What’s In a Name?: Using “Muslim” As a Cultural Category Erases and Stereotypes

Image source: Nsenga Knight from A Guide to the Last Rite 2011-12 ” tumblr_nihv1yRokW1qex654o1_500

In seeking solidarity with Black movements, organizers must be cognizant of and uproot anti-blackness from the content and approach to their work down to the terminology and vocabulary used. Whether doing this for the purpose of talking about solidarity with Ferguson, or in terms of addressing Islamophobia and civil liberties violations, the framing of types of social justice or, social justice issues has resulted in tangible exclusions of Black/African American Muslims and feelings of erasure. Even in the realm of  Muslim American social justice work, certain voices are privileged over Black Muslim voices. The latest wave of this patterned behavior raises serious concerns in the engagement with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.  In an “Open Letter to Non-Black Muslims,” Nashwa Khan wrote:

We Muslims who are non-black, and non-black people as a whole – we need to move away from constantly wanting to center and insert our own identities. I want to see solidarity with our black brothers and sisters be genuine and authentic. I want to witness non-black people unpack our benefits and complicity. I want to see us raise black voices in this discourse instead of inserting our own thoughts or letting every black individual relive trauma by presenting ourselves as special snowflakes.

The socio-economic background of many Black American Muslims has not positioned them to engage with immigrant-origin college-educated on the same footing.  Nor do many of the Black/African Muslim activists have access to the same platforms as many non Black Muslims. Further, many do not have  institutional backing to address their grievances. Compounding inequities, Black American Muslims,  who are most affected by policing and surveillance, are often relegated to a secondary role in national Muslim organizations or Muslim-related religious civil rights advocacy groups. Making “Muslim” a cultural category, along with ethnic groups like “South Asian” or “Arab,” is problematic in a number of ways, often resulting in  practices that exclude or erase Black/African Muslims.

Effects

The of Muslim a cultural identity include reifying South Asian and Arab hegemony in Muslim discourses. One particular issue is using “Arab and South Asian” as a synonym for Muslim, or on a group that is intended to be open to all Muslims but only uses some names and ethnicities. On one level it makes sense that civil liberties groups have developed the category “Muslim, Arab, and South Asian” to address the ways in which some communities have borne the brunt of government surveillance and discrimination in  post-9/11 society. However, the cultural category has resulted in the exclusion of Black Muslims in the discussion of Muslim civil liberties or the effects of Islamophobia. Black American Muslims have been under surveillance and discrimination many decades before 9/11.


American Muslims are a diverse group, comprised of individuals of South Asian, Arab, North African, Middle Eastern, African, Latino, White, Indigenous, Asian, and Pacific Islander background. Indeed, over ⅓ of the US Muslim population is Black/African. US media,  government agencies, and organizations often ignore this, to much criticism from and distress of  Muslims. However, Muslims – both at the individual and the institutional level – engage in the framing of “Arab and South Asian” in the same category as “Muslim” and vice versa, frequently. While it may be unintentional, the results of this exclusion have toxic potential, including but not limited to the following:

  1. Centering South Asian and Arab voices as larger groups that retain their own complexities (i.e. individuals are able to identify or not identify as Muslim yet speak for Muslim communities) while reducing other groups to only their religious identity
  2. Ensuring the idea of Islam and Muslims are linked most strongly to Arabs and South Asians
  3. Minimizing the historical contributions of Black and African Muslims, as well as of Muslims in North Africa who are not Arab and Muslims from regions including Southeast Asia and East Asia.
  4. Privileging Arab and South Asian perspectives as representative of the Muslim community at the expense of marginalized groups
  5. Allowing for South Asian and Arab Muslims with little ties or stake in mosque or Muslim community life to have the privilege to set the agenda religious and spiritual life in mosques and Muslim community centers.
  6. Marginalizing Muslims who strongly identify with their faith tradition by moving “Muslim” to a racialized but secular humanistic framework.
  7. Making South Asian and Arab cultures normative.
  8. Not allowing South Asians of Sikh, Hindu, Christian, or Buddhist religious identities or Arab Christians to speak to their faith traditions, while allowing solely Muslims to speak to theirs.

Stereotypes

  1. Conflating Arabs or South Asians with Islam
  2. Reifying concept of a monolithic Muslim culture
  3. Ignoring overlap between Black and Muslim identities
  4. Promoting the idea that Islam is a foreign religion without American roots
  5. Ahistorical depiction of Black Muslims, downplaying the historical role that Black Muslims have played in freedom struggles of which #BlackLIvesMatter is a part. This includes people like Jamil El-Amin, (H.Rap Brown) who is currently imprisoned, and many others from centuries ago to today..

By talking about Muslim solidarity and taking Islam out of it, we support the creation of a Muslim cultural category that excludes people who are Black American Muslims, as well as other Muslims who do not fall into these dominant ethnic categories. While embracing the concept of self-identified Muslim, it is important to address how treating “Muslim” as an ethnic, cultural, or political identity can invalidate the experiences of converts and/or Muslims who do not fit into the major cultural categories associated with Muslim identities.

Some options to use instead (note: each of these categories has a pro and a con, which I encourage you to help flesh them out in the comments below):

  • Confessional Category: Just use “Muslim”: i.e. Mobilizing Muslims for Ferguson
  • Footnote it: Use Muslim, but include a footnote that lists the major ethnic groups: i.e. Muslims for Ferguson1

——

Calling on all self identified Muslims, including but not limited to Arab, African/Black, South Asian, North African, Iranian, Latino, Asian, and White Muslims.  

  • Direct Marketing Approach: List the target Ethnic groups for participation: i.e. Arab, South Asian, African/Black Coalition against Spying.
  • HIghlight major groups: List the groups comprising largest demographics ie: African/Black, South Asian, and Arab Muslims (ASAM) or Muslim African/Black South Asian, and Arab (MASA)
    • Include in a footnote or clear statement that all Muslims and people of all faiths and backgrounds are welcome to join.
  • Interfaith route: i.e. Middle Eastern and South Asian Interfaith Alliance for #BlackLivesMatter
  • Get Creative: i.e.  Non-Aligned Movement for #BlackLivesMatter
    • the Non-Aligned movement harkens back to the non-aligned movement comprised of multiple states, many of which also had Muslim populations, including India, Ghana, Egypt, Yugoslavia

This resources should be used liberally by non-Black Muslims to end the erasure of their Black Muslim brothers and sisters. Although many members of the Black community may not be offended by some use of the language (such is the case with non-Blacks using the n-word where some people will give their friends a pass, but overall the use is not accepted by a more conscious crowd), it is still recommended to modify the language in response to a vocal few. This article is meant to start an important conversation, one which we hope will be particularly sensitive to those who are largely excluded in Muslim American narratives. In developing inclusive language, we must be open to continual dialogue and critiques. Please share your thoughts and concerns in the comments below. 

The Herstory of Malcolm X’s Legacy

Often, when we talk about the history of Islam in America, we focus on the great men and their big ideas.This month in looking at the BlackLivesMatter Movement through the life and legacy of Malcolm X, I have often thought about the thought of the many women who were were also part of the our nation’s freedom struggle. Many Muslim Americans know about Malcolm X, but few know about the women in his life. Few of us consider the role that many of our sisters who were pioneers of establishing Islam in America, such as Clara Muhammad the wife of Elijah Muhammad. Just as we remember Malcolm, we should know about Ella Collins, Betty Shabazz, and his daughters Attallah Shabazz, Qubilah Shabazz, Ilyasah Shabazz, Gamilah Lumumba Shabazz, Malikah Shabazz and Malaak Shabazz. All of these women have carried the burden of maintaining his legacy. And if we are the honor the man, we should acknowledge the women who contributed to his life and help maintain his memory.

While few of us recognize Ella Collins (1914-1996) as a seminal figure in American Muslim history, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center honors her civil rights legacy with the Ella Collin’s Institute (ECI). The half sister of Malcolm X, she was responsible for recruiting Malcolm X into the Nation of Islam, although Spike Lee’s film biopic of Malcolm X erased her. Throughout his life she was influential, having helped raised the young Malcolm Little after his father was murdered and mothered suffered a nervous breakdown. She was an activist who had worked for the first Rev. Adam Clayton Powell. According to her obituary, Ella Collins advised her half brother to embrace orthodox Islam and she funded his pilgrimage to Mecca. After his assassination, Ella Collins maintained the Organization for Afro American Unity after his assassination. While her role in supporting Malcolm X is noteworthy,   Ella Collins’ life history as a business woman who set up schools and worked in civil rights is noteworthy in and of itself. By looking at her life, it becomes clear that women played a central role in the civil rights movement and in instituion bulding in the Black American Muslim community.

Betty Shabazz (1934-1997) was invited to Nation of Islam meetings. After attending several meeting wehre Malcolm X preached, she joined in 1956. Following two years of courtship, they married in 1958. Betty Shabazz was pregnant with twins, when Malcolm X was assissinated. Raising her six daughters alone, Ruby Dee and Juanita Poitierr (wife of Sidney Poitier) raised funds to provide her a home and the royalties to the Autobiography of Malcolm X supported the family. Shabazz returned to school and eventually earned a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts in 1975. She became a college administrator and public speaker, often defending her husband’s legacy and discussing topics such as civil rights and racial tolerance. Her life also ended tragically, when she succumbed to her burn injuries from a fire her grandson ignited.

Although she was wife of one of the most influential thought leaders in the civil rights movement, Betty Shabazz’s life history also provides a nuanced narrative of Black American life. She was a middle class, college educated Black woman who faced racism. She negotiated gendered norms in her marriage to develop a partnership with her husband. In addition, by putting Malcolm X’s life in context, we can take a critical look at ourselves in the sunni Muslim community, which failed to support Malcolm’s burial or his widow. Yet now, we find a sense of rootedness in his legacy. And when we talk about his legacy, how much do we honor the women who were closest to him.

It would do a great disservice to speak about Malcolm X’s legacy without talking about his heirs. We should know their names and their struggles because they have largely born greatest burden in the loss of malcolm x. We should know more about Attallah Shabazz, Qubilah Shabazz, Ilyasah Shabazz, Gamilah Lumumba Shabazz, Malikah Shabazz and Malaak Shabazz. Attallah became involved in the arts and public speaking, Gamilah hip hop, Qubilah became embroiled a supposed plot to kill Louis Farakhan, Ilyasah Shabazz became a public speaker and author of Growing Up X and a children’s book titled Malcolm Little: the Little Boy Who Grew up to Become Malcolm X . Malcolm X’s daughters, whose life histories are storied and triumphant reflect the turbulent years following their father’s assassination. Their day to day struggles is a topic worthy of study and reflection on Black American Muslim life in and of themselves.

Even separating their accomplishes from Malcolm X, these eight women point to extraordinary lives of Black American Muslim women. Centering women’s lives can give us a more nuanced sense of historical processes. Ella Collins shows us how social supports also played a role in supporting inspirational figures. Betty Shabazz provides a more nuanced picture of Black women in the 50s and 60s and how they navigated racism and gendered norms. Before the 1992 movie, while Malcolm X was being vilified and the sunni Muslim community largely distanced themselves from his legacy, it was largely Betty Shabazz and her daughters who maintained the Legacy of Malcolm X. We can’t truly honor Malcolm X’s legacy without giving thanks to the women who have shaped it.

Mobilizing Black-American Muslims

How a rally in Philadelphia could be an effective model for the future

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Image source: Joshua Scott Albert @ jpegjoshua

The “Make It Plain-Philly” rally that took place on December 27th, 2014 was as much about the present day circumstances of race in America as it was about the long-term mobilization of black Muslims in America.

Philadelphia is one of the oldest and most established indigenous American Muslim communities. According to the the Association of Religion Data Archives, in 2010 Muslims made up about 2.6% Philadelphia County’s population, totaling about 40,000. It is the fourth largest Muslim population center, with at least 63 registered mosques. Islam is so normalized in Philadelphia that it is not an uncommon sight to see a hijab-clad black American Muslim driving the city bus or niqab-wearing women in scrubs at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Islam has become deeply embedded in the local vernacular, so much so that many non-Muslims use the term “ock” (derived from the Arabic term akhi which means brother) to refer to Muslims. Even Muslim modes of dress and grooming are adopted by the broader community. It is not uncommon for a non-Muslim to request a “sunni beard” trim from his local barber. Muslims have played an important role in the city’s institutions, a noteworthy example is Kenny Luqman Gamble’s redevelopment project in South Philadelphia.

Given this cultural and institutional presence in the city, black Muslims in Philadelphia have an opportunity to establish two important precedents:

First, Muslims should have a lot to say about racism in America, drawing from the history of black Muslims who have repeatedly articulated powerful critiques of racist social, cultural, political and economic structures. Taking a leadership role in addressing issues of race and racism in America is an important step Muslims in America must undertake that aligns with the moral and ethical impulses of Islam. In other words, Islam has something meaningfully important to add to the conversation, and so participation is both morally obligated and politically necessary.

Second, the black Muslim community must take this opportunity to assume a leadership role within the broader Muslim community on an issue important to America. Muslims in general must take an active role in addressing issues of racism and bigotry and black Muslims have unique insights into these issues given its history and experience of Islam in America.

In 1985, Philadelphia became the only US city in which a police department bombed civilians, killing 11 people. The Justice Department recently intervened  to curb abuses in Philadelphia Police Department.  The cases of misconduct included corruption, excessive use of force, sexual misconduct, false arrest, and homicide.  Philadelphia Muslims are no strangers to structural racism, over policing and surveillance.   The NYPD’s spy program includes surveillance of UPenn MSA students. A few years back, an APB was issued by police for my husband, Marc Manley, for taking a picture of train tracks while wearing a fez.

Likewise, black Muslims are not immune to the vulnerability of black Life, as the Philadelphia community was reminded of at the janazah of Aisha Abdul Rahman.  Black Muslims are all too often victims of gun violence.

With the intersection of race, Muslim identity and policing in Philadelphia, the spontaneous efforts Philadelphia Muslims to organize “Make It Plain” was a necessary response by a community that needs to make it presence known.

One of the most powerful statements of the rally was the presence of black American Muslim leadership. The organizers have decades of experience fundraising, community building, writing, and supporting the community.  We are witnessing increased solidarity within the Muslim community.  We are hopeful that discussions about race happening in Muslim circles across the country. But we have many hurdles to overcome in order to make long term and sustainable changes. Some black American Muslim leaders from the  Black Power movement have expressed skepticism about the efficacy of our actions. Some traditional Muslims don’t believe that protest even has a place in Islam. We have to be vigilant about exercises of privilege from our non-black allies within the Muslim community, which can derail important conversations or deflate the momentum. It is absolutely necessary that we train our non-black Muslim allies in privilege and anti-racism in order to prevent patterns of paternalism or speaking over inner-city black Muslims. We also need to develop trainings for marginalized groups and youth so that they can have the tools and vocabulary to challenge attempts to silence them.

Kameelah Mu’min Rashad, a prominent Muslim activist in Philadelphia, spoke of this rally as a call to action for Muslim community leaders and members to unite and take a stand for police accountability and racial justice. “We must put faith into action and take a stand against oppression, whether by seeking to remove it with our hands, speaking against it, or by hating it in our hearts. We are calling on our brothers and sisters to stand, speak and act!

Donna Auston stated, “it was wonderful to see our community, predominantly black Muslims, standing up for #blacklivesmatter. Both identities should speak to this moment.”

When I asked Kameelah what stood out most, she replied by pointing to a picture of a young boy holding a megaphone during the march, referring to the participation of our children. “Bring our children with us so that they will be part of this legacy. It is an ongoing struggle, a generational struggle.” She continued,  ” this is not just talk. This is their inheritance as Muslims as black people as Americans”.

The rally was held at LOVE park at 15th and JFK Boulevard at 12pm. The line up included, Tanya Dickerson, Brandon Tate-Brown’s mother, author and poet Seff Al-Afriqi, author and poet, writer Shahidah Mohammad, and keynote speaker Imam Abdul Malik. All faiths are welcome.

Make it Plain is a group of concerned Muslims who are working to raise awareness to encourage, inspire, and support the mobilization of the Muslim community to respond to police brutality and the conditions that bring about the over policing of the Black/African American community. We are kicking off this movement in Philadelphia. For more information, visit the site muslimsmakeitplain.com.  You can also visit the Facebook Event page.

Originally published at Islamic Monthly.

Call for US and Canadian Muslim Participants in Study on Inter-Ethnic Relations

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As Programming Director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative,  I  am asking for your support in distributing our Study of Inter-Ethnic Relations in Muslim Communities. Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC) is a group of Muslims working together to build and collect the tools needed to creatively address and effectively challenge racism in our communities. As a human rights organization, we focus on education, advocacy, and outreach.

Our survey  is an eight question questionnaire intended to gauge perceptions of race and ethnic relations in Canada and the United States.  In order to have accurate data, we are tracking the initial surveys by email. Upon collection, all personal information will be deleted and data coded to ensure the privacy of the respondents. The responses will only be shared with a small research team at MuslimARC, and your information will remain private. Completing the survey will not involve any risk to you, although some questions about previous experience of being harassed or discriminated against may cause some emotional triggers.

MuslimARC is committed to continual dialogue and examination of ethnic, racial, and Islamic identity and incorporates wisdom from the Islamic sciences, grassroots activism, human rights law, the arts, and instructional design. We hope to offer work that is fresh, unique, and can be put to use on the ground challenging racism in American/Canadian Muslim communities. You can visit our website (muslimarc.org) for more information about our programming and campaigns.

We are also on Facebook (www.facebook.com/muslimarc), Twitter (www.twitter.com/muslimarc), and Tumblr (http://muslimarc.tumblr.com), if you would prefer to support our efforts through those mediums instead. Our newsletter sign-up is on our website.

The survey will be open from now until 11:59pm EST January 9th, 2015. Please share widely with your social network. Please feel free to email me or send your questions to info@muslimarc.org. You can fill out the form below.

 

 

Open Letter to the Organizers of the African-American Islamic Summit

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

 

Surah al-Ahzab 33:35

Surah al-Ahzab 33:35

“Verily for all men and women who have surrendered themselves to God, and all believing men and believing women, and all truly devout men and truly devout women, and all men and women who are true to their word, all men and women who are patient in adversity, and all men and women who humble themselves [before Allah], and all men and women who give in charity, and all self-denying men and self-denying women, and all men and women who are mindful of their chastity, and all men and women who remember Allah unceasingly: for [all of] them has Allah readied forgiveness of sins and a mighty reward.” (33:35)

To: Al Qawm Institute, the Organizers of the African-American Islamic Summit, Lamppost Productions, the speakers at this forum and all the participants.

Al-Salaamu Alaikum,

This brief statement follows earlier efforts to engage the administration at Al Qawm Institute and Lamppost Productions about the disappointment we feel that the upcoming African-American Islamic Summit completely neglects the representation of diversity in our community.

The tendency to overlook certain parts of the diverse population of Muslims is endemic. It could be too many immigrants or next-generation immigrants overlooking African Americans; it could be older Muslims overlooking Muslim youth; or it could be male leaders and representatives overlooking female leaders and representatives–the problem is the same and sends a disheartening message to some members of the collective body of Muslims, namely, that you do not matter; you are not worthy of representation here, your voice does not count, your experiences are not a significant reflection of the whole.

Thus, we urge the organizers, Al Qawm Institute, the Lamppost Productions administration, the presenters and the attendees alike to remember that in serving Allah, we should endeavor to show our mutual love and respect for women as well as men who have struggled to live a life of dignity, especially as African Americans, through trials untold.

While we applaud your efforts to recognize the important contributions and experiences of being African-American and Muslim, we feel the needs of our community would have been better served if this forum was set up in such a way as to demonstrate the recognition that men did not struggle alone, women have struggled with them and women continue to support the vitality and spirit of Islam as African-Americans.

While we wish you well, we regret that this valuable contribution of women has been overlooked in the efforts to hold the African-American Islamic Summit.

This letter has been drafted in the spirit of sincere advice (nasiha) as counseled by our beloved prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. As such, we are committed to continued dialogue and forward movement on this issue. We remain open and available to the organizers of this program and others in the community who are interested in constructing more inclusive and representative platforms where matters of communal concern might be addressed and advanced.

Jazak Allah Kheir,

The Undersigned
Sister Aisha Al-Adawiya

Sister Donna Auston

Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer

Sister Kameelah Mu’Min Rashad

Dr. Aminah McCloud

Dr. Amina Wadud

Sister Margari Azizah Hill

Sister Waheedah Muhammad

Dr. Jamillah Karim

Sister Mubarakah Ibrahim

Sister Majida Abdul-Karim

 

Update

 

Lamppost representatives stated that they felt the open letter unfairly attacked their organizations and highlighted its track record inviting female speakers such as Zaynab Ansari . After exchange with organizers and supports, Sister Kameelah Mu’Min Rashad attended the summit.  During the event, event organizer Imam Amin address Sister Kameelah, apologized for the act of exclusion and asked her to read her letter. Some audience members expressed support for the letter and, as reported by one of the sisters who helped organize, some women expressed their disapproval of the letter, arguing that it stemmed from feminism, which, “has no place in Islam.” The discussions at time were emotional, but I think that it stirred a healthy discussion about leadership, authority, and gender within Black Muslim communities. In conclusion, I wanted to stress that our communities thrive with mutual consultation that takes into account the voices and perspectives of all groups, including the marginalized and disenfranchised. For us to proposer, we will need each other, as Allah (s.w.t.) tells us in the Qur’an:

The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those – Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise. (9:71)

May Allah increase us in patience and forgiveness. Ameen.

 

Call for Muslim Organizations to Stand with Ferguson

Ministers try Peaceful Protests in Ferguson

Img source: St. Louis Post Dispatch retrieved August 13, 2014 from http://www.stltoday.com/

Inspired by a letter written by Rev. Dr. Keith Bolton and Rev. Deborah Blood Co-Chairs of the Sacred Conversations on Race Ministry, which was posted on Facebook I wrote up a similar letter which I would love to see from Muslim leaders and civil liberties organizations. Here is a brief excerpt:

Salam alaikum,
We await the grand jury decision on whether Darren Wilson, the police officer who fired on and killed unarmed Michael Brown, will be indicted on criminal charges. Our Noble Prophet ﷺ said, “By Allah, if you have killed one man, it is as if you have killed all the people” (Sunan Sa’id ibn Mansur 2776). While Michael Brown’s death is a deep tragedy in and of itself, the militarized response to the protests it sparked reflect racial disparities and long standing injustices in our society. As Muslims we should draw upon our strong tradition of standing with the most marginalized members of society. Allah tells us in the Qur’an:
O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah , even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, Acquainted (Sahih International 4:135)
Mass incarceration, police brutality and the frequency of extrajudicial killings of Black Americans in the United States , including that of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah and Amadou Diallo (One every 28 hours) are reflections of the structural racism in our society. The activation of the National Guard in Missouri this week is a stark reminder of the militarized response to non-violent protests.

Donna Auston gave me a powerful reminder that we as Muslims should not only care because some of the victims are Muslims. We should care period. Also, we must be vigilant about not making this an issue a Black male problem, the police brutality, sexual exploration, and extra-judicial executions of Black women like Women like Elanor Bumpurs or Kathryn Johnston.

Read the rest of the post on at reMARC.