An Open Letter to CAIR – A Critical Re-centering of ‘Race’ as the Premier Civil Rights Issue for American Muslims

In my last post, I wrote, among many things, the need for American Muslim leadership to reorient its focus on domestic issues:

“American foreign-policy cannot be the litmus test or yardstick by which American Muslim leadership is judged to be efficacious.”

Continuing in that vain, I want to share a letter by one of my dearest friends, Dr. Muhammad Khalifa. I have known Dr. Khalifa since I first became Muslim and his friendship and voice have remained bastion of sanity when the world around me seemed quite the opposite. As a disclaimer, I am posting this not to demonize CAIR in particular, or to, as I also said, “draw ideological lines in the sand”. Rather I say this to demonstrate the urgency for us to focus on oppression at home, especially when it is a form of oppression we can put our hands on. And to Allah belongs all the praise.

An Open Letter to CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations)

A Critical Re-centering of ‘Race’ as the Premier Civil Rights Issue for American Muslims

August 15, 2014

Dear fellow social justice activists,

Dr. Muhammad Khalifa I write this letter to reflect on CAIR’s response to the killing of Michael Brown. By several eyewitness accounts, Brown was an unarmed Black teen who, while waving his hands in the air yelling, “I don’t have a gun,” was shot and killed by a Ferguson, MO police officer. While I applaud CAIR’s willingness to support this issue, I write this letter because I carry a heavy heart and imbue deep disappointment with CAIR’s approach to issues of oppression, racism, and social justice in the U.S. Muslim community. The encouragement to give a Friday sermon to address this issue is far too little, and too late. In fact, without a more concretely sustained response to racial injustices in America—particularly those that impact Blacks, Latinos, and Indigenous Americans—CAIR’s response seems not only reactionary, surfaced and sensational, but even opportunistic; if the latter were true, what easier way to exude an image of standing for racial and social justice, than to encourage a khutbah on the heels of Michael Brown’s killing? It allows one to continue to focus on their own agenda, without appearing to hypocritically ignore even more palpable issues of oppression confronting other minoritized Muslim Americans. It is safe, easy, harmless, and doesn’t require the types commitments and sacrifices of, for example, those like Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Julius Rosenwald, and Louis Isaac Jaffe—other non-Blacks who fought and died because they saw this as apart of their own struggle toward social justice.

The broader context within which this shooting incident sits is far more worthy of attention, but has been noticeably ignored by CAIR. To show where I am going with this, I cite some of my earlier published works,

“Their (Black males) statistics of oppression foreshadow others’: the highest incarceration rate, the highest school failure rate, and the highest school suspension rate, the highest pushout/dropout rate, the highest arrest rate, the highest murder and homicide rate, the most negative image media, the highest drug use rate, the highest rate of new HIV infections, the most rapidly growing suicide rate, and the most likely to be recidivist. Yet, the president is a Black man.”

It is really quite irrefutable that Black men are of the most oppressed groups of men in the U.S. In my field of education, this oppression is perhaps most palpable: even after disciplinary offenses were equally discovered by educators, Black males nationwide were still four times (4x) more likely to be suspended than their White counterparts. This, of course, contributes to being pushed out of school (as opposed to being blamed for dropping out), and ultimately to what we researchers refer to as the school-to-prison pipeline. What emerges from this, and other research from scholars such as William Julius Wilson and Tyrone Howard, is an extensive regime of oppression toward Black men in America. Black male oppression, in all honesty, may very well be the single most virulent form of oppression in the U.S. today. Now, where is CAIR on issues like that? In consideration of these more intractable realities, in other words, it seems as though CAIR is missing from the front, and has preferred more media-frenzied and popularized responses to singular incidents. And if my perceptions are wrong and they are indeed fighting such battles, few of us have actually seen them in the racial battleground circles where they occur.

I understand the religion of Islam to be anti-oppressive. I also understand from my Islamic teachings that when being anti-oppressive—whether fighting illness, poverty, ignorance, or racial oppression—one must begin by acting local. I remind my brothers and sisters at CAIR that Black Muslims in the U.S. comprise over a third of U.S. Muslims. Yet, they have far fewer opportunities than their foreign-born and second-generation coreligionists. It is not the fault of these Muslims, but when will their (i.e. Black and Latino) issues be re-centered in national discourse around social justice? For, given the bleak statistics around Black males, they are far more likely to be oppressed because of their gendered race, than their religion.

Of course, I do not claim that CAIR supports racism or oppression of any type; nor do I lay this responsibility totally at the feet of CAIR or like organizations. Rather, probably because of their own histories and lack of awareness of how oppression operates, morphs, and is reproduced in this context, I claim that they are unfortunately slipping into a posture of what researchers refer to as post-racial—in this case, the use of discourse that is so broad and void of specific critiques of racism, that the critique itself serves no purpose and may even do more harm than good. Executive Director Awad’s statement, “Despite progress in race relations over the past decades, our nation still has a long way to go to live up to the true American values of equality and justice for all,” is a testament to this fact, and implicitly confirms the following sentiment: CAIR will mention it in the broadest, safest, most general and impotent way, and will make no mention of the specific abominations facing daily life for Black males; CAIR will not really take up this issue, but wants to appear to be taking up this issue. Will you not mention his name (Michael Brown), resist, agitate, or even center his story, except in ways that are palatable in the popular American discourse and imaginative? In ways that are comfortable to you?

I urge CAIR to confront microaggressive racism and institutional racism in the U.S. I urge CAIR to center the most salient local forms of oppression in their civil rights agenda, and these are tied to Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans. I urge CAIR to not seek highly visible incidents that will bring notoriety, but then lack a sustained agenda to confront the contexts that brought about the oppression. But also I urge CAIR to invest in the policy-level conversations that can impact policies that impact the daily lives and opportunities of Black males. And I finally urge CAIR not only to link with the NAACP, the ACLU, the NOI, and Urban League, but also with the grassroots, smaller, advocacy and community organizing agencies found throughout urban America. Without such emphases and alliances, you may loose the fight of credibility and relevance in this context. Many of us have travelled throughout the Middle East and South Asia, and we have seen firsthand the treatment of Blacks and other expatriates in these lands. When you come to the U.S., and then primarily focus on issues that confront Arab and Asian peoples, you really suffer a devastating blow to your own organizational credibility.

As I conclude this letter, I do so with deep conflict and consternation. I come from a family in which I am one of the only Black men who has not been jailed or imprisoned for a period of time. I sit today, in fact, as the only non-imprisoned male child from amongst 2 other brothers with whom I was raised. I am conflicted not because we need the help of CAIR, for this conversation is far broader than that. Afterall, we Black, Brown and Red, folk have been resisting for centuries, will do so for many more to come, and will do so in ways far more culturally responsive than what organizations like CAIR or MPAC might bring. But I am conflicted because letters like these have all too often fallen on deaf ears, and as they have, so too have the such Friday sermons fallen on my own deaf ears. I, and my people, need relevance and we detest hypocrisy. So too, is it, that the people who claim to represent my faith and civil rights, have an agenda that is not relevant for the civil rights in the daily lives of Black men. This conversation is broader because I see my fellow Muslim leaders becoming even more out of touch, and so too are the masses that follow. Finally, please do not seek prominence, moreso than you would even seek justice. Yet if you shall continue to do so, then please, leave the legacy of Michael Brown to the honor, dignity, and esteem that it deserves.

Muhammad Khalifa
Black male, Scholar-activist, Professor and Academic, Husband, and, Father of 3 Black sons,
East Lansing, Michigan.

My Blind Date With The Federal Bureau of Investigations


We live in a tumultuous world were fantastic events can impact the daily realities of ordinary citizens. Events unfold before our eyes that can forever tarnish our sense of perception if we’re not careful. These are the words that come to mind as I had my interview with the FBI this afternoon. From their side, they may see an incident that raises suspicions, whether they’d like them to be raised or not. On my end of the deal, being scrutinized by the government can be a very uncomfortable situation to be in. Fortunately for both parties involved, we had a few laughs and then went on about our ways. If only all such encounters between divergent parties could be so humorous.

The back story to this short and simple. Recently, for a class assignment, I had photographed some public transportation installations belonging to SEPTA, including a trolley, the trolley tunnel, and the trolley tracks. I can imagine I hear chuckles already – as well we should all chuckle! The following day, I exited the same trolley stop [the same stop I use every day to go to work] only to be greeted by three separate law enforcement agencies: SEPTA, UPenn police, and the Philadelphia Police Department. My initial thought was that they were, “really after someone”, as they were out in force. Little did I know they were looking for me. A brief search ensued, in which I was searched, my contents were searched and then I was questioned by the officers present. After about 15-20 minutes, my story was confirmed and cleared that I was simply a student doing class work and that my appearance had, “raised some red flags”. The officer in question nearly blushed as he apologized, fully aware of what his words were implicating. I laughed with him to diffuse the situation and informed him I understood and that he was only following his procedures. I was discharged there shortly thereafter and thought that the incident was behind me. Little did I know I had popped up on an even bigger radar.

The story unfortunately does not get much more intense from here. The following day, I received a phone call from a detective at the FBI asking if he might schedule an interview with me. Slightly alarmed, I asked what it was he was curious about, at which he explained that he had been informed by the local authorities of the “SEPTA incident”, and that he would like to gather some more information. I agreed and proceeded to seek advice as to how to proceed. It’s not every day that one has a blind date with the FBI.

Through the help of a friend, I contacted the ACLU [of which I would urge other Muslims to consider supporting as this is a wonderful institution], who graciously provided me with an attorney from one of Philadelphia’s top law firms. I spoke with my attorney, who gave me sound counsel and with his advice in hand, we prepared for our meeting. The interim time between the phone call and the interview was filled with nervous speculation. What was it they could want from me? I lead a boring life of blogs and books. Yes, I’ve traveled to Saudi Arabia but so do many other people. Could that be it? Are they fishing for something? Soon enough I would have my answers.

I met with my attorney an hour before the interview and went over various points in detail to prepare myself for any questions they FBI might have. We were prepared for a full-court press. My tie was ironed, my blazer pressed. I was ready. At 11am sharp my phone rang. It was the detective. He said that “they” were ready to meet me. “They”, I thought. There was no mention of more than one officer. Despite this surprise, I put on my poker face and proceed to the interview.

From here, the story concludes with a small chuckle and then fizzles out. Both detectives were courteous and cordial. In the span of about three or four minutes, they asked me much of the same questions the local law enforcement officials had asked: what was I taking pictures of? Why? I provided proof of student ID and explained my course work. The next part was the most uncomfortable part and yet the most humorous – and in that order for the agent and myself. He asked where I was born and then my nationality. I informed him I was born in the United States and that I was African-American. Our eyes met for a moment and then I burst out with a short laugh and said, “I’m not from the Middle-East”. The detective, who seemed exceedingly happy to have made it over this uncomfortable hump replied, “Well, I wasn’t trying to imply anything but you know…, these days. We get a lot of phone calls about Middle-Eastern guys. It takes up a lot of our time”. Myself, my attorney, and the two agents all shared a laugh at how uncomfortable this post-9/11 situation has made people and the types of social avenues it can force us to go down. In short, the detectives were nice people who were only following Bureau procedures and in no time flat I was seeing them and my lawyer to the door.

In conclusion – cooperate. We live in times where many may feel that their liberties are being infringed upon and that’s why we have organizations like the ACLU. And yet, there are realities on the ground, whether we like them or not, and only but talking with one another can we hope to understand each other’s goals and objectives better. And yes, I am glad I’m a black guy! What a civil liberty that’s turning out to be.