Deviant Attributes and Behaviors – Do Muslims Blame The Poor Or Uplift Them?

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.

The Burning of Black Wallstreet

I wonder if we can also get a “never forget” campaign going for this insane and horrific event in American history:

The Burning of Black Wall Street. Olivia J. Hooker, the last surviver of the Oklahoma Disaster.

Hat tip to Joe for posting this on my feed.

The Slippery Slope of Apologetics – Between Empathy and Suicide

It goes without saying that the events that took place on the morning of January 7th, 2015, as perpetrated by three gunmen in Paris, France, were heinous and unjustifiable. But equally unjustifiable is the call and charge, from amongst Muslims and against Muslims, to condemn violence “perpetrated in Islam’s name”. While both vocalizations may appear to have credence, I believe it is an insidious and slippery slope to communal suicide.

I have received several requests today from members of the Muslim community to address the tragedy involving the staff of Charlie Hebdo. While I understand the sentiment to hold community meetings and the like, I believe it would be an error to hold an event for something as particular as this. None of us, by and large in the Muslim community, are in disagreement as to the heinous nature of what was done but I do believe it a detrimental act of getting into the business of apologizing for acts which we did not commit or condone; no matter how you spin it, that is what we would be doing. In fact, and I am not alone in this assessment, it is precisely this kind of response from the Muslim  community that can further exacerbate those fringe elements within our community to seek extreme measures for perceived injustices.

To be frank, I am also concerned about allowing the dominant culture to dictate what is or what isn’t a “good Muslim”. Should our condemnation not meet their approval (and the goal post on this seems to be ever shifting) then can we  all not be criminally held as suspicious? It is akin to the structural racism that faces of us African-Americans, when white America says things like “you could get ahead or do better if only you tried harder or weren’t lazy”. This rhetoric encourages Blackamericans, to not strive for excellence, but to strive for dodging the ridicule of whites. This can be a pernicious and never ending maze which we run ourselves ragged through.

Our focus as Muslims, now more so than ever, must be vigilantly on being true to Allah and His Messenger, which has, does, and will always suffice any group, in anytime and in anyplace.

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.