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Are You Accidentally Supporting Corrupt Nonprofit Organizations and Charities?

Muslim Nonprofit fiefdoms

Former Pennsylvania State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell has a compelling story.  Even the State Attorney General, who recently charged her with several crimes, alluded to the pain she experienced in her life.  It was a remarkable story of perseverance after being affected by gun violence, triumph and helping others. Yet, there she is, facing time in prison for using a charity called “MECA” for assorted alleged acts of theft, fraud, and other crimes of dishonesty.  

According to the Attorney General, Johnson-Harrell has accepted responsibility for her crimes and is pleading guilty.  She has also resigned from her public office.  Johnson-Harrell has stated she may dispute some charges. She like any other defendant is innocent until the state proves her guilty.   

What is also undeniable is that many of the kinds of things the Attorney General accused Johnson-Harrell of are common with nonprofits, both Muslim and non-Muslim.  Indeed, the President of the United States has also done egregious things with his “charity” in New York, undetected by law enforcement despite his public profile, until news media started asking questions. The President faces no criminal charges.  

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My purpose here goes beyond Johnson-Harrell’s legal troubles. Instead, it is to help nonprofits and their leaders stay out of trouble and to give donors an essential tool in being a thoughtful donor. We often donate because of “social proof.” Someone invites you to donate online; a friend invites us to a fundraiser, we hear a good speech or testimonial, and we give.

 We often don’t particularly care about accountability. We should. Let’s dig deeper to understand how charities work so that we can be better donors with the limited funds we have to give with excellence. 

The Role of Government Oversight in Charities 

What state a nonprofit is in makes a difference.  The state attorney general typically has regulatory authority over the nonprofit sector.  Charities have tax benefits because of the social good they theoretically provide. But what happens if the charity is not keeping faith with its beneficial role?  If a CEO of an environmental charity pilfers funds for personal use, you cannot reasonably expect a family of ducks to sue. The Attorney General is there for the ducks, the trees, the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill, the beaches, the works of art, the future poor patients who are not yet poor or sick, and everything else charity should benefit.  At least that’s the idea 

Abuse by nonprofits is a violation of the public trust.  It is public corruption against society and not merely cheating a donor.  

Because of this role, from time to time, you see lawsuits and even criminal prosecutions by state attorneys general for corruption by nonprofit leaders. A high-profile state representative like Johnson-Harrell is an obvious target since prosecuting her lets the rest of us citizens know law enforcement is paying attention. But these lawsuits and occasional criminal prosecutions are rare compared to how rampant nonprofit corruption is. Attorneys General typically don’t put adequate resources into regulating the more than trillion-dollar nonprofit sector.  

Religious Charities Can Usually Get Away With More

In some states, for example, California, religious corporations are exempt by statute from oversight for things like breaches of fiduciary duty. The lack of accountability is remarkable since religious charities can be extremely corrupt, something known to Americans for much of its history.  Exposing religious charity corruption has long been fodder for documentaries and movies. Certain Christian preachers on TV are known to abuse nonprofit status to flaunt extreme wealth with no negative consequences.

People who run religious nonprofits, including Executive Directors and board members, can still be criminally prosecuted, but you usually would not expect it. Various taxing authorities also have authority over charities. The IRS is the primary regulator for charities nationally. For the most part, though, the IRS has been leaving nonprofits, even obviously bad ones, alone. Religious nonprofits, like those classified as “churches,” don’t need to file Form 990s, annual disclosures required for other nonprofits. Therefore much of what these groups activities are opaque to both the government and the public.   

With some notable exceptions, governments and law enforcement at all levels mostly ignore nonprofit corruption. The times they do is typically the exception that proves the rule.  

For the most part, then, sorting out the good nonprofits from the bad ones is left to donors. We all contend with hard-sell data-driven marketing tactics from social psychology.  We don’t usually don’t know how to distinguish between good organizations and bad.  

Look Beyond The Pitch

Stories of nonprofits and their leaders can be compelling. But narratives can also be used to manipulate, distract, and hide. The raw charisma of a speaker quoting Quran and Hadith can be waived up to donors to make them think they are doing good work in the path of Allah when they may sometimes be enabling criminality. Charisma and the power of stories can get us to contribute to causes better than just about anything.  

There are various red flags to look out for, but I will focus on perhaps the most obvious one, an executive of a charity acting as a member of the board.  

No Real Board Accountability

Johnson-Harrell was on her own nonprofit board while also serving as an executive.  This practice was also present at scandal-plagued Ta’leef Collective. State law does not typically forbid a CEO or other employee (like an imam) from being a board member, despite it being a glaring conflict of interest. It has never been nonprofit best practices to have employees oversee themselves since it is a horrible idea on its face.  The only possible real justification for this is when a nonprofit is new, small, all volunteer-run, and there are not enough volunteers or funds available to make accountability a priority.  While there is potential for abuse here, we tend to ignore it out of practicality.  

Now larger nonprofits can have employees, as well as others, with personal, family or business interests with the charity (like a vendor) on the board might point to a “conflict of interest policy.”  Of course every nonprofit should have one in case unexpected conflicts come up.  They are not, however, solutions to self-created problems the organization never needed to have.   

Accountability is Hard 

It still begs the question:  Why engage in the reckless practice of having an executive overseeing himself or herself?  Are there no sufficiently qualified people in the Muslim community capable of helping with the board of an organization?  Unlikely. 

What we do know is the main reason Muslim leaders (non-Muslims as well) chose to police themselves is that real accountability is hard, maybe even a little messy.   

You may have heard this story before: An Imam and a Masjid Board have a conflict, resulting in the Imam leaving.  The Imam does not go quietly, though, since he is angry with the board. He tells his supporters (of which he has many in the local community) that boards are incompetent, imbecilic, don’t understand the “youth” or whatnot.  The best way to run a Masjid, you see, is for the Imam to call all the shots. He will usually adorably say all this with the earnestness of someone who feels he is the first person who ever had this insight. Plenty of Muslims believe him and are hurt by whatever petty drama took place at the Masjid last week. They will join his new storefront Masjid, sometimes across the street from the Imam’s former Masjid.  

These are often pop-up institutions born out of vainglorious temper tantrums, built on the foundation of one man and some upset donors who soon move on to chase the next shiny thing, or simply rejoin their old Masjid. Such places typically do not last over the long haul. If you have been around a Muslim community for a few decades, you have seen several come and go.  

Badly Governed Respected Institutions 

More of a long-term threat for the Muslim community is when real institutions with staying power with endowments, employees, and buildings go the route of slipshod accountability-free governance where an executive gets to oversee himself.  Eventually, when you set up institutions with plain-as-day opportunities for corruption and abuse, everything can collapse. It happened in a spectacular style for Christian institutions with no real accountability for the people running it (many are still like that).  Many Muslim institutions we all respect that do good work have nonprofit governance so poor they almost seem custom-built for corruption. 

The beautiful Crystal Cathedral outside Los Angeles once boasted a massive endowment, a global TV viewership for its “hour of power” and donor memorials that would last forever.   It fell into bankruptcy because of the same kind of nonprofit governance increasingly common in the Muslim community. Inadequate or non-existent board oversight is a form of structural corruption, even if no abusive practices are currently taking place.  It should be enough of a red flag that someone can abuse authority with no real accountability. Unless we start demanding accountability from Muslim leaders, those we trust our donations to, we should reasonably expect more criminal charges as we saw with MECA, scandals like Ta’leef, and spectacular failures like the Crystal Cathedral. 

Other Board Members May Not Be Much Help

One response by self-interested board members may be to point to the existence of “independent” board members to keep insiders (like the CEO or equivalent) in check.  You should never assume this creates accountability. We cannot stereotype nonprofit boards, of course, and many operate in different ways. I have seen Muslim institutions were board members: 

  •  Have no visibility into the organization’s operations, budget, or much of anything else important. Though they do have meetings and manage to argue about things. 
  •  Never attended board meetings despite being members for many years and did not know if the charity has been having meetings all these years.
  •  Were never informed they were members of the board, despite their names being on public information filings with the state.
  • Helped start the organization as Ph.D. students and got a lifetime membership on the board, but that was decades ago when they lived in the United States.  

Those who dislike accountability prefer “straw” board members who are either not present or can be “handled” by management.   A well-known example of this is Theranos, a Silicon Valley “unicorn” startup with a fake blood-testing product. Many supposedly sophisticated investors were reassured when the company stacked its board with famous octogenarians and nonagenarians. None of them knew and did not bother to ask if the entire operation they were overseeing was a fraud.  

These kinds of board shenanigans generally take place where there is a CEO who is also a board member and would prefer to run things without dealing with pesky difficult questions.  Board members are there for the appearance of accountability but are often little more than seat-warmers.  

It’s Not About a Leader’s “Integrity”

Some Muslim leaders will take a call for accountability as a personal insult to their integrity.  This sentiment is misguided. Instead, it is about building systems that make our institutions sustainable. I don’t know Johnson-Harrell.  However, no Muslim can honestly claim to be better than her, either in intent or commitment to the community.  Yet, without a system of accountability, the fallibility of decent men and women magnifies.

 You need to have a Shura (mutual consultation) in leadership, that is how the Quran advises us to handle our affairs.  A nonexistent or fundamentally insincere “Shura” designed to not hold anyone accountable is asking for trouble.  

Muslim nonprofit leaders can find their freedom to spend charitable dollars without meaningful accountability intoxicating. Leaders who you would never think can make severe errors in judgment start to make them.  It only gets worse from there.  

Work in an Islamic charitable institution is bigger than one man or woman.  If you create a charity with no meaningful checks and balances, your work won’t be sustainable.  

Abu Bakr raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), the first Khalifah, could not determine his salary as the leader of Muslims.  He was always accountable, and as I pointed out in a previous article, he preferred it that way. Muslim leaders should welcome accountability and not think of it as a personal slight when asked about the issue from within the community.

What Board Members Should Do 

If someone entrusted you with oversight of a charity, there are helpful educational resources that can help you be excellent. Use them.  Remove board members with conflicts of interest, especially employees and vendors.  

You need to prepare for and be present at meetings.  Hold the organization and each other as board members accountable.  Don’t be on the board to win anyone’s favor, least of all the CEO or Imam. You have an Amanah (a trust), to make sure the charity is operating with excellence in everything it is doing.   Ask difficult questions that donors will rarely know to ask. Read all financial statements and reports, that is where the mischief happens.  Make sure no executive can “handle” you into submission.  If you cannot do these things, don’t be on the board. 

The common denominator in virtually all nonprofit corruption cases is executive domination. Don’t be used.

What Donors Should Do

Encourage charities you like that have weak governance to change their practices. Uncritical support can enable structural problems, which can be destructive to the organization over the long term. Sometimes, the best contribution you can make to an organization is to encourage them to reform their governance. You can do this as a small donor. Don’t expect major donors to request such changes.  

You may not know much about the organization’s finances or how good or bad the organization’s operations are. However, you do know an employee or vendor is on the board of a charity is a signal the organization is uninterested in holding its leaders accountable. There are plenty of good charities worth supporting. If the charity remains stubborn about not allowing accountability, move on to the next one.  

 

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Ahmed Shaikh is a Southern California Attorney. He writes about inheritance, nonprofits and other legal issues affecting Muslims in the United States. He is the co-author of "Estate Planning for the Muslim Client," published by the American Bar Association. His Islamic Inheritance website is www.islamicinheritance.com

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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.

Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

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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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