To say that our thoughts are not entirely our own, as American Muslims, would be something of an understatement. There are tremendous forces being applied to our community: some political; others societal. Others yet, philosophical. And within all three of these are the proverbial carrots I’ve mentioned before, dangling in front of our eager faces. Of those carrots I want to speak on here is our attitude towards the poor, how it’s been influenced by aspirational whiteness and American mythology, and how we’ve adopted attitudes towards aspects of our own community, and the American poor in general, that is distasteful as well as undermining, both in terms of our perception in America and most importantly, in the sight of God.
Most American Muslims would fall within the designation of, as Amitai Etzioni puts it, “illiberal moderates”1, though given Etzioni penned this thoughts in 2007, I wonder how thoroughly the label “illiberal” would apply versus a more direct, “liberal”. Ruminations aside, my point is to say that a majority of American Muslims would in essence consider themselves moral conservatives. However, given the fact that ever increasing numbers of American Muslims are educated and reared in a liberal society, steeped in racism as well as American mythologies about the salvific nature of “hard work”, it is easy to see how those of a morally conservative stripe can still espouse assumptions about the poor, especially poor Blackamericans.
That immigrant Muslims were and continue to be baited by white aspirationalism is nothing unique to immigrants. Almost every racial and ethnic group that migrated to the States has had the same incentive to buy into whiteness. In fact, this goes a long way to explaining the attitude many American Muslims have towards the poor. Buying into whiteness has always been a package deal, requiring one to also adopt their attitudes towards the less fortunate, an attitude that vilifies them more often than it seeks to empathize and uplift the poor. And this tendency to impugn the poor is found in liberal as well as conservative political rhetoric in America. Whereas traditional conservative rhetoric would seek to ensconce black inferiority in genetics, liberals would often focus on the so-called cultural inferiority of blacks in America, nothing other than a veiled attempt to re-articulate “theories about racial differences in culture, values, and even intelligence”2. I conflate black and poor here because this is also part and parcel of whiteness and its conclusions about black folks in America, conclusions many immigrant Muslims willingly accept: blackness and poverty are one and the same; to be black automatically connotes poverty.
I would like to take a moment to highlight the flaws in these conflations and assumptions regarding race (blackness in particular) and poverty. First is to look at the source of poverty and disadvantage in the black community3. As Thomas Sugrue writes in his groundbreaking 1996 work, The Origins of the Urban Crisis,
“whites, through the combined advantages of race and residence, were able to hoard political and economic resources—jobs, public services, education, and other goods—to their own advantage at the expense of the urban [predominantly black] poor (brackets mine).”4
This glaring fact of a “forgotten history of actions” turns on its head the guilt and responsibility whiteness assumes black folks had in their own condition, asserting that poor blacks are the sole responsible party regarding their social condition. Immigrant Muslims, vis-a-vie aspirational whiteness, bought into this hook, line, and sinker. Ignored is the responsibility that “policymakers, large corporations, small businesses (particularly realtors), and ordinary citizens” had in the making of an urban black poor. While whites may be the original creators of this myth, immigrant Muslims have largely “reinforced racial and class inequalities” by towing the party line of whiteness and its attitudes towards Blackamericans. Ironically, American immigrant Muslims, and their descendants, are now having their narrative reshaped by similar external forces.
To help contextualize this phenomenon, so it is not to be misconstrued or mistaken for anti-immigrant Muslim bashing, I will point out some factors that led to this misstep. First that comes to mind is the American educational system itself. Given that many American Muslims, the children of immigrants, were educated in American public schools, this goes a long way as to why an alternative narrative was never presented to non-black American Muslims. The American public educational system has a long track record of having been complicit in forwarding a variety of myths that circumscribe the black experience in America. Far from being historically accurate, the public education system, as often a PR wing of American white supremacist society as not, has either ignored the plight of Blackamericans and how they have been the targets of American public and political policies that have led to the breakdown of the black family (a favorite talking point of liberals and conservatives alike), or have downplayed the impact of those policies on black American life in contrast to an ever more hopeful—and abstract—progressive rhetoric which seeks to pave over the injustices inflicted on the poor and black America, as inconvenient tragedies. Instead, the public education system often accentuates—in a deafening tone—American public policies that supposedly alleviated and overturned the centuries oppression directed towards blacks, like emancipation or the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1964. No mention is made of how whites, through mostly legal means, systematically privileged themselves of innumerable resources such as jobs, public services, education, to say nothing of the redlining practices that barred countless Blackamericans from homeownership, as one example, one of the principal pathways to wealth-building.
If the American public education system was inept, if not downright dishonest, then the private system of Islamic schools have been doubly worse. In fact, many so-called Islamic schools failed to not only provide adequate representational education reflecting American realities, they were inept at education overall. In addition to a subpar education, most American Islamic schools tended to be heavily immigrant in terms of their population. Given the aforementioned aspirational whiteness rife amongst American immigrant Muslim communities, it is no surprise that the children of these immigrant Muslims would not learn a counter narrative to the ones given them at customs.
It is clear to see the reason by which immigrant American Muslims bought into an attitude and view of blacks-as-poor as well as to the American poor period. However I am not satisfied to let our community off the hook. There has to also be something terribly decadent in this world view as well, for it is incontestable that the American Muslim community is generous. The question is: Who is the worthy recipient of American Muslim generosity? Why is it that American Muslims have been so willing to send money abroad and not to their neighbors. I know many will argue that this shift is changing and there may be some evidence of this, particularly in the younger generation. I sincerely hope this to be the case. However, my point in writing this is to also illustrate how the broad American Muslim communities conceptualization of poverty, who’s worthy and who’s not, also speaks volumes to the division between the so-called immigrant community and the Blackamerican Muslim community. I believe a significant portion of this contention is rooted in racist assumptions that American immigrant Muslims have bought into about the conflation of blackness and poverty as well as perspectives American liberals and conservatives have on poverty in general.
That many American immigrant Muslims bought into the inferiority of blacks (remember, for sake of argument here, blacks and the poor being synonymous) has been personally and communally confirmed through my engagement as a Blackamerican Muslim, as well as many other Blackamerican Muslims, in our community. Many believe these assertions (in large enforced, if not given to them, by whites) are justified, the proof before their very eyes when they gaze upon black (urban) America. In fact, this was a major contributing factor to me writing the essay in response to Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s comments at the Reviving The Islamic Spirit conference in Toronto, December 2016. In his comments, Shaykh Hamza made reference to “black-on-black crime” as well as to the “breakdown of the black family” while making no reference to the external forces which have worked night and day for centuries to actualize this violence and breakdown. I make reference again to Shaykh Hamza because he represents to a large number of American immigrant Muslims, the paragon of piety and acumen. And yet, despite his personal and professional accomplishments, it revealed, as I said, “that religion is not an unconscious or automatic inoculation against the vicissitudes of racism”. In fact I would contend that Shaykh Hamza himself has been a victim of the American public education system and liberalism, one in which he was educated, the other he was reared in according to his own statements. The latter akin to what Sugrue calls “the strange career of New Deal liberalism that simultaneously empowered African Americans while perpetuating race-based inequalities in American life”5.
Another contributing factor to American immigrant Muslims buying into white-inspired notions of black inferiority is the promise of the American economy, more specifically to the faith that if they worked hard, as have so many other immigrants had done so (or so goes the myth) that their hard work would be rewarded, economically speaking. And to a large degree—the extent to which American immigrant Muslims were allowed to assimilate into whiteness—this proved to be true and thus confirming their “faith”, making it even more difficult for many American immigrant Muslims to, “see that racialized inequality [in America] is, at core, a political problem”6 and not one of inherent racial or cultural deficiencies.
It is from here, a faith in the promise of America through hard work and the social benefits available to American immigrant Muslims vis-a-vie whiteness that an attitude was adopted, an attitude contradictory to the view as articulated in the Qur’an. This new view in America tended to view the poor in general, and blacks in particular, through a lens of condemnation. A view and a belief deeply rooted in the white American psyche which articulated “that unemployment and poverty are the fault of poor people and their deviant attitudes and behaviors, not the consequence of macroeconomic changes that have gutted urban labor markets”7. It is because of this adopting of the one of the greatest of all white (conservative as well as liberal) mythologies in America (hard work) I believe American immigrant Muslims tend to donate to foreign causes. Many will counter that this is due to the nostalgia many American immigrant Muslims harbor for homelands, though in the face of recent tragic events in America, events which implicate American immigrant Muslims (certainly more than it does Blackamerican Muslims) specifically, the speed in which American immigrant Muslims were able to raise funds for the victims of San Bernardino, for instance, was astounding. Yet other urban organizations which also seek to fundraise for various charitable causes, causes that obviously would benefit poor black and brown populations (some of which are Muslim!), the same expediency and generosity is lacking. The obvious difference being that American Muslims are, one, not implicated in their poverty, and two, the above mentioned prejudices towards black, brown, and poor populations are in full effect.
I would like to revisit Sugrue’s assertion that Americans, rooted in the mythology of whiteness and hard work, fault the poor as their own worst enemies. For in this regard American immigrant Muslims are not alone. I have also witnessed many Blackamerican Muslims look upon their fellow black non-Muslims as “deviant”. It is here that I feel Muslims have also shown themselves to be susceptible to another American virus: pride. It is ironic that many Blackamerican Muslims will consider themselves superior to non-Muslim blacks while living in the same squalor. I am aware of certain arguments related to communal belonging and salvation in the Here-After but I cannot turn a blind eye to this indifferent attitude our community takes towards the poor, doubly so Blackamericans, who, as Dr. Sherman Jackson has attested, has been American Muslims’ “Banu Hashim”. Neither is it, in my opinion, religiously sustainable to harbor such condescending attitudes towards the poor given the Qur’an explicitly states that the poor have a right to a portion of our wealth,
“Truly, human beings are insatiable from the moment they’re created, for they’re worried when misfortune comes, yet greedy when times are good. However, it’s not the same with those who are inclined to prayer, who are diligent in their devotions and who know that there’s a claim on their wealth from the poor who ask and from the poor who are held back from asking.” Qur’an 70: 19-25
Similarly, the Prophetic traditions are filled with innumerable exhortations towards caring for the poor. This is but one example,
أَنَّهُ كَانَ يَقُولُ شَرُّ الطَّعَامِ طَعَامُ الْوَلِيمَةِ يُدْعَى لَهَا الأَغْنِيَاءُ، وَيُتْرَكُ الْفُقَرَاءُ، وَمَنْ تَرَكَ الدَّعْوَةَ فَقَدْ عَصَى اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ صلى الله عليه وسلم.
Abu Hurayrah relates that the Prophet said, “The worst food is that of a wedding banquet to which only the rich are invited while the poor are not invited. And he who refuses an invitation to a banquet disobeys Allah and His Messenger .” Sahih al-Bukhari, 5177
Returning to the point above, it is critical for American immigrant Muslims and their descendants as well as Blackamerican Muslims to know that issues related to the poor in America, to urban black American, cannot be explained away simply as the result of pathological behaviors, especially not because of the lack of work ethic, or other such irresponsible and racist jargon, without addressing the elephant in the room which is white supremacy, anti-black racism and the structural, political, and public policies that have led to the breakup of black families, economic disenfranchisement, as well as other forces external to black America and the greater American poor. But this change of attitude in our community will only have a chance of manifesting if American Muslim leadership becomes educated and trained on the realities that exist in America: its history, its policies, etc. And as can already be validated, such an educational endeavor will not merely be an act of piety or kindness, but will also provide the education, knowledge, training and means for all American Muslims to understand what is being enacted upon them, especially American immigrant Muslims, from a political and public policy point of view.
American Muslims must stand with the poor. Not because it makes good PR, not because it makes us feel good about ourselves or helps to pacify our guilt, but ultimately because it pleases God. It is the right thing to do. We must not abandon the poor in this country to a system and rhetoric that would have them believe that the cause and solution to all of their problems and woes start, and end, with them.
1: Etzioni, Amitai. Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy, 2007.
2: Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Press, 1996. Pg., xxxvii. Read the intro here.
3: Poverty is not solely a black issue though the African-American community has doubtless been hard hit as well shall see through public policy.
4: Origins, xxxvi.
5: Origins, xxxvii.
6: Origins, xxxvi.
7: Origins, xxxvi.