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How do you Stop Racism in the Arab-American Community? Heck if I Know

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Post-Racial?

Racism is a complicated issue.

Racial prejudice has persisted in America despite the evolution of countervailing social norms that not only undermine the rationales that buoy such bigotry, but shame the bigots themselves. So why are people still jerks?

There have been a myriad of reasons suggested for the persistence of racism and racists. I haven’t the space nor is this the occasion to audit the competing theories in detail, but suffice it to say that scholars have advanced various historical, socio-economic, and (yes) rational-choice explanations for the phenomenon’s resilience. Whatever the cause, it’s clear that we don’t live in the vaunted “post-racial” society we occasionally heard bandied about in the heady aftermath of America electing its first black president.

It’s just as evident that racism, at its core, is not just a “white” problem. That is, the pathologies that lead someone to judge another based solely on the color of their skin are not limited to Caucasians, but can be just as prevalent within minority groups. One need only survey the complex light-skinned/dark-skinned divide in the black, Latino, and South Asian communities (just to name a few) to get a sense of…well…the complexes. Granted, much of this self-loathing can likely be attributed to a hegemonic sense of beauty that people of color have been subjected to for centuries, but that’s a conversation (really, a dissertation) for another time.

Perhaps the vilest form of racism, however, is that of one minority group towards another minority group. What makes it so heinous is that, unlike the privilege given to the lighter-skinned within one’s own community, this dynamic does not stem from imposed aesthetic standards, but from the emulation of the same chauvinist mindset that works to label minorities of all shades as inferior. Growing up in New York and now living in Los Angeles, I’m all too well acquainted with this largely urban phenomenon. Despite this experience, I was still surprised to read Dawud Walid’s recent string of posts on the prevalence of a particular racial slur in the Arab-American community.

Ignorance and/or Malice

duadInitially, Dawud took to The Arab American News to make his case that “Fellow humans are not ‘abeed’.” He notes how the term (which in the singular is “abid”) is often used by Arabs to derogatorily refer to blacks (“abeed” meaning slaves). Throughout the piece, Dawud highlights the history of the term and the disingenuous defense of it by those claiming that they are merely using it in the sense of “worshipper” (as in “Abd Allāh” — see this great MM piece for an eloquent take on the matter).

From there, Dawud took to social media and did a quick search for “abeed” (or its various transliterations). What he found was the casual use of the term among a mostly younger, mostly Arab demographic. After tweeting his article to the offenders, some apologized to Dawud (noting that they did not know it was offensive) and some upped the ante by verbally abusing him. Par for the course on social media, I suppose.

Dawud’s next follow-up in the series is what really caught my attention. The author acknowledges that there has indeed been–as one would expect and hope–a positive response from the Arab and Muslim community who have circulated his article through their networks. Yet, he urges us to move beyond the virtual spaces and address this issue on a “grassroots” level. Hardly anyone can fault him for that or have any qualms with the suggestion, but it does beg the question…

What Can We Really Do?

So, let’s start with the good news. It seems that there are some who genuinely do not know the meanings and connotations associated with the term “abeed” and its variants. Education in this case can be an effective and quick remedy. Once you get past this bit of low-hanging fruit, however, the prospects for meaningful change drop off precipitously.

Tackling ignorance or naiveté is one thing; curing racism is a whole other matter. As Dawud himself notes, racism is in part structurally ingrained in the Arab community at large, not just the American diaspora. If you doubt him, think of the continuing struggles of South Asian migrant workers in the Gulf countries or, less anecdotally, consider a recent study that placed Jordan among the most racist countries in the world with Egypt and Saudi Arabia not far behind.

With this inherent obstacle, one has to question the overall efficacy of addressing the issue, on forums large and small, as Dawud suggests. Would this be a good first step? Sure. But part of me thinks that you would merely be preaching to the choir by bringing this issue up at our major conferences or otherwise making the topic too abstract to gain traction. Once again, it seems you have historical, socio-economic, and (yes) even rational-choice factors at play here (the latter perhaps stemming from a misguided calculation that by putting one group down, you can raise yourself up). Ultimately, I can’t help but think that the marginal benefit of discussion–from the pulpit, the stage, or the MSA mussallah–would be negligible.

As the title of this piece suggests, I have no ready-made answers. If there is one thing studying social science has taught me, it is that cause and effect are extremely difficult to ascertain, let alone develop an effective treatment for. As an initial matter though, it seems engagement between the communities is in order. Though this is not a regional issue, it is not surprising that Dawud is experiencing this outgrowth of racism in perhaps the most segregated city in the US. No need to be heavy-handed about it, either–I imagine a basketball league would get you to the desired outcome faster than any number of sermons.

Big thanks to Br. Dawud in any case. The first step towards fixing a problem is acknowledging we have one. Racism, ironically enough, is an equal opportunity disease.

Youssef is from Brooklyn, New York by way of Alexandria, Egypt. Currently, he is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California studying Political Science and International Relations. A student of Islam, history, and politics, his recent extended stay in Cairo placed him squarely at the nexus of these disciplines. Follow him on Twitter (@TheAlexandrian) as he tries to make sense of all that's happening in Tahrir and beyond.

31 Comments

31 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Husna

    December 11, 2013 at 1:18 AM

    Jazakallah kheir for bringing this topic up. It seems though from the lack of comments that this topic will always be something that will be brushed under the rug in the Muslim community.
    As someone who’s faced racism from other minorities and struggles daily with it, this is something that definitely needs to be worked on and it’s so scary to think that so many people have such hate for another people. The religion is absolutely against that mentality.
    Inshallah people will take notice and work hard to change their way of thinking and at least lessen racism.

  2. Avatar

    Mahmud

    December 11, 2013 at 1:35 AM

    Assalamualaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh

    If I ever hear any Arab referring to black people as abeed, will look disgusted and say, “what are you racist” or some type of reprimand inshaa Allah.

    Anything else I’m supposed to do other than dua?

  3. Avatar

    Yasmeen

    December 11, 2013 at 10:07 AM

    This reminded me of something a brother once said. He was speaking about how it’s the duty of his community (he was specifically talking about the Pakistani community) to give back to our African American brothers and sisters. He said that it was because of the progress that they made in regard to civil rights, his parents were able to come to America, prosper, and lead him to the level of success he has attained. He said that giving back to them wasn’t something extra, it was like a debt that is owed.

    Anywhooo, living in Dearborn, it is so sad to see the way muslims treat other muslims. I know of a little girl who is half Arab, half African American. In school she tried so hard to hide the fact that she was half African American. It’s really sad that our brothers and sisters move to Dearborn because they want their kids to grow up around muslims and are faced with racial comments every day. There was a little boy whose mom was throwing a party at their house for all of his friends. He comes home to his mom and tells her, “So and so said he’s not allowed to go to our house because we’re abeed.”

    It’s amazing that even br. Dawud, who has done a lot for the muslims in this area, is subject to this type of negativity.

    I think awareness is key. Awareness of what the term abeed really means and awareness of how it hurts fellow muslims. I would say target the youth so when they are raising a family someday they will deal with this issue in an Islamic manner, not a cultural one.

    • Avatar

      Youssef Chouhoud

      December 11, 2013 at 1:35 PM

      Yasmeen, that’s a beautiful – and accurate – sentiment that the Pakistani brother shared. Truly, Muslims in the US are reaping the fruits of the African-American struggle for equality. We do indeed owe them a debt.

      The other stories you tell are disheartening, and one hopes that the children can be guided away from the cultural ignorance that is perpetuated within our community.

      I don’t doubt that awareness and conversation can have a positive effect, but I think we really need to have an eye on long term remedies that get at the structural roots of racism in the community. I trust that Br. Dawud and others like him are busy laying the foundations for the institutions that will cut across the segregation amongst Muslims.

  4. Avatar

    Siraaj

    December 11, 2013 at 2:07 PM

    Salaam alaykum Youssef,

    Great article, very even-handed in pointing out the problem prevalent not only in the Arab-American community, but many communities. Desi community has the same obsession with fair skin, going so far as to create creams to make darker complexioned individuals look lighter, and like abeed, the use of the term “kallu” for black americans (or canadians).

    Siraaj

    • Avatar

      Youssef Chouhoud

      December 11, 2013 at 7:38 PM

      W/salam Siraaj,

      The same self-hating happens in Egypt, too. The current Miss Egypt (setting aside the problematic issues associated with this “honor” for a moment) is being blasted for not being pretty enough because her hair is curly and skin is not a pale white. Such ridiculous conceptions of beauty we have…

  5. Avatar

    ConsequenceIsNoCoincidence

    December 11, 2013 at 6:25 PM

    Hmm, I was expecting something a little more insightful from a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California studying Political Science and International Relations.

    You have three quotes that sum up your approach to “curing racism” 1) “one has to question the overall efficacy of addressing the issue, on forums large and small”; 2) “ultimately, I can’t help but think that the marginal benefit of discussion–from the pulpit, the stage, or the MSA mussallah–would be negligible”; and 3) “it seems engagement between the communities is in order.” The problem is you don’t provide enough support for the first two statements and the third statement is a given. So your article, sadly, leaves us nowhere.

    According to the 2011 pew research on Muslim Americans* 37% of adult Muslim Americans were born in the US, and 41% of the 63% immigrant population is from Middle East/North Africa. Of the Muslim American population “30% describe themselves as white, 23% as black, 21% as Asian, 6% as Hispanic and 19% as other or mixed race.” Based on these stats alone, there is every reason why racism should be addressed in forums such as ISNA, MSA, ICNA etc conferences. The purpose of these conferences is to instill morality (Islamic) at the root of the young generation. Racism is by far a fundamentally moral issue. Without going into extensive detail, there is a strong Biblical basis for racism which, alhamdullelah, Muslims don’t have to contend with. It is imperative, as Muslims growing up in a diverse community to teach our youth certain moral absolutes. This SHOULD come, not only from parents, but “from the pulpit, the stage, or the MSA mussallah” among other Islamic sources.

    *http://www.people-press.org/2011/08/30/section-1-a-demographic-portrait-of-muslim-americans/

    • Avatar

      Youssef Chouhoud

      December 11, 2013 at 7:33 PM

      Again, bringing awareness about this issue to our communities is important, especially given that many don’t realize it’s a problem. To that end, yes, imams should take the time out to address the evils of tribalism and chauvinism. But I highly doubt that the racists in our community are relying on Islamic rationales for their views, and so giving them an Islamic refutation of racism wouldn’t likely affect their perspectives.

      Underscoring how these views are cultural legacies and undermine one’s practice of Islam could potentially be beneficial. Yet, are we really assuming that the one’s who pay close attention to what their imams say are the same one’s perpetrating the racism in our community? I think that’s doubtful. “That’s why you would want to have the issue raised at ISNA conventions,” you might say. Well, I’d surely like to hear the topic addressed more at such forums, but again we have to ask, are the individuals who are attentively sitting in these main sessions the same ones that go back home and casually throw around racial epithets? Once more, I doubt it.

      My point is that discussion decoupled from engagement has a low ceiling of success. The only proven way to undercut racism is by ratcheting up empathy. If an Arab kid goes to an Arab mosque, has all Arab or White friends, and gets his cultural legacy from his Arab parents, do you really think that some lecture from an imam is going to reach him if the ideas of his own supremacy and another’s inferiority are everywhere else reinforced?

      I argue, then, that we should address the issue, but make sure we are attaching with it a concreteness that will instill empathy in those that talk alone are unlikely to reach – which are the ones we need to reach the most. We don’t want to lecture, we want to educate; and anyone who has studied pedagogy will tell you that the more you center the learning around the subject’s self-realization, the more likely the lesson will hit home.

      The basketball league example was one in which I threw out because bball is the official sport of Muslim youth across this country. Any sport or communal activity (eg, scouts) would have a similar effect, I imagine. This is only an initial take, and I’m open to *constructive* criticism of it.

    • Avatar

      Miss Q

      December 12, 2013 at 3:06 AM

      Well said. Exactly my issues with this article.

      That said, as a attorney, I would say that it’s not surprising in the slightest that a doctoral candidate in political science doesn’t have a thorough understanding of critical race theory. It is not widely taught in US institutions of higher learning – you have to seek it out. (I wasn’t taught it in law school.) Reminds me of that recent story of the professor who 3 (white) students filed complaints about for teaching about structural racism in her university classroom.

      Good article otherwise.

  6. Avatar

    Sara

    December 11, 2013 at 9:13 PM

    I can’t say I agree with the author of that article. First of all, just because you deem a problem “hard to deal with,” that certainly should not be a green light to just drop it. And they’re completely neglecting to consider the power of taking a grassroots approach to address community issues.

    • Avatar

      Youssef Chouhoud

      December 11, 2013 at 9:42 PM

      I think maybe you may have misunderstood my point. I’m not suggesting we drop it at all. I’m merely cautioning us not to count on seeing results from addressing the issue alone. In fact, I’m counting on the “grassroots” to go beyond that call and make sure that they create an environment where this kind of discussion can go beyond mere words.

  7. Avatar

    Abdullah

    December 11, 2013 at 9:29 PM

    Salam alaequm
    By Allah this’s one of the greatest challenges that I’m facing everyday among the Arab Muslim that I’m dealing with. I’m a Muslim, African-American. I feel stereotyped and experienced cultural racism. Nothing I do/say thats better than my Arab colleague yet we are all muslim. This’s one of the issues we are sweeping under the rug and I think it’s a great time to start speaking out. I believe no one is a second class muslim.

    • Avatar

      Youssef Chouhoud

      December 11, 2013 at 10:26 PM

      W/Salam akhi,

      I’m not sure what to say. What goes without saying is that this is despicable behavior. InshAllah, little by little, we’ll be able to make some headway against this backwards mentality.

  8. Avatar

    Abez

    December 12, 2013 at 2:19 AM

    I’ve been following Dawud Walid on Twitter and the verbal abuse he gets for just retweeting the ‘abeed’ comments is terrible. He must have some pretty thick skin to be able to continue despite being insulted, and I pray that Allah opens the hearts of the people whose are closed so tightly around what they believe is their God-Given superiority over others.

    Please, keep up the good work. Racism has no place in Islam, and no place in Muslim hearts.

  9. Avatar

    Jasmin

    December 12, 2013 at 3:16 AM

    Racism is a form of oppression and a false belief in thinking that you are some how better than another based on things that you have no control over. I am very sad to see the lack of comments on this topic, because like someone else pointed out, we all ignore the topic. But we need to FIX this problem.

    To be honest, this topic really touches me. seriously. and I am sorry to write a comment that should be a book, but this whole thing makes me sad. The fact that this topic gets grouped under a huge umbrella of “we need to become better” rather than pointing out the real issue, “many muslims are freakin’ racist and its a problem”. It is not a we need to become better issue or a “lets work on this later” issue, it is an issue that needs to be addressed and fixed. I am glad this is anonymous.

    Alhamdulilah, I am Muslim, a believer in a God who accepts everyone, a believer in the most beautiful, who made us all beautiful. Alhamdulilah, I was born Muslim. Some days I really think hard, and it was truly a blessing, me being born Muslim, because if I was not, I wonder if I would have agreed to the mistreatment of individuals based off their race, although we say we follow the Nabi, who accepted everyone without any disgrace. I know guidance is from Allah, but even in the Quran we are told to not lead the disbelievers astray.

    Anway. Again I apologize, but this topic. wow.

    I am a Muslim. A woman. A black woman. and I wear glasses. bottom of the totem poll, aren’t I? In the sight of Allah, we are all the same but in the sight of men, this is where the issue begins. My roots are more mixed than the melting pot we supposedly live in but I identify myself as African American or black, you might say. Although, if you saw me and are ignorant enough to use the comments “abeed”, “kalu” or even “nigga”, you might think I am something else, I’ve gotten everything under the sun due to my super psycho light skin. Again, due to the lack of knowledge of the mixed american culture, I am usually able to fly under the radar as something I am not which has made me a silent racial police. Imagine sitting in a group full of people as they describe your people as thieves, culture-less and the list goes on. It hurts. It hurts knowing that the only reason you are probably even sitting there is because no one in that group knows your black or they forgot due to your noticeably lighter skin. Imagine running a volunteer group for all people and when you approach a certain area, your significant elder tells you to be careful of your own people, “there are many black people around here, you know?”. No, I do not know. Imagine being an annoying teenage kid as your friends tell the funniest of black jokes to what they think is a non black crowd, and there I go sitting, my mind seriously being blown. The experiences go on, it gets kind of nostalgic especially telling it to a crowd who will never understand because no matter what your parents had to go through to get to this country, they will never be put on the pedestal of a black man. Sorry, because I think until we understand the whole idea of the black man living in America, this will be an issue never solved. But that’s not it. And just to clarify, posting pictures of Malcolm X and Muhammed Ali is in no way acceptance. Sure you accept the famous but what about the dude that attends your masjid?

    Back to the blessing of being born a Muslim. All people want is to be accepted, trust me. That’s all we want is acceptance. I want to be accepted, I want it to be okay to be a glasses wearing, light skinned black Muslim girl. But, I’m not. Again, just being black in American is something no one has to reiterate, imagine the look on all your white friend’s faces “what are you?” and you disappoint them with, “black”. And then you find a safe haven, Islam, a way of life which preaches equality, justice, mercy, love and balance. The haven is safe but its inhabitants are not. Islam is perfect but it’s followers are the furthest thing from it, it turns out glasses wearing light skinned black girls can’t fit in here either. Some days I dream of telling the board members at my masjid “I’M BLACK, LIKE BLACK BLACK, LIKE KALU BLACK”, I wonder if they would trust me with the bank card again or if the same aunty would be so happy with my broken Urdu or if the Arab lady would not approach me for her son I would never marry? I wonder if I would still be that gori larke or that cool girl with the glasses? These are questions among others that circulate through my head as I sit there silent, letting everything soak in. Again, all anyone wants is acceptance. So where to go? Alhamdulilah I was born Muslim.

    Did I mention I was a psycho? I am kind of a obnoxious social justice, equality, fairness in every way nut, and treat everyone the same weirdo. if something is wrong, I try to be the first to say something, the first to do something, the first to stand up, I try. When it comes to this issue, it is squashed before it is ever begins. I feel like although I stand with all my friends, this is an issue which I am alone in. I go to the rallies of Palestine, Syria and try to make it to anything promoting social justice, I own a few bracelets that are broken now because of how much I wore them. Trust me. I am for the people, but when it comes to my people, I really feel like the crowd is much smaller because we are still blinded with the same arrogance of Iblis. That somehow, somehow, we are better.

    Oh, the American black man. How low is your status among the world? The only man to be hated globally. I have even heard Africans talking about you so lowly. Please find a place, a culture, that can unitedly say, “we accept you”, you won’t. I love you Allah, I love you. I am so happy that I was born Muslim.

    So how to fix this problem? We have the answers.

    1. Go read the story of Adam again, and ask yourself, how is your dislike for dark skinned people any different than Iblis and his dislike for clay skinned Adam.

    2. Take a chill pill, most of your dislike for a race is based off of arrogance, you think your better than another? I have a news flash for you. You poop, pee, eat, make babies, read, write, just like the people you are so much better than. opps, you might have thought you were special. Unless you are some cyborg, I am sorry but we ALL fall under the class of-HUMAN.

    3. For innocent by-standards, stick up for your brother and sister in Islam. point, blank. Yes, attending the dinner for a Pakistani flood is important and so is the Palestinian fundraiser, but maybe just maybe, issues in the country you live in are just important. You want people to stand for the justice of your people back home, stand for justice for the people in your current residence.

    4. Accept people. Accept them. 100% accept them, so yes that dark skinned guy at the masjid who may talk different than you do and ohhh God does not speak Arabic, accept him, invite him with you guys, etc. Same for your girls. And when you have your cultural extravaganza conversations, in which you talk about kufta for 90 minutes, remember there might be others who have no idea what you are talking about, so maybe share different things in your culture rather than parade them around like medals. Keeping it 100 :) I love kufta though! :)

    5. I know that your culture is very important, masha’Allah, but learning about another is not going to somehow negate your cultureness, I promise diversity does not bite. And newsflash, Lil Wayne is not the standard for black men, if there is anything my black father has ever taught me, it is to be everything opposite of Lil wayne. We don’t wear gold in our chains or rangs, most of us started from the bottom and we dont pop up in our new buggatis but drive toyotas like the rest of you. If anything, there are more black people who are living the same blue-color, upper blue-color life you are living. You know kinda how they always show some psycho muslims on TV to the point that you would think every muslim is like that because they dont show other ones. Same concept, if you somehow think that the majority of black people are selling drugs and singing trinadad james songs, you are wrong. watch tv, dont believe tv.

    6. Know that the “ghetto-ness” that you see on TV which is supposed to depict the whole black race is a culture of being poor not black people. So yes guh, black people know how to pronounce the letter “r”. And there are other people who talk like dat and dey aint black, u heard me? And if you actually took some time to venture into the ghetto, you will notice this “ghettoness” is across all people who are poor.

    7. I have an idea. Pretend you were back in your country wherever that was, let’s pretend Jasminville and everyone is pink race including yourself, in this country, there is stealing, rape, murder, and every crime under the sun. Now you move to America, where there is many races and cultures and all of a sudden, black people are the doers of all crime, they are the source of the America’s financial problem, murder problem, drug problem, basically your dark skin equates to bad news. Kinda weird how the ideas in your country where anyone could be bad has switched now that you are in a country with many different people. hmmm…I think the idea that anyone could be bad is universal. And always remember socioecomnomic status has a lot to do with things in terms of crime if you are trying to link things together.

    8. take part and hold team building activities, like you stated basketball, football, just things where from a very young age, people are interacting with people from different races. Although black people are pretty much good at anything and you will lose in any sport or dance competition, you should still join. Right, I mean we are the best in almost everything. muhahahahaha, how do you like me now? I am joking, but I think this is something parents should really do, rather than sneak your kids off to 10 hour Arab tea parties (which I somewhat enjoyable) and Desi bashes every weekend, take some time out for your kids to hang out with people who arent of the same culture.

    Allahualam. I will end this. It is getting to long. But to fix this problem, it takes a group of people willing to slowly progress to equality.

    I love Allah. The one who accepts when everyone else is too blind to do so; I love you, Allah, I love you.

  10. Avatar

    Hassan

    December 12, 2013 at 2:05 PM

    Do arabs that are more religious (attend masjid etc) also use this term or are racists? I have never seen Arab or Desi being racist against anyone who are religious and attend masjid. They do distinguish sometimes on fiqh by associating it with nationality. Like an arab would say there is a Pakistani masjid, or desi would say fulan goes to arab masjid etc.

    • Avatar

      The Salafi Feminist

      December 12, 2013 at 11:41 PM

      Yes, even the “religious” Arabs (my experience was with super Salafi Arabs) are racist. Sometimes they disguise it well, other times, not so much. As soon as your views differ from theirs, or you act in a way they disapprove of, they will immediately start talking about how “those people” don’t know “true Islam,” or about how Arabs were the special chosen people of Allah, and so on.

      It’s bad when you see it from the outside; worse when you marry into such a family. True colours are revealed, and rather horrifyingly.

  11. Avatar

    Margari Aziza Hill

    December 12, 2013 at 10:25 PM

    Salaam alaikum,
    For an issue that has hardly been broached in the 20 years that I’ve been Muslim, I guess I’m surprised by the amount of skepticism around our religious leaders and activists addressing it in khutbahs, halaqahs, and conferences. From my experience, when this topic is broached even the most cultural community centers become a less hostile places. But when it is left unspoken, ignorance triumphs.

    My main experience hearing the word was at a mosque, in the Islamic school. I taught at an Islamic school, and I’ve personally caught several Arab students using the term in front of me. A colleague of mine heard a student and worker at the store attached to the masjid refer to the black American students they were serving as ‘abeed. Imagine teaching students that call you ‘abdah, and their parents and administration who attend the same masjid all justify the term. At another Islamic school, Arab parents defended their kids calling another kid egg plant and ‘abed. Often, the administration does little to address these issues. There wasn’t even recourse when I was disrespected by my own students or witnessed a student using the term. It created a hostile environment, one which left me completely disillusioned. Many of my Black students felt like they were treated differently and, the truth is, they were. Although my daughter is only 2, I shudder to think about putting her in a hostile environment where her so called brothers and sisters treat her like a second class citizen and there is little recourse. I faced a lot of racist taunts growing up and it had a profound impact on me and even how I identified with my classmates who taunted me, wrote nasty notes, and even one who pulled out a plug of my hair and called me a n—–. I don’t want to put her Islam in jeopardy or for her to feel oppressed by her co-religionists.

    There are proven models that have helped people interrogate their own prejudices and racist attitudes. Our Islamic institutions need to get some serious anti-racism, anti-bullying, and diversity workshops. We must demand this type of training on the part of our Islamic schools and institutions that work with youth.

    Besides effective models where people have altered their views following a workshop or lecture, I still believe that Islam has the potential that brother Malcolm had so much faith in. I don’t buy the hajj epiphany, as Malcolm X had long standing contact with the Muslim world long before then. But he was observant and saw how Muslims from various backgrounds welcomed him even before the hajj. Like Malcolm, I have been embraced and shared deep connections with Muslims from all ethnic backgrounds.

    My primary hope comes from the examples in the seerah and biographies of the Companions. The fact is that if racism and tribalism were so abstract, we wouldn’t have seen it in our Prophet’s (s.a.w.) final sermon. At the root of ethnic chauvinism is arrogance, and while we may not be able to cure arrogance from someone who wants to hold onto that vice, we can demonstrate that certain practices and thought processes are detrimental for our own souls and for our ummah as a whole.

    That being said, while we cannot cure racism from someone who is entirely emotionally invested in it, we can help people who are sincerely striving. There are those who want to live by the example of our Prophet and follow the ways of the righteous people. And considering how race, tribal lineage, and ethnicity was dealt with then, we have some clear answers. This is not to say that we will eliminate all racist attitudes, but at least we can make it unacceptable. Considering how far the US has come in from my mom’s generation, let alone my grandmother who grew up in Jim Crow South, I think that we can make progress as a community.

  12. Avatar

    Faraz

    December 13, 2013 at 12:21 AM

    The racism problem in Arab American communities spreads deeper than just the word abeed. Just like many white Americans don’t realize many of their actions are inherently biased or prejudiced, the same effect is repeated within the Muslim community except the dominant role is replaced by the Arabs.

    Part of it is ignorance, other part prejudice, and the last part unfortunately is flat out racism.

  13. Avatar

    Abu Abdillah

    December 13, 2013 at 3:00 AM

    While I agree with this article in a general sense, it does fall into another more subtle form of racism itself. The suggestion that racism is or has been exclusively a white problem is a manifestation of racism even if an attempt is made to legitimate this claim with historical wrongdoings. Similarly, determining one type of racism, in this case the minority-on-minority variety, as being viler than others is similarly incorrect. Racism is racism.

  14. Avatar

    Riz Khan

    December 14, 2013 at 9:03 PM

    From the last sermon of Holy Prophet (P.B.U.H)

    There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab and for a
    non-Arab over an Arab, nor for the white over the black nor for the black
    over the white except in God-conciousness.

    I request everyone to read the whole text from any link on net can be searched on sear engines.

    May be we are not good muslim. May be we are not good human beings. We declare love for Holy Prophet (P.B.U.H) but at the same time do not act upon his teachings. We are going far away from our true religion. May Allah guide us along the right path Amin!

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    RCHOUDH

    December 15, 2013 at 5:32 AM

    I agree that besides explaining to Muslims about the evils of racism/nationalism from the pulpit, more “grassroots” level activities should take place in order to foster stronger feelings of brotherhood/sisterhood amongst Muslims. And different types of racism should definitely be distinguished when confronting a person about it. You’ll have people that are “accidental racists” who, due to ignorance, don’t realize that something they’re saying or doing could be construed as being racist towards others. And then you have the people who know they’re being racist, but don’t care, because of extreme arrogance, apathy towards change, lack of Deen, etc.

    The first thing Muslims should learn to do is get to know each other and not cocoon themselves off towards being only around people of their own race/nationality/ethnicity, etc. beginning from a young age. Muslims should also stay away from stereotyping and rating which groups are “safe” to be around due to mass conditioning by the mainstream media and schools. So besides targeting the youth with organizing sports tournaments and Boys/Girls Scouts activities like you mention, here are some other suggestions for community-wide events that can foster a stronger feeling of brotherhood/sisterhood amongst Muslims. These include field trips, both educational and entertaining, to museums, picnics, amusement parks, etc. We could also organize youth-led volunteer activities involving soup kitchens, homeless shelters, environmental work, hospital visits, etc. For regular ongoing activities at a local mosque or community center, we should also organize weekly/biweekly halaqahs specifically for the youth, where any and every social issue should be allowed to be discussed, including racism. Book clubs/poetry or spoken word sessions can also be organized to attract the youth towards discussing about important social issues too.

    These activities should be open to every Muslim within the community from every possible background. It should be open to anyone, no matter how much or how little they attend the mosque. In fact, I think it’s especially important to target the Muslims that are not active within the mosque. And I think it’s especially important to target young adults and teenagers, because one thing I tend to notice is that while Muslims are eager to organize trips, events, and activities for the younger set, such eagerness to organize stuff tends to taper off as the kids get older, which is a shame. So like you said, it is not enough to just tell people to love each other. You have to show them how to love each other too by making it possible for them to become friends.

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    Shehnaaz

    December 18, 2013 at 12:06 AM

    As a 3rd generation South African of Indian origin,having faced pure racism and oppression of White over Black/Indian/Coloured it’s disgusting that (some) Muslims cannot distinguish their actions and/or words and know that Racism has absolutely no place in Islam. Having lost a world icon, a liberator like Nelson Mandela who local South African ulema say drew his inspiration and thought process from our beloved prophet Muhammad (saw) it saddens me that our brothers and sisters cannot learn lessons in kindness towards each other and we have our prophet (saw) as our given most exceptional guide. Travelling several times to the Middle East you quickly realise how indent racism is….May Allah guide us to be better iA. Great article Youssef. Discussion with Engagement is imperative in forcing people to recognize their behavior and in changing attitudes especially for our younger generation.

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    Blackman

    December 18, 2013 at 8:41 PM

    I’m an African Somali and if any Arab dare call me or anyone near me An Abid, it’s a war. As a believing Muslim I hate to say this in a blunt way, but an Arabs and Desis got nothing on me…Black people we need to be prideful and show these people they got all the civil rights because of AA sacrifice. Black and proud!

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      Halima

      December 28, 2013 at 6:11 PM

      I second that lol

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    Wael Abdelgawad

    December 19, 2013 at 5:23 PM

    Jazak Allah khayr for raising the subject. Racist comments and expressions are one thing I won’t tolerate in anyone, not even friends or family. I had a relative who was a great man in many ways, but used to make such comments occasionally. I always reprimanded him, but he never accepted my words. He would get angry and say, “I don’t want to be lectured!” Once he made such a comment in front of my daughter and I got quite angry and told him to keep his garbage to himself. I felt bad about that, but I needed to let my daughter know that such words are not acceptable.

    This subject must be addressed in khutbas, or even better the Eid khutbah. At Eid you get scores of Muslims who don’t appear at the masjid at any other time of the year. It’s a good time to address vital social issues.

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    shahgul

    December 20, 2013 at 10:15 PM

    My first experience in an American masjid was an Arab woman pointing at my clothes (Shalwar Kameez) and telling me it was haram. Then I was shocked at attending a wedding where the hands of 2 men were tied together and they exchanged wedding vows. Turns out, one of the men was representing the bride. My Ara friend informed me this was the ‘real way’ a Muslim wedding was conducted. So, we have been carrying out fake Muslim weddings for centuries in the Sub-continent where a marriage is not finalized till the Qadi either hears the girl say yes, or sees her nod. And when a girl in shyness would not say yes, the whole family prods her to say yes till she does.
    Then this Pakistani brother comments on my wearing jilbabs and skirts excessively and wonders if I am an Arab wannabe? Then he warns me of how fickle Arab men are. So, I am wearing a jilbab to snare Arab men?
    My experience is, racism and ignorance go hand in hand. My experience has been that racism is linked positively to ignorance and insecurity. This disease also develops in closed groups. When members of a group close the door and do not people and ideas enter or leave, they become their own cheering squad. They root for themselves and boo at the imaginary enemy to feel good.
    We are all racist till we open the doors to our hearts and homes. What I am finding missing is that no one visits anyone at home.
    I think we need to have a project in which we take turns visiting each other. We need to hold open house events not at the masjid but at our homes. These events should not be show off opportunities, but simple potlucks where people get to know each other. Believe me those sisters in their corner who look and laugh at you will not attend. They will not invite you either, but they are outliers. There are a lot of decent, misinformed folks who will change their minds when they get to know you.

  20. Pingback: How Not to Stop Racism in the Arab American Community – A Response | NEWYORKUSTAN: American Muslim Series

  21. Pingback: How Not to Stop Racism in the Arab American Community - A Response | MuslimMatters.org

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    Halima

    December 28, 2013 at 6:18 PM

    FINALLY! FINALLY! FINALLY!

    I’m so glad someone has brought up this subject. Kudos to Br. Dawud for laying out that piece. It’s sad and sickening how people turn a blind eye to racism in the Muslim community. I too have been discriminated against being Somali. Many times it was in the masjid. Sisters will give you the stank eye, refuse to shake your hand, and speak about you in their language. My brother once noted he had finished praying Friday prayer, and extended his hand out to the elderly Arab man sitting beside him. The man refused to shake his hand. So a younger Arab that was sitting beside him as well did instead. It just goes to show a lot of this fuel is coming from the elderly, but not entirely. Like you mentioned it’s also stemming from the younger groups on social media websites. It’s disgusting. What happened to being one ummah? It’s people that behave like this that make you feel enmity for Arabs. (Although I know all are not racist) But how can you call another human being abed? Don’t you bleed the same blood, eat, drink, and sleep too? The way I see it no one can claim to be superior to me when they breathe the same air I do. Nuff said.

  23. Avatar

    Zahra

    February 3, 2014 at 8:05 AM

    As an arab myself I am never proud of being nationalistic and no one should ever be because no choose to be so on so. So, I have encountered racism within the Arab community itself. When I go to pray in mosques I usually go to the mosque that makes me comfortable and most of them turned to be mosques that are mixed from all different communities and I love it. Whenever I hear such word is been used I feel disgusted and stop them because of how ignorant people can be I so upset from how a person say he Muslim and not follow it the right. Allhamdulliah as a child I grew up in a area where the community was pretty diverse but not many Arabs Allhamdulliah. I grew having my friends from different places desi, sudani, americans, and malaysians. Every human being in this world no matter who are where your from or even whatever religion deserves respect and honor. How about your fellow Muslim brother/sister in Islam??

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The Unexpected Blessings of Being Alone

Juli Herman

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My seven-year old son sat on the ground, digging a hole. Around him, other children ran, cried, and laughed at the playground.

“He’s such a strange kid,” my oldest daughter remarked. “Who goes to the playground and digs holes in the ground?”

In an instant, scenes of my ten-year-old self flashed through my mind. In them I ducked, hiding from invisible enemies in a forest of tapioca plants. Flattening my back against the spindly trunks, I flicked my wrist, sending a paper shuriken flying towards my pursuers. I was in my own world, alone.

It feels as if I have always been alone. I was the only child from one set of parents. I was alone when they divorced. I was alone when one stepmother left and another came in. I was alone with my diary, tears, and books whenever I needed to escape from the negative realities of my childhood.

Today, I am a lone niqab-wearing Malay in the mish-mash of a predominantly Desi and Arab Muslim community. My aloneness has only been compounded by the choices I’ve made that have gone against social norms- like niqab and the decision to marry young and have two babies during my junior and senior years of undergrad.

When I decided to homeschool my children, I was no longer fazed by any naysayers. I had gotten so used to being alone that it became almost second nature to me. My cultural, religious, and parenting choices no longer hung on the approval of social norms.

Believe it Or Not, We Are All Alone

In all of this, I realize that I am not alone in being alone. We all are alone, even in an ocean of people. No matter who you are, or how many people are around you, you are alone in that you are answerable to the choices you make.

The people around you may suggest or pressure you into specific choices, but you alone make the ultimate choice and bear the ultimate consequence of what those choices are. Everything from what you wear, who you trust, and how you plan your wedding is a result of your own choice. We are alone in society, and in the sight of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) as well.

The aloneness is obvious when we do acts of worship that are individual, such as fasting, giving zakah, and praying. But we’re also alone in Hajj, even when surrounded by a million other Muslims. We are alone in that we have to consciously make the choice and intention to worship. We are alone in making sure we do Hajj in its true spirit.

We alone are accountable to Allah, and on the Day of Judgment, no one will carry the burden of sin of another.

مَّنِ اهْتَدَىٰ فَإِنَّمَا يَهْتَدِي لِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا ۚ وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ ۗ وَمَا كُنَّا مُعَذِّبِينَ حَتَّىٰ نَبْعَثَ رَسُولًا

“Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger.” Surah Al Israa 17:15

On the day you stand before Allah you won’t have anyone by your side. On that day it will be every man for himself, no matter how close you were in the previous life. It will just be you and Allah.

Even Shaytaan will leave you to the consequences of your decisions.

وَقَالَ الشَّيْطَانُ لَمَّا قُضِيَ الْأَمْرُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَعَدَكُمْ وَعْدَ الْحَقِّ وَوَعَدتُّكُمْ فَأَخْلَفْتُكُمْ ۖ وَمَا كَانَ لِيَ عَلَيْكُم مِّن سُلْطَانٍ إِلَّا أَن دَعَوْتُكُمْ فَاسْتَجَبْتُمْ لِي ۖ فَلَا تَلُومُونِي وَلُومُوا أَنفُسَكُم ۖ مَّا أَنَا بِمُصْرِخِكُمْ وَمَا أَنتُم بِمُصْرِخِيَّ ۖ إِنِّي كَفَرْتُ بِمَا أَشْرَكْتُمُونِ مِن قَبْلُ ۗ إِنَّ الظَّالِمِينَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ

“When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves. I cannot help you, nor can you help me. I reject the way you associated me with God before.’ A bitter torment awaits such wrongdoers” Surah Ibrahim 14:22

But, Isn’t Being Alone Bad?

The connotation that comes with the word ‘alone’ relegates it to something negative. You’re a loser if you sit in the cafeteria alone. Parents worry when they have a shy and reserved child. Teachers tend to overlook the quiet ones, and some even complain that they can’t assess the students if they don’t speak up.

It is little wonder that the concept of being alone has a negative connotation. Being alone is not the human default, for Adam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was alone, yet Allah created Hawwa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) as a companion for him. According to some scholars, the word Insaan which is translated as human or mankind or man comes from the root letters that means ‘to want company’. We’re naturally inclined to want company.

You might think, “What about the social aspects of Islam? Being alone is like being a hermit!” That’s true, but in Islam, there is a balance between solitary and communal acts of worship. For example, some prayers are done communally like Friday, Eid, and funeral prayers. However, extra prayers like tahajjud, istikharah, and nawaafil are best done individually.

There is a place and time for being alone, and a time for being with others. Islam teaches us this balance, and with that, it teaches us that being alone is also praiseworthy, and shouldn’t be viewed as something negative. There is virtue in alone-ness just as there is virtue in being with others.

Being Alone Has Its Own Perks

It is through being alone that we can be astute observers and connect the outside world to our inner selves. It is also through allowing aloneness to be part of our daily regimen that we can step back, introspect and develop a strong sense of self-based on a direct relationship with Allah.

Taking the time to reflect on worship and the words of Allah gives us the opportunity to meaningfully think about it. It is essential that a person gets used to being alone with their thoughts in order to experience this enriching intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience. The goal is to use our thoughts as the fuel to gain closeness to Allah through reflection and self-introspection.

Training ourselves to embrace being alone can also train us to be honest with ourselves, discover who we truly are, and work towards improving ourselves for Allah’s sake. Sitting with ourselves and honestly scrutinizing the self in order to see strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement is essential for character development. And character development is essential to reach the level of Ihsaan.

When we look into who we want to be, we are bound to make some decisions that might raise eyebrows and wag tongues. Being okay with being alone makes this somewhat easier. We should not be afraid to stand out and be the only one wearing praying or wearing hijab, knowing that it is something Allah will be pleased with. We should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe in even if it makes us unpopular. Getting used to being alone can give us the confidence to make these decisions.

Being alone can strengthen us internally, but not without pain. Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that people who dissent from group wisdom show heightened activation in the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the sting of social rejection. Berns calls this the “pain of independence.”

All our prophets experienced this ‘pain of independence’ in their mission. Instances of different prophets being rejected by their own people are generously scattered in the Quran for us to read and reflect upon. One lesson we can extract from these is that being alone takes courage, faith, conviction, and confidence.

 

We Come Alone, Leave Alone, Meet Allah Alone

The circumstances that left me alone in the different stages of my life were not random. I always wanted an older brother or someone else to be there to rescue me from the solitude. But the solitude came with a blessing. Being alone gave me the time and space in which to wonder, think, and eventually understand myself and the people around me. I learned reflection as a skill and independent decision-making as s strength. I don’t mind being alone in my niqab, my Islam, or my choices. I’ve had plenty of practice after all.

Open grave

You are born alone and you took your first breath alone. You will die alone, even if you are surrounded by your loved ones. When you are lowered into the grave, you will be alone. Accepting this can help you make use of your moments of solitude rather than fear them. Having the courage to be alone builds confidence, strengthens conviction, and propels us to do what is right and pleasing to Allah regardless of human approval.

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Why Israel Should Be ‘Singled Out’ For Its Human Rights Record

Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians.

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israel, occupied Palestine

Why is everyone so obsessed with Israel’s human rights abuses? From Saudi Arabia, to Syria, to North Korea to Iran. All these nations are involved in flagrant violations of human right, so why all the focus on Israel – ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’? Clearly, if you ignore these other violations and only focus on Israel, you must be anti-Semitic. What else could be your motivations for this double standard?

This is one of the most common contentions raised when Israel is criticized for its human rights record. I personally don’t believe in entertaining this question – it shouldn’t matter why an activist is choosing to focus on one conflict and not others. What matters are the facts being raised; putting into question the motives behind criticizing Israel is a common tactic to detract from the topic at hand. The conversation soon turns into some circular argument about anti-Semitism and the plight of the Palestinian people is lost. More importantly, this charge of having double standards is often disingenuous. For example, Representative Ihan Omar has been repeatedly accused of this recently and her motives have been called ‘suspicious’ – despite her vocal criticism of other countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

However, this point is so frequently brought up, I think that perhaps its time activists and critics simply own up to it. Yes – Israel should be singled out, for some very good reasons. These reasons relate to there being a number of unique privileges that the country enjoys; these allow it to get away with much of the abuses it commits. Human right activists thus must be extra vocal when comes to Israel as they have to overcome the unparalleled level of support for the country, particularly in the US and Canada. The following points summarize why Israel should in fact be singled out:

1) Ideological support from ordinary citizens

When Iran and North Korea commit human right abuses, we don’t have to worry about everyone from journalists to clerics to average students on campuses coming out and defending those countries. When most nations commit atrocities, our journalists and politicians call them out, sanctions are imposed, they are taking them to the International Court of Justice, etc. There are instruments in place to take care of other ‘rogue’ nations – without the need for intervention from the common man.

Israel, however, is unique in that it has traditionally enjoyed widespread ideological support, primarily from the Jewish community and Evangelical Christians, in the West. This support is a result of the historical circumstances and pseudo-religious ideology that drove the creation of the state in 1948. The successful spread of this nationalistic dogma for the last century means Israel can count on ordinary citizens from Western countries to comes to its defense. This support can come in the form of foreign enlistment to its military, students conducting campus activism, politicians shielding it from criticisms and journalists voluntarily writing in its support and spreading state propaganda.

This ideological and nationalistic attachment to the country is the prime reason why it is so incredibly difficult to have any kind of sane conversation about Israel in the public sphere – criticism is quickly seen as an attack on Jewish identity and interpreted as an ‘existential threat’ to the nation by its supporters. Any attempts to take Israel to account through standard means are thwarted because of the political backlash feared from the country’s supporters in the West.

2) Unconditional political support of a world superpower

The US is Israel’s most important and closest ally in the Middle-East. No matter what war crimes Israel commits, it can count on America to have its back. This support means the US will use its veto power to support Israel against actions of the UN Security Council, it will use its diplomatic influence to shield any punitive actions from other nations and it will use its military might to intervene if need be. The backing of the US is one of the main reasons why the Israeli occupation and expansion of the colonial settlement enterprise continues to this day without any repercussions.

While US support might be especially staunch for Israel, this factor is certainly not unique to the country. Any country which has this privilege, e.g. Saudi Arabia, should be under far great scrutiny for its human rights violations than others.

3)  Military aid and complicity of tax-payers

US tax-payers are directly paying for Israel to carry out its occupation of the Palestinian people.

Israel is the largest recipient of US-military aid – it receives an astonishing $3 billion dollars every year. This aid, according to a US congressional report, “has helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world.”

Unlike other countries, ordinary citizens are complicit in the perpetual crimes committed against defenseless Palestinians. Activists and citizens thus have a greater responsibility to speak out against Israel as their government is paying the country to carry out its atrocities. Not only is this aid morally reprehensible, but it is also illegal under United States Leahy Laws.

4) The Israeli lobby

The Israeli lobby is one of the most powerful groups in Washington and is the primary force for ensuring continued US political support for the nation. It consists of an assortment of formal lobby groups (AIPAC, Christians United for Israel), think-thanks (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), political action committee or PACs, not-for-profit organizations (B’nai B’irth, American Jewish Congress, Stand for Israel) and media watchdogs (CAMERA, Honest Reporting). These organizations together exercise an incredible amount of political influence. They ensure that any criticism of Israel is either stifled or there are serious consequences for those who speak up. In 2018 alone, pro-Israel donors spent $22 million on lobbying for the country – far greater than any other nation. Pro-Israel lobbies similarly influence politics in other places such as the UK, Canada, and Europe.

5) One of the longest-running occupation in human history

This point really should be the first one on this list – and it is the only one that should matter. However, because of the unique privileges that Israel enjoys, it is hard to get to the crux of what it is actually doing. Israel, with U.S. support, has militarily occupied the Palestinian territories (West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) since 1967. The belligerent occupation, over 50 years old, is one of the longest, bloodiest and brutal in human history.

Israel continues to steal land and build settler colonies the West Bank – in flagrant violation of international law. It has implemented a system of apartheid in these territories which is reminiscent of the racist regime of South Africa. The Gaza strip has been under an insufferable siege which has made the living conditions deplorable; it has been referred to the world’s largest ‘open-air prison’. In addition to this institutional oppression, crimes committed against Palestinians include: routinely killing civilian protesters, including teenagers and medics, torture of Palestinians and severe restrictions on the everyday movement of Palestinians.

The brutality, consistency and the duration for which Israel has oppressed Palestinians is alone enough reason for it being ‘singled out’. No other nation comes close to its record. However, for the reasons mentioned above, Israel’s propaganda machine has effectively painted itself as just another ‘liberal democracy’ in the eyes of the general public. Any attempt to bring to light these atrocities are met with ‘suspicion’ about the ‘real’ motives of the critics. Given the points mentioned here, it should be evident that the level of support for Israeli aggression is uniquely disproportionate – it is thus fitting that criticism of the country is equally vocal and unparalleled as well.

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This Article Could be Zakat-Eligible

Who Accounts For This Pillar of Islam

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Co-written by Shaykh Osman Umarji

As writers on MuslimMatters, it came as a surprise when the website we write on marked itself zakat-eligible on its fundraiser for operations in Ramadan. This website has previously highlighted the misuse and abuse of zakat for vague and dodgy reasons, including instances of outright fraud by nonprofit corporations.  We have lamented the seemingly inexorable march from zakat being for living human beings in need to financial play-doh for nonprofit corporate boards.

Estimated global zakat is somewhere between $200 billion to $1 trillion.  Eliminating global poverty is estimated at $187 billion– not just for Muslims, but everyone.  There continue to be strong interests in favor of more putty-like zakat to benefit the interests of the organizations that are not focused on reducing poverty. Thus, in many ways, a sizeable chunk of zakat benefits the affluent rather than the needy. Zakat, rather than being a credit to the Muslim community, starts to look more like an indictment of it.

No, it’s not ikhtilaf

The recent article on this website, Dr. Usama Al-Azmi seemed somewhat oblivious to the cavalier way the nonprofit corporate sector in the United States treats Zakat.  The article did not do justice to legitimate concerns about zakat distribution by dismissing the issue as one of “ikhtilaf,” or a reasonable difference of opinion, as it ignored the broader concern about forces working hard to make zakat a “wild west” act of worship where just about anything goes.  

It’s essential to identify the crux of the problem. Zakat has eight categories of permissible beneficiaries in the Quran. 1 Two are various levels of poor, distribution overhead; then there are those whose hearts are to be inclined,  free captives, relieve indebtedness, the wayfarer, and the cause of Allah (fisabilillah). The category of fisabilillah, historically,  the majority of scholars have interpreted as the cost of jihad (like actual fighting). However, in recent times, Muslim nonprofit corporations, with support of learned Muslim leaders, have adopted an increasingly aggressive and vague posture that allows nearly any beneficial cause to get zakat.   

The concerns about the abuse of zakat, and the self-serving desire by corporations to turn fisabilillah into a wastebasket Zakat category that could be “incredibly broad” has to do with far more than a difference of opinion (ikhtilaf ) about the eligibility of Dawah organizations. Let’s assume dawah and educational organizations are eligible to administer Zakat funds.  We need to know what that means in practice. What we have is a fundamental question the fisabilillah-can-mean-virtually-anything faction never manages to answer: are there any limits to zakat usage at all?

Show Your Work

We fully understand that in our religious practice, there is a set of rules.  In Islamic Inheritance for example, for example, we cannot cavalierly change the definition of what a “daughter” is to mean any girl you want to treat like a daughter. There is an established set of rules relating to acts of worship. For the third pillar of Islam, zakat, there seem to be no limits to the absurd-sounding questions we can ask that now seem plausible.  

Unfortunately, we have too many folks who invoke “ikhtilaf” to justify adopting almost any opinion and not enough people who are willing to explain their positions. We need a better understanding of zakat and draw the lines on when nonprofit corporations are going too far.

You can be conservative and stand for zakat as an act of worship that contributes to social justice. You can have a more expansive interpretation friendly to the nonprofit corporate sector’s needs to include the revenue source. Wherever you stand, if you don’t provide evidence and develop detailed uniform and accepted principles and rules that protect those people zakat was meant to help, you are inviting abuse and at the very least, opening the door towards inequitable results. 2

Can you feed the needy lentils and rice for $100 a meal, with margins of $99 a meal going to pay salaries to provide these meals and fundraise for them?  Why or why not?

Can a Dawah organization purchase an $80 million jet for its CEO, who can use it to travel the world to do “dawah,” including places like Davos or various ski resorts?  What rules exist that would prevent something like this? As far as we know, nothing at all.

Bubble Charity

In the United States, demographic sorting is a common issue that affects all charitable giving, not just giving by Muslims. The most affluent live in neighborhoods with other people who are generally as prosperous as they are. Certain places seem almost perversely designed to allow wealthy residents to be oblivious to the challenges of the poor.  There are undeniable reasons why what counts as “charity” for the wealthy means giving money to the Opera, the Met Gala, and Stanford University.

The only real way affluent Muslims know they supposed to care about poor people is that maybe they have a Shaikh giving khutbas talking about the need to do so and their obligation of zakat once a year or so. That is now becoming a thing of the past. Now it is just care about fisabilillah- it means whatever your tender heart wants it to mean.   

As zakat becomes less about the poor, appeals will be for other projects with a higher amount of visibility to the affluent.  Nonprofits now collect Zakat for galas with celebrities. Not fundraising at the gala dinner mind you, but merely serving dinner and entertaining rich people. Educational institutions and Masajid that have dawah activities (besides, everything a Masjid does is fisabilillah) can be quite expensive. Getting talent to run and teach in these institutions is also costly. Since many of the people running these institutions are public figures and charismatic speakers with easy access and credibility with the affluent. It is far easier for them to get Zakat funds for their projects.

People who benefit from these projects because they send their children to these institutions or attend lectures themselves will naturally feel an affinity for these institutions that they won’t have with the poor. Zakat will stay in their bubble.  Fisabilillah.

Dawa is the new Jihad

Jihad, as in war carried out by a Khalifah and paid for with zakat funds, is an expensive enterprise. But no society is in a permanent state of warfare, so they can work towards eliminating poverty during peacetime. Muslim communities have done this in the past.  Dawah is qualitatively different from jihad as it is permanent. There was never a period in Islamic history when there was no need to do dawah. Many times in history, nobody was fighting jihad. There was no period of Islamic history when there were there was never a need for money to educate people. Of course, earlier Muslims used zakat in education in limited, defined circumstances. It is not clear why limitations no longer apply.  

Indeed dawah is a broad category.  For example, many people regard the Turkish costume drama “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” as dawah.  Fans of the show can’t stop talking about the positive effects it has had on their lives and their iman. What prevents zakat from funding future expensive television costume dramas? Nothing, as far as we can see.   

No Standards or Accountability

Unfortunately, in the United States, there are no uniform, specific standards governing zakat. Anything goes now when previously in Islamic history, there were appropriate standards. Nonprofit corporations themselves decide if they are zakat-eligible or not. In some instances, they provide objectively comical explanations, which supporters within the corporation’s bubble pretty much always swallow whole. Corporations don’t have to segregate Zakat-eligible funds from general funds. When they do, they can make up their own rules for how and when they spend zakat. No rules make zakat indistinguishable from any other funding source since they can change their standards year after year depending on their funding needs (if they have rules at all) and nobody would be the wiser. It is exceedingly rare for these corporations to issue detailed reports on how they use zakat.  

The Shift to Meaninglessness

Organizations with platforms (like the one that runs this website) are going to be eager to get on the zakat gravy train. There is no cost to slapping a “zakat-eligible” label on yourself, either financial or social. It seems like everyone does it now. Some Zakat collectors are conscientious and care about helping the poor, though they are starting to look a little old-fashioned. For them, it may make sense to certify Zakat administrators like halal butchers.

Zakat used to be about helping discrete categories of human beings that can benefit from it.  It can now mean anything you want it to mean. In the end, though, without real standards, it may mean nothing at all.

Footnotes:

  1. The sunnah also highlights the essence of zakah as tending to the needs of the poor. For example, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) commanded Muadh bin Jabal, when sending him to Yemen, to teach the people that Allah has obligated charity upon them to be taken from their rich and given to their poor (Sahih Muslim).
  2. In Islamic legal theory (usool al-fiqh), sadd al-dhariya is a principle that refers to blocking the means to evil before it can materialize. It is invoked when a seemingly permissible action may lead to unethical behavior. This principle is often employed in financial matters.

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