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.

Bit Parts

 

The recent ABC exposé on Islam in America has enraged many Blackamerican Muslims. Their anger is rooted in their legacy as American Muslims yet their story and participation in the community of American Muslims was categorically denied by the program and its participants. The blame, as I have observed in arenas such as Facebook and via private e-mail, seems to fall on either the media outlet, with claims of racial bias on the part of ABC, to the participating Muslim organization, CAIR, the Counsel on American Islamic Relations. As was expressed to me, much of the anger towards CAIR was rooted in a sense of betrayal. Several Blackamerican Muslims wrote comments relating to the program:

The immigrant leaders believe they own Islam in America and we the “African Americans” are just the poor of the religion.

We have to tell our own story and do our own documentaries. No one cares about us or our story and contributions to America and Islam, if we don’t. I am always disappointed at programs like that, but never surprised.

African Americans need 2 tell they own story we need 2 stop depending on these people 2 tell our story…we must do our own reports…documentaries..

Bottomline, you cannot do a documentary on Islam in American without interviewing the African American.

The the question need be asked what would the reaction be if we told the Story of America and omitted Christopher Columbus, George Washington or Thomas Jefferson??? It’s not about whining it’s about telling the truth and presenting it accurately. If ABC came to CAIR then CAIR had a responsibility to make sure they aired a fair an accurate depiction.

The majority of the world does not even know that we have been here…

So none of those “so-called” scholars said to to the ABC execs you must include African American Muslims in order to have a complete picture of Islam in America?

They (the Muslim consultants and don’t believe for one second there weren’t do…zens) didn’t see how by not doing so it perpetuates another falsehood about Muslims in America being immigrants or the children of immigrants?

Wasn’t the program’s intent to dispel falsehoods about Muslims in America? It’s frankly insulting!!!!!

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and all the rest should absolutely refuse to do these exposes on Islam when they delete African American Muslims the way ABC did! Shame on them & ABC.

As can be seen here, the anger and frustration runs the gamut. The question remains: how will CAIR address this issue and how will Blackamerican Muslims seek to engage, and if possible, reprimand CAIR for their systematic dismissal on the public stage?

But perhaps more important than all of this is the lesson to be learned here: it has been high time for Blackamerican Muslims to take their rightful place in leadership of Islam in America. I do not believe this to be the case out of some misguided sense of racial pride or nationalism, but in actuality, rooted in a form of pragmatism: Blackamericans are one of only two possible racial categories in the United States that are seen as unassailably American. And being that Blackamericans comprise the only racial/ethnic group in America that have embraced Islam in significant numbers, it only makes sense to help foster and develop Blackamerican Muslim leadership. To do otherwise or to work towards the opposite goal [which in many ways is precisely what CAIR helped to do in the program], resulting in a dereliction of duty and jeopardizing the future of indigenizing Islam in American.

Part of this maturation process will involve Blackamerican Muslims seeing themselves as key players, actors, and inheritors of God’s religion. Not unlike their Blackamerican Christian counterparts, Blackamerican Muslims are in desperate need to reevaluate precisely what Islam it is that they have been given, what Islam they are perpetuating and determining if its core trajectory is in line with what is most socially and religiously responsible. To make my point a bit clearer, let me quote the great history and religious scholar, Vincent Harding:

Every [sic] since the children of Africa were brought to this country and came in touch with the Christian religion, we had to figure out some way to come to terms with what white Christians were teaching about religion and what they were doing in their social, economic, and political lives. It was clear to many African Americans at the very outset that the Christianity they were being taught could not be accepted on the terms that slave owners were presenting it because slavery itself was a contradiction to Jesus’ call to love each other as we love ourselves.

The above quote, taken from an interview Harding gave earlier this year, Harding illustrates the need that Antebellum and post-Antebellum Blacks had when analyzing the brand of Christianity that the dominant power structure was preaching; its core values and preconceived notions ran contradictory to the existential realities of Blacks and their quest for a God-given, dignified existence. Similarly, Harding also spoke of historical romanticism, in his famous 1967 article, Black Power and the American Christ:

As is so often the case with reminiscences, the nostalgia may grow more out of a sense of frustration and powerlessness than out of any true appreciation of the meaning of the past.

Harding’s point here rings home with the plight of modern Blackamerican Muslims, who in my opinion, suffer from a case of historical and cultural romanticism: by proxy of Muslims who hailed from the historical Muslims world, Blackamerican Muslims uncritically accepted, and indeed perpetuated, the brand of Islam that foreign-born Muslims brought with them to America. And in this process, Blackamerican Muslims have romanticized the entire narrative of foreign-born Muslims as being quintessentially “good” [even if they happen to accidentally be “bad”]; romanticizing of both culture and temporality [the use of the term “Islamic” to describe anything and everything Muslims “over there” do; the past is presumed to be wholly better than the present, therefore all one can hope to achieve is a pantomiming of the past]. This modality of thinking has resulted in Blackamerican Muslims largely being cast in bit parts in the broader act that is Islam in America. And not unlike Black actors in Hollywood, Blackamerican Muslims have had little say over the kinds of parts they will play. Further, any rhetoric that is deemed “too black”, will be ridiculed, its critique dressed in religious garb, and passed off as religiously authentic. In this fashion, Blackamerican Muslims can only expect to continue to play bit parts in others plays so long as they continue to relinquish their creative rights – the rights to writing, publishing, and determination – as bona fide Muslims. I leave you with one final quote from Harding:

But as the reminiscences continue a veil seems to descend between then and now. The tellers of the old tales label the veil Black Power, and pronounce ritual curses on Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick and their followers.

The trouble with these meetings is that they are indeed becoming ritual, cultic acts of memory that blind us to creative possibilities. Because that “veil” may be a wall, not primarily for separating but for writing on – both sides of it. Or it may be a great sheet “let down from heaven”; or a curtain before the next act can begin. Most of us appear totally incapable of realizing that there may be more light in blackness than we have yet begun to glimpse.

And God knows best.

Further reading

  • The Black Power Revolt – A Collection of Essays. Ed. Floyd B. Barbour.
  • 20/20 – What Is Islam? Questions and Answers.
  • Overcoming Historical Romanticism.
  • Black Power and the American Christ, by Vincent Harding.