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.

Addressing Middle America

Last evening, I had the pleasure of finally meeting up with an acquaintance (whom now I can call friend), a fellow wayfarer in the doldrums of Philadelphia, and discussed all manner of things Muslim: morality, politics, family life (although I’m sad to say we didn’t make mention of Ustadh Ubaydullah Evans’ 3 M’s: music, moons, and meat!). And in our conversations we spoke on the need for American-Muslims to seriously engage middle America, and by that I mean the middle-class. We both lamented that for far too long, particularly amongst Blackamerican Muslims, there has been the tendency to only focus on inner city (what some call ‘hood) in terms of da’wah. The result, we felt, is an Islam that tends to patronize the ugly side of Blackamerican culture instead of, as Imam Suhaib Webb as stated, “polishing it”. While this is not unique to Blackamericans, I do feel its worth discussing. The result of this myopic focus has engendered a number of tragic results. A few them being:

  • lack of spiritual growth on the part of Blackamerican Muslims: immoral behavior is often given a pass due to the expressed interest of large numbers of Blackamericans in Islam. In addition, due to the desire of many Blackamericans desire to escape the realities of black urban life in America, their Islam in many ways becomes escapist or even performance art, not a focus on a God-pleasing life. In this way, Islam is subsumed under Blackamerican culture, right or wrong, instead of negotiating it.
  • it has ignored the realities of this particular demographic and, to be frank, has not been realistic about the challenges those coming out of this experience will face. To speak from experience, one of the major factors that allowed myself and my two older brothers to avoid the trappings of urban black life was a solid, two-parent house hold. This is something that many Blackamerican urban families are lacking. Not only this, but there has been a discernible lack of focus on building family in many urban Blackamerican centers. As my friend and I observed, community in the modern American-Muslim vernacular has been rendered a mostly abstract concept: it has as of yet to take a recognizable form and thus, to date, has frustrated many a Muslim’s attempt to be a part of one. Personally, my thought is that this is because most of the rhetoric that is espoused by American-Muslims tends to go in one of two directions: the aforementioned abstract community and the individual. The latter tends to produce, with all possible respect, things like UnMosqued, where the opinion of the individual is elevated beyond mere concerns to dictating policies. Instead, I believe the most important building block for the community is not the individual, but the family. By accentuating the family (encouraging stable marriages, nurturing children, limiting childhood to children versus extended adolescence, etc.), Islam may in fact be able to deal with the systemic challenges facing Black-(and others)-Americans.
  • this myopic focus has also created a false essentialism between blackness and poverty. That to be truly black is to be truly poor (again with ‘hood as the vernacular). The result, with the above observations in mind, has also systematically ignored the Blackamerican middle-class. God’s Messenger said, “The best from amongst you in pre-Islamic times (jahiliyyah) are the best amongst you in Islam if they comprehend it*” (agreed upon).
  • it has also completed ignored the 700-lbs. gorilla in the room which is white America, in particular middle-class white America. This will, I believe, necessitate Whiteamerican Muslims (convert or otherwise and yes, there are Whiteamerican Muslims who are born Muslim!) to take a prominent role in addressing white America.

I know this will seem an odd recipe to many but I feel, when we look at America, one of the greatest aspects of Islam that will provide Americans with a foothold to begin grasping what Islam is all about, is its intrinsically middle-class values. When I say middle-class here I am referring to those American values which prioritize the family, security, and safety. Solid middle-class morals and ethics which have a strong, if not always properly executed, attachment to helping the poor and the less fortunate. Another good friend of mine, Malik Shaw, and I have often lamented about the state of Blackamerica and the number of children who are casually born out of wedlock and that, once upon a time not so long again, this was unacceptable to middle-class America, black or white. Let me be clear: I am well aware of many of the issues of modern middle-class life, which has wondered from its center and is slowly being solely concerned with procuring a life of no inconveniences (spiritual as well as existential). That being true, I still believe that articulating Islam in this vein to middle-class America: white, black, Latino, Asian, etc., will prove, God-willing, a more efficacious method of calling people to God. I will end and summarize with a quote from ‘Abdal Hakim Murad, from a talk he delivered entitled The Way Forward:

“We can curl up in a prickly ball, like a frightened hedge hog, and curse and damn everything around us, because it happens not to know ‘la ilaha ill’Allah‘, or we can start to activate the Prophetic capacity, which says that ‘laysa sawa’ ‘, ‘they are not all the same’ [Qur’an, 3: 113]. There are amongst the Ahl al-Kitab, the People of the Book, upright people.”

لَيْسُوا سَوَاءً ۗ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ أُمَّةٌ قَائِمَةٌ يَتْلُونَ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ آنَاءَ اللَّيْلِ وَهُمْ يَسْجُدُونَ

“They are not all the same. There is a community among the People of the Book who are upright. They recite God’s signs throughout the night, and they prostrate.”

And God knows best.

*Abu Hurayrah reported that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم was asked, “Who are the most honorable of the people?” The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “The most honorable of them in God’s sight are those who protect themselves from His chastisement. They said, “We’re not asking you concerning that,” to which he said, “Then the most honorable of the people is Joseph, God’s prophet, the son of God’s prophet, the son of God’s prophet, the son of God’s friend (khalil, Abraham).” They said, “We do not ask you about that either.” The Prophet said, “Do you ask about the virtues of the Arabs?” They said, “Yes.” He said, “Those who were the best amongst you in the pre-lslamic time are the best amongst you in Islam, if they comprehend.

قَالَ سُئِلَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَىُّ النَّاسِ أَكْرَمُ قَالَ ‏”‏ أَكْرَمُهُمْ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاهُمْ ‏”‏‏.‏ قَالُوا لَيْسَ عَنْ هَذَا نَسْأَلُكَ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏”‏ فَأَكْرَمُ النَّاسِ يُوسُفُ نَبِيُّ اللَّهِ ابْنُ نَبِيِّ اللَّهِ ابْنِ نَبِيِّ اللَّهِ ابْنِ خَلِيلِ اللَّهِ ‏”‏‏.‏ قَالُوا لَيْسَ عَنْ هَذَا نَسْأَلُكَ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏”‏ فَعَنْ مَعَادِنِ الْعَرَبِ تَسْأَلُونِي ‏”‏‏.‏ قَالُوا نَعَمْ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏”‏ فَخِيَارُكُمْ فِي الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ خِيَارُكُمْ فِي الإِسْلاَمِ إِذَا فَقِهُوا ‏”‏‏.‏ تَابَعَهُ أَبُو أُسَامَةَ عَنْ عُبَيْدِ اللَّهِ‏.‏

Islam: Questions and Answers

I am re-posting this from a letter my wife wrote about the 20/20 incident.

After lengthy discussion about ABC’s recent 20/20 program on an email listserv for Middle East and Islamic Studies, Maytha Alhassan invited members to compose a letter to the producers. We have workshopped the letter with someone in the media and incorporated suggestions from readers. If you are interested in signing, please send your name, title, and affiliation.

ABC’s 20/20

Islam: Questions and Answers

We applaud ABC’s 20/20 for producing the show “Islam: Questions and Answers” program, which attempted to address the American public’s curiosity about Islam and show the true face of Islam in America. However, as scholars, activists, educators, and community leaders, we are concerned about the ways in which this program misrepresented Muslim Americans.  We would like to address three major areas where your program inaccurately depicted Islam in America: first, by continually asserting that moderate Muslims do not speak up; second, by overlooking the contributions of African American Muslims;  and finally, allowing women who have complete antipathy towards Islam (Pamela Gellar and Ayaan Hirsi) to speak for Muslim women. The producers and researchers may have been well meaning, however the program’s insensitivity and lack of nuance  alienated many American Muslims and perpetuated many misconceptions about American Muslims. Our aim is to address these three areas and provide some recommendations for more accurate coverage of American Muslims in the future.

  1. First, the show continually asked, “Why don’t we hear or see more mainstream, peaceful Muslims speaking up?” or “Where are the moderate voices?”
    • It is problematic to divide Muslims into binary categories of “moderate” and “radical.” Would the same categorical statement be made about the socio-political orientation of followers of different religious faiths and other ethnic groups? How would the mainstream reaction to your program be had you produced a segment titled “Where are all the moderate Christians?,” “Where are all the moderate Latino Americans?” The framing of these questions and methodology of answering these questions highlights an acceptability of a bigoted stance on Muslims that is rarely acknowledged.
    • Muslim Americans are constantly blamed for not speaking up, however the media bears some responsibility. Moderate Muslims continually speak out and do positive things for American society, but this does not make it in the news. And there American Muslim scholars and leaders who hold conferences, talks, lectures devoted to the topic of “Forging an American Muslim identity.” Zaytuna Institute scholars Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir, Islamic Center of New York University Imam Khalid Latif and professor Dr. Sherman Jackson are but a few of the many American born intellectuals and community leaders who do speak out.
    • Where is the media when peaceful Muslims gather, participate in the American political process, protest terrorism, violence, and hatred?
    • At one point, an expert posits a recommendation “They need to have a million man march on Washington,” while conveniently ignoring that the Million Man March was actually led by a Muslim man, Louis Farakhan.
    • On September 25, 2009, Islam on Capitol Hill gathered an estimated 8,000 to prayer Friday prayers. And on October 15, 2010 thousands of Muslims once again convened on Capitol Hill to demonstrate their belief in American democracy and promote religious freedom, however, there were few media outlets at the DC event.
    • Muslim Congressmen Keith Ellison wrote an Op-ed “Should We Fear Islam?” in the Washington Post speaking to the first point made in this section. Ellison and Muslim Congressman Andre Carson were also completely absent from the program, which brings us to an important issue of accurate portrayal of American Muslims.
  2. The program reinscribes Islam as a foreign religion by focusing on Arab and South Asian immigrant communities in the US, at the expense of African American Muslim communities.
    • Your program excluded African American Muslims in the narrative of Islam in America and conflated of Arab with Muslim. African Americans make up the largest percentage of Muslims in America, and yet your program visited Dearborn, Patterson, NJ, and even Egypt to speak with Arabs who compose the third largest group of Muslims in the US.
    • The Nation’s first capitol, Philadelphia, has a rich and long history of Muslims. There was a community of orthodox Black American and Caribbean American Muslims from the 1920s. It has high concentration of Muslims, a Muslim chief of police, Muslims who work in city government, etc.
    • With the over-exposure of Arab Muslims, your program even failed to mention that Arab American Muslims are in the minority in Arab American communities. Most Arab Americans are Christian.
    • The program did a poor job discussing, engaging with and highlighting the diverse community of Muslims.
    • Low figure for Muslims (2-3 million?), and no breakdown of the demographics.
    • No discussion of converts.
    • The program even failed to show celebrated athletes (NFL, NBA, boxing, Soccer players), politicians and historical figures who are Muslim and African American.
  3. Finally, the segment, “Does Islam oppress women?” did a great disservice to Muslim women.
    • While we appreciate the inclusion of one Muslim voice, Irshad Manji, she herself is not a scholar on Islam.
    • Instead two polemics who are vehement in their anti-Islam stance, Ayaan Hirsi and Pamela Gellar received undo attention.
    • Your program failed to include any Muslim scholars such as Amina Wadud, Ingrid Mattson (a Canadian scholar who recently ended her term as ISNA president), or Dr. Aminah Beverly McCloud to speak in this segment? Their and other scholars’ absence is an indication of an asymmetric representation of opposition views.
    • Perhaps these scholars would have shed light on Muslim women’s contributions through history such as Islam’s first convert, Khadija al-Kubra, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, who was also his employer before marrying. One of the first Sufi saints was a woman, Rabia al-’Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya (Rabia al-Basri) or Nana Asma’u, a West African educator and reformer.

In order to explore our rich diversity, we have provided some recommendations to improve your coverage of American Muslims below:

  1. Explore the long history of Muslims in the US, a history of residency and settlement that predates the formation of America as a country. American born Nawawi scholar Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah has written extensively on this subject.
  2. Include broader segments of the American Muslim community to ensure that each major ethnic group, South Asian American, African American, and Arab American, is represented in your programs.
  3. Attend Muslim American events, banquets and conferences like the prayer on Capitol Hill, MPAC, CAIR’s functions, etc. Do not just focus on sensationalism, but cover American Muslims during Ramadan or Eid al-Adha (the end of Hajj).
  4. We ask your researchers and staff to be more careful in their selection of “experts.” Make distinctions between socio-politics and Islamic scholarship. None of the women you interviewed in the question on the oppression of women in Islam had training in Islamic scholarship on covering or the hijab. We can help provide a list of scholars and experts who would be happy to lend their expertise.
  5. Consider diversifying your staff, researchers and interns with knowledge, expertise, and experience in various communities may yield better results.

In summation, your program provided a rare opportunity to provide accurate coverage of Muslims and clear up misconceptions. As acknowledged at the onset of your program, the controversy surrounding the Park 51 community center elicited a renewed curiosity in Islam. We were pleased with the inclusion of Edina Lekovic’s (MPAC) comments, Reza Aslan’s explanation of the definition of “fatwa,” and Faiza Ali’s (CAIR-NY) elucidation of the hijab’s complex historical place in cultural and religious practice, “coerced headcoverings are tribal.” However we note that while your program was a step in the right direction, it still ended up being misleading. By taking into consideration the recommendations we have made, your producers can create more accurate programing on Muslim Americans thereby showing the real face of Islam in America.