Beyond the Icons

Icon of Martin Luther King

Image source: Franciscan Icons by Robert Lentz

As a Muslim, we are taught to avoid icons or idols. I’ve taught various courses in Islamic history and  am deeply aware that this human tendency to create idols happened over and over again in Muslim societies. That is because of the human tendency to imbue objects with supernatural powers to intercede in human affairs on our behalf, rather than call upon an abstract,  and seemingly unknowable, Ultimate Reality. Similarly, we ascribe super human powers to movement leaders, rather than address the complex social systems. Thus we create icons of leaders like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and now Oprah Winfrey.

 

Oprah Winfrey speaking into a microphone will holding her Golden Globe award in her right hand.

Image source: Reuters

When we take leaders outside of their social context, and just focus on their rousing speeches, we do ourselves a disservice. The calls for Oprah Winfrey to run for president after given a powerful #TimesUp speech at the Golden Globes is the latest example of icon worship over personal work. Rousing speeches may inspire us, especially when we need to boost our morale for the hard work ahead. But the rousing speeches and public actions do not replace the transformative work of relationship building, of service to community, or sacrifice for the collective good. A powerful speech does not uproot longstanding norms, policies, and social practices that cause gendered vulnerabilities. No one woman, no matter how many Billions can change this society. Focusing on the icons prevents us from seeing how social change happens.

This week, we are celebrating Martin Luther King Day. The popular images of the Civil Rights Movement tend to focus on the March on Washington. We imagine the marches as a sign of mass mobilization. Our minds don’t shift to the organizing, the fundraising which was done by working class and poor Black folks who maintained the movement work. We don’t think about debates into the long hours, the marathon strategizing sessions, the rigorous training sessions to prepare Black youth to stare down white supremacist violence. Few of us think about Ella Baker or Fannie Lou Hamer who maintained that movement. No, we give the Civil Rights an icon and imagine that if we had one dope leader our world would be changed.

Fannie Lou Hamer, seated at left, at a meeting of the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union, a union of black domestic workers and day laborers. Photograph courtesy The Tougaloo College Civil Rights Collection at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History

It may be a stretch to call this a form of shirk, but a case can be made that it short circuits the faith-full work of getting to know one another, of working with people from different social and economic backgrounds to get stuff done. That’s the kind of work that the Sahabi (Companions of the Prophet Muhammad) and taba’een (Righteous Predecessors) did in Medinah. The focus on the icons keeps us from the responsibility of living our morality, our duty of caring and loving each human being and promoting dignity for each other. Focusing on the icon allows us to focus on adoring the image powerful leaders and less on the collective love we need to sustain our work.  Anas ibn Malik reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “None of you will have faith until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 13, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 45) The focus on the icon keeps us from actualizing that love in tangible acts that help our brothers and sisters live the dignified lives that we hope for ourselves. Of wanting for their children what we want for our children. Of realizing that their children are our children. And that we are in this together.

Note: this article is not to disparage Easter Orthodox Traditions, which utilize icons in profoundly meaningful ways.

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Coates, West, Public Intellectuals and Black American Muslims

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Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X

A major sticking point in the Coates-West feud was the discussion of Barack Obama and Malcolm X in We Were Eight Years in Power.  Given the chapter on Malcolm in Between the World and Me, I anticipated a thought experiment exploring what would Malcolm say about Barack Obama’s presidency.  While that didn’t happen, after Cornel West published his bombastic critique, many Black intellectuals weighed in. And there were a lot of Malcolm references to talk about Malcolm’s internationalism, his critique of power, and even critiquing West for hanging out with Malcolm’s rival, Louis Farrakhan. Yet, all of these references failed to explore Malcolm #BeingBlackandMuslim and what did that mean during the Obama years.  While valorizing Black Muslim heroes like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X in their death, mainstream Black civil rights leaders, public figures and even activists act as if we are historical footnotes. We’re still here. Black American Muslims in Detroit, Minneapolis, Boston, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles were targeted by harmful policies during the Obama administration. We still are targeted, but our plight is often erased in Black spaces.  

How do we write a whole book about Executive Power without talking about how that power was weilded against Black and Brown bodies in the U.S. and abroad?  It’s a legit question that Muslim Americans had and one reason why aspects of West’s critique resonated with many us. During Obama’s administration there are segments of Black America that were subject to similar COINTELPRO policies that helped create the conditions for Malcolm’s assassination. It was during the Obama administration when imam  Luqman Abdullah  was killed by federal agents. Only the local Boston chapter of Black Lives Matter brought attention to Usaama Rahim’s  killing. Often, when high profile Black activists, even radical ones, talk about Muslims they imagine they are talking about people “over there” or immigrants. Yet, one third of American Muslims are Black and we are especially targeted by National Security system and criminal justice system.

Given that climate of entrapment, career damaging investigations,  and public drudging, many Black Muslims were highly critical of the Obama administration. Yet his symbolic victory was not lost on us. Nor was it lost on those of us who were invited to the first and likely last 2016 eid celebration at the White House that was hella Black. 

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#BlackOutEid

COINTELPRO is not a historical concept when you have informants in our spaces of worship, volunteering for your organization, and FBI agents showing up at your trainings.  Nor is it a that far off when you have your whole community fighting about a partnership with DHS to investigate your own community. Drones and bombings are not an abstract concept when you have to comfort a mentor whose families members were obliterated by US made missile. Nor is the no fly list a abstract issue, when your key participant is detained at an airport and misses their flight to your event. Rendition or secret detention is not just a political thriller when you’re at a baby shower hugging a wife whose husband was disappeared in a foreign prison. Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer reminds us, we Black Americans need to contend with our relationship with empire. She had a simple but powerful letter to deliver to Obama that day.

We have to look at the tools and tactics that the main beneficiaries of white supremacy use to maintain their advantaged position. Sometimes, we are its tools. Just as we suffer in this country, we cannot turn away from the collateral damage of white supremacy.  They are the undocumented laborers, the Black and Latino kids pipelined into prison, the indigenous people fighting for sovereignty and environmental sanctity. There are many who are getting crushed in the systemic mechanism, and  it is not accidental. Their sweat, tears, and blood are being used as a lubricant for the gears to work together. If we cannot find another social lubricant, other than suffering, for the gears to move, then we must build better social mechanism that renders white supremacy irrelevant.  

If Black public intellectuals are going truth tellers shining light  on White Supremacy to massive audiences, then their light needs to multipronged and not cast those of us at the intersections into the shadows. This is why much of my focus last year was in making the connections. I sought to explore the ways in which the criminal justice system, immigration system, and national security system targets Black Muslims by bringing together organizers from Undocublack Network, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Prison Education Project, Black Liberation Project, Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA), and more. I’m hoping that in 2018 Black kinfolk can work together more. I’ve been reaching out for the past few years, and I’m hoping that some of y’all respond to my call because we need our kinfolks now more than ever.

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Ohlone Land

Image / Santa Clara University, 1933 (Image source Archive of California

I stopped writing poetry and stories a long time ago. But recently, I was tasked to celebrate a high point in my life. I chose to write about my Pan African Student graduation in 2003. I still cry when I think about that day and the ten years it took me to get my degree, from DeAnza, to Foothill, to Santa Clara.  There is much to be said, but sometimes through poetry or fiction we can say what can’t be said. So, here’s my poem:

 

Below ground in Ohlone land,
I was an interloper at a prestigious campus
In 1994, a community college drop out.
Searching shelves of tightly packed books
Reading authors whose quills were still wet as the
System connecting El Camino Real collapsed

Cum.
Laude.
Was possible.
Even with fits and restarts.
With failures and repeats.
Even with my world crumbling around me.
And so I earned my Kinte cloth—class of 2003.
While our kindred from the Motherland laugh at us
For making such pretentions
As wearing the cloth of kings.
But this struggle was noble.
And the imported cloth deepened its worth.
I had shed blood for this and it cost endless tears

I told my story, the daughter of a broken purple heart and
A pretty coloured girl whose teacher
Assured her Negros were of inferior intelligence.
I attained something that disproved their theories.
I am the child of the enslaved African
And the self loathing bastard who
Was a product of a violation.
I am the child of those who toiled
The soil from Georgia to Garden state
We could never have nothing. Not for long.
No, not even our bodies.
But this degree. Right here. They could never take that away.
For a moment, one brief moment, I felt free to breathe
Right there on Ohlone land.

Letter to Essence

I penned a letter to the editor of Essence Magazine, but haven’t heard back. I thought I’d publish it here.

I’m a co-founding director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative. You probably haven’t heard of my organization, as we’ve only been around for three years when we launched #BeingBlackAndMuslim. Muslim Americans are a diverse community, but media often erases the contributions of Black Muslim women. Unfortunately, the #Woke100 list failed to include a single Black Muslim woman.  For every 100 Black people in the United States, at least one is one Muslim. The erasure of Black Muslim women occurs in Black institutions that tend to be Christo-centric and in national Muslim organizations that tend to be Arab-centric. A recent Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) study says that African Americans make up about 25% of the American Muslim population. While Muslim American institutions are embracing our contributions, our faith identity is not always embraced in Black communities. Black Muslim women are making important contributions to our communities and society at large. I’d love for Essence to feature  Black Muslim women, both those who are descendants of enslaved peoples and more recent immigrants from the Mother Land. These include Black Muslim women from countries President Donald Trump tried to ban, Sudan and Somalia. There are so many examples that I look up to, including Clara Muhammad, Betty Shabazz, Ilyasah Shabazz, Ameenah Matthews, Ilhan Omar, Aminah Wadud, Su’ad Abdul Khabeer,  and Ibtihaj Muhammad.  It is so important that Black media celebrates our diverse faith traditions and shares nuanced stories about Black women that are not featured in mainstream media. Starting with Black Muslim women, who face triple marginalization, would be a good place to start.

Margari Hill

Programming Director, MuslimARC

Pass The Mic

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Rendering of Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer’s February 2017 tweetImage courtesy of Kelly Nuttal @typologianista

After numerous interviews and casual conversations with scholars, imams, and leaders of all backgrounds across the country, evidence points to highly qualified Black speakers and panelists receiving less compensation than their white, Arab, or South Asian counterparts in the same field. This is not to say that Arab, South Asian and White speakers don’t make important contributions. Rather, it is to point out the preferential treatment towards non-Black speakers that that privileges some and disadvantages others based on their racial or ethnic identity. The erasure, under compensation, and aversion to Black leadership is against a lot of what we claim to stand for as a community. 

The situation is so bad that speakers such as Suhaib Webb and Linda Sarsour have called out the failure to invite Black intellectual thought leaders while on the main stage of events that they were invited to.  Layla Abdullah-Poulos called on  non-Black allies to do more. She writes, “Effective allies can’t just speak about erasure; they are supposed to create spaces to pass the mic to center marginalized voices or risk becoming complicit in continuing the marginalization and reinforcing notions that we can’t speak for ourselves.” Often, people turn to educators such as Layla and myself to list the recommendations for diverse speakers that are often ignored.  What we need are accomplices who will utilize their privilege to affect change. Here are 5 tips for non-Black Muslim speakers and leaders to pass the mic:

  1. Ask Questions. Ask who else the organization has invited to be on the panel or speaker line up or for an interview. Don’t be shy about asking about the demographics of the speakers and remind the event planner to be mindful of the importance of representation. Be sure to ask what outreach was done to ensure a representative candidate pool.
  2. Pass the Mic. Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer wrote, “You don’t need to be the voice for the voiceless, just pass the mic.” If you received a speaking request, consider if there are other people more qualified to speak on the subject than you. If you don’t have a PhD in hand, with decades of work in the community, there probably is a solid list of folks with more expertise than you.  You’re probably overworked, and passing on an event might be good for everyone.  Give yourself a quota if you’re high demand: i.e. “For every 5 requests, I’m going to pass one to some other speaker.”
  3. Share your Platform. If giving a talk, ask for an underrepresented person whose intellectual property you have drawn from to share the stage with you. Look for a local person who you could bring on stage and boost their work. The truth is, they will continue the work that needs to be done when you’re busy speaking elsewhere. Invite your platform to champion someone else whose story should be told, whose perspective should be shared, whose message is important, but not as widely recognized as you.
  4. Cite your Sources. In your speeches, presentations, and writing, mention your sources people by name, and not just dead leaders, but those who hold down communities today. Your speech should cite Black Muslim thought leaders, not just Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali. In fact, your reading list should be vast to include the intellectual contributions of men and women from the Global South.
  5. Mentor those with Less Privilege. Mentor up-and-coming leaders from underrepresented groups.  Take a few under your wing. Be sure to dedicate some part of your leadership practice to lifting others as you climb.
  6. Be Humble. I mean it in a good way, not as a dis track. We should never think of ourselves as empowering others and we should refrain from paternalistic attitudes towards those we amplify, support, or mentor. Stepping back when we’re so used to stepping up is a practice of self purification. It is an honor to be able to bask in someone’s shine, walk beside them in their journey to living the life that their Creator intended for them to live. We should avoid ulterior motives, such as thinking that by sharing resources with, honoring contributions, or signal boosting a person with less privilege than ourselves means that they owe us something. It is a blessing to walk in unison with others and if we can be of service, we should give Thanks and All Praises to the Most High.

Passing the mic may be challenging if your sole income is based on public speaking. If that’s the case, I’d suggest consider diversifying your skill set so that you’re not dependent upon speaking gigs. Recognizing our privileging, we should think about who we are bringing with us. Passing the mic may be a test if we have some hurt when a person criticized us or disagrees with our stance on an issue. Passing the mic may be hard if we feel that we worked so hard to get to the prominence that we have. But then, who are we lifting up as we are climbing?  It is truly an honor and and privilege to be able to do this work, and it is a duty to constantly do better. These steps are by no means comprehensive.  I welcome you to share your suggestions in the comments below.

 

 

 

Post Election Reflection

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On Tuesday November 8th, 2016,  many of us were frozen with anxiety as we awaited the results of an  unprecedented presidential race with the two frontrunners, Hillary Clinton running as the Democratic Nominee and Donald Trump as the Republican nominee.  Due to the Electoral College system, Trump is the fifth elected president to win while losing the popular vote (Pew). The reactions among Muslim Americans are varied, some with shock while others, including  the first Muslim American Representative in Congress, Keith Ellison  predicted that Donald Trump could win. His election was a culmination of a very bitter presidential campaign that exposed the dark underside of America’s racial, gender, and class politics. From a racial justice framework, I am gravely concerned about the President Elect’s statements about Black Lives Matter, Muslim Americans, and Latinos. The slogan “Make America Great Again,”while nostalgic about America’s past,  triggered many  People of Color, especially  African Americans, Mexican Americans and Asian Americans who historically faced the brutality of white supremacy enshrined in law. It is foreboding when International Human Rights Watch calls for the President Elect Donald Trump to govern with respect for rights and ACLU preparing to sue if Donald Trump implements his proposed policies.

Many people who voted for Trump were concerned about immigration, terrorism, the economy, and crime, while supporters of Clinton were  concerned about inequality, gun violence and the environment as serious problems (Pew). Without a question, this election highlighted the racial divide in this country, as the majority of White americans including the majority of White women, voted for Trump. They often using coded language around immigration and criminality for people of color.

My work at MuslimARC focuses on  diversity and  cultural competence training and  racial justice education. We are committed to  amplifying narratives, and advocating for those who will be most affected by legislation and policies. We stand in solidarity with racialized groups, including  Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, advocating for equal protection under the law. We find strength in our diversity, in our common bond due to our multiple intersecting identities that connect us to all of humanity.

I am concerned about the safety, civil liberties, and as well as access to quality healthcare, and quality education.  The uptick in hate crimes and racial and religious intolerance against Muslim Americans are a deep concern. Yet, I will face my fears with courage. We continue to speak truth to power and not be swayed by the temptation to fall in step with this tide. We should not work to appease those who obfuscate the truth for their own benefit.  Instead, we should continue to shed light on the truth, in how corporate interests and elites pit us against one another.

Many of us have aspirations that this country could achieve its promise of equality and freedom, that we can right our historical wrongs, by setting a new course towards guaranteeing every resident dignity.Deepa Iyer beautifully articulates this vision for a multi-cultural society in We Too Sing America. Much of the anxiety about crime, immigration, and jobs comes from the  demographic shift sis this country becomes majority minority. I repudiate divisive rhetoric, condemn acts of racial and religious intolerance, and appeal to our highest values and aspirations for this nation. I know our journey will be long, that we will be tried and tested. But this work, is a crucible of our faith in action. My work is to train leaders from amongst the people most affected to be better equipped to hold those in power accountable.  In this moment, I  renew my intention continue this work, to strengthen my  resolve to institutionalize racial justice work in Muslim communities. I remember the chapter of the Qur’an:

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمنِ الرَّحِيمِ

وَالْعَصْرِ

إِنَّ الْإِنسَانَ لَفِي خُسْرٍ

إِلَّا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالْحَقِّ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالصَّبْرِ

In The Name of Allah, The Beneficent, The Merciful 1. “By Time”, 2. “Surely Humanity  is in loss,” 3. “Save those who believe and do good deeds, and enjoin on each other truth, and enjoin on each other patience.

I know we will face many challenges, but we cannot be complacent or resigned. For my MuslimARC family, I have been so encouraged to see you change things with your hands, with your words, and with your hearts.  For my partners in MuslimARC and all the the various organizations I’ve worked with over the past three years, I am proud of  your civic engagement, of your activism, your service to humanity,  and your continual dedication to the Creator. I am honored to be on the right side of history, of bringing Mercy to humanity.

Happy Birthday Marc Manley

Baby Marc

February 28th the birthday of three people who have shaped my journey and taught me to love God in the realest way. My mother who has always taught me to have faith, my good friend who helped foster my courage to return back to my faith, and my husband who has deepened my faith and demonstrated the meaning of dedication. Today is his birthday, today.

As a graduate student, I first stumbled across his blog and got butterflies. I followed the writings of this dreamy unattainable guy across the country. A few years later, two fellow bloggers told me that he mentioned me. I saw him as all the best pieces of everyone I ever cared about put together in one big man package. Creative, musical, devout, earnest, honest, generous, warm, strong, intellectual, and emotional. Being in love with love, I fell hard. I met him for the first time as I returned from a year of self imposed exile abroad. I peaked through the peephole for the first time, and I knew that this was the man I was going to marry.

The year before we were engaged, I attended my family reunion. My cousin and I shared the challenges of finding a match, somebody who was ‘hood enough to understand our family while at the same time being able to mix in our professional circles. Like my husband, we learned to be social chameleons, sharing different parts of ourselves in different contexts. Born in the Rust Belt like myself, he still holds an attachment to Detroit. My crazy matches his crazy, and sometimes that is not in a good way. We’re two strong headed, trash talking, sensitive people. And we’re also smart, so when we argue it is like clash of the titans. But more often than not we end up being something fantastic. For example, we can have tag team, go Bonnie and Clyde, on debates.

Together, we have struggled through health crisis, work-life crisis, personal battles, and deaths of close friends and family. When we got married, he was working at the school of design, trying to complete his undergraduate degree. The strain wore down his health and there were probably close calls when I could have lost him. I can tell you stories about him defending the elderly on the bus, chasing down a man who abused a woman, trying to rescue someone from a collapsed building. But the most courageous thing he does is to feel. He cries when he says goodbye to his parents, he cried on our wedding, and he cries during prayer.

My husband is probably one of the most brilliant thinkers I know. For over five years, I dedicated much of my life to studying Arabic, from three intensive summer programs, commuting from San Jose to San Fransisco for private Arabic tutoring, battling through two years coursework in graduate, even a year in Kuwait and Egypt. I studied Arabic at University California Berkeley, at Pacifica Arabic resources, at Stanford, at Universite Moulay Ismail, at Middlebury, at Alif Fez, at at Markez Diwan, and at American University of Cairo to finally make it to upper advanced. But this man taught himself! His Arabic today is so much better than mine. He has an incredible talent for learning and especially languages. He’s fluent in Japanese, Spanish, and Arabic. In addition to studying independently with brilliant scholars and hidden gems in our community, he’s the only autodidactic I know.

Our house is filled with classical Islamic texts in Arabic, books I’m afraid to crack open lest I be reminded about my my neglect of my language study. I’ve seen him filling up a notebook with three books open while surfing the internet filling. His hours are filled up with study and deep thought, often interrupted by our four year old. She’s our greatest collaboration who has really changed our lives in the most positive ways. I see so much of him and I in her. Of course she is theatrical and has a huge vocabulary.

Nobody knows the sincerity of a leader better than their family. I know that he loves being Muslim, that he is satisfied with Muhammad as his prophet, and he is satisfied with his Lord. I know of his hopes and frustrations in building a thriving community. Despite those frustrations, nothing makes him happier than seeing people well fed and belonging. He has given talks that have made me cry, that remind me of the beauty of God’s creation and our place in it. There are times when I wish I could whisk the troubles of the world away and just enjoy us without interruption. At those times, my heart aches because life gets in the way of true expressions of love and appreciation. I could write much more about this unique guy whom I admire very much. Anyways, I hope you say a little prayer for the birthday boy and our little family.