By Kyle Ismail
“America is unique among western major democracies in that…a sizable number of its Muslims are native born converts…We are already a part of America, the Black community has secured that position for us. They are our Banu Hashim in the West… Through carelessness, through callousness, through… almost stupidity …we have not been taking care of our relationships in the Black community.” Dr. Sherman Jackson, RIS 2016
I began studying Islam nearly 25 years ago in Southern Illinois, with teachers and mentors who were beloved by their community. They impressed upon me that compassion was the first prerequisite in working with people and transmitting knowledge. These teachers were living proof that this approach bore fruit because, until this day, they are respected business people, professors, and leaders. They garnered so much respect in the community, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, that when the town’s first masjid was to be built it was highly-anticipated and welcomed in this primarily Black community. In fact, it was to be built right across the street from the neighborhood’s community center where the soon-to-be Resident Imam had served as Executive Director for many years.
Members of this Muslim community talked for years about hosting an appreciation dinner for the community’s founders and all the residents and graduates that they assisted in coming to Islam. But just last year members of the local neighborhood beat them to the punch by hosting an appreciation dinner for the masjid’s Resident Imam. Such is the example of my very first Muslim community. They cultivated and inspired a Black Banu Hashim for the Muslim community. The Muslims in that small university town will never need to worry about their place there so long as they cherish and maintain the relationships facilitated by decades and decades of service to the community.
This is high standard to maintain in the very complex, larger Muslim-American community. Since the first Muslims in America were enslaved in the antebellum South, their faith tradition was seemingly erased from the trajectory of their people until the highly unlikely emergence of pro-Islamic movements that would build a protective housing for an unwieldy religious development that spanned the 20th century. The mainstream Muslim community now boasts two Muslim congressmen and one congresswoman (and it is of no coincidence that they are of African descent) and a deep set of relationships in the Black community that serve to ensure Islam’s place in America, come hell or high water.
If our experience is to be a durable one, moments like this one will have to be navigated strategically, as high water has indeed come, in the form of a white-lash that threatens to turn back the clock toward a more caustic environment of racial rhetoric and open overtures to white supremacy. In Trump’s America, police violence against people of color and Islamophobic rhetoric has fueled a pendulum swing in the political discourse. It is in this environment that the dialogue at RIS 2016 has taken place.
If we are to be agents in answering the prayers of our enslaved Muslim forbearers, African American Muslims must do one thing far better than we have over the past three decades – care as much about our engagement with the Black community as any other aspect of our religious community work. And the weight that falls on immigrant-based Muslim communities is to develop an authentic analysis of systemic racism that can lead to real alliances and partnerships.
Dr. Jackson’s statement didn’t strike me as praise of African American Muslims and our transformative history. It struck me as a reminder of the maxims of that history, and a call to return to the type of community engagement that has been our life-blood. It wasn’t a chastisement of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf for his misleading and insensitive racial statements. It was a reminder that when these statements come from someone so respected and influential, they need to be moderated and mitigated by people who can navigated the very difficult terrain of balancing our Islamic identity up against our many societal obligations and relationships.
As the Banu Hashim protected Prophet Muhammad from his enemies when he was vulnerable, the Black community is ready to take a stand for us. This solidarity is admirably exemplified in recent memory when Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee came onto the House floor to cogently lambast Congressman Peter King for his Islamophobic campaign (Rep. Peter King Hearings). This is a representation of a protection that extends from a distinguished civil rights history. But African American Muslims must ask ourselves:
- Have we embraced an understanding of Islam that renders non-Muslim Black people persona non-grata?
- Do we support Black institutions of any kind or are we merely appendages of immigrant-based organizations?
- What issues are we engaged in solving in the Black community?
- Do we engage in interfaith dialogue and work in the Black community?
If we cannot affirmatively answer these questions, we are the primary subject of Dr. Jackson’s critique, not the aloof and ill-informed immigrant-based community.
Muslims whose parents or grandparents migrated to the United States must ask themselves:
- Who do we care enough about to put ourselves on the line for?
- Do we understand American history well enough to have a trenchant social analysis that can feed our advocacy and community work?
- Do we have friends and associates of different races and faiths that prevent us from maintaining stereotypes about the “other”?
- Have we challenged ourselves well enough to shed the psychology of our former colonizers?
Every indication is that Trump’s America and the psychological and political violence that is likely to ensue will require that we look at this experience through a broader lens.
The statements made at RIS 2016 were more than just insensitive, they were dangerously misleading, and they serve as a sign-post of a much worse kind of thinking that will likely come from conservative quarters in government to turn back the progress we’ve made. A couple of points that were particularly problematic, and that we need to really understand for ourselves are:
Point 1: Black-on-Black crime accounts for the lion’s share of violence taking place in America, and this is the cause of police brutality.
This is misleading and very dangerous. No other community is branded with such a moniker to explain the violence taking place intra-community although the vast majority of crime in any community could be characterized this way. Why isn’t crime and killing in the White community called White-on-White crime? This is in part because, for most of our history, we were far more likely to be killed by White people. In the 1960s, as racial violence shifted away from its traditionally overt and psychopathic form, more typical crime patterns emerged. The term Black-on-Black was used to denote the end of the era of Whites as the primary purveyors of community violence. It has now served as a dog-whistle to criminalize the Black community, exculpate White guilt, and implement a set of policies that led to what would become the prison industrial complex. Recent anti-racism movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement and others have worked to reduce the policy effectiveness of this trope, and turn both scrutiny and accountability on police departments. Statistics regarding police killings used by Shaykh Hamza are, sadly, false. We should know that there is no centralized data on the number of people the police actually kill because the FBI does not gather this statistic. Part of this movement for accountability is to request that the government actually gather this information.
If you are in doubt that such tropes are racist, ask yourself has any of the wanton violence happening in non-Black, Muslim-majority places ever been reduced to Syrian-on-Syrian violence or Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence? I sense that people who forget history don’t understand what the Black community in the US has endured and the casualties that we still suffer. Sections of our community constitute a forgotten underclass and those who would change that have to love the people instead of finding ways of blaming and indemnifying themselves through a condescending morality. It is the Prophetic example to obligate ourselves to do something with a real morality that has skin in the game.
Point 2: Racism isn’t the real issue for African Americans, it’s the breakdown of the Black family.
This represents an equally anti-intellectual formulation (I would invite readers to research articles or books by Professor William Julius Wilson to more deeply engage this topic). But it’s worth saying that any serious understanding of racism and white supremacy begins with a structural analysis. The family institution in our present time is largely impacted by the broader context of access to employment, affordable housing, education, and health care (not to mention the prison industrial complex). We work on these larger issues because of the fundamental impact that they have on our families. There will always be those who defeat the odds, but we strain the boundaries of reason and compassion when we expect that defeating the odds should be normative. When you consider that every system mentioned above is grounded in a history of institutional racism, to say that racism is not the problem but the breakdown of the Black family is the problem means that you understand neither.
It follows that we must seek solutions to these issues. Some points to keep in mind:
Alliance building is fundamental to the way forward, even with people with whom we don’t fully agree.
The Banu Hashim of the Prophet’s day (and our Black Banu Hashim) was a community fraught with issues and practices that we disagree with, but those sets of relationships still preserved a nascent Muslim community. We must have alliances with those who are fundamentally good, despite our serious disagreements. We would have no Black Banu Hashim if members of the Black community knew that the Muslim community had major anti-Black biases and that stereotypes about their violence, depravity, and pathology were so pervasive. These ideas among the broader Muslim community are part of what has hindered stronger alliances. We have to bother to actually know people and listen to their experiences. Immigrant-based communities have to step out of their narrow spaces so that when they hear disrespectful and half-baked formulations they won’t be tempted to applaud but can instead confidently discard them.
Just because you don’t see yourself as racist doesn’t mean that you don’t uphold racism in very substantial ways.
Anyone can think in stereotypes. Anyone can give wrong statistics and misleading information, and anyone can minimize the humanity of the other. We have no reason whatsoever to believe that people like Shaykh Hamza are racist. We have every reason to believe that the types of ideas he shared are counterproductive and feed into racist formulations that we are going to have to deal with, likely in the form of policies from the incoming administration.
I write this to encourage African American Muslims to engage in relationship-building within their own Black community. I also write this for Muslims who don’t understand why mistakes like this are a big deal, especially coming from trusted leadership. We need to fortify ourselves as a community against what promises to be a difficult four (or eight) years ahead. We have to address these types of ideas; because if we accept them they threaten our relationships in a black community that has preserved and protected us since our very origins in this country.