My observations on race discussion at Muslim Congress

A little over a week ago at the Muslim Congress conference in Atlanta, I helped facilitate an impromptu discussion that primarily focused on race relations in the American Muslim community.  The conversation came about due to a group of concerned sisters who wanted “real talk” with shuyookh about the epidemic of racism in the community and how it expresses itself subtly and overtly. I was then appointed to lead the conversation by a leader within Muslim Congress, Mawlana Baig.

Before going into detail about what was discussed, knowing the demographics of Muslim Congress conference participants is important. The leadership and conference participants were majority South Asian.  Conference participants also included Iranian Americans, African Americans, Arab Americans and White Americans.  Though there were a few speakers such as myself who do not follow madhhab Ja’fari, the leadership and the overwhelmingly majority of conference participants follow the Ja’fari school of thought.

Going backto the actual discussion which was not on the official program and took place from midnight to 2 a.m. with my facilitation and in the presence of Shaykh Usama Abdul Ghani and Shaykh Hamza Sodagar, the following issues related to implicit and explicit ethnocentricity and racism were discussed:

Implicit:

  • Most masajid feel more like cultural centers than Islamic centers. The dominant cultural groups of boards and congregants superimpose their cultural standards and traditions in the centers, which makes those who are not from those groups feel alienated.  An example given was of an Islamic center that started off with a diverse group of people when it was small.  As it expanded and the majority of the congregation became Iranian American, speeches transitioned into majority Farsi.  A South Asian brother who brought up this specific issue says that he no longer feels welcome there. Similar sentiments were expressed by other people that experienced the same at other locations.
  • Programsand speeches which are focused on overseas matters without balancing domestic concerns. An example of this is that a South Asian sister brought up how shuyookh are quick to talk about “Takfiris” and “Wahhabis” abroad yet don’t allow platforms to discuss oppression that takes place in America such as police brutality and systemic racism.
  • Sisters moving in the prayer lines away from other sisters to pray next to someone from their own ethnic group.

Explicit:

  • Issues relating to marriage were the most discussed.
  1. A Pakistani American sister spoke about how she was harassed by family members here and abroad for two years for introducing her Pakistani American friend to a Black American Muslim brother. The sister herself was engaged to a Pakistani American man.  She was accused of violating the hadeeth of loving for your sister what you love for yourself because she was engaged to a Pakistani man yet introduced her friend to a black man who was beneath the standards that she chose for herself.
  2. A sister who is an immigrant from India married a brother who is originally from the Caribbean. She continues to be harassed by her family.  After having children, family members had the audacity to ask her if her children were scared of their own father because “he’s so black.”  Even statements about lack of pure blood have been made.
  3. A Southeast Asian sister’s marriage was broken up by in-laws because she was a different culture; their comments about her not being from them were repetitive and very specific. Comments were made about her skin color not being light enough in conjunction.
  • Stories were also shared of Black Muslim children being harassed at schools because of their blackness and not being seen as Muslim enough.
  • An Indian American brother spoke about how he was on the executive board of a masjid, and when he suggested to add an African American brother who was a “professional” to the board, he was rebuked. He was later forced off of the board for not understanding that the center was for Desis.

These issues that were discussed continue to be experienced by Muslims across America irrespective of schools of thought.  The specific examples in cases 1b and 3 are incredibly gross, and I’ve heard and even experienced my share of overt racism in the American Muslim community.

The bottom line is that racism among Muslims must be discussed openly, and leadership of masajid and Islamic organizations have to be challenged to systematically address these issues.  Since many of the leaders themselves are ill equipped or undereducated on addressing the complexity of race in America in general, which is informed by white supremacy, as well as the specific issue of implicit bias that exists everywhere in the American Muslim community, the challenge becomes getting leaders not only to acknowledge the broader issues but for them to be humble to be trained in this discourse and to allow persons who are not wearing turbans and thawbs to have trained facilitators lead these discussions.  To be more specific, Muslim women who are trained in this subject should be used as well; sexism was also a topic that was touched on in our discussion related to racism.

Just for the sake of clarity, I recently finished a 9 month fellowship through Wayne State University’s Law School on racial equity in which I was trained on how to facilitate such conversations besides my Islamic studies that relate to this issue.

Leadership has to acknowledge and be willing to change, starting with themselves on this issue.  Trainings and discussions need to take place.  Deep relationships and socialization has to take place as well outside of superficial contact on Jumu’ah Day and/or at Islamic conferences.

The struggle continues.

Path forward needed for stronger Arab-Black solidarity

Path forward needed for stronger Arab-Black solidarity
By Rana Elmir & Dawud Walid | Friday, 12.12.2014, 04:01 AM

 

As protests erupt across the U.S. in reaction to the non-indictments of two White male police officers who killed two unarmed Black men, a discussion on the state of race relations in this country has also taken hold – particularly between the Arab American and African American communities. Parts of this conversation have been healthy, some ill-informed, but all of it has been necessary.  

Unfortunately, recent events reflect that there is still a significant portion of people of our communities who don’t understand that our lived experiences with discrimination, racism, prejudice are more similar than they are different. 

The U.S. has always been a land of dichotomy. On one hand, it’s been a land of hope for immigrants who seek the “American Dream” of economic prosperity, quality education and religious freedom. 

On the other, the American Dream has been imperfect and used as a sword to perpetuate atrocities against communities of color – 95 percent of Native Americans were murdered and their land stolen, more than three centuries of chattel slavery of Africans, a significant percentage of those enslaved being Muslims, Jim Crow Era segregation, Japanese internment camps, extrajudicial killing, deportation and targeting and the list goes on and on. 

As groups of people immigrate here, many fail to see past the promise of a better life to the structural racism in which the U.S. was established upon and that persists in every facet of government. This is a legacy that shamefully continues to marginalize communities of color through economic and educational disenfranchisement and a broken justice system that makes interactions with law enforcement and our judicial system a matter of life and death. 

Make no mistake, these are systems designed to marginalize certain groups, while providing unencumbered de facto privilege to all of those who are outside of those groups.  

Arabs and Muslims are no strangers to the consequences built on a broken system. They know all too well about the pernicious oppression which causes abject poverty and educational inequities. They know all too well about the unfairness of militarized police tactics and lopsided court proceedings. Arabs and Muslims have lived these realities in the U.S. and abroad and spoke out in mass protests that were heard across the globe. 

When the Arab Spring launched from Tunisia, then Egypt and beyond, there was much compassion shown for people in the streets who protested against economic turmoil, joblessness and heavy handed police tactics, even as protests turned violent.  However, many people in the Arab American community utterly fail to have similar empathy for African Americans who have resorted to similar protests due to centuries of these conditions – instead focusing on the small amount of violence, looting and arson to justify the police actions. 

When the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was predominately White, took place proclaiming inspiration from the Arab Spring, many in our communities felt pride and similarly praised the 99 percent, even when those protests turned violent and disruptive. The same individuals now criticize #HandsUpDontShoot and #ICantBreathe protests and shake their heads at the desperation being expressed in the communities under  siege.  

This is the very definition of cognitive dissonance– the discomfort we feel when we hold contradictory beliefs and therefore begin to distance ourselves from the very ideas and people that cause this discomfort. 

It could be argued that the discomfort being experienced and expressed in the Arab American community has been influenced by the notion of white supremacy, which also leads to implicit racism.  While it is common among us to view Arabs abroad as suppressed people struggling for dignity and White Americans exercising their right to protest, we do not extend those liberties in viewing the African American struggle.  

This is evident from social media posts that we both have read to Thanksgiving dinner conversations that have been relayed to us in which community leaders and members identify with the broken system as opposed to the victims of that system and place blame for the heavy handed policing of African American community squarely on the community itself.  

We’ve even seen some in the community shamefully regurgitate the bigotry and hatred of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim zealots calling Black people “thugs,” “lazy” and behaving like “animals.” By repeating these tired tropes, the Arab American community is not only saying that these protesters are powerless, but as a community, they are saying that they are not worthy of power, or even hope. 

This could be a watershed moment for the Arab American community – approach this moral crisis thoughtfully and directly or continue in the same manner tacitly approving the very system that is used to keep Arab Americans without power.  

On Thursday, Dec. 18, we will both be part of a #TakeOnHate discussion at the Arab American National Museum entitled “REAL TALK: Where’s the Solidarity? From Ferguson to Dearborn.” The purpose of this town hall will be to have a frank discussion about Arab and Black relations, which will hopefully grow into a formal solidarity movement. 

Before the two communities can work together in the face of systemic discrimination, there has to be time for honest conversations and healing. After all, neither community can make the progress that is needed to build political power without empathy and solidarity. Justice is about more than just us. γ

-Rana Elmir is the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU-MI). Dawud Walid is the executive director of Council of American Islamic Relations in Michigan (CAIR-MI).

Ferguson & non-black privilege

I normally don’t post my responses to e-mails that I get from conservatives, who criticize my oped’s pertaining to racism, xenophobia or Islamophobia.  Below is my response to an e-mail that I received falsely stating that Michael Brown summoned his own murder because he was a “thug,” that Brown’s step-father incited “riots” after the grand jury didn’t indict and that white liberals are also responsible passively responsibility for whipping up into frenzy the so-called good negroes.

 

Below was my response.

***

Thanks for your e-mail, Mike.

Points of clarification:
1) The store owner of the theft never stated that Mike Brown was the actual thief.  Even if he was, $20 worth of theft of cigarillos is not qualify an interaction that would provoke confrontation for lethal force.  Mind you that I served in the U.S. military and was trained in using patrolling, detainment and lethal force.  City police have a higher standard of engagement with citizens than the military does.
And actually, everyone did not paint Brown as a thug as you falsely project.  He had no criminal record and was on his way to college.
2) The Brown family consistently called for peace and still does.  It can be seen in multiple media interviews and press conferences. The circumstances of inequalities and police brutality are the cause for the protesting and some pillaging.  The protests around America about Ferguson are about systematic racism, not simply one teenager being killed.
3) Liberal Whites have contributed to the problem too because they continue to benefit from white privilege yet fail to address the roots of these matters based in history of America and the legacy of inequality that still exists.  There’s no accident why Native Americans and blacks suffer the highest rates of incarceration per capita, have the highest rates of poverty, highest infant mortality rates, lowest levels of accumulated wealth and high levels of workplace discrimination.  These are rooted in the legacy of over 300 years of near ethnic cleansing of Natives in which 95% of them were killed and 96% of their land stolen.  I’m not going to even go into the 400 years of slavery and systematic discrimination of blacks which vestiges still linger; books have been written on this.
So it appears that not only are so-called white liberals not being fully honest, but it apparent that persons on the Right like yourself Mike have a type of collective amnesia.
There are many issues in the black community, which I place some of the blame on black clergy and politicians.  We have come to accept some unacceptable things which stem largely from internalized oppression.  The larger issue, however, is that whites who benefit from privilege refuse to acknowledge that America is not fair and equal for everyone, and that many whites then display microagression in which tries to absolve America and place the blame for all pathologies within Black America squarely on the shoulders of blacks.
This what my blog meant by the need for intellectual honest and deep analysis in having a real conversation on race in America.
Respectfully,
Dawud Walid