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The Hypocrisy of Feminist Outrage

If it is okay for women to bare it all in public without regard to the sensitivities of those around them, why is it not ok for men to make comments regarding women’s dress without regard to their sensitivities? Perhaps catcallers are just sexually expressing themselves. Perhaps that is what freedom and equality are all about.

The viral NYC Catcall video has caused a stir in social media and online forums. It records a woman receiving over 100 catcalls from men as she walks the streets of New York City for 10 hours.

Just consider the 100,000+ youtube comments alone. While most commenters found the behavior of the catcalling men disgusting, some took issue with how the woman in the video was dressed. These commenters were daring enough to suggest that perhaps she would have attracted less negative attention had she dressed more “modestly.”

This suggestion, in turn, was met with backlash. How dare anyone “blame the victim” by suggesting that a woman change the way she dresses because men cannot or will not act with common decency!

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What do we make of all this?

Is it completely outlandish to suggest that the way a woman (or man) dresses has an impact on how others treat her (or him)?

A Different Kind of Sexual Harassment

Here is another suggestion: why can’t we recognize that sexual harassment can go both ways?

Often, we characterize catcalling men as the predators who harass helpless women. What about immodest dress? If a person dresses in “sexy” clothes and goes out in public, why shouldn’t we consider this a form of sexual harassment in its own right?

Let me be frank. As a Muslim man, it is not easy walking through the streets these days. Women’s fashion continues to get increasingly sexy and provocative, and, in effect, public spaces are increasingly sexualized. From an Islamic perspective, the harm caused to individuals by this is clear and inarguable. Even from a non-religious perspective, constantly bombarding men with sexiness can be tortuous. Think of men or adolescent males who for whatever reason cannot find a sexual partner. Or think of married men being endlessly tempted by strangers as soon as they step out of the house. And, of course, the same or analogous harm can be inflicted on women by provocatively dressed men.

So, given the extent of this harm, why can’t concerned members of society raise their voices and say, enough is enough?

Expressing Sexuality

Unfortunately, people who do suggest that public dress should abide by basic standards of decency are characterized as prudes and out-of-touch religious fundamentalists. Even the words “decency” and “modesty” are seen as relics of a patriarchal past.

“So what if a woman wants to show some skin?” is the typical line. “A woman’s right to bare it all is what freedom and equality is all about! This is the 21st century. Are we still talking about women dressing ‘modestly’? How quaint! Modesty is dead. Women have the right to express their sexuality any way they please. If some women want to dress in long skirts, cover their hair, wear burkas, etc., that’s fine, but don’t tell anyone else how to dress.”

These are the arguments, more or less, from self-proclaimed “feminists” (especially third-wave) and others on the subject of modest dress. (Of course, there are many schools of thought in the feminist movement, and we should be cautious about characterizing feminists with too broad a brush. For example, some feminists will argue that current fashion merely serves to “objectify” women and, thus, serves the interests of men. But, even among this group, few would analyze the issue of women’s dress from the lens of men as victims, and even fewer would endorse the view that women’s dress be dictated by the sensitivities of men.)

Whose Power and Control?

The problem with the above argument against modesty is that it is hypocritical or, at least, wildly inconsistent.

When it comes to street harassment, catcalling is considered indecent, disrespectful, and immodest, to say the least. That means that, contrary to the above rant about “modesty being dead,” we all recognize and understand the value of these concepts, at least in the context of street harassment. And that means that we all do recognize some standard of decency, modesty, and respect. So why don’t we similarly recognize that a person’s dress could (and should) also abide by standards of modesty and decency?

In other words, it is hypocritical to bemoan the lack of decency/modesty on the part of catcallers but then, in the same breath, deny that those same concepts of decency/modesty can apply to the way people dress.

In response to this, some might argue that their grievance against street harassment has nothing to do with some arcane notion of decency, modesty, or honor. Rather, what makes street harassment so odious is that it is an instance of a person “exerting power and control over someone else.”

But, again, from a certain perspective, provocative dress, too, can be understood as an exertion of power over others in the public space, even an act of violence. From the Islamic worldview, for example, a person’s gaze is an invaluable treasure to be protected as it serves as the gateway to the heart/mind. And, while much of the onus in protecting one’s gaze falls on the person himself, others bear some moral responsibility too in being mindful of what they display in the presence of others. As we will see below, this moral-metaphysical construct has clear parallels in the legal and psychoanalytical traditions of the secular West.

Double Standards Abound

Ultimately, the point is if feminists wanted to be consistent, they should adopt the same hands-off attitude with respect to catcallers as they have for fashion.

If it is ok for women to bare it all in public without regard to the sensitivities of those around them, why is it not ok for men to make comments regarding women’s dress without regard to their sensitivities?

After all, perhaps catcallers are just sexually expressing themselves. Perhaps that is what freedom and equality are all about. Few would deny that men and women have different, gender-specific modes of sexual expression. If women can “own their bodies” by displaying it, why can’t men “own their feelings” by expressing their instinctual reactions to what women display?

Besides, on what basis can it be argued that a woman being catcalled suffers any real harm? Are comments like, “Hey beautiful,” by strange men in actuality harmful to a woman? How so?

Of course, I believe there is harm, but I also believe that immodest dress can be equally if not more harmful to onlookers.

Blaming the Victim

The suggestion that people modify their behavior or dress in order to avoid sexual harassment or assault is widely considered as nothing more than “blaming the victim.” What do we make of this?

First of all, as I have already said, certain kinds of behavior and dress should be understood as unacceptable due to the fact that they cause harm to others. (This is in line with secular moral reasoning, namely that only acts that harm others can be legally regulated or even deemed immoral in the first place.) A woman or man dressed provocatively, walking in public causes acute harm to those around her or him. As Muslims, we recognize this harm in the Islamic sense, but it should not be too difficult for non-Muslims to recognize – or at least acknowledge the possibility of – this harm as well. A few examples:
1- Workplace standards of dress: All places of business in the West have dress codes. The idea is that dressing provocatively is inappropriate as it can cause distraction and unneeded sexual tension that can contribute to a hostile working environment. If those standards are commonplace, why is it so hard to understand that provocative dress can be cause for a hostile public space?

2- Children: Everyone seems to recognize that children should not be exposed to certain kinds of scenes or images. That is why the MPAA in the US puts out movie ratings (PG, PG-13, etc.) and pundits question the presence of dancing cheerleaders at professional sporting events where children are present. Few would deny that there is harm, psychological or otherwise, that can afflict children exposed to sexually provocative imagery. Well, why can’t we extend that logic to adults? Could regular exposure to sexually provocative imagery cause psychological or neurological harm in adults? Scientific research has already concluded as much.

3- Indecent exposure laws: As it turns out, Saudia Arabia, Iran, and the Taliban are not the only governments that dictate to their populations how much to cover themselves. Secular countries also have laws about what parts of the human body can or cannot be exposed in public spaces. Oftentimes, these laws simply represent Western cultural norms and, thus, go unquestioned, whereas analogous laws in Muslim countries that do not reflect Western norms are criticized. But, as far as Western norms go, who gets to decide that certain parts of the body, such as genitalia or a woman’s chest, are the only areas on the body that need to be covered in public? As any anthropologist can explain, different cultures have different views on dress, nudity, and the metaphysical and social significance of displaying the body. What is considered “naked” in one culture might be “modest,” even “prudish,” in another and vice versa. By means of colonialism and mass media, however, Western standards of dress and nudity have been mass imposed around the globe to such an extent that much of the world’s intuitions and subjective views on bodily propriety reflect Western sensibilities. In contrast to these idiosyncratic sensibilities, Islamic norms are seen (and experienced) as restrictive, alien, even barbaric. Even many Muslim women in hijab consciously feel like the veil is burdensome and would prefer to dress “normally” and only refrain from doing so due to their (commendable) religious devotion. If these Muslim women were taken back in time to, say, the year 1910 in America or Europe, the hijab would not stand out at all, since, even then, it was considered improper for a woman to expose her hair in public, let alone wear miniskirts and high heels. While the “normal” in secular society is in constant flux, Islamic principles of `awrah have remained consistent.

With these examples in mind, it is not hard to motivate the idea that, even from a secular perspective, immodest dress can cause harm. Does this mean that the woman in the viral video deserved the disrespectful treatment? Does this mean that a scantily dressed woman (or man) deserves to be sexually assaulted?

Absolutely not. Such harassment is never justifiable. But that fact has no bearing on the question of what is or is not appropriate dress and behavior. As Muslims, we should not be hesitant to denounce sexual harassment in the form of catcalling while also noting that immodest displays are in their own way a form of harassment that ought to be curbed with appropriate dress.

Ultimately, the implication is that, through these kinds of arguments, we can justify and demonstrate the ethical superiority of modest dress, such as the hijab, even from a secular, non-religious perspective. In this way, rather than being defensive and apologetic about hijab, Muslims should be confident in the emphasis their religion puts on modesty and even propose the hijab (and its analogs) to non-Muslims as a clear moral alternative.

What About Sexual Harassment Against Veiled Women?

Of course, some will be quick to point out that modestly dressed women, even women in full hijab, are still victims of catcalling and sexual assault. This response completely misses the point.

No one claims that dressing modestly will completely foreclose on the possibility of receiving negative attention. The claim is simply that, all else being equal, modest dress, e.g., hijab, significantly reduces the likelihood of such harassment. In fact, a recent youtube video demonstrated precisely this claim in spectacular fashion. So, yes, while women in hijab are, unfortunately, frequent victims of catcalling in Cairo’s busy streets, for example, the undeniable fact remains that the harassment would be much, much worse if these same women were dressed in yoga pants, tank tops, and other common Western styles.

Defining the Provocative

Throughout this post, I have expounded on the harm of “provocative dress” without defining exactly what this phrase means. Are short sleeves “provocative”? Are skinny jeans? Are maxi dresses? Is a one-piece swimsuit more or less provocative than a bikini?

I do not need to define the term because, as US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about the concept of obscenity, I know it when I see it. Clearly, what is or is not provocative is in the eye of the beholder, and cultural standards shift all the time. But all is not lost to radical subjectivity and relativism. For example, at the very least, people today generally share this notion of “sexiness” within a given culture. In fact, being sexy is a sought after quality when it comes to dress and general demeanor. So, it is this commonplace notion that I would tie to “provocativeness” in benchmarking a more extensive discussion of appropriate dress in the public sphere. In other words, let’s scale back the sex appeal.

It is noteworthy that in many cultures and religions throughout time we find parallels to the Muslim standards of hijab. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, covering the hair and donning loose fitting clothes were the norm. These archetypal modes of dress can also be found in non-Abrahamic traditions. For the majority of human history, numerous civilizations independently maintained a common conception of modesty, virtue, and honor, as if these standards emanated from a universal source. Even in Western society, up until 60 or 70 years ago, these values still had currency. But, ever since, everything has been up in the air.

Rules of Engagement

If anyone can be blamed for the erosion of basic norms of sexual propriety as seen in the catcalling video and elsewhere, some of the blame must fall on the “Sexual Revolution” itself. What is obvious is that the hypersexualization of the public space in modern times, driven by the “sexual revolutionaries” of the past 50 years, is directly contributing to the catcalling and harassment happening on the streets of our cities, among other things.

How so?

The 20th century Sexual Revolution in the West was meant to subvert sexual norms and standards of behavior between the sexes — norms and standards deemed coquettish at best, oppressive at worst. What feminists, modernists, and sexual revolutionaries failed to realize in their haste to overturn the old rules is that some of those mores might have actually served a crucial purpose.

For example, is it appropriate to shamelessly proposition a stranger in public by way of catcall?

Apparently not.

But what about “hitting on” said stranger?

Well, depends on the situation.

Is it appropriate to meet someone at a bar and decide to go home with her for the night?

In today’s culture, yes.

What if that person has had too much to drink?

Well, that becomes a little trickier…

How much alcohol is too much? What if the stranger is willing and ready? What if the stranger has boyfriend? What if the stranger is willing now, but changes her mind half way through? Or the next day? What if the person is not a stranger but a coworker? What if the location is not a bar but an office party? What if the coworker is married? etc., etc., etc.

The point is there are countless rules and standards of behavior — both explicit and implicit, of varying degrees of subtlety — that dictate appropriate sexual behavior even in “sexually liberated,” third-wave feminist Western culture. But the very existence of these rules squarely conflicts with the “no rules,” “no inhibitions,” free love,” “free sexual expression” ethos of the post-sexual revolution world we inhabit.

Hypocrisy Upon Hypocrisy

The hypocrisy is we are teaching and conditioning members of society, men and women, that “free sexual expression” is the only way to be healthy but, then, we are outraged by certain kinds of “indecency,” e.g., catcalling. Is it really that surprising that when people are incessantly told to, “Throw away your inhibitions,” “Don’t be a prude,” “Let the inner animal loose,” that the result will be an increase of indecency and socially taboo behaviors? Again, from a certain perspective, catcallers are essentially just expressing their sexuality. Maybe it would be “prudish” of us to suggest that they hold their tongues.

The lasting effects of the Sexual Revolution are reverberating in the street, in our homes, and in our psyches. Young people are the unfortunate victims. Things are so confused that girls are having trouble understanding if they have been victims of rape or not. Boys are insecure if they have not lost their virginity by the end of middle school.

Just look at the contradictions in the field of fashion itself. Girls as young as 10 are encouraged to dress sexy, but what does this amount to other than attracting sexual attention from others? Obviously certain kinds of attention are socially acceptable and others are not, but what are these standards grounded in? Not tradition, not cultural memory, not elderly counsel, not organized religion. The rules exist and the consequences are steep, but the institutions that historically were responsible for instilling these norms have all been undermined by the vicious anti-authoritarianism of modern sexual liberation. Yet the same voices calling for liberation are also the ones bemoaning the acts of catcallers and sexual harassers.

We are all victims of this hypocrisy.

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#Current Affairs

Open Letter To Muslim Activists And Organisations In The US On Engagement With The Structures Of Policing

Recently, I have been messaged privately by a number of activists in the US, who are concerned about the ways in which prominent Muslim institutions in America engage with various forms of law enforcement, whether it might be the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the FBI, or even with programmes within the rubric of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Although based in the UK, I have had the privilege of being involved in the legal and political defence of those detained in the US as victims of the global War on Terror. This has led to a journey of understanding the role that is played by law enforcement agencies in the construction of these cases, but also within a wider security industrial complex. 

I write this letter because I want us to think about the ethics of engagement with law enforcement. When it comes to the policies and practices of the global War on Terror, the extent of cross-fertilisation between the UK and US is profound, making their pathology of securitisation one that requires us to learn lessons in resistance collectively. 

In the US, even more than the UK, there exists a violence within policing that is almost unparalleled. This violence does not uniquely impact Muslims, but has a long history that is tied to the ways those outside of the white majority in society are deemed ‘Other’, and is most manifestly apparent in its anti-Black racism. If we start from the premise that the law itself, and the administrators of the law, the police, prosecution services, judges and indeed juries, all play a role within the structure of racism and discrimination, then to what extent can we actually seek to engage with that system? 

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As Muslims, what is our own positionality in relation to the work that we do? For those of us who claim to be involved in the work of defending Muslims and Islam, we must recognise that we are not doing anyone any favours by doing this work. This is a unique opportunity and blessing that we have been privileged with, one that any number of other people could have been invited to do. Furthermore, we do not own this work or our institutions, the collective body does, and so we are answerable for all that we do, at all times. Expectations of trust without scrutiny are unwarranted, as we cannot claim to represent the interests of our communities, without first holding ourselves open to being held to account. Whether it is money, engagements, positions, or whatever the matter might be, we have an obligation to answer the concerns of the community when they are being raised because we cannot claim to represent them while there are doubts over us. We do not own this work, we are responsible to it. 

There are arguments that are often made by those who seek to build relationships with law enforcement, that ultimately without engaging, there won’t be any chance for changing the system. Thus, they claim that meetings with the FBI and DHS serve the purpose of correcting the flaws within the system. I want to think through the efficacy of these interactions, because ultimately, I think this is where many disagreements may exist. I hope to capture the usual arguments that are made, and to provide brief responses that I pray can help us think more acutely about the problem, and the solution.

  • “The police are necessary; they keep us safe.”

Before we take on any other subject, we need to think about policing, and the claim that it is a necessity, that it keeps us safe from those who might wish us harm. Largely, police do not stop crime from taking place, as much as they are part of a process of criminalisation after crimes have been committed. Keeping society safe requires addressing the root causes of crime, a prospect that goes well beyond the notion of policing – in fact, particularly within the context of the US, it could be argued that the structurally racist system of policing and punishment has only served to increase levels of disenfranchisement. Saying that we need the police to keep us safe, is akin to passing the buck, it means that we are less interested in doing the hard work that needs to be done for the whole of society to become safer. Resorting to the police, only serves to solidify its structure as a necessity. My own organisation CAGE has been attempting to provide some leadership in this regard, and our work has shown that there can be ways of reducing the threats to society as a whole, that exist beyond surveillance policing.

  • “Some law enforcement institutions are safe to work with, while others are dangerous.”

When thinking of the institutions that are responsible for policing, we need to consider their functions, and the way in which they fundamentally approach communities. The FBI, as just one example, has spent incredible resources in undermining what it deems to be subversive activities since the inception of COINTELPRO. Coming into the War on Terror, that programme found its way into every aspect of policing Muslim communities, but particularly through the use of entrapment. For those who make a favourable distinction between the way the FBI operates as opposed to other institutions like the CIA, then they only need to speak to my colleague Moazzam Begg and many others who have related the ways that the FBI have been entirely complicit in programmes of arbitrary detention and torture

The above only begins to touch on the functions that other institutions serve, particularly in the post 9/11 period. Perhaps the most galling example of an institution created for the purpose of securitising Muslims is the DHS, which in its conception, inception and practise, has legally discriminated against Muslims whether citizens or not. It is important to remind ourselves, despite our own normalisation of the harm, that nearly every single profiling stop whether coming into or leaving the US or UK, is an act of racism – even if they provide you with a sandwich or prayer rug to ‘soften’ the experience. Yes, the system is the way that it is, but we suffer a daily collective amnesia that results in us normalising the systemic discrimination we are forced to endure.

  • “A more diverse or culturally aware police force that includes Muslims will improve the system.”

As in the UK, we’re told feel-good stories about the non-Muslim community police officer who is willing to fast a day in Ramadan and even to break fast with the community at Iftar time. The thing about this token police officer, is that he really has no ability to overturn the structure that he is a paid up member of. Three roads away, his colleagues are profiling young black men on the streets, but equally worrying,  his colleagues are placing pressure on some of those same black men and other congregants in the mosque to spy on the community in order to extract information. The point is, that attempting to normalise relations with institutions that fundamentally not only mistrust us, but are actively involved in harming us is not engagement, it can only be seen, at its most generous, as pacification. Yes, maybe that individual officer you engage with might think twice before brutalising a member of the community, but think of what we give up in that moment too…we hand them the excuse that they (institutionally) have met with us, and heard our concerns. 

  • “CVE exists to tackle all forms of extremism!”

With increasing calls for the defunding of policing taking root, this opportunity should not fall short of pushing towards abolition of the security, military and prison industrial complexes. These structures reinforce one another in the way that they understand the communities they primarily focus on. In that sense, we have already seen a shift towards the marketing of Countering-Violent Extremism (CVE). This is a programme that is rooted to a DHS narrative of securitisation – in both its conception and practise, it is about Muslims. There is a stark difference, between those who are structurally racialised and marginalised feeling aggrieved, as opposed to those, within the majority of society, whose disenfranchisement is supported as a narrative within all the institutions of power. The source of White supremacy is mainstream. 

Claims that CVE is there to tackle all forms of ‘extremism’ are simply a marketing tool, otherwise every single racist statement that was ever uttered by a conservative or liberal would be covered. When it comes to white supremacy, the bar for what is considered to be unacceptable, is effectively at the point of violence. With Muslims, the structure of CVE operates at the point of belief or overt markers of ‘Muslimness’. This is important, because the idea that CVE funding can be flipped so that Muslims can do good with it is nonsense and should never be opened for discussion by any Muslim individual or organisation that claims to represent the rights of Muslims. 

  • “Muslim cooperation with law enforcement is about harm reduction.”

Ultimately, engagement is a calculus of risk that is being made by those who are engaging. The claim that they are working with law enforcement suggests that the specific and limited needs they are hoping to raise or change, are worth the normalising of relations with these violent structures. This is often presented as a benefit over harm calculation, that in the minds of those engaging, there will be a tangible benefit that emerges from the interaction. The question is, however, for who? From my working life and many studies that have been conducted on law enforcement, there has never been any reversal of policy that has been so significant as to justify such a relationship – the system largely remains the same, and in fact it is normalised and built upon further with the next piece of legislation or policy. 

  • “Are you suggesting engagement is always wrong?”

The point of this call is not to claim that there is never any point in engagement, but rather that any engagement should take into account the structural violence that is taking place, and so the calculus of risk should be based on discernible change, rather than limited to brokering understanding and good feeling. Increasing understanding might help to make a single law enforcement officer, or a few others potentially less hostile in their interactions, but they are still part of the system. 

Recommendations on transparent engagement: 

  1. What I would propose in terms of interacting with the state, is that any interaction should only ever take place with those who have the ability to actually implement a structural change at a policy level, if it is to ever happen at all. 

This should only ever take place with policymakers and legislators, and my suggestion is not with anyone within law enforcement itself while the structures remain as they are. The reason I say this, is because the greatest harm is in the structure of legislation and policymaking, not within the carrying out of the duties that have been imposed. At the very best, working with law enforcement might ameliorate the conditions of a small minority, but it is the structure that turns us all into second class citizens. So ultimately, this is a call for a radical approach of total non-engagement with law enforcement officials, and a call to unite towards more meaningful approaches of change. 

  1. Communications should be made in writing to accompany any meeting, and the response should also be given in writing – this is to ensure that the communities we claim to represent are aware of our interactions, and the interactions that are being made are transparent. 

The process of transparency with the community is crucial, because it will inevitably keep us honest in our approach and hold us up to the scrutiny and ethics of our entire communities. It will also provide a necessary barrier with any representative of the state if they should ever try and use divisive colonial tactics of preferential treatment of one group over another, as they attempt to maintain their hold of power over us. Furthermore, for those who are most harmed by the violence of the state, they will understand better why an individual or organisation has chosen to interact with a structure that harmed them, and so will be able to make a better informed judgement on whether any engagement might normalise the harm they previously or continue to suffer. 

  1. While transparency is important, it is crucial that before any engagement takes place, that those with expertise in these areas are consulted. Communities have a wealth intellectual resources and well-informed critical voices – these voices should be consulted by any community leader, imam or organisation prior to any communication with authorities. As mentioned in point B, victims and survivors bring their own lived experience of being impacted by these institutions, and so consulting them too will always be crucial to providing a human insight into how policies and laws are harmful. Without consulting those who have been impacted most heavily, we risk losing the nuance of the ways in which harm can occur. 
  1. A final recommendation for those who claim to represent the interests of Muslims, but have a background that was part of the system of violence against us: they must make their current position in relation to their previous work clear, and do it publicly themselves. This is integral to their claim to transparency, and therefore to their credibility. While forgiveness and growth are important in the work we do, trust and confidence are both far more important. Without being able to trust those who represent us fully, the community will always feel undermined by the system, and those involved in its defence. It is possible for someone to have worked in projects that were harmful and then to change their mind or opinion, but they must also make clear what they were involved in, and publicly state its wrongfulness. Expectations of trust without clarity, are unreasonable. 

Ultimately these points can be summarised into: transparency, consultation and accountability.

Concluding remarks 

As discussed throughout this letter, the first premise that we need to challenge, is one that thinks of policing (in particular) as existing in a benevolent or neutral space. We need to appreciate that in its identity and creation, the very function of surveillance policing is not to keep society safe, but rather the function of policing is as a form of disciplining society, through arrest and ultimately prosecution. Considered at its most fundamental level, our relationship to policing should start from a position of questioning the practise and ideology it is built on.  

As Muslim individuals and organisations seeking to assist the oppressed, there is a duty that comes from being in this space that means any claims of representation cannot take place in the absence of understanding how our decisions have an impact in the complete structure of oppression. Small wins for one town or local community are meaningless while people continue to be arbitrarily detained, tortured and even killed. The oppression that is taking place is a structure, and without centring our responses to the entire edifice, we will continually risk normalising this system by reaching for small changes that only serve to temporarily make us feel less hostility from the state in the course of its violence. 

Finally, I pray that these words are taken in the spirit they have been written, from a brother who has benefited a great deal from the long history of activism and radical thinking that has emerged from the US. Inshallah I hope that we can all advise one another towards what is better based on our knowledge and experience, but chiefly, that we can work with one another in order to protect all those who are oppressed, ameen. 

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#Current Affairs

Racism And The Plagues of Egypt – Coronavirus And Racism: America’s Two Pandemics

Introduction

The fight against anti-Blackness has once again hit the global stage, and American Muslims have a central role to play in the movement of racial justice. The spiritual history of America is a history of Black Muslim voices. Mansa Abubakari, a West African King, landed in South America almost 200 years before Columbus began the massacre of the indigenous population.[1] The biggest migration of Muslims to America was the slave ships where scholars fought to teach Islam to their enslaved communities. Modern Islamophobic attacks such as the Muslim Ban of 2016 are not just Islamophobic, but also deeply racist because it denies the humanity of the previous generations of Muslims. Black Muslims have carried the mantle of preserving Islam in America and have fought for racial justice for last four centuries. The immigrant Muslims who arrived during the last 50 years were a direct result of the civil rights movement that allowed immigration from Muslim majority countries. The fight for racial justice is a Muslim fight. We owe it to the generations of Muslims before us to continue their work.

The 400 years of struggle for racial justice in America can be compared to the Children of Israel’s fight for emancipation from Pharaoh’s Egypt 3000 years ago during which the country was hit by a number of plagues. Sheikh Mendes and Imam Dawud Walid have recently referenced the story of Prophet Musa (peace be upon him), whose demand to Pharaoh to, “Let my people go[2]” is well known in many religious circles fighting for racial equality in America. [3] The Quran discusses of the plagues of Egypt in the story of Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) in Surah Al-A’raf. “So We sent upon them the flood and locusts and lice and frogs and blood as distinct signs, but they were arrogant and were a criminal people.” [7;133] The plagues of Egypt are similar to the current coronavirus pandemic in that they made systemic oppression clear for all to see. The goal here is to explain the relationship between the coronavirus and racism epidemics.

First, the name of the surah will be discussed. Then, the story of Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) will be put into context with the story of the other prophets mentioned in the surah. The events leading up to the Plagues of Egypt are explained and compared to the current American pandemics. Finally, there are recommendations for how to make our community spaces antiracist. A few Black scholars have been quoted throughout as to elevate their voices, and to provide some much-needed groundwork for readers who might be unfamiliar with these great American Muslim scholars. For further reading, Dr. Kayla Renée Wheeler compiled a far more exhaustive list of Black Muslim narratives in the BlackIslamSyllabus.

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To put this verse into perspective we must first reflect on Surah A’raf as a whole, and I encourage everyone to read and contemplate the surah in depth. The A’raf, mentioned in ayah 46, are an elevated place on the Day of Judgement where people of no consequence get stuck. They watch as others are sorted towards Heaven or Hell. The people of the A’raf are not evil, but they also would not leave their comfort zones to actually commit to righteousness. Their comments to the people of Paradise and the people of the Fire are mentioned in the Surah, but do not earn a response because they are then, as they are now, people of no consequence.

The surah begins by telling Prophet Mohamed ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) to not feel distressed by forcing people out of their comfort zones, and warns of previous peoples who were destroyed as they slept in their heedlessness. And how many cities have We destroyed, and Our punishment came to them at night or while they were sleeping at noon. [7;4] We cannot go back to the previous norm when Black people were suffering alone, while non-Black people could comfortably enjoy their lives whilst ignoring—and even benefiting from a system built on—the suffering of their Black brothers and sisters. A critical mass of people must refuse the continued oppression and the suffering of others for the current system to change. American Muslims should do more than give lip service to their Black brothers and sisters.

Anti-Blackness in Human History

The first prophet mentioned in the surah is our father Adam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), whose name indicates his dark black skin. And We have certainly created you, [O Mankind], and given you [human] form. Then We said to the angels, “Prostrate to Adam”, so they prostrated, except for Iblees. He was not of those who prostrated. [7;11] [Allah] said, “What prevented you from prostrating when I commanded you?” [Satan] said, “I am better than him. You created me from fire and created him from mud.” [7;12] Satan hated our father Adam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) for the form Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) gave him, which included dark black skin. Anti-Blackness is as old as humanity itself. Dr. Bilal Ware has spoken extensively about the satanic nature of racism. Claims of superiority based on a birthright are rampant throughout human history. Egyptians claimed superiority over the Children of Israel based on where they were from centuries before. Jahili[1] Meccan society claimed superiority based on lineage. The American system claims superiority based on proximity to whiteness. These are characteristics determined at birth and are beyond any human being’s control. Such claims of superiority are counter to the Islamic ethos that sets the value of individuals based on their relationship with God alone. And [mention] when your Lord took from the children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants and made them testify of themselves, [saying to them], “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes, we have testified.” [This] – lest you should say on the day of Resurrection, “Indeed, we were of this unaware.” [7:172] Many other prophets and their specific fights against the oppressive power structures are referenced in the surah, which illustrates the continuity of the struggle between the children of Adam and Satan.

A series of prophets (peace be upon them] are briefly discussed with striking similarities in the messages they delivered to their people. All the prophets teach their people about the Oneness of God and called them to rectify the vices that were specific to their society. The mala’a, or the elites, in each of their societies were mentioned as those who fought the prophets. They did so to maintain their chokehold on power, not because of a theological difference. The elites in Meccan society did not fight Prophet Mohamed ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) until he began publicly preaching. They did not care that he prayed differently from them. They feared that his message would make them equal to people they belittled and disparaged. Similarly, it was the elites in Pharaoh’s court who demanded he increase the torment of the Children of Israel. This was a direct result of the magicians publicly declaring their belief and turning public opinion against Pharaoh’s magic, one of the pillars of his power. Similarly in America, the institutional structures of racism need to be dismantled.

Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him)

The story of Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) begins with the demand mentioned in the introduction, “so send with me the Children of Israel.” [7;105]. Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) shows Pharaoh and his elites the signs Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has sent him with. So Moses threw his staff, and suddenly it was a serpent, manifest. [7;107] And he drew out his hand; thereupon it was white [with radiance] for the observers. [7;108] They refuse his message and demand a public contest with magicians in hopes of spinning the narrative in their favor. They fail miserably when the magicians recognize the truth and publicly declare their belief in the Lord of Prophet Haroon 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) and Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) despite Pharaoh’s threats of torture. Pharaoh said, “You believed in him before I gave you permission. Indeed, this is a conspiracy which you conspired in the city to expel therefrom its people. But you are going to know.” [7:123]

This now leads us to the discussion of the plagues, and how they came about. After that public humiliation, the elites around Pharaoh demanded that he increase the torment of the Children of Israel. [Pharaoh] said, “We will kill their sons and keep their women alive; and indeed, we are subjugators over them.” [7;127] Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a book specifically addressing how the White supremacist system feared a successful Black presidency and responded with an increased level of racism. As a spiritual response to this heightened oppression, Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) preached patience during the struggle because he knew Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) would deliver them.  The people of Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) complained about the increased pain they were now experiencing as they had been suffering for years before a messenger was sent to them. Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) asked them to develop their spiritual strength and prepare themselves for a time when they would be empowered and would need spiritual discipline. Shaykha Ieasha Prime has recently called on the ummah to be increasing its spiritual strength as they organize against anti-Blackness.

The Economic Downturn

Then Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) tested the people of Pharaoh with an economic downturn. “And We certainly seized the people of Pharaoh with years of famine and a deficiency in fruits that perhaps they would be reminded.” [7;130] These circumstances are very similar to the economic recession of 2008, and as a result of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Whenever something good would happen, the people of Pharaoh would claim credit for it, and whenever something bad happened, they would blame Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) and his people. But when good came to them, they said, “This is ours [by right].” And if a bad [condition] struck them, they saw an evil omen in Moses and those with him. Unquestionably, their fortune is with Allah, but most of them do not know. [7;131] And they said, “No matter what sign you bring us with which to bewitch us, we will not be believers in you.” [7;132] This rhetoric is very similar to the wave of nationalism that took over the world in the last few years. It is used by nationalist political leaders, who blame marginalized groups for the economic recession. However, the oppression of those marginalized communities was a preexisting condition that was exacerbated and exploited by nationalist leaders.

The Plagues

Then Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) sent them the plagues, “the flood and locusts and lice and frogs and blood” [7;133]. These were such overwhelming tests for Pharaoh. He was a man that claimed to be a god, but the True God was now sending him something that destroyed the riches he had built and could not be blamed on someone else. It revealed all of his lies. The plagues sent to Pharaoh were specific to the land of the Nile that depended on the production of agriculture and built imposing monuments. It is difficult to look grand when your fields are flooded or consumed by locusts, your water turns to blood, and you and your monuments are covered in lice and frogs. Similarly, the coronavirus pandemic exposed the faults in our health care system, the shortcoming of our food supply, the fragility of the economy, and the deep racism that is embedded into the entire system. The people who were deemed essential to work were treated as sacrificial and were forced to choose between paying for food and rent or risking exposure. They were offered empty platitudes that did not include the protective equipment they needed, increased financial compensation, or health care if they were to fall ill.

Coronavirus attacks the body’s ability to breathe, and it has been widely reported to have affected communities of color far harder than any other group. Black Americans are far more likely to have asthma due to highways going through their neighborhoods, and therefore more likely to die from Covid-19. This is a direct link to a racist system of redlining and highway construction that took away their ability to breathe. Black Americans are imprisoned at disproportionally high rates where social distancing is impossible. There are many false assumptions about the imprisoned population. The truth is that more than 90% of all cases never go to trial, and an accused person’s ability to defend themselves is almost impossible with exorbitant amounts of money. Many Muslims now claim affiliation to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), may Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) have mercy on him. Covid-19 could be killing the next Malcolm X in prison this very moment. All that without even discussing the economic impact of coronavirus on communities of color that if left unchecked will widen the racial wealth gap. The scarcity of food and resources that were created by the plagues undoubtedly affected the Children of Israel and not just their oppressors; however, the end result of plagues was justice for the oppressed.

From Eric Garner to George Floyd, Black Americans have been fighting to breathe in America. The Arabic word nafs which is usually translated to a soul/self has the same root word as nafas, which means a breath. So, a more accurate translation of nafs is actually a breathing soul. Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a nafs (breathing soul) unless for a nafs or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he/she had slain humankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he/she had saved humankind entirely. And our messengers had certainly come to them with clear proofs. Then indeed many of them, [even] after that, throughout the land, were transgressors. [Surah Al-Ma’idah; 32] American Muslims have tended towards the medical profession as a means of fulfilling the above verse in saving people. We should be focusing the same level of energy at saving populations by fighting both the coronavirus and racism epidemics.

Naming the Oppression

The coronavirus epidemic and the recent public murders of Black Americans created a tipping point that did not exist before. Former NBA player and prolific author, Kareem Abdul Jabbar said, “it feels like hunting season is open on blacks.” The murder of George Floyd was so egregious that groups dedicated to preventing police accountability called for Derek Chauvin to be held accountable. America was force to collectively acknowledge the murder of a Black man at the hands of a police officer. Corporations who peddled in racism were issuing apologies when they saw the tide of public opinion turn. The murder of George Floyd made America look the ugliness of racism in the eye. Of course, police brutality and racism did not begin with George Floyd nor did it end with him. Many more people lost their lives at the hands of the police during the protests. For every name we know, there are countless others we do not know. Police brutality is a leading cause of death for Black men in America. Even if we do not know their names, every victim leaves behind a family to mourn their loss while knowing that the murderer not only walks free, but wears a uniform that allows him to continue to kill without consequence. May the brave young woman who took the video receive Divine reward and healing for her bravery. May the burning in the heart of every mother who lost a child be granted Divine patience and healing.

In Surah A’raf, the people of Pharaoh also acknowledged their oppression of the Children of Israel, and they vowed to stop oppressing them. And when the punishment descended upon them, they said, “O Moses, invoke for us your Lord by what He has promised you. If you [can] remove the punishment from us, we will surely believe you, and we will send with you the Children of Israel.” [7;134] We know that the people of Pharaoh reneged after the plagues were lifted. But when We removed the punishment from them until a term which they were to reach, then at once they broke their word. [7;135] So We took retribution from them, and We drowned them in the sea because they denied Our signs and were heedless of them. [7;136] Pharaoh in his arrogance witnessed all of the signs Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) gave Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) including the staff, his hand, and the plagues. He then witnessed the Red Sea split, and still he followed Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) into the sea until he was drowned. His hatred blinded him, and his racism killed him.

America is now at the same moment of realization. Of course, Black Muslims have never been unaware of racism. It is a privilege for non-Black Muslims to learn about systemic racism rather than experience it firsthand. The ability to see right from wrong is not guaranteed for us. Arrogance can blind us as it has blinded Pharaoh and his army. I will turn away from My signs those who are arrogant upon the earth without right; and if they should see every sign, they will not believe in it. And if they see the way of consciousness, they will not adopt it as a way; but if they see the way of error, they will adopt it as a way. That is because they have denied Our signs and they were heedless of them. [7;146] The ability to see the racism is a mercy from Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). May we be protected from spiritual blindness. No Muslim in America should be able to claim a lack of awareness of systemic racism any longer. No should they continue to favor their comfort zones over our love for our Black brothers and sisters and assume they will be forgiven. And they were succeeded by generations who, although they inherited the Scripture, took the fleeting gains of this lower world, saying, ‘We shall be forgiven,’ and indeed taking them again if other such gains came their way. Was a pledge not taken from them, written in the Scripture, to say nothing but the truth about God? And they have studied its contents well. For those who are mindful of God, the Hereafter is better. ‘Why do you not use your reason?’ [7;169]

Fighting the Oppression

Pharaoh claimed to be god, and White supremacy is the false god of our time. It is built into our psyches, our financial systems, and our power structures. Statues were erected to idolize those who upheld it. White supremacy is a system where lighter skin makes people smarter, more trustworthy, and more beautiful. We know this is a lie on its face, and yet it breads anti-blackness that is deeply engrained into everyday life. Fighting anti-blackness is a spiritual struggle, and we should make sincere intentions to fight it in all its forms. We must stand with the people of righteousness who fought for the abolition, civil rights, and an end to colonialist exploitation.

White supremacy in America is in a housing system that segregates people and exposes them to pollutants in their air and their water. It is in an education system that funds or defunds schools based on that segregated housing, and uses the police as an extreme punishment for a child’s infractions. It is in a judicial system that criminalizes poverty and imprisons those who cannot afford bail. It is in a prison system that forces people to work without financial compensation and is protected by the Thirteenth Amendment. Plans to fight the coronavirus pandemic were halted because communities of color were more likely to be affected in yet another disturbing attack. White supremacy is so deeply engrained that it leads some to harm themselves by bleaching their skin and burning their hair in hopes of appearing more like their oppressors. It is everywhere including our spiritual spaces.

Muslims often quote ayah 48:13 and the last sermon of Prophet Mohamed ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) with pride that the tradition stands firmly against racial injustice. While Islam itself does, Muslims often unfortunately do not. One of my community members recently shared a story about entering a masjid in hijab, and being asked if she was Muslim. What was even more egregious is that after a discussion, the family that asked concluded that because of her black skin, she was in fact NOT Muslim despite praying in a masjid. Many of the non-Black Muslims were shocked to hear this, but the truth is that I have never met a Black Muslim who did NOT have a racism in the masjid story. Ask the Black Muslims in your circle about their experiences, and the flood gates will open. You will also see the hurt and betrayal in their eyes for having to endure racism inside their places of worship. Apologize to them for not listening sooner and thank them for being willing to teach you and trust you to want to be better despite their trauma.

Call to Action

It is not enough for anyone to not be racist; we must be anti-racist. Acknowledge the anti-blackness you have internalized within yourself and have those difficult conversations with your family members. Ustadha Zaynab Ansari speaks about the pathological ideologies of how black bodies are viewed in America.  Join and support organizations like the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative and the Muslim Alliance of North America. Embrace a Black Muslim ethos of viewing Islam as a theology of liberation. Support Black scholars and the Black masajid. Invite them to speak not just about anti-Blackness, but on their areas of expertise in Islam, history, community development, etc. Demand that the immigrant masajid be antiracist. Black Muslims should be on the Board of Directors and on the Zakah committee to ensure the equity of those spaces. Hire a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion expert to have a difficult conversation about race in your organization. If the Black Muslims do not share their experiences of racism in the masjid, it is not because they did but happen, but because they do not trust the community to care to change it. Build that trust and build coalitions of communal healing to end the segregation of masajid into Black and immigrant masajid in the first place. The way out of the pandemic is to take care of those who are most vulnerable. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “You are given rizq sustenance based on the most vulnerable among you.” Communities who have turned the tide have done exactly that. Learning to be anti-racist is one of many steps we can take to lift the difficulty our communities are facing. We need at least be as non-discriminatory as the virus that only sees a human body.

Anyone who is not Black has benefited from the theft and subjugation of generations of Black Americans. We should not meet Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) having sided with an oppressor. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) says, “Oppression is layers of darkness on the Day of Judgement.” We can choose to follow the prophetic path, or we can choose to let our racism destroy us. And for every nation is a [specified] term. So when their time has come, they will not remain behind an hour, nor will they precede [it]. [7;34] There will be an accounting for our society as a whole, and there will be an individual accounting. Those who follow Prophet Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) will enter eternal gardens and those who follow Pharaoh will enter an eternal fire. And the people of no consequence, those who choose to do nothing, will sit on the A’raf.

[1] This story is mentioned in West African oral histories

[2] “Let my people go.” (Exodus 5-1: NIV)

[3] The plagues of Egypt are discussed differently in the different Abrahamic faiths. “The Christian and Jewish traditions discuss the angel of death taking the life of the first-born son from every family in Egypt except those who left a marking on their doors so the angel of death could pass over them.”

[4] Jahili is a Quranic descriptor for Pre-Islamic Arab society. It is derived from a root word meaning ignorance.

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