When asked by the Emory Muslim Student Association to speak on what it means to be black and Muslim in these times, it didn’t take long for me to decide to begin my talk with the National Poetry Slam piece “Islamophobia.” This performance is so stunning that I won’t attempt to describe it. You must watch for yourself.
(The next video is a phone recording of the first part my Emory talk, what is written in this post up until the part that I mention Muhammad Ali.)
I started with the poetry selection because it does a phenomenal job attacking Islamophobia, and also because it is one example of the way in which Islam continues to be embraced and defended in black communities. The poets performing this piece--Rudy Francisco, Natasha Hooper, and Amen Ra--are not Muslim.
What these poets illustrate is the way in which a group of people, in this case black people, who have been stereotyped and demonized by white people, have an extraordinary capacity to empathize with another group of people, in this case Muslims, who are being stereotyped and demonized, largely by white people.
I intentionally highlight white people to bring race to the forefront as we discuss Islamophobia. We might think about Islamophobia as hate based on religious difference but for certain Islamophobia is a form of racism, it is anti-Muslim racism.
Racism must be understood as a function of privilege and power; and in the American context, it is the power and privilege that whites assert and enjoy over blacks and other people of color. It is for this reason that Beverly Tatum, sociologist and past president of Spelman College, asserts that “people of color are not racist because they do not systematically benefit from racism” even though they “can and do have racial prejudices.” When black and brown people do act out their prejudices, that is act as racists, or reproduce the lies of white supremacy, they do so to gain as much power, acceptance, and resources as a racist social order will permit them, always at the expense of their brother or sister of color.
In our context, racism represents the policies and propaganda that whites have historically used to maintain their power and privilege. When Europeans colonized African lands and Asian lands, many of which were Muslim lands, racial categories were constructed and given meaning, i.e., that white skin signified civilization, to rationalize the colonization of these lands.
In this country, black people had to be dehumanized to rationalize the brutality inflicted against them. At the same time, in Muslim lands like Egypt, colonizers also had to make Muslims inferior to justify colonization. One strategy was to use the platform of white feminism to say that Muslim women needed to be saved from our backward, traditional practices, particularly the hijab. This means, that originally, white people saw and portrayed the hijab not as a symbol of our faith but as a symbol of our difference from them, our otherness, our diminished humanity, in their eyes at least, to justify their violence against us.
And this is precisely what Islamophobia is, policies and propaganda that seek to demonize, and most presently, ban a group of people who threaten white power and privilege. And this is why scholar-activist Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, founder of Sapelo Square, wrote earlier this week in Al Jazeera,
“The way anti-Muslim racism works is that Islam and Muslims are a bogeyman, hated and feared because of how they are 'different', i.e. by how they look and what they do. Muslims are bogeymen not solely because some Muslims are guilty of violent acts against Americans.
“As was reported not too long after white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black Americans in Charleston, white Americans cause the largest numbers of American deaths by terrorist acts on US soil. Yet unsurprisingly, Trump has not signed any executive orders specifically targeting white Americans. This is because Islam and Muslims have been 'othered' - made to be seen as distinctly and most despicably bad and evil in the popular imagination.”
African Americans like the National Poetry Slam poets defend Islam so seamlessly, to the point that they recite the Muslim greeting of peace perfectly as though they actually walk in our shoes and don our hijabs, because they know what it feels like to be criminalized, and as Abdul Khabeer has noted, and not solely because some of us are guilty of criminal acts. Indeed, as the documentary 13th proves, black people were criminalized the moment we were released from the shackles of slavery to move us to the shackles of incarceration.
To be black and Muslim in this time means that we are steadfast and constant in the fight against racism, for certainly it is not as though racism just happened to us. Without a doubt, we are alarmed by the current ban on seven Muslim-majority nations. And the old hate is coming at us in new ways; and in blatant forms less familiar to my generation, but commonly felt in the generations before us. (Though what can be more blatant than cops killing unarmed black men in the streets?) And precisely because of those who came before us and our long-standing spiritual and physical resistance to racism, we quickly draw conviction and courage from the legacy of our ancestors and the prophets and women exemplars of our faith. This is demonstrated in my my mother’s response to her Christian nephew who expressed his concern for her in these "hateful times." After expressing her gratitude to him, she said, “The Qur'an tells us ‘you can't say you believe and not be expected to be tested like those who came before us.’ We also say, ‘Sufficient is Allah for us.’ We continually persevere in patience and prayer. We also resist the wrongdoers and defend ourselves.”
To be black and Muslim means that African American Muslims are aware of and feel the historical and present day realities of racism. Not only do we navigate and resist anti-black racism in everyday acts like educating our children at home before sending them to the poor schools marking black and brown neighborhoods, but also we feel the impact of anti-Muslim racism every time we hear of the hate and misogyny committed against a woman in hijab, like our very own Asma Elhuni, at a coffee shop just minutes from my house, or the fatal terrorism against Muslims like that in the mosque in Quebec City. And though most of us would say that we feel the impact of anti-black racism far more than Islamophobia--which makes sense given that our country was built upon anti-black racism, which pervades every institution in our society, and explains why we call it systemic--we share a community with immigrants who do feel Islamophobia directly, and our relationships with them inspire some of us to fight as though we walk in their shoes.
We see this in the statement of NBA player Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, current Brooklyn Nets forward. “I feel like more people should definitely speak up and act on it just because it’s BS at the end of the day...Me being Muslim, me knowing a lot of Muslims, it’s definitely, definitely heartbreaking to see. A lot of my college friends are Muslims, and their families are in some of those countries. Just seeing that, my heart goes out to them…”
It is said that it is courageous for professional athletes to speak on politics, but of course this is the legacy of our champ Muhammad Ali. I highlight Hollis-Jefferson and Ali also to note that being black and Muslim also means that Black Muslims are the celebrity Muslims responsible for popularizing Islam in our culture. Because they have a platform, many of them have used it to defend not only their faith but also immigrants.
And the mention of black celebrity Muslims also speaks to our media’s cognitive dissonance when it comes to portraying Muslims in the US. American Muslims are mostly portrayed as immigrant and foreign, not black and native born. To be black and Muslim, too, means being silenced even though we bring the boldest Muslim voices ever, voices like Malcolm’s and Ali’s. Scholar-activist Donna Auston speaks to this inconsistency in relation to the intersections of race and Islamophobia,
“Dominant narratives—in both media and scholarly literature tend to doubly efface the existence and voices of black American Muslims...That erasure renders our communities even more vulnerable—to Islamophobia, to anti-black racism (including from WITHIN the Muslim community), and to all of the attendant perils that accompany them.”
As Auston notes, when we don’t think of American Muslims as black, we don’t consider or address the ways in which black Muslims experience Islamophobia, or the way that being black and Muslim intersect to make Islamophobia doubly dangerous for black Muslims as we experience double the white supremacy.
At this present moment, no one experiences this as acutely as African Muslim immigrants. They find themselves at the intersection of criminalizing blacks and deporting immigrants. As journalist Tiziana Rinaldi noted, “Black people in America have a higher chance of coming in contact with the criminal justice system, which makes them more susceptible to police violence.” For African immigrants, “These encounters with police make them more deportable.”
And then on top of that consider what it means to be black, an immigrant Muslim from one of the seven banned countries, and a woman, subjected to a type of violence against the body endured through stop and frisk and other physical processes that include handcuffs and stir terror and, by the way, have been happening for a long time. When a black immigrant woman is pushed down and then pushed back when she attempts to resist, the assault is physical and emotional. She is left with shame when it is he who has done the despicable act. To be black and Muslim and woman means that I can’t help but associate my Somali sister, violated at the border, and who by the way looks like me, with my great foremother violated on the auction block.
To be black and Muslim means embracing a prophetic legacy of profound trust in and submission to God, a legacy of beauty, love, compassion, and justice as lived by the Prophet Muhammad, prayers and peace be upon him. And embracing the struggle to live that legacy as an African American woman in ways deeply meaningful to myself and others. In the rest of my talk, I share how that struggle has unfolded for me personally, to show that today, this intense moment to be black and Muslim is simply the newest chapter in an ongoing struggle for justice, freedom, and equality.
|Talk Slide - My parents in the Nation of Islam|
I described how this inheritance led me to write a book, American Muslim Women, that addresses a question crafted out of my conviction that Islam is a liberating faith. Does Islam overcome racial divisions in America. Because racism is a reality in Muslim communities in America and abroad, my book has provided a platform for activism in the form of raising consciousness of the ways in which we are all complicit in racism.
I gave an example of how I use my words to inspire reflection and change through an excerpt from a talk that I originally gave to an audience of 4000 Muslim women in Toronto, Canada in 2015. Here’s how I ended my talk at Emory, first a paragraph from my Toronto talk, and then fresh concluding thoughts on what it means to be black and Muslim today.
|The Emory MSA audience was much like my Toronto audience, mostly from Asian and African immigrant background|
I’ll stop my sample talk here. Of course the Muslim Lives Matter hashtag was short lived, and I understand sentiments that any other lives matter hashtags take away from the point of Black Lives Matter. What’s interesting is that the response from some black Muslims to withhold support and solidarity with immigrant Muslims facing racism has come up again with the Muslim ban. To be black and Muslim also means “ambivalence at times,” as Kameelah Mu’min Rashad, founder and president of Muslim Wellness Foundation, has explained it, because, to use her words, “we are resentful of the fact that we consistently show up for people and they don’t show up for us.” Rashad urges against this ambivalence as she reminds African American Muslims to show up because Allah sees us, and if there is no reciprocity from immigrants, take solace in the fact that Allah will reward us with an “unimaginable” reward. She also encouraged African American Muslims “to model what Islam is supposed to be.”
Indeed, many African American Muslims not only see themselves as leaders in the fight against anti-Muslim racism because we have fought racism for generations, but also because we demonstrate solidarity and radical empathy, like that of the National Poetry Slam poets, in unparalleled ways. Margari Hill, co-founder of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, calls her fellow Black American Muslims toward “radical empathy”--radical because she knows firsthand the ways in which black Muslims have been regularly treated with racial disdain by their fellow immigrant Muslims. Despite that, she says, “Our work as Muslims is to uproot arrogance, indifference, and despair to build our ummah. We should take our rightful role as helpers (Ansar) in this country and help the immigrants (Muhajirun) and be examples for building a multiracial society.”
To be black and Muslim not only means to be subjected to both anti-black and anti-Muslim racism, but it also means that we make up a diverse community that includes both native-born Americans and immigrants, of the rich and the poor, of the black, white, brown, Asian, Arab, African, and indigenous American. As black people, God has already shaped us to stand up for downtrodden others. With Islam, He has given us a diverse community and a prophetic example to master solidarity and radical empathy, for certainly our beloved Prophet Muhammad, prayers and peace be upon him, said that “your belief is not a complete belief until you love for your brother (or sister) what you love for yourself.” And that is radical but certainly possible and absolutely necessary.