheres to protest sexism, which eventually led to the women’s rights movement of the 1960s.

Unlike Pauli Murray, who firmly resisted the idea that black women take the backseat so that black men could reclaim the manhood stolen from them, most black women activists did not concern themselves with the question of women’s rights. Eleanor Holmes Norton, another prominent black woman civil rights activist noted, 

“Pauli resonated with feminism at a time when any young black woman who was in the movement would have been far deeper into civil rights…Black women were fully included in the civil rights movement, so that talk of feminism, in the way Pauli was absorbed in it, seemed remote to where one’s energy and attention had to be.” 

This observation points to two reasons why the emerging feminist movement did not resonate with most black women activists: 1) civil rights was their greater concern and 2) black women did not experience gender discrimination in the same ways as white women.

White women in the movement saw this difference, notes Lynne Olson, author of Freedom’s Daughters. White women, Olson wrote, “Saw that the [black] women in the..movement did not take a backseat to anybody. They were out front, leading with a boldness that [white activists] had rarely seen before in women.” One white SNCC activist noted that “the views of [black women activists]. . .were heeded. ‘Maybe not as much as they should have been, but they were listened to. It was more of an equal society.’”

As white women left SNCC as it grew militant, they turned to organizing for women’s rights. At the same time, the black women of SNCC grew more willing to surrender women’s leadership and let their men lead as they subscribed to the popular belief that black communities could not thrive without the restoration of the black family, and particularly the restoration of the black man’s manhood. 

Marian Wright Edelman, one of the founding members of SNCC, provides an interesting case of women determined to push “black men to the forefront.” After starting the Children’s Defense Fund in the early 1970s, Edelman offered to step down and let a male colleague run it. Her rationale, in her words, was: “Among other things our children need, they need the image of a strong black man running things, changing the course of events.” Her male associate declined, and, as we know, she went on to lead the organization herself.

African American Muslim women too had subscribed to this idea of pushing black men to the forefront as the Nation of Islam focused on reforming the black family through embracing traditional gender roles. But also, like the women of the civil rights movement, Muslim women accepted the ideal of men’s leadership in a context in which black women were always working, organizing, leading, and making sure that they were heard.

It was Janet Saboor, a former Nation woman in Atlanta, whose strong spirit and fighting words made me realize how much alike were the women of the Nation of Islam and the women of the civil rights movement. In an interview with Janet for my new book, when I asked if she found the Nation of Islam oppressive, she answered, “I was not oppressed. And the reason why I wasn’t was because first of all I came into the Nation of Islam when I was 23 so I had pretty much formulated on some level or another who I was, what I was about. And then the training that I got from my mother. My mother was a very strong woman and she raised three children. She was the breadwinner. She took care of us, she nurtured us, [and she taught me to be] my own person. So when I came into the Nation of Islam…if [something they told us to do]...didn’t feel right, I didn’t do it. If it didn’t make sense, I didn’t do it.”

The life experiences that nurtured Janet’s assertive spirit were the same that nurtured the black women activists of the broader black freedom movement. Quite literally, Nation women once were the women of SNCC, of the NAACP, of the Urban League, before converting. And most telling, almost all Nation women had membership or affiliation with the black church, the institution that gave birth to the civil rights movement.

So when black feminist Pauli Murray wrote that “many black women have been led to believe that the restoration of the black male to his lost manhood must take precedence over the claims of black women to equalitarian status,” it was an observation that applied to both Christian and Muslim women who felt that they could afford to continue their focus on race consciousness over gender consciousness.

I am one of the daughters of the black power movement. Both of my parents joined the Nation of Islam in the 1970s. My family or community did not raise me with a feminist consciousness but certainly a race consciousness guided by God consciousness. At the same time, however, my community provided me women role models who were leaders, organizers, and activists, viewed and treated as the equals of men. In my personal life, I saw women generally surpassing men in spirituality and level of education. With this sense of pride and advantage as a black Muslim woman, I can understand why women found the idea of prioritizing men’s leadership important as a race issue that would collectively improve the lives of African American men, women, and children.

My response to Frank Stacio, in which I justified Malcolm X’s words instead of rendering a feminist critique, exemplifies a moment of prioritizing solidarity with male leadership in the movement over feminist consciousness. Following in the legacy of Freedom’s Daughters, I’ve made this choice in my broader reflection on Malcolm X. 

****

It was at this point in my Howard talk that I explained that upon my invitation to speak on the legacy of Malcolm X at Duke and UNC, I felt compelled to speak on his legacy and women, but without rendering a feminist critique.  

"I strategically prioritized the race struggle over the gender struggle," I said.  "At the same time, I constructed a narrative of gender liberation, similar to the way in which the black women race activist before me raised gender consciousness through their everyday acts of leadership, even though they were not trying to be feminist. The angle from which I argued that Malcolm X provided a platform for women’s leadership and resistance is through Malcolm’s Muhammad Speaks legacy."

I provide a glimpse into my paper describing Muslim women building upon the Muhammad Speaks legacy in an earlier blog postMy ability to align myself with Malcolm X and at the same time highlight and encourage women’s leadership is an example of scholar miriam cooke’s concept "multiple critique," inspired by the negotiations of black feminist scholars. Multiple critique sees women fighting various struggles—race, gender, class, and religion—that often overlap and intersect. At times, they fight in the name of multiple causes, but there are moments in which they strategically prioritize one cause over another, without entirely abandoning any one cause.

I ended both my Howard and Duke talks with a sentimental touch as I highlighted the way in which the late Tayyibah Taylor walked in the Muhammad Speaks legacy. In fact, when what I describe below occurred, it felt like a divine moment, a moment of gratitude for the Muslim men who led during the civil rights era and for the Muslim women who lead today. But first, I share my paper's abstract for a better appreciation of my ending:

Two key factors made Muhammad Speaks thrive from the beginning: 1) the high journalistic quality of the newspaper led by editors who were not members of the organization, and 2) the NOI’s requirement that male members sell a quota of newspapers every week. This paper will consider the ways in which the Muhammad Speaks legacy of quality journalism and men’s dedication to Nation building provided an unexpected platform for women’s leadership, agency, and resistance in the Nation of Islam, especially during women’s transformation to Sunni Islam under the leadership of Imam W.D. Mohammed.

And here's my ending, a very special moment for me:


From the beginning of my consideration of women and the legacy of Malcolm X--before I learned of Malcolm X’s and the Nation of Islam’s role in advancing the black press--I intuitively imagined Tayyibah Taylor and her creation Azizah as following in Malcolm’s Muhammad Speaks Legacy. And then, three weeks ago, as I was casually flipping through the latest Azizah issue, I read this letter to the editor:

"I must say that looking at Azizah Magazine is like looking at the night sky from atop a mountain. It is stunning and hypnotic, or is that just me? Thank you a thousand times, alhamdulillah. May Allah continue to bless you and your staff for going beyond the call of duty. Azizah Magazine is a top quality production done by Muslim women for Allah’s Flowers. Sometimes my mind is stuck on the days when I would stand in the cold for hours just to sell one Muhammad Speaks newspaper. I was so proud of that publication because it was done by us for the benefit of those whom we considered lost and rejected. Now, I am elated with joy. Allah is truly tayyib to His Creation. Thank you." Signed, Muhammad AbdurRahim.

As you can imagine, this former Fruit of Islam’s comments to “Allah’s Flowers” delighted me as they confirmed the connection between Azizah and Muhammad Speaks, both “top quality” productions. During the black freedom era, men were in the forefront doing the early work to present Islam to the American public for the first time. Now to see Muslim women present Islam to the world via their own quality creation, AbduRahim says he is elated. We are too, as women take the lead with grace, wisdom, and beauty.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Being ME, Speaking out against racism in the ummah #BeingBlackAndMuslim #BlackLivesMatter #MuslimLivesMatter



As I prepared my speech for Being ME, Muslimah Empowered, a conference in Toronto attended by over 4000 women, it dawned on me that this would be my first time addressing a majority immigrant audience on the ways in which Muslims perpetuate racism in our mosque communities. 

Since publishing my book on this topic six years ago, I’ve given a handful of talks on relations between African American and immigrant Muslims, but not once had I been asked to “confront racism,” to discuss the “hierarchies that pit Muslim against Muslim,” and to push Muslims “to self-reflect and question our own culpability in perpetuating this hate.”

The conference organizers

The women who asked me to do this were second-generation Canadian women, the daughters of desi (referring to the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora; South Asian), Arab, and East African immigrants. The conference’s theme was “Qur’an: A Compass to Compassion,” and my charge was “to focus on how we can develop true fellowship and raise an ummah built on compassion.”

Whoever thought to invite me had definitely read my book as that is partly what I seek to do in its 300 pages. My challenge was to present this message in roughly twelve pages and to convince an audience who I would also critique. It would require the skill of pulling together the perfect stories, quotes, and analysis on race; work that I love to do.

After my talk, a black Canadian woman of my generation (born Muslim, the daughter of converts of African and Native American descent) said to me, “The way that you laid out the stories and perspectives was unique. You made it accessible. At first I wasn’t sure how the aunties were going to take it, but I watched them, and they were feeling it. Just the fact that you were standing up there speaking those words to these people was awesome.”   


Several people remarked with sentiments ranging from “Wow, I never thought about it that way” to “You usually don’t hear socially relevant talks like yours at conferences like these.” I responded, “Alhamdulillah, thank the conference organizers for inviting me.”
Conference organizers and volunteers

My talk

I started my talk with the story at the beginning of my book: a conversation between an African American convert, an Eritrean immigrant, and a Pakistani immigrant. The dialogue occurred after an Arabic lesson in the Eritrean woman’s home. The two immigrant women insult and alienate the African American convert after she described the racism she experienced at an immigrant mosque. They tell her that the racism she feels is her “perception” and that she “stresses” race too much. After this, the convert woman never again joins the women for Arabic lessons.

This story reveals both the awesomeness and the sadness of the North American ummah (Muslim community). We have ummah spaces like the masjid and the Eritrean woman’s home that bring together people of diverse ethnic backgrounds who do not ordinarily come together in intimate spaces because of longstanding structures of racism. This means that we have this unparalleled opportunity to confront racism and cross boundaries; but sadly, we do not show the compassion or use the tools to learn from one another and create true sisterhood. The main tool highlighted in my talk was the Qur’anic verse, “Humanity, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into nations and tribes so that you should get to know one another. In God’s eyes, the most honored of you are the ones most conscious of Him: God is all knowing, all aware.”




“We take our racism lightly,” I told the women, “however, it has a severe impact on our personal, spiritual development and on the wellbeing of real communities, including our own Muslim communities.” Here’s where I discuss the impact racism has on our communities and how we perpetuate racism:

Because many nonwhite immigrants have done well financially, they easily accommodate new forms of anti-black racism. They acknowledge past racism against African Americans but believe that nothing prevents them from doing well now. In my own research, I found this immigrant sentiment over and over again. Nailah, a second generation desi American told me,“In the Indo-Pak community you hear a lot of, ‘Why don’t they [blacks] just do this or do that.’  There’s this attitude that if we are foreigners in this country and we didn’t even speak English properly, and we were able to establish ourselves and our community, why can’t they do the same.”  

Not only does she hear this among her parents’ generation, but also, Nailah stated, “I hear it from my peers.” Sajdah, an African American woman, stated, “The immigrants don’t care about black communities because they think that our condition is because we are lazy...They need to really understand the dynamics of being an African American...Unfortunately they do not believe that there are any factors that work against us.”

Sajdah is right. As we learn from the history of white violence that left blacks without the vote despite the fact that they had attained the legal right to vote, constitutional equality does not translate into practical equality in housing, education, and employment when the government does not commit to resources that seek to put African Americans on equal footing.  Ironically, progressive whites often appear more sensitive and aware of this form of racism than immigrants of color.

While this speaks to U.S. history and policy, Canadian society also has a racial order that privileges whiteness. In pursuit of acceptance and inclusion, immigrants ascribe to their society’s racial hierarchies. As one scholar put it, immigrants accept “the color line in order to cross over to its advantageous side.” Ironically, it is racism against immigrants that pushes them to assume whiteness as best they can through skin color, wealth, education, choice of neighborhood, and other factors that grant them inclusion in white communities. In this pursuit, they also assume contempt for blacks and their neighborhoods, which they choose not to live in. This begs the question, is it even possible for us to assimilate in societies of white privilege without becoming racist?

The racist comments by Muslim immigrants prove that it is impossible unless we make a concerted effort to recognize the racial hierarchies and dynamics in the larger society. Awareness is the first step to resistance. Interestingly, discrimination against Muslims post-9/11 has moved Muslim immigrants to this awareness, though it has been slow. Rami Nashashibi, the executive direction of IMAN, the Inner City Muslim Action Network, a grassroots organization that serves poor Latino, black, and Arab communities in the South Side of Chicago, was at the forefront educating and inspiring Muslim immigrants and their children to see the ways in which they had ignored or downplayed African American struggle. 

In one speech, he noted how ever since 9/11 and the war on terrorism, there has been an uproar in immigrant Muslim communities about racial profiling and the assault on civil liberties, BUT he asked them, “Where was all this concern for justice before when racial profiling was happening to black people every day. When a black man is beaten by a cop, where are the Muslims protesting on the streets? Now that we’ve become the newest victims of racism, we want everyone to come rallying to our cause, but what have we done to really help the black community that would make them want to be a part of our struggle?”

Rami’s words speak to another reason why we need to confront and end racism in our Muslim communities. We need interracial solidarity to make the work against Islamophobia most effective and successful. We see this most clearly in the Muslim Lives Matter movement that occurred after the tragic death of our beloved brother Deah Barakat and our beloved sisters Yusor and Razan Abu Salha. That movement stands on the shoulders of the Black Lives Matter Movement. 

This is a perfect example of the way in which different ethnic struggles, civil rights struggles, and liberation struggles have historically informed and borrowed from each other. We should desire and encourage this type of collaboration and alliance. The diversity of the North American ummah provides us an advantage at building such alliances. But yet again, because of our internal racism, because immigrants were not moved to align themselves with African American Muslims as Rami laments, some African American Muslims and also second generation Arab and Desi American Muslims have criticized what they see as hypocrisy: that you never cared about black lives until Muslim lives were savagely taken.

This African American sentiment that immigrants are hypocritical was especially felt and vocalized after 9/11. One African American imam who I call Imam Hakim told me in 2002 that immigrants “are being tested” for assimilating into America’s capitalistic “way of life”: “You have built up your empire, and now there is a possibility that you may lose it, get your green card snatched and shot back over to Pakistan where you don’t want to live. Are you willing to give that up?” But, if immigrant Muslims had been living up to their Islamic duty to help America’s poor in the inner city, Imam Hakim believes, God would have spared them 9/11 backlash as He has spared African American Muslims. “But immigrants haven’t done anything significantly enough to eradicate injustice in America. They haven’t done anything. So now they have got to pay.”

Imam Hakim’s sentiments against immigrants are harsh and they demonstrate the type of anti-immigrant racism that many black Muslims have. For Imam Hakim to say that this is their payback suggests that immigrants somehow deserve to be the victims of white violence just because they never stood up for the black cause, as though African American struggle is the paramount struggle. African Americans demonstrate anti-immigrant racism when we deny other nonwhite groups legitimate protest and civil rights protection. When we overlook the discrimination that immigrants have experienced in the past and present and privilege black struggles over immigrant struggles, black Muslims contribute to attitudes and social structures that deny immigrants their rights. We too become complicit in larger structures of racism.


Most of my speech called out immigrants and their children for perpetuating racism in the ummah. And this is not because of my bias, although some have called my analysis that in Amazon reviews of my book. Rather, it is because immigrants and their children hold the greater amount of power and privilege in the ummah. Many see themselves as more authentic Muslims, and they are closer to whiteness, the benefits of which they pursue.   

It was important for me, however, to address African American Muslims’ racism, or complicity in racism (since many argue that one cannot be a racist without power) to acknowledge that African Americans carry anti-immigrant prejudices and that all of us must take responsibility to address racism and facilitate better race relations in the ummah.

Imam Hakim’s hard-hitting words were my best example of anti-immigrant sentiments in the ummah; however, I am sympathetic to his general critiques of immigrants and how they have distanced themselves from black struggle, especially when they claim an exemplary religious community that fights against injustice. This issue emerges in critiques of the Muslim Lives Matter movement: the concern among African Americans "that other people so frequently appropriate the symbols of our struggle but not the burden of our struggle," notes scholar Zaheer Ali.

Women’s responses

Immediately after my talk, I left for the speaker’s corner where a few women lined up to speak to me. The first was a Sudanese immigrant woman of my mother’s generation. My opening story resonated with her. Women from her country brought their tribal tensions to their Sudanese mosque in Toronto. She has spoken to the imam to address the women’s discrimination, but he denies it. She believes that if he heard my talk, it would open his eyes.

Next was a white Canadian convert who wanted to buy my book. She said that it is as though her social status decreased when she became a Muslim. She has lost her white privilege because she looks like an immigrant because of her hijab. In the mosque, she is rejected by the Arab group on one side and the desi group on the other. The only time she’s felt comfortable in a mosque is when she visited an African American mosque in Detroit where she was treated as a sister. Her daughters, who have Malaysian and Vietnamese fathers, don’t fit in either. Outside the mosque, they have friends of diverse ethnic backgrounds, but in the mosque, they are not accepted in their second-generation Arab and desi Canadian peer groups because their parents are neither Arab nor desi.

An Indian auntie came up to me, and after hugging me said, “Your talk was amazing. You are right. We are trying to be white.” She was a social worker and told me that her field made her aware of my level of race analysis. Her words meant a lot to me since I spoke about South Asian privilege the most, as they were the group featured in my book.

Finally, my favorite encounter was with a Somali immigrant, Fatima. We are the same age and have children the same age. She too spoke about how it blew her mind that I was up there speaking to this audience on this topic: “I was like, ‘Do...these...people...understand...what she is talking about?’” Unlike the multigeneration African Canadian woman described earlier, Fatima couldn’t conceive their fully grasping it. Her sentiments underscored that what I had done had never been done before. “You need to come back for RIS [a conference three times the size of Being ME] and give the exact same talk. The shuyukh [male teachers] touch on this, but nothing like what you have done.”  


“You can’t tell me that our people stolen from our lands and brought here in chains can have the same experience as people who came here on their own free will,” Fatima continued, affirming the points in my talk. I loved the way she spoke of my ancestors as her ancestors. And too she claimed the legacy of the slaves who escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. Write down this title, she insisted, Viola Desmond Won’t be Budged. And then she pulled from her purse a Canadian stamp with a photo of Viola Desmond. It was her last and she gave it to me. “This is our Rosa Parks, and yours too. When you get the book, put this stamp on it.”   

The women’s responses were awesome because they affirmed our diversity and the potential for unity. That my talk resonated with Muslim women of diverse backgrounds from various angles demonstrates that the work to cross racial divides and resist the hierarchies that privilege whiteness and pit “racial others” against each other can and must be a shared goal.

Fatima’s feedback was most moving because her comments brought to life what I had spoken about in theory, that the Qur’anic verse that states, God has created us differently to come to know each other, is a tool guiding us to compassion. “The Qur’an is literally telling us to show some compassion. To attempt to walk in someone else’s shoes. To understand where someone else is coming from.”

Fatima literally walked in the shoes of the generations of African, African American, and African Canadian women who endured slavery and racism in the Americas. Soon after she migrated to Toronto, only fifteen years ago, a white man said to her on a public bus, “You are the most beautiful nigra I’ve ever seen.” While Fatima could have used this as a lesson to henceforth downplay her blackness and pursue whiteness, to remove herself from the struggle of the women who came to these shores before her, whose features she shares, she decided to walk in our shoes, to learn our ethnic struggles. And this is why I loved that when I showed my unfamiliarity with Viola Desmond and the terms Fatima used to describe the Canadian history of the descendants of the Underground Railroad, she asked, “Don’t you know about Harriet Tubman?” “Of course,” I smiled.