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|
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.
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.