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Muslims in America: When Bullying Meets Religion

MuslimMatters

By Sabrina Holcomb

Debate team champion, Autena Torbati, lives by her words. So the day a 
debate teammate announced to the class he would have “liked Hitler better if 
had he killed all the Muslims, instead of Jews,” Autena’s blood ran cold. 
“Remember,” says the Oklahoma high school student, “the Holocaust started 
with words before ending in gas chambers.”

In Autena’s case, bullying has been confined to verbal taunts, threatening 
gestures, and an anti-Muslim opinion piece in the school newspaper. But for 
other Muslim students, verbal assaults have escalated into physical abuse, 
as anti-Islamic sentiment sweeps the nation. In Texas, a Muslim student was 
brutally beaten and thrown into a dumpster, while in Minnesota, Muslim girls 
were chased by classmates who shoved raw pork in their faces. Following 
relentless beatings from middle to high school, a Muslim Staten Island teen 
finally resigned from school.

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Bullying is an equal-opportunity crisis, affecting students of every age, 
race, and creed. The dimension that makes the bullying of Muslim students 
particularly disturbing centers around the open prejudices and fears of 
adults, giving the green light to non-Muslim children that it’s okay — even 
patriotic — to discriminate. Muslim students report that an administrator at 
one school screamed at a 13-year old to remove her hijab (religious head 
scarf) until the girl broke down in tears. A guest speaker at another school 
handed out literature demonizing Islam in a social sciences class. When 
adults, especially educators, join in the bullying, it’s not only hurtful, 
say students, it’s a betrayal of trust. But educators have found that when 
just one caring adult supports a student, it can make a world of difference, 
creating a positive ripple effect that goes beyond one student and one 
classroom.

A Perfect Storm for Bullying

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reports the number of 
bullying incidents against Muslim students has spiked in the wake of a 
perfect economic and political storm: severe economic distress and 
anti-immigrant sentiments, continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 
conflation of Islam with terrorism, even the misidentification of President 
Obama’s own religion. Add to the mix the tragic memory of 9/11 and a 
proposed Islamic center near Manhattan’s Ground Zero, and you get children, 
many just babies on September 11, 2001, indicting their classmates as the 
enemy.

How do rising tensions affect the nation’s Muslim students, the majority of 
whom attend public schools?  School-related civil rights violations have 
increased by 31 percent in just one year, according to a 2009 CAIR study. 
The study also found that a student’s ethnicity/ religion, a 
“Muslim-sounding name,” or the wearing of hijab were some of the primary 
factors triggering discrimination. A separate study by Wayne State 
University in Michigan found that 43 percent of Arab-American teens in the 
study were depressed. 
“Although many Muslim students have good relationships with their non-Muslim 
classmates, almost every child I’ve spoken to says they’ve had a hostile 
interaction with someone,” says Ibrahim Ramey, Human and Civil Rights 
Program Director for the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation. The 
most common epitaphs Muslim students hear, he says, are “Terrorist,” and “Go 
back where you came from!” The irony is their tormentors are often insulting 
a third-generation American, a scenario painfully familiar to the Omeira 
family.

“I raised my son to be a proud American,” declares Abdul Omeira, whose son, 
Hashem, changed almost overnight from a sunny-natured 12-year-old to a grim 
recluse who stopped eating and socializing and started locking himself in 
his room. What his parents didn’t know at the time, says Hashem, a 
native-born Californian, is that after his teacher showed a movie widely 
criticized for its negative portrayal of Islamic culture, his classmates 
started a relentless campaign of abuse — cursing Hashem, his religion, even 
his parents.

Thankfully, Hashem’s high school experience is worlds apart from middle 
school. The difference? An enlightened school climate, says Hashem. When one 
of Hashem’s teachers heard some students categorizing all Muslims as 
extremists, he launched into a lesson on Muslim Americans, informing the 
class that extremists were a small group who didn’t represent the majority 
of Islam’s followers.

How Educators Can Lead the Way

“Some teachers do a wonderful job of teaching acceptance to their students,” 
reports Saadia Khan, Civic Outreach Coordinator for the Muslim Public 
Affairs Council (MPAC). Kahn is invited to classrooms about a dozen times a 
year to talk candidly with students about Islamic culture. “I encourage the 
students to ask no-holds-barred questions — whether they’re about terrorism 
versus jihad or women’s rights under Islam,” says Khan. It helps to dispel 
myths and stereotypes when I can give them accurate information.”

Khan cautions that “misinformation contributes to misconceptions about 
groups, which in turn, can lead to bullying.” To help counter the negative 
narratives, she says, schools should facilitate conversations among 
educators, organizations like MPAC, students, and parents. “We have to teach 
children it’s okay to have disagreements as long as you engage in respectful 
discussion, and educators can be responsible facilitators of these 
discussions,” says Khan, who believes that cultural awareness training for 
educators should be required by all school districts. Khan also proposes 
using social media as an educational tool to counter cyberbullying, 
“Students with blogs can tag each other on positive news items and YouTube 
clips. It’s a nuanced and cool mechanism for teaching students how to 
exercise free speech responsibly.”

Public school demographics are changing so quickly, say community activists, 
cultural misunderstandings are unavoidable. The harassment of Muslim 
students, for instance, is often fueled by multiple factors: language and 
race, as well as religion, can make students a target. Darker-skinned Somali 
students comprise 10 percent of the student population in St. Cloud, 
Minnesota. Mocked as “sand n-gers” and “camel jockeys,” they reportedly face 
more discrimination there than other Muslim youth. Still other students are 
discriminated against because of their perceived ethnicity or religion: many 
Sikh Americans, though not  Muslim, are targets of anti-Muslim bias.

Taking the extra steps to educate students about other cultures can ease 
cultural tensions and curb bullying, says California teacher Ari Jacobs, 
who’s seen the benefits at his own school. (According to one CAIR study, 
California leads the nation in the percentage of anti-Muslim civil rights 
complaints.)  Jacobs designed a World Issues unit for his 11th-grade 
students, examining various aspects of world religions and human behavior, 
and a special unit for his seventh-grade social studies class, who explore 
bullying and Islamaphobia through the lens of “upstanders versus 
bystanders.”

The study of medieval Islam is required curriculum for 7th-grade students, 
says Jacobs,  “but ancient history doesn’t allow them to process what they 
see on Fox and CNN,” so Jacobs extends the unit to explore current events, 
drawing modern-day connections between the curriculum and students’ lives.

Not long after the school year started, Jacob’s class watched news clips of 
Florida pastor Terry Jones threatening to burn Qurans on the anniversary of 
9/11.  A discussion about the role of book burnings and bystanders during 
the Holocaust led to the focal question of the entire lesson. “Are you an 
upstander or a bystander?,” Jacobs challenges his students, whom he’s just 
shown a 60 Minutes story about a teenager who peered over a bathroom stall 
while doing nothing to stop his friend from killing a young child. “I tell 
my students at some point in our lives — in a cafeteria line, riding a school 
bus, or on Facebook — we’re all peering over that bathroom stall,” with the 
power to say, Stop!”

But the most insightful moment for his astonished students, says Jacobs, was 
absorbing the tale of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh. A visibly emotional 
Muslim student told her classmates, “This is exactly how we felt about the 
people that brought down those planes on 9/11. They don’t represent me or 
Islam, just like Timothy McVeigh doesn’t represent all White people or 
Christians.” They got it,” says Jacobs. “You could just see the light go 
on.”

An Eye-Opening Lesson

Jacobs’ students say the lessons they’ve learned have 
made them realize that appreciating other cultures requires work and doesn’t 
happen on its own. The combination of frank discussion, role playing, and 
powerful media images is opening students’ eyes: parents have sent thank-you 
letters, and students being picked on have told Jacobs their schoolmates are 
no longer silent bystanders.

Yet, most Muslim students, having internalized the message that “Muslims are 
fair game,” suffer in silence, bearing the brunt of anti-Islamic fervor in 
an adult world. Although the overall number of reported anti-Muslim hate 
crimes has decreased in the last year, school-related incidents have soared. 
The recent spate of “bullycides” has focused national attention on the ease 
with which harassment can slide into tragedy, leading a Muslim educator to 
ask, “Do we have to wait for a Muslim-American child to commit suicide or be 
killed by a bully” before we take the bullying of Muslim students to heart?

Many Muslim families still believe in the power of education to change 
attitudes and the potential of public schools to teach tolerance on a 
national scale. The lessons can come from teachers, from students, and 
sometimes from the ones being bullied, say Hashem and Autena, who, having 
been targets themselves, speak from personal experience. They found that 
speaking up — educating other students — brought unexpected consequences.

After Autena took a classmate to task for making obnoxious comments about 
“sand people,” the classmate publicly apologized, telling everyone who had 
heard his remarks, “What I said wasn’t cool.” As for Hashem: Not long after 
he started high school, a cocky kid got in his face and told him to go “back 
where he came from.” “I told him I was born in the U.S.A.,” says Hashem. 
“That I have nowhere to go. So here I am.”

Now they’re friends.

 

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    #Current Affairs

    Oped: The Treachery Of Spreading Bosnia Genocide Denial In The Muslim Community

    The expanding train of the Srebrenica genocide deniers includes the Nobel laureate Peter Handke, an academic Noam Chomsky, the Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, as well as almost all Serbian politicians in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. One name in this group weirdly stands out: “Sheikh” Imran Hosein. A traditionally trained Muslim cleric from Trinidad and Tobago, Hosein has carved his niche mostly with highly speculative interpretations of Islamic apocalyptic texts. He has a global following with more than 200 hundred thousand subscribers to his YouTube channel, and his videos are viewed by hundreds of thousands. He has written tens of books in English, some of which had been translated into major world languages. His denial of the Srebrenica genocide may seem outlandish, coming from a Muslim scholar, but a close inspection of his works reveals ideas that are as disturbing as they are misleading.

    Much of Hosain’s output centers around interpreting the apocalyptic texts from the Qur’an and Sunnah on the “end of times” (akhir al-zaman). As in other major religious traditions, these texts are highly allegorical in nature and nobody can claim with certainty their true meaning – nobody, except Imran Hosein. He habitually dismisses those who disagree with his unwarranted conclusions by accusing them of not thinking properly. A Scottish Muslim scholar, Dr. Sohaib Saeed, also wrote about this tendency.

    In his interpretations, the Dajjal (“anti-Christ”) is American-Zionist alliance (the West or the NATO), the Ottomans were oppressors of the Orthodox Christians who are, in turn, rightfully hating Islam and Muslims, Sultan Mehmed Fatih was acting on “satanic design” when he conquered Constantinople, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a false flag operation carried out by the Mossad and its allies, and – yes! – the genocide did not take place in Srebrenica. Such conspiratorial thinking is clearly wrong but is particularly dangerous when dressed in the garb of religious certainty. 

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    Hosain frequently presents his opinions as the “Islamic” view of things. His methodology consists of mixing widely accepted Muslim beliefs with his own stretched interpretations. The wider audience may not be as well versed in Islamic logic of interpretation so they may not be able to distinguish between legitimate Muslim beliefs and Hosain’s own warped imagination. In one of his fantastic interpretations, which has much in common with the Christian apocalypticism, the Great War that is nuclear in nature is coming and the Muslims need to align with Russia against the American-Zionist alliance. He sees the struggle in Syria as part of a wider apocalyptic unfolding in which Assad and Putin are playing a positive role. He stretches the Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings to read into them fanciful and extravagant interpretations that are not supported by any established Islamic authority.

    Hosain does not deny that a terrible massacre happened in Srebrenica. He, however, denies it was a genocide, contradicting thus numerous legal verdicts by international courts and tribunals. Established by the United Nations’ Security Council, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) delivered a verdict of genocide in 2001 in the case of the Bosnian Serb General Radislav Krstić. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague confirmed, in 2007, that genocide took place in Srebrenica. In 2010, two more Bosnian Serb officers were found guilty of committing genocide in Bosnia. The butcher of Srebrenica, Ratko Mladić, was found guilty of genocide in 2017.

    In spite of this, and displaying his ignorance on nature and definition of genocide, Hosain stated in an interview with the Serbian media, “Srebrenica was not a genocide. That would mean the whole Serbian people wanted to destroy the whole Muslim people. That never happened.” In a meandering and offensive video “message to Bosnian Muslims” in which he frequently digressed to talking about the end of times, Hosain explained that Srebrenica was not a genocide and that Muslims of Bosnia needed to form an alliance with the Orthodox Serbs. He is oblivious to the fact that the problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the former Yugoslavia stem not from the Bosniaks’ purported unwillingness to form an alliance with the Serbs, but from the aggressive Greater Serbia ideology which had caused misery and destruction in Bosnia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Kosovo. 

    Hosein’s views are, of course, welcome in Serbia and in Republika Srpska (Serb-dominated entity within Bosnia), where almost all politicians habitually deny that genocide took place in Srebrenica. He had been interviewed multiple times on Serbian television, where he spewed his views of the Ottoman occupation and crimes against the Serbs, the need to form an alliance between Muslims and Russia, and that Srebrenica was not a genocide. His website contains only one entry on Srebrenica: a long “exposé” that claims no genocide took place in Srebrenica. Authored by two Serbs, Stefan Karganović and Aleksandar Pavić, the special report is a hodge-podge of conspiracy theories, anti-globalization and anti-West views. Karganović, who received more than a million dollars over a six year period from the government of the Bosnian Serb-led Republika Srpska for lobbying efforts in Washington, was recently convicted by the Basic Court in Banja Luka on tax evasion and defamation. The Court issued a warrant for Karganović’s arrest but he is still on the loose. 

    True conspirators of the Srebrenica killings, according to Hosain, are not the Serbian political and military leaders, and soldiers who executed Srebrenica’s Muslims. The conspirators are unnamed but it does not take much to understand that he believes that the massacres were ultimately orchestrated by the West, CIA, and NATO. Hosain even stated on the Serbian TV that if people who knew the truth were to come forward they would be executed to hide what really happened. Such opinions are bound to add to an already unbearable pain that many survivors of the Srebrenica genocide are experiencing. It is even more painful when Bosniak victims – who were killed because they were Muslims – are being belittled by an “Islamic” scholar who seems to be more interested in giving comfort to those who actually perpetrated the heinous crime of genocide than in recognizing the victims’ pain. These views are, of course, welcome in Serbia, Russia, and Greece.

    It is not difficult to see why Hosain’s views would be popular in today’s day and age where misinformation and fake news are propagated even by the world leaders who should know better. A conspiratorial mindset, mistrust of established facts, undermining of international institutions – these are all hallmarks of the post-truth age. In another time, Imran Hosain would be easily exposed for what he truly is: a charlatan who claims religious expertise. Today, however, his opinions are amplified by social media and by the people who already question science and established facts. For these reasons, he needs to be unmasked to safeguard the very religious foundations which he claims to uphold but ultimately undermines. 

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    #Society

    On British Muslims & Racism: Do Black Lives Matter?

    Q. As Muslims, what should our stance be on racism or racial discrimination, and should we be supporting social justice movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM)? And isn’t all of this support for BLM privileging justice for black people over others, especially when we Muslims realise the increasing Islamophobia and injustices being perpetrated against our fellow Muslim brothers and sisters around the globe?

    A. At the outset, let me be clear about how I intend to engage these concerns. And that is by rooting them in mainstream teachings of Islam so as to address the issue of racism in a manner that might be meaningful in a British context, and recognised as being Islamic in a Muslim one. I have divided the response into five parts: [i] Islam & racism; [ii] modernity & racism; [iii] Britain & racism; [iv] Muslims & racism; and [v] BLM & racism.

    I. Islam & Racism

    Although the following verse is not speaking of the modern social construct of racism per se, it is speaking to the pre-modern concept of groupings of people related by significant comment descent; in terms of location, language, history and culture. Thus we read in the Holy Qur’an: O mankind! We have created you from a male and female, and then made you nations and tribes that you might know one another. Truly, the noblest of you in the sight of God is he who is the most pious. God is indeed Knowing, Aware. [Q.49:13]

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    The Prophet ﷺ brought skin colour into the mix in these words: ‘O mankind! Indeed your Lord is one, and indeed your father is one. Truly, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab; nor white (ahmar, lit. ‘red’ or ‘reddish’) over black, nor black over white – except by piety. Have I not conveyed [the message]?’1

    In fact, the Qur’an doesn’t only negatively condemn such discrimination, but it positively and actively celebrates diversity too: And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the differences of your languages and your colours. In this are signs for people of knowledge. [Q.30:22]

    The above verses and prophetic statement, then, were a total restructuring of the moral or ethical landscape prevalent throughout Arabia at the time. True worth would no longer be determined by skin colour, lineage, or even by grandiose shows of courage or generosity. Rather, true worth would be measured by taqwa – ‘piety,’ ‘godliness’ and ‘mindfulness’ of God’s commands and prohibitions.

    Once, when one of the Prophet’s wives hurled a racial slur (or ethnoreligious insult, as we might say today) at another co-wife in a state of annoyance, disparagingly called her ‘the daughter of a Jew’, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Indeed, your [fore]father [Moses] was a Prophet; your [great] uncle [Aaron] was a Prophet; and you are married to a Prophet. What can she boast to you about?’2 Again, when one companion insulted another person, by insulting his mother because she was a non-Arab, the Prophet ﷺ said to him: ‘You still have some pre-Islamic ignorance (jahiliyyah) in you.’3 Thus no Muslim has even the slightest right to resurrect the vile attitude of racism; xenophobia; tribal bigotry; or insulting people due to them being seen as the ‘Other’, when the Prophet ﷺ radically eliminated such attitudes from the believer’s worldview and relationships. Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘There isn’t a single verse in God’s Book that praises someone or censures someone due to just their lineage. Instead, praise is due to faith and piety, while blame is because of disbelief, immorality or disobedience.’4

    II. Modernity & Racism

    In the 1830s, Samuel Morton, an American craniologist, amassed and studied hundreds of human skulls so as to measure differences in brain size between people from various ethnic backgrounds. Morton believed he had used science to prove that white people were intellectually superior to other ‘races’. In his Crania Americana, Morton declared that not only did white people have larger brains and thus were intellectually superior to all other races, but also that black people had the smallest brains sizes and were hence inferior to all others. Morton and others used this conclusion as a ‘scientific’ justification to continue slavery in the United States and negatively stereotype black people. Many hold Morton to be the founding father of scientific racism. It’s here that, based upon this pseudo-science and on certain superficial differences in physiological traits, the categorisation of people into distinct ‘races’ begins in earnest. And while the institutional racism, racial prejudice, and white supremacy that was to follow were directed at all races in Morton’s descending hierarchy, providing adequate grounds to treat other races differently, in terms of rights and privileges, it would be black people (at the supposed bottom of the heap) that would bear the greatest and most sustained brunt of it.

    Of course, modern science has long since shown that brain size isn’t necessarily related to intelligence. Instead, brain size is tied to things like environment, climate and body size, while intelligence is more related to how many neurons, or how efficient the connections between neurons, are in the brain. Indeed, modern science has also largely debunked the biological basis of race, showing that there is as much genetic diversity within such racial groups as there is between them. Science now regards race as a conventional attribution; a social construct, but not a scientifically rooted or valid classification. And while today we tend to favour the term ethnicity over the arbitrary construct of ‘race’ based upon skin colour and physiognomy, race remains, for some, a focus of individual and group identity, particularly members of socially disadvantaged groups, like blacks, where it oftentimes is a source of pride and joy. All this has led many anthropologists to argue that since there is no scientific basis for race, we should just chuck the whole idea in the bin. Others say that if we’re going to continue to insist on the social fiction of racial differences, let it be based on ethical considerations that enhance justice, fairness and familiarity between peoples, not hatred, discrimination and xenophobia. In fact, this latter way of looking at ethnic or racial divides is probably more in keeping with what Islam wants for humanity. After all, God made of us nations and tribes lita‘arafu – ‘that you might know one another.’

    The above, then, amidst the activities of European empires and colonialism is where such modern ideas of racial discrimination and racism were birthed; ideas and realities which still reverberate frustratingly down to these present times. Just how many ordinary white Britons internalised the racist pseudo-science over the past one hundred and fifty years or so, not because they were particularly bad or evil people, but because they believed the ‘science’, is anyone’s guess. Add to that the usual xenophobia that often exists against the outsider, the modern feats and achievements of white Western Europe which feed into the idea of white exceptionalism or supremacy, and the political utility of whipping up blame against immigrants in times of national difficulty and economic downturn, make for well-entrenched myths and discrimination against people of colour.

    III. Britain &Racism

    Although the history of the United States is drenched in racism; with the issue of race still being the most painful, divisive one for its citizens, it is racism in Britain – my home, and where I was born and raised – that I’d like to confine my remarks and anecdotes to. And in Britain, just as in America, while peoples of diverse ethnic minorities have undeniably been, and continue to be, victims of racism, it is discrimination against black people that is by far the more endemic and systemic.

    The recent anti-racist protests that are taking place across the country aren’t just to show anger about the death of yet another black man, George Floyd, at the hands of yet another American police officer. They are also protests against the systemic racism here in Britain too. Long before racism against blacks, Asians, and Eastern Europeans, Jews as a people, and also the Irish, suffered racism in Britain. Jewish people still do.

    Whilst structural or institutional racism is difficult to conclusively prove, the lived reality of people of colour, as well as statistics after statistics, or report after report, all point to similar conclusions: Britain has a race problem. It doesn’t just have a problem with casual racism (now called micro aggression; as experienced in schools, jobs or everyday life), or racism born from unconscious bias (snap decisions conditioned by cultural upbringing or personal experience); it has a problem of systemic racism too – racial discrimination and negative stereotyping within many of its key institutions: the police force and the criminal justice system deemed to be among the main culprits.

    It is, of course, argued that although Britain does indeed have individual racists, and that acts of racism do tragically still occur here, but Britain itself; even if it may have been in the recent past, isn’t institutionally racist anymore. We have the Equalities Act of 2010, as one of the clearest proofs against any institutional racism.

    Or the case has been put that, ever since the Macpherson Report of 1999, which came as a result of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, in 1993 – and the two words in it that stood out from the rest of the 350 page report, that London’s Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’ – Britain’s police forces have internalised the criticism and have come on leaps and bounds since then: individually and institutionally. So to describe Britain’s police forces as still being systemically racist is unjust and unfair; or so the argument goes.

    Be that as it may; and while many positive changes of both mind and structure have been sincerely made, the stark, present-day statistics tell us another story. Modern Britain is a place where black people, in contrast to white ones are: 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched; 4 time more likely to be arrested; twice as likely to be temporarily excluded from school; and 3 times as likely to be permanently excluded from school; and twice as likely to die in police custody. From any unbiased standard, does this look anywhere like equality? And just as importantly, are we saying that institutional racism is totally absent from these numbers?5

    For most of my life, I’ve lived on one council estate or another in East London. In my pre-teen years, I grew up on an estate in Chingford, where most of the people were white, with a few Afro-Caribbean families and a couple of Asian ones: my family being one of them. I, like many other non-whites of my generation, encountered my share of racist abuse; and for a short time, a little racist bullying too. On the whole, I got along with most kids on the estate and at its primary school, regardless of colour; and they got along with me.

    For my entire teen years, I lived on another estate in Leytonstone, where this time most of the residents were black. It was the mid 1970s, and it was a time when many young black people were, I wouldn’t say suffering an identity crisis, but more that they were searching for an identity. For unlike their parents, they were neither Jamaican, Bajan [Barbadian], or Trinidadian, nor did they feel (or were made to feel) totally British. Instead, young black Britons were turning to their Blackness to make sense of their place in Britain, developing a sense of collective cultural identity in the process. I felt a greater affinity to that culture, than I did any other. Voices like Bob Marley, Burning Spear, the Wailing Souls and Black Uhuru spoke to our plight and our aspirations. But whilst their conscious lyrics of roots reggae was coming out of Jamaica, it was home-grown, British reggae artists that would tell our own specifically British story: artists like Steel Pulse, Black Roots, Mikey Dread or, particularly for me, Aswad (or early Aswad, from ’76-’82). Aswad sang of African Children (which I’d swap in my mind for ‘immigrant’ children) ‘living in a concrete situation;’ in ‘precast stone walls, concrete cubicles. Their rent increasing each and every other day; Structural repairs are assessed and yet not done; Lift out of action on the twenty-seventh floor; And when they work, they smell.’ All of us youths crammed into the estate’s small youth centre, smiled, nodded away approvingly, and perfectly identified with the message when we first heard such conscious lyrics booming out at us. Whilst Marley spoke of the daily ghetto struggles of growing up in the concrete jungle of Kingston 12; Trenchtown, for me, Aswad spoke of parallel struggles growing up in the concrete situation of Leytonstone E11. We all a feel it, yes we a feel it!

    Back to racism. My one little anecdotal proof of black victimisation from the police comes from the time when I was living on Leytonstone’s Cathall Road Estate. Police raids were a fairly usual occurrence on our estate as well as in the youth centre; sometimes with actual justification. In the youth centre, the police (usually with their police dogs), would stomp in; turn off the music; stamp out any spliff that was lit up; and then we’d all be told to line up against the wall with our hands behind our heads. Every time this happened, without exception, when it came to searching me, they never did. They’d simply insist that I leave the centre, or go home, which I would. I’d then usually come back half an hour or an hour later, and resume playing pool, table-tennis or bar football; or just soak up the vibes (not the spliff). Once, after a raid had happened, I came back to the centre, only for one of my close Rasta friends to advise me that it would be best if I stay home for a few days. I asked why? He told me that some people who hang out at the centre, but who don’t really know me, nor live on the actual estate, are saying that it’s odd that I never get searched and that maybe I was a grass. It would be an understatement if I said that I was scared stiff. I took the advice, and stayed away from the centre for a week, till I got the nod that things were all okay. A month or so later, and yet another raid. But this time, for me it was a Godsend: they actually searched me! I felt relieved, vindicated, and took it as a badge of honour. My point being is that throughout the ’70s and ’80s, there were countless times when I saw specifically black people stigmatised and victimised by the police.

    To be honest, by the mid 1980s, with the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism doing their thing against the far-right National Front; with Reggae and Two-Tone Ska bands and gigs more and more mixing blacks and whites; and with attitudes of the young positively changing, I thought (perhaps naively) that racism in Britain would liklely be a thing of the past by the mid ’90s. Optimism, of course, is entirely healthy, as long as it doesn’t become blind to realism.

    IV. Muslims & Racism

    Here I’d like to speak about something that some Muslims will find uncomfortable: which is that we [non-black]Muslims need to admit the anti-black racism that infects our own communities. Sadly, racism against black people – including fellow black Muslims – is all too common among British Asian Muslims of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent. Whether it is being stared at by elderly Asians in the mosque and so made to feel self-conscious, to the way we of South Asian descent use the word kala, ‘black’, in a derogatory way; or whether it’s about marriage, or thinking all black Muslims must be converts and then dishing out patronising praise to them over basic acts like making wudhu – this un-Islamic nonsense; this jahiliyyah, simply has to stop.

    We must speak to our elders about their anti-black racism. We need to respectfully discuss why so many of our mosques continue to make black Muslims feel unwelcome, or drive them away, and what can be done about it? Yet while our masjids are undeniably masjids; ‘Most mosques function as “race temples” created as enclosures for single ethnicities, and their mono-ethnic and introspective leadership are generally unfamiliar with any novelty occurring outside their silos.’6 Such ‘race temples’ are where Ethnic Islam rules the roost, even at the cost of shari‘ah race equality, sirah hospitality, or sunnah unity.

    But racism isn’t just an issue with South Asian elders? It lurks in the hearts and minds of my generation too; and maybe that of my children’s? It’s less the stares or the ignorance about Black achievements, and more the negative stereotyping; post-colonial complexes; desperation to whiten-up; or outright racism when it comes to marriage. Here as an Asian Muslim parent, I’m happy for my daughter or son to marry – religiously speaking – some adamant fasiq or fasiqah – especially if they are of a lighter complexion: but I could never accept them marring a godly, well-mannered, responsible Black person! But we convince ourselves we are not racist: after all, I love the sahabi, Bilal. I weep when I read Bilal’s life story. My good friend, Bilal, is black. But the proof is in the pudding, and the truth is that we need to move beyond tokenism; beyond Bilal.

    Those Muslims who make an issue of colour; whose racist or tribal mindsets lead them to look down upon a person of darker colour or treat them unequally, let them consider the son-in-law of the Prophet ﷺ, and fourth Caliph, sayyiduna ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. The classical biographers all state: kana ‘ali adam, shadid al-udmah – ‘Ali was black, jet black.7 Or take our master ‘Umar who is also described in the same terms.8 The colour, adam may refer to skin complexion which is dark brown, like a native American; or darker still, like in native Australian aborigines; or jet black, like many Africans. When the phrase, shadid al-udmah is added, ‘extremely dark’, then there’s no mistaking what is meant: a person who, for all intents and purposes, is black. Such a description seems quite usual for the Arabs among the sahabah. Black skin is also the colour of the lady with whom the whole Muhammadan saga begins: our lady Hagar (Hajarah); she was a black Egyptian. Or consider the Prophet Moses, peace be upon him. Our Prophet ﷺ once said: ‘As for Moses, he was tall and dark brown, as like the men of al-Zutt.’9 The Zutt were a well-known tribe of tall dark men from the Sudan.10 After knowing the above, if we are still going to look down at people merely due to their darker complexion, then what ghustakhi; what mockery and disrespect will we be possibly drowning in?

    Islam is neither racist nor colour blind. It wants us to understand that skin colour has no intrinsic worth, only piety does. Yet at the same time, it allows us to celebrate differences in a way that does not offend Heaven, and in a way that causes us to offer joyful thanks to the One Who is the Maker of all Colours.

    Islam is neither racist nor colour blind. It wants us to understand that skin colour has no intrinsic worth, only piety does. Yet at the same time, it allows us to celebrate differences in a way that does not offend Heaven, and in a way that causes us to offer joyful thanks to the One Who is the Maker of all Colours.Click To Tweet

    So let’s have the conversations. Let’s have some serious introspection. Let’s listen to what Black Muslims have to say. Let’s desire to be healers, not dividers. Let’s educate ourselves about the reality of Black lives in general, and Black Muslim lives in particular. Olusoga’s Black & British and Akala’s Natives are good places to start. Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering is, with its theological insights, a must read. Above all, let’s work towards not just being non-racist, but anti-racist.

    Change, thankfully, is in the air. For urban, millennial Muslims, and those of a generation younger still, these older ethnic divides are more and more of an irrelevance in their lives (though I’m not sure how much this applies to those raised in ethnic silos in Britain’s less urbanised cities). Such millennials have heard the stories of the intra-ethnic fighting; the anti-black racism; the token hospitality to black Muslims, but without ever giving them a voice; and the fruitless attempts to make the ‘race temples’ more inclusive, and how after decades, it’s a case of banging heads and brick walls. So owing to this, they are seeking to create more inclusive, culturally more meaningful spaces; away from all this toxic, ethnic Islam. Surely that’s where the rest of us should be heading too?

    V. BLM & Racism

    The Qur’an says: Help one another in righteousness and piety, help not one another in sin or transgression. [Q.5:2] Between this verse and the hilf al-fudul pact the Prophet ﷺ upheld and endorsed even after prophethood, we have a solid religious basis for supporting any individual or group working for issues of social justice: be it for Muslims or non-Muslims; be it led by Muslims or non-Muslims.

    The Black Lives Matter movement has proven itself to be a powerful and effective vehicle over the past five years to demand reform in terms of anti-Black racism; with their current focus on justice for George Floyd and his family. Thus, how can Muslims not support it? Of course, we cannot give any organisation carte blanche support. Religiously, we Muslims cannot give unconditional support to anybody save to God and His Prophet ﷺ. Given that BLM has a few stated aims that are inconsistent with Islam’s theology (‘freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking’ is one of them, for instance), our activism must be guided by sacred knowledge and illumined by revealed guidance. Our intention is not supporting BLM, as such. Instead, it’s a case of making a stand against injustice, in this case anti-Black racism: supporting those individuals or organisations that are likely to be the most effective in achieving this goal. (It should go without saying, that we can work for justice for more than one cause or more than one set of people at the same time). And this is what the above verse and the hilf al-fudul pact have in mind. And just like the BLM describes itself as ‘unapologetically Black’, perhaps some of us need to be a tad more unapologetically Muslim?

    But let’s take our focus off such theological nuances for now, and tie a ribbon around the whole thing and say: Let us, at least in spirit and in principle, if not in body, fully support Black Lives Matter as a cause, more than as a movement, in seeking to resolve structural racism; get justice done for all the George Floyds and all the Stephen Lawrences; and to get people to reflect on their own attitudes to racism and the racial ‘Other’ – ensuring our knee isn’t on the necks of others. We should support the overall goals of any grassroots movement that is working for a fairer, more just and tolerant Britain for everyone: black or white. Of course, for that to happen, from a Black Muslim perspective, anti-Black racism as well as an ever-growing Islamophobia must be tackled. Currently in Britain, God forbid that you are ostensibly a Muslim and Black!

    Racism affects all people of colour. But when it comes to Black people, they face a unique anti-black prejudice as the ultimate Other, propagated both by white majorities and even other ethnic minorities. As a marginalised community South Asians, no doubt, have their own prejudices thrown their way. But they are not the same lived experiences as that of Black people. And while it can be easy to lump everyone together and perceive ourselves as having a shared trauma, statistics show that this equivalence is not really true.

    In closing, I’d like to thank my youngest daughter, Atiyyah, for inspiring me to revisit and renew my ideas on anti-black racism; and my friend, Dr Abdul Haqq Baker for prompting me to write this piece, offering invaluable suggestions, and then reviewing it for me.

    Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

    1. Ahmad, Musnad, no.22978. Ibn Taymiyyah declared its chain to be sahih in Iqtida’ al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Riyadh: Dar Ishbiliyah, 1998), 1:412.

    2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3894, where he declared the hadith to be hasan sahih.

    3. Al-Bukhari, nos.2545; 6050.

    4. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:230.

    5. GOV.UK: Black Caribbean Ethnicity Facts and Figures.

    6. Abdal Hakim Murad, Travelling Home (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2020), 49-50.

    7. See: Ibn ‘Asakir, Tarikh Madinat al-Dimashq (Dar al-Fikr, 1996), 42:24.

    8. As per Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, al-Isti‘ab fi Ma‘rifat al-Ashab (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1971), 3:236

    9. Al-Bukhari, no.3438.

    10. Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 8:61.

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    Non-Black Muslims Will Need To Do More Than Post Hashtags And Attend Rallies To Combat Anti-Black Racism

    The events of the past two weeks have highlighted the disastrous outcomes that emerge when racism and white supremacy interplay with police brutality. The unbridled aggression by the police results from ineffective and insufficient sanctions on police power and authority. The casual murder of Mr. George Floyd by a police officer, filmed by bystanders and security cameras, is the spark that apparently allowed for more citizens to galvanize and echo the cry that “Black Lives Matter.” In response to this, various Muslims and Muslim groups and organizations have come out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and have attempted to raise their version of awareness.

    Data from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) in 2020 show there is a strong support from the Muslim community towards building coalitions with Black Lives Matter movements, with 65% of Muslim respondents to a nationally representative survey indicating support, more than any other faith group measured.

     

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    Although another ISPU survey administered in 2017 indicates there is strong Muslim support for the Black Lives Matter movement in general (66%, higher than any faith group measured that year, and the general public), there are questions around how much of this is performative, perfunctory and merely playing to the popular theme of the moment. Black Muslims and Black Americans – in general – have consistently experienced anti-Black treatment at the hands of non-Black Muslims in business, social and religious spaces. In ISPU’s 2017 American Muslim Poll, 33% of Muslims who identify as Black or African American reported experiencing racial discrimination at the hands of another Muslim. Although Black Muslims are more likely to report racial discrimination from outside their faith community (56% vs. 33%), one cannot ignore the issue of intra-Muslim racism, especially since the experience is often far more painful when it comes from a fellow believer.

    Since protests began in late May, various non-Black Muslims and non-Black Muslim-led organizations have attempted to speak up and lend their voice to the issue. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) are just a few of the organizations that have made statements, hosted events or co-sponsored events to help raise awareness of racism. Muslim organizations have over the years consistently addressed oppression – mainly in other countries. There have been hundreds of rallies and protests against oppression that have occurred in non-White Muslim countries. Additionally, Islam as a theology, calls on us to depise oppression and challenge it. Therefore, it is understandable that non-Black Muslims and non-Black Muslim organizations would eventually see the need to speak out against oppression of minorities in America, and now specifically African American and Black Muslims. But it has taken many generations to get here, even though oppression has been a bedrock of this nation for centuries.

    For many years, non-Black Americans championed the causes of non-Black Muslims but seldom the Black Muslims. For many decades, Black Muslims have called the Adhan, raised money for foreign causes and highlighted foreign issues. The support and respect have seldom been returned or reciprocated to the Black community. Although the faith and approximated-shared experiences may at times allow for empathy from non-Black Muslims toward African Americans and Black Muslims, non-Black Muslims and organizations continue to fail to be real purveyors of justice when it comes to the oppression of African Americans and Black Muslims in America.

    For years, various organizations have hosted or publicized events that do not have Black Muslims on their panels. The line-up changes once the community pushes back. In a number of cases, there is a connection between anti-Black racism and the exclusion of Muslim women, particularly Black Muslim women. The exclusion of Black Muslims from the public and national discourse on the American Muslim experience, is an example of the anti-Black racism that is not interpersonal, but systemic in the Muslim community. This is important to note, because an event is seldom conceived or approved by one individual.

    In one example from less than a month ago, two national organizations were prominently featured as co-hosts. We can then safely say that at least two people (we can assume with a fair degree of certainty that it was more) saw the line-up and the final ad for the event and still chose to publicize the event. One of the speakers then chose to decline to participate and recommended an African American Muslim woman replace him on the panel. That multiple Muslims were involved in the planning of this event and approved the final list of speakers while choosing not to correct or be more just in their representation of Islam in America points to this issue of anti-Black racism as not merely being interpersonal, but systemic. This is just one example of many. ISPU data collected in 2017 illustrates that Black Muslims experience a higher rate of intrafaith racial discrimination than non-Black Muslims, with 33% reporting that a fellow believer discriminated against them because of their race in the past year at least once. (Figure 2)

    Muslims Experience Racism From Other Muslims as Well as from the General Public.png

    In this past week alone, I have had to personally deal with acts of anti-Black racism while talking about the importance of addressing racism in this country. In one incident, I was invited to be part of a newly formed coalition. Attendees were majority African American Muslims, but there were also non-Black Muslims (white and minorities) scheduled to be in attendance or helping to organize. One non-Black Muslim was effusive in how they communicated with me during the day. However, once I began pushing back on how the event was being organized, their tone shifted to dismissive and rude. I struggled with naming this anti-Black racism because, as a communication scholar, my default is to look at the theory behind why we communicate how we do. So even as we experience it, we still try to find reasons not to believe it.

    In a second incident, a number of individuals with religious duties were discussing the topics of engagement for our upcoming meeting. A non-Black Muslim of color indicated that they wanted to discuss another topic in addition to Black Lives Matter and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. I responded stating that the way in which the statement was worded was hurtful and represented an erasure of the lived experience of Black individuals in this country. The response was further dismissal and glossing over of the experience, even after other non-Black Muslims attempted to redirect the individual and encourage them to focus on anti-Black racism. The person’s initial response was clearly rooted in anti-Black racism–even if unintentional–as to this moment, it does not seem like the person understands how their initial statement and subsequent responses continue to perpetuate anti-Black racism. In the end, the individual did agree that they will also focus on Black Lives Matter in our next meeting as long as we were willing to focus on other issues in future meetings.

    These various types of aggressions against Black Muslims in Muslim spaces continue to place a burden on the Black Muslim community, particularly the African American Muslim community. I am a Black Muslim who has spent over half of my life here in America. However, I also know that as an immigrant, I sometimes experience a different level of privilege as a result of my immigrant status.” It feels like I am seen as different from African American Muslims at times. Anti-Black racism among Muslims is layered, insidious, systemic and interpersonal. The approaches to addressing anti-Black racism and to supporting Black Lives Matter Movement cannot be sporadic or occasional. It will require painful discussions, robust analyses and purposeful action to continue the changes that have gained some momentum in this moment.

    There are many who are already doing the work to bring meaningful change and awareness. Non-Black Muslims will need to do more than post hashtags and attend rallies. To address racism, it is important to use valid tools, invite and connect with the appropriate people and support active organizations. Supporting any Black organization is not the approach. There needs to be a seeking out and supporting of organizations, individuals and tools that do or support anti-racism work in our communities.

    • Organizations to research, work with and/or fund long-term: MuslimARC (Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative), Muslim Wellness Foundation and the Black Muslim Psychology Conference, Black Muslim COVID Coalition and Sapelo Square. These are just a few to begin with. There are more. Research. Find them. Support them.

    • Individuals to learn from and grow with: Ms. Margari Hill, Dr. Kameelah Rashad, Dr. Donna Auston, Imam Dawud Walid, Sr. Ismahan Abdullahi, Imam Mik’ail Stewart Saadiq, Imam Nadim Ali and many, many others. Many of these individuals are currently engaging in a lot of scholarly work, community support and community keeping. Research their work, look up events when they are slated to speak and give talks, and engage them in that way as a start. If they or their organizations have opportunities where you can pay them to do a presentation that is in the normal scope of their operations, then do that. I would urge you not to offer them a mere stipend. See what it takes to have professional development for an organization and compensate accordingly. There are many other non-Muslim intellectuals who are doing work and have written extensively. We have intentionally named Muslims and Muslim organizations in this piece.

      • There are some non-Black Muslims of Color who are also doing significant work that can help individuals of particular cultural backgrounds understand the underpinnings of their own anti-Black racism.

      • Dr. Mona Masood is doing great work facilitating discussion on anti-Black racism among diasporic populations from South Asia particularly.

      • Dr. Sylvia Chan-Malik also researches Black Muslims and offers classes on combating racism. These classes are specifically targeted for a non-Black cross-section of the community.

    • Tools to employ:

      • The Black Islam Syllabus, developed and curated by Dr. Kayla Renée Wheeler, is an extensive list of scholarly research and writings, movies, poetry, TV shows, websites, essays and hashtags. This is a great place to begin.

      • Identity Politics podcast, co-directed by Sr. Makkah Ali, can provide insight into issues around race and identity in the Muslim community.

    There are many other resources available that can start or enhance the process of working to combat anti-Black Muslim racism, bolster support for Black Lives Matter initiatives and draw us closer to being a community and nation that truly values each other with equity.

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