The Dilemma of Leading from Behind

Iron St. Murals in Detroit. Photo Credit: Pendarvis Harshaw

Iron St. Murals in Detroit. Photo Credit: Pendarvis Harshaw

When a marginalized person in our community is given access to power, education, or resources, we often second guess them. There is not democratic process that makes any job, fellowship, internship, roundtable, or leadership position equal opportunity for all of us. Being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right person who vouched for you, or having certain privileges can give you opportunities which are denied to someone even more deserving or qualified. In this competitive world and unequal world, we don’t have control over the privileges that are bestowed upon us or the doors that open up for us. What matters is that when we walk through some doors we kick them open so hard that they stay open. What matters is what we do with those opportunities and how do we serve others with the privileges we have been granted.
 When folks are calling out others, they often focus on the the individual who they see as having shortcomings, rather than the systemic issue that may hamper them from being able to take that ideal path. I’m a sensitive person. So when I see others talk about me or others who I work with, my empath mode goes into full gear. Depending on how we frame a critique, we can create climate where others can be disparaged.  Once someone’s character has been attacked for being self serving, especially when they work to serve the community, they tend to shut down from dialogue. It’s usually against my better judgment to try to try to give context or explain the dilemma of anyone in a position of leadership, including myself. It is not just me being defensive, but with empathy we can better understand each other and move towards a solution. And even if we are at loggerheads, with empathy we can understand the underlying assumptions and motivations that led someone to make a decision or take a stance on an issue. We can disagree without thinking that assuming a moral superiority.
Social media makes us all much more accessible, it means all sorts of moral judgements about your personal choices, your politics, or your adherence to your faith will show up in your timeline. It means that hours of your day can be eaten up going back and forth trying to save face in debates where hundreds of people reading it will form strong opinions about you. It means that people will send you screen shots of comments that may make you question your ability to operate in the community. It means that the cream in your morning coffee will sour as your inbox or mentions are flooded with critiques mixed with ad hominem attacks.
Being put in the position to represent the community is a heavy mantle to bear.  I often wish my family could go back to anonymity and live our lives like normal people. I slowly saw my private life die in 2007 when I posted my first public blog entry. Then across the world, people would recognize who I was. People who never met me had all sorts of assumptions formed opinions about my personal life, my politics, and my religious and spiritual journey. My private life ended when my husband gave his first khutbah at UPenn in 2009. Given the vitriol, I moved into obscurity until I founded an organization in 2014. Initially, I didn’t want to be the public face. I did so because people dismissed our efforts and erased the Black women involved in the project.  There are aspects of my work that I love. First and foremost, I love teaching. But I have to constantly renew my intentions because the constant barrage of critiques and debates are tiring.  The returns of doing this work are limited emotionally, personally, or financially, but this is important work.  Even though I was not the best qualified to do anti-racism education, only a few others stepped up with me to advance racial justice in Muslim communities.
I lead by from behind in trying to serve. I also lead from behind because of my own unique struggle. While coming from a disadvantaged position, recovering from the strikes against me, catching up from my late start and interruptions, trying to  get through each day multi-tasking my duties as a mom and wife of a public religious leader, my vantage point shifts and changes constantly.  I know there are people who have even stronger skills and talents that I have, but they are not built up and supported in our community. I hope to find that person more suited for this work and to have built up a healthy space for them to take this work to the next level.

On my Privilege and my Apology

Yesterday, I was in an exchange addressing the use of a personal Facebook post in an article after it was removed. The implications of the discourse weighed heavy on me all day, through last night and into this morning. Like my tweets yesterday, anything we write is out there forever. I believe in the Afterlife, so I know I will be accountable for my words and how I exercised my privilege or ignored harm. A lower motivation is, whatever we write, no matter how embarrassing can resurface.   Everything is saved on the internet and can still be harmful to others. If members of the target population express that something is xenophobic or racist, then it is.  I was not empathetic to the feelings of Muslims whose grandparents, parents, or even themselves have immigrated to the U.S.  We measure impact not intent. An immediate apology is warranted. I am sorry.

With the ICE deportations going on right now and legislation being passed, it is important to be sensitive to the plight of undocumented, refugees, and immigrants. Being a person whose ancestors were forcibly migrated and whose bodies and blood are in the bricks of the foundations of many of the institutions, I feel a profound sense of belonging.  It also puts me in a position of privilege as a non-immigrant. With that privilege comes a lack of empathy, which I demonstrated yesterday. I was busy explaining intent of converts like myself, as well as defend ideas that have been proposed in Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the blackamerican. For many Black American Muslims, the book helped explain a toxic dynamic in Muslim American communities where many of us lost our way.  This dynamic was in accepting Arab and South Asian hegemonies (for example Tablighi jumu’ah or Saudi influenced Salafi Islam) that were detrimental to our psychological, material, and spiritual well being as individuals or the Black Muslim community as a whole. That framework does not take into account African/Black American relations, Latino Muslims, or refugees. Many people whose families immigrated from Muslim majority countries have expressed how alienated they feel with the immigrant/indigenous binary. I believe we must reject a hierarchy of who is more Muslim or who is more American. I think it is important to find language that is sensitive to all the parties involved to discuss power dynamics in Muslim communities and the politics of representation. I will do better in the future to avoid nativist or xenophobic language in my writing. I will also work more to address it where I find it.

I started anti-racism work with much to learn and I am still learning. I know I will fall short in the future, and whether I am reminded harshly or gently, I hope I respond better in the future. I will work tirelessly to keep willing parties in the room to learn and grow together. Growth and transformation in myself and others inspire me. For those who have been harmed by my words yesterday or in the past, I hope that you accept this apology. Let me know going forward how we can begin to have meaningful discussions in building a community that best exemplifies that ideals we all share.


The Trouble with Our Criminal Justice System

Documentary Teaser for Prison Blues by Mustafa Davis.

MuslimARC organized a panel on Muslims and the New Jim Crow, a standing room only event where over 200 people ended the event with a direct action. The deaths of Black, Latino, and Native Americans by police or in police custody has raised attention to the problem in our criminal justice system. Here is an article that I’ve written on criminal justice reform:

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, an African-American father of six, was killed by a police chokehold and nearly a year later, New York City settled a lawsuit by his family for $5.9 million. Over the past year, protests erupted in Ferguson, MissouriNew York,Baltimore,Los Angeles, and numerous other cities where black people have been brutalized by police. Live tweets, live streams and pictures highlighted the militarization of law enforcement. The outrage against police brutality has galvanized activists, community leaders and concerned citizens across the country, and has spurred Muslim coalitions such as Muslims for Ferguson and Muslims Make It Plain. Activists Carmen Perez,  Linda Sarsour, and Tamika Mallory, along with 100 protesters completed a nine-day  #March2Justice from New York to Washington, D.C., in April to highlight the problem of police oppression.  But their long journey reflects the difficult challenge that we, as Americans in general and as Muslims in particular, have in addressing the real problems of policing in this country.

If the Muslim community is going to truly deal with policing, then we must address the criminal justice system as a whole. We must delve deep into the issue and make abuse and oppression in our criminal justice system our issue. We must allow our faith to inform us into peaceful action by engaging with others and calling for action and reform where it is needed.

Certainly, Muslim-American communities have made inroads into conversations about these abuses. However, stumbling blocks remain. Often Muslims will argue that law enforcement is getting a bad rap. In one news story, a relative of a Muslim woman, who was rescued by police after an arson, argued that police officers have the worst job in the world. He said, it was because “people hate you, but when they get in trouble you’re the first person they call.”

In one off-the-record meeting at a Muslim community center with the FBI, a non-black Muslim community leader compared law enforcement with Muslims, saying that both are stereotyped because of the actions of a few.  Many Muslim national organizations and advocacy groups have issued statements in support of #BlackLivesMatter protesters. When the Islamic Society of North America issued a statement about the escalation of violence during the Baltimore uprising, activists and organizations pointed out that ISNA’s focusing on the destruction of property downplayed the role of systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

The controversy over ISNA’s statement about Baltimore demonstrates how social media has helped to shape conversations about police brutality and the justice system. Muslim media platforms and national organizations are beginning to engage when previously, only a few urban-based organizations, such as the Muslim Alliance of North America and Inner City Muslim Action Network, addressed the justice system and programs for the formerly incarcerated. But times are changing.

For example, the 15-year-old murder conviction of Adnan Syed, which was detailed in a podcast “Serial,” has sparked the imagination of people across the country, as well as South Asian and Arab Muslims. These same Muslims  raised over $100,000 to support his appeal. Syed’s narrative of being a child of immigrants, a model minority youth wrongfully convicted with thin evidence because of Islamophobia continues to captivate the country. Many people, who follow this story often fail to link Syed’s fate with that of many Latino and black people, who have also been wrongfully convicted.

The Innocence Project has exonerated numerous men, who served decades in prison, and some of them only getting their names cleared long after their executions. Yet, some people still believe that justice is blind and support a kind of Muslim exceptionalism when it comes to how members of the Muslim community are treated by the criminal justice system.  In contrast, when a black Muslim is accused of a crime, many Muslims will distance themselves from the case.

For black Muslims, systemic racism and Islamophobia intersect in the most powerful ways in state surveillance, law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Some recent cases highlight this reality, such as the killing of Imam Luqman Abdullah, who was shot 20 times by federal agents during a raid at a warehouse in 2009; the case of Usaamah Rahim, who was killed by police while waiting at a bus stop in June; the case of Marcus Dwayne Robertson, who was arrested and jailed on tax fraud and illegal gun possession and about to be accused of terrorism based on his e-book collection but eventually set free for time served for previous charges. These men were all black and Muslim. Yet most Muslim leaders and organizations didn’t give these cases the full court attention afforded to non-black Muslims affected by law enforcement or the prison system. This implicitly extends such mainstream racism well into the Muslim community.

The same implicit bias that causes officers to be more likely to shoot an unarmed black person than a white person also leads to racial disparities in the viewing, prosecution and sentencing of cases. Studies have shown that race also factors into the severity of the punishment, and even skin color and phenotype play a factor, considering that dark-skinned people receive longer and harsher sentences.  Such a stark reality is also underscored by the fact that Dylann Roof, a white man who murdered nine African-Americans attending church in Charleston, South Carolina, was later apprehended alive and then taken to Burger King; while African-American Usaamah Rahim was shot to death at a bus stop without having committed any crime.

Moving beyond the headlines and the latest hot spots, the Muslim community must address police misconduct as part of a larger broken system. This entails addressing policies and practices.   In the book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander demonstrates how communities of color are disproportionately affected by mass incarceration, and activists such as Mariame Kaba have worked tirelessly to raise awareness about racial injustice in the criminal justice system.  The prison industrial complex  (PIC) is a term used to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry to use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems. Prison abolition activists argue that the PIC perpetuates the flawed belief that imprisonment is the solution to social problems such as substance abuse, homelessness, illiteracy and mental illness.   Further, the “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to the policies and practices that push low-income children out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Schools are more likely to punish young black boys and girls more severely, charging them with crimes and sending them into the juvenile court system than their white counterparts for the same offenses. Our society is more apt to invest in prisons rather than education or preventative measures, such as substance abuse or rehabilitation programs.

The Sentencing Project estimates there are 2.2 million people in American prisons. The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration. Over the past three decades, the population has increased over 500%. Many people are in prison for nonviolent offenses. More people are coming to see these policies as costly and ineffective. Reflecting this changing tide, on July 13, President Barack Obama cut the sentences of 46 drug offenders.  In his speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Obama said, “We spend $80 billion to keep people in prison.”

For more than 20 years, I have heard Muslims cite the Hadith, “Feed the hungry, visit the sick and set free the captives.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Hadith 552) America’s incarcerated community is held captive, and former offenders often suffer from a lifetime of stigma and discrimination.

Our communities, however, are often hands-off when it comes to prison populations. They limit support to distributing prison dawah (proselytizing) while leaving rehabilitation and reentry programs cash strapped.   The Muslim community, as a whole, has done little to advocate for progressive reform of the criminal justice system.

There are exceptions. We can look to local efforts as models and amplify their work. For example, the Latino Muslim Association of America (LALMA) and Islah LA worked with faith-based community organizers, LA Voice, to help pass Proposition 47,  which reduced nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors in California.

Our national Muslim advocacy organizations and lay people across the country should support current criminal justice reform efforts. One place to start is by supporting the Ban the Box campaign, which seeks fair employment for people with past convictions. As individuals, we can donate our time or resources to help build capacity for organizations working on police brutality and the criminal justice system by taking part in faith-based organizing, joining multiethnic coalitions or supporting organizations doing grassroots work.

Muslim Americans, as a community, cannot allow for injustice to fester in our justice system and expect to receive justice for ourselves. Whether calling for criminal justice reform, supporting prisoners’ rights or advocating for changes in policing, our faith must inform our actions.


Read the original  published at Islamic Monthly.

Chicago Muslims Join Mass Protest in Chicago


With the full support of The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC), Muslims are joining thousands in a rally and  march from Chicago’s Federal Building to City Hall to call for an elected Civilian Accountability Council. Grassroots campaigns to address violence and criminalization of Black and Latino communities are significant in this movement. This is the city where our sister Ameenah Matthews  and other Interrupters have courageously stood between rival gangs. According to Bill Chambers, CIOGC is a federation of organizations that represent over 400,000 Muslim Americans in the Chicago area.  Activists have long been fighting to change police policies, from Stop and Frisk, police killings, and even torture. In the past eight years, 400 people have been shot by Chicago police and only one was ruled an unjustified shooting. Don Rose points out,  Dante Servin, who was only the second Chicago police officer to be indicted in 20 years, but even he was recently acquitted of manslaughter for shooting Rekia Boyd.   In the Homan Square police warehouse interrogation facility  200 suspects from 1972-1991 and Emanuel Rahm approved a reparations settlement for victims of torture. Anjum Ali explains, “I heard a WBEZ story about the Chicago review board, IPRA, made up of mostly law enforcement people, and how they almost never rule an officer-involved shooting to be unjustified.” Ali  pointed out the connections between Human Rights violations against Muslims and the war on terror and Chicago. He notes, “Det. Richard Zuley who honed his torturing skills in Chicago and was sent to be an interrogator at Guantanamo Bay. Ali highlights,“The Muslim community and others have been outraged by the techniques used in the Guantanamo Bay facility, but it’s happening right here.”


In the video, Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid  affirms, “Black Lives Matter” and states that the historic march aims to do two things:  Stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and ask for city council to pass a law to establish civilian oversight of Chicago’s police. On the CGOIC website, “this march coincides with the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who used coalition building as a major strategy in his efforts for peace.” The Muslim efforts are largely coordinated by Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, Volunteer Chairman for Justice for All, an organization that “… has taken on the mandate of doing political advocacy for causes that do not get mainstream support.”


As of Saturday morning 201 have joined  Muslim Join August 29 March the facebook page.  Churches, mosques, temples, and labor unions are joining in the organized rally, which According to the facebook page, the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago  is providing water for 10,000 people.


On the Facebook Event page  hosted by The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression states “We are uniting our shared experience fighting for justice in order to bring about a systemic change. We are empowering the people to hold the police accountable for the crimes they commit, and to decide and control how they are policed” As of early Saturday,  1263 people signed up on the facebook page. Buses are schedule to pick up participants from ten mosques including  the Muslim Community Center (MCC). Muslim Education Center (MEC), Islamic Center of Wheaton (ICW), Islamic Community Center of Des Plaines, Islamic Foundation, Islamic Foundation North (IFN), MECCA Center, Mosque Foundation, Dar-us-Sunnah, and Masjid Al Farooq. The mass rally is utilizing the hashtags #ChiRisingAug29 , #StopPoliceCrimes, and #BlackLivesMatter

The Medina: Muslim Urban Justice


What does medina mean for Muslims in the United States? With major Muslim centers of population along the two coasts, in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit, Islam in the United States is an urban religion. In a recent Ramadan reflection, Hazel Gomez writes, “In the next 35 years, America will grow by 110 million people and nearly 100 percent of that growth will be in cities — not suburban or rural America.” She continues, “Our task, if we’re to remain relevant to society at large, is to create viable, urban, multi-ethnic, Muslim-led, values-based communities.” Shaykha Muslema Purmul extends the argument about the significance of Muslim institutions in urban spaces. A mosque shutting down in a suburban neighborhood may not impact the neighbors, she points out, but “… if an institution like IMAN or Islah LA or Ta’leef Collective is shut down, the neighborhood would certainly care.”

Reflecting on Malcolm X’s legacy, Rami Nashishibi calls on our faith community to deepen our commitment to the inner city for three reasons: 1) Our roots are in the ‘Hood; 2) We do a lot of “our” business in the ‘Hood; and 3) Our greatest contributions to America are in the ‘Hood. Nashishibi points out that the modern roots of Islam in America began in urban centers such as Detroit, Harlem, Cleveland, and Chicago. Many immigrant Muslim families have benefitted economically through gas stations, restaurants, corner stores, and services in the hood. And finally, as a community we can make the greatest contribution to addressing social and economic disparities in the inner city.

These disparities arise out of migration patterns and the economic disempowerment of inner city communities. With approximately 70% of Black and Latinos in cities or outer ring communities, urban justice is often linked to racial justice. Dawinder S. Sidhu writes:

Urban America is occupied by the ‘urban underclass”–the marginalized poor in America’s inner cities. Members of the urban underclass are, generally defined, those who are economically impoverished, spatially relegated to ghettos, disproportionately African-American, subjected to discriminatory policies, and lacking prospects for social or physical advancement.

Long historical processes and profound structural economic shifts, that include the decline of industry in urban America, in addition to the legacy of housing discrimination have segregated poor and minority populations in U.S. cities. Inner city poverty is a racial justice issue because of the persistence of racial and gender discrimination in employment, criminal justice system, and education disparities, which prevent communities of color in urban areas from achieving their full potential. These factors also led to complex interactions between various groups, including tensions between South Asian and Arab corner storeowners and predominantly Black and Latino communities.

On the other hand, faith based initiatives and individual Muslims inspired by Islam and their hopes for bringing power to underserved communities have led to developments such as Kenny Luqman Gamble’s Universal Companies. It is important for us to know what Muslim community leaders are doing in terms of Urban Justice. They can inspire us, while providing important models to follow. But we also need to think more about how we can mobilize the broader Muslim community to support these efforts.

When it comes to Urban Justice, what are Muslim community leaders with strong organizing experiences on the ground doing? What models can we follow? How can the broader Muslim community support community leaders who are addressing Urban Justice?

Join  this important conversation by viewing the livestream and tweeting your questions and reflections on the panel using the hashtag #MuslimUrbanJustice Thursday August 13 at 3:15 pm PST/ 6:15pm ESTTo address these issues, MuslimARC is very excited to organize a live streamed online panel highlighting the work that organizations like IMANDream of DetroitLA-Voice, and Sahaba Initiative are doing to advance Urban Justice.

We hope you’ll join us at 6:15pm ET this Thursday to discuss some of these important questions. Click here to join the event on Facebook and be sure to share it with friends.








A Ramadan Plea to Overcome Muslim Stereotypes in America

A multi-ethnic community puts Muslims in North America in a unique position to build bridges

As we honor Ramadan, the holiest month in the Muslim calendar, it’s important to look back at the history of Muslims in America to guide the context of fighting increased anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S. today.

Anti-Muslim hate crimes are five times more common today than they were before 9/11. In 2014, we saw the chilling murder of 15-year-old Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein, who was run down outside his mosque in Kansas City, Mo., by a man who had expressed his hatred for Muslims. In February 2015, the Chapel Hill shooting took the lives of three American-Muslim college students and shook the entire Muslim community. Last month there was an armed protest in Arizona outside of a mosque, and a Muslim community in New York was targeted by a man who plotted to burn down a school and mosque. The media is also filled with negative stereotypes about Muslims.

My concerns mirror those of so many Americans: As a parent to a rambunctious 3-year-old girl, I am concerned with her getting a quality education in a safe school, and I want her to live to her fullest potential and to have a positive self-identity. Yet when I taught an anti-racism workshop to 11-year-old girls last fall and asked about stereotypes, almost all of them answered that they faced some level of anti-Muslim bias. This reflects a recent survey from Muslim ARC, an organization that I co-founded, in which 82% of respondents said that they experienced racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination from society at large.

American Muslims with roots in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia face anti-Muslim bias mixed with a heavy dose of xenophobia. African American Muslims are often judged on two fronts: on the basis of religion and on the basis of race. But this native Muslim population has historical roots that go back hundreds of years. Around the time of the American Revolution, a large community of Moroccan Muslims lived and thrived in Charleston, S.C.Slaves in the Antebellum United States—nearly 15% to 30% of whom were Muslim—celebrated Ramadan in the South. From Thomas Jefferson owning a Quran to the mass adoration of Muhammad Ali to the reverberating social impact of Malcolm X, African American Muslims have always been a part of the American tapestry. The latest spate of hate crimes—both from white supremacists and from Islamophobes—belies this history.

Muslim Americans in America are a diverse group. The American Mosque Study breaks down the ethnicities of mosque participants in 2011 to 33% South Asian, 27% Arab, 24% African American, 9% Sub-Saharan African, 2% European (i.e. Bosnian), and about 1% each for white, Southeast Asian, Caribbean, Turkish, and Latino. This multi-ethnic community puts Muslims in North America in a unique position to build bridges.

This Ramadan, I abstain from drinking and eating during daylight hours and break fast at sun down with people from all walks of life. I have celebrated with Muslim Americans from Vietnam, Albania, Bangladesh, Morocco, and Mexico, and each exchange has helped me develop greater understanding of myself and empathy for others. As part of the African Diaspora, I feel a connection to African Diasporic communities in India, Brazil, Haiti, and Europe. As a Muslim, I have felt a closeness to Muslims from Eastern Europe, Yemen, Indonesia, and Azerbaijan. By celebrating our plurality, we demonstrate that there is no one single narrative for what it means to be Muslim and to be American.


Original article in Time.

Heartbreak, Detachment and Hope

Foregoing Community for Authentic Relationships

I came home from a community iftar on Saturday and tweeted this:

Margari Tweet

When asked what happened, I answered, “I’m breaking up with my community.” Anybody who has been through a divorce can tell you that ending a relationship can be a long process.  It begins with knowing that things aren’t working.

So, I’m in the process of breaking up with my community.

Two months ago, the reality of it being over hit home.  I was in a New York hotel, on the first over night trip away from my three-year-old daughter.  As my husband told me about the latest development in our Muslim community, I burst into tears. The masjid board was dissolved the month before, and the waqf took over, deciding not to institute elections for the foreseeable future.

I was losing the dream of an inclusive community, one where my daughter could belong to and one in which the 18-year-old version of me could prosper, rather than spiritually and economically flounder. I felt so hollowed out.  What had I been working towards for over a decade?

Read the rest on AltMuslim