Socially Irrelevant [?] – American Muslims & Race

The continued floundering state of American Muslims’ stance towards race is at once unsettling, disappointing and personally frustrating. To complicate matters, both immigrant and indigenous Muslims seem to be equally guilty of what Professor Sherman Jackson calls, “racial agnosia”. Much to my dismay, I continue to hear the mantra, “Islam does not do race” from the mouths of American Muslims. And while Islam may not, “do race”, in that it does not support a hierarchy of racial preference, it most certainly does “do reality”. Without a doubt, regardless of whether certain individuals perceive race-based thinking to be right or not, race is an integral part of the social landscape of America. By Muslims choosing to not recognize and come to grips with the historical and social forces that have shaped race in America, they will have little chance of abolishing the system they claim to oppose. For indigenous Muslims [and here I am placing more emphasis on Blackamerican Muslim, though not to the exclusion of other groups], they will only further ostracize themselves from their social counterparts, giving the impression that Islam is disinterested in social justice.

In one of Professor Jackson’s recent talks, he underlined a crucial element to the system of racism, specifically its white supremacist manifestation. This value system, at its core, is akin to what Muslim theology calls shirk, or the association of power and authority [not only partnership] with God. Jackson lays bare the role and function a value system such as white supremacy has at its apex; said values have been elevated in to quasi-ahistorical rankings. In other words, the values and proclivities, the likes and dislikes of whites [American or European] are no longer held to be those of a specific people from a specific time and place, but rather have been foisted “beyond history”, attempting to compete with the same place, as traditional theology sees it, Revelation comes from. In this manner of understanding, racism in general and white supremacy in specific represent a real challenge to Islamic theology, which is vehemently opposed to any form of idolatry, be it wood, stone, or man-made.

As I mentioned above, this ideology is not only peddled by foreign-born or foreign-imagined Muslims—who either refuse or claim to be incapable of seeing race [a short visit to the Middle East and South East Asia will reveal this to be overwhelmingly false]—but has been imbibed by a great many Blackamerican Muslims, who, in their desire to escape the “problem of Blackness”, have abandoned social stances that make them strangers within their own ranks. In conversations with other Blackamerican Christians, many view Blackamerican Muslims to be either out of touch with the social plight of today’s African-Americans, or even hostile towards any rhetoric that seeks to address racism. Where once upon a time—such notable Muslims as Malcolm X come to mind—Black Muslims were synonymous with the social and emotional struggles of other Blackamericans. Today’s Blackamerican Muslims, particularly those in urban settings, no longer seem to use Islam as a vehicle to lift themselves out of their social quagmires, instead being content to adopt Islam as a nouveau identité, whereby one can aspire to alternatives modes of validation and self aggrandizement, vis-a-vis, a new name, a new mode of dress, and especially any time spent “overseas”. The stances of these indigenous Muslims are bolstered from foreign-born voices, imbued with religious authority based on no other grounds than their proximity to so-called “Muslim lands”, who claim Islam is a religion that is free of race, that it simply, “does not do race”. What these two parties fail to realize is how crucial race is to the American story, the American narrative, and the collective psyche.

In a recent interview at The Immanent Frame, Nathan Schneider interviewed Muslim pundit, Reza Aslan. In it, Aslan articulates something crucial to the American social project: social narratives. Aslan says,

“Why is it that the vast majority of Americans are so pro-Israel? It’s because they have fully absorbed the Jewish narrative in a way that they haven’t when it comes to the Palestinian narrative. The story of Israel is a good story. It’s a compelling story. And it’s one that Americans get. But they haven’t had an opportunity to hear, let alone absorb, the Palestinian narrative.”

Narrative is everything in America. Without it, no one knows who you are; no one cares who you are. And in fact, without a narrative, the dominant culture will turn on the offending group as white blood cells do on an infection, treating the invasion as something that must be expelled. While American Jews are not completely safe from racist attacks [a la Mel Gibson], they have mastered the art of narration. American Muslims could learn a great deal from their religious counterparts. Given that Blackamericans are an intricate part of the American narrative, to cast aside this narrative in favor of an abstractionist approach to race is akin to committing social suicide.

Above all, American Muslims’ agnosia of the racial climate will only continue to beleaguer Muslims’ attempts at endearing themselves to the rest of American society, to say anything of contributing to it. This task should not be seen as something for “Black Muslims to deal with”, while immigrant Muslims continue to reap the benefits of a racially biased system: why else do Muslims that hail from the Middle East and South-East Asia, despite their swarthy skin tones, claim “white” on that little check box? How else would one explain the racist tendencies amongst immigrant Muslims towards Blacks if indeed their religion “did not do race”? In parting, consider this small factoid, provided by NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous, when interviewed on Roland S. Martin’s, Washington Watch:

“White people are 65% of the crack [cocaine] users in this country. Black people are 85% of people busted for using crack.”

If Muslims, immigrant or indigenous, are to remain relevant to America, they are going to have to have their eyes examined and their heads checked. They must confront the myth that whiteness is omni-benevolent, omni-wholesome, and omni-pure or risk becoming a marginalized, hostile foreign entity that must be treated like an invasive disease, to be expelled at all costs.

Extra Links

  • White Supremacy—The Beginning of Modern Shirk?: an audio lecture by Professor Sherman Jackson.
  • More Thoughts On the Exclucivity of Whiteness: how did the Founding Fathers conceive of whiteness?
  • Religion Gone Global — an interview with Reza Aslan at The Immanent Frame.

Blackamerican Islam and the Squandering of a Legacy

American social mores can be quite peculiar. To gain social acceptance in America usually requires some type of struggle to “get in”. Once you do get in, while you might be razzed from time to time, it no longer becomes socially or legally acceptable by the vast majority of the populous to make degrading remarks or actions towards those who’ve “gotten in”. Parties or individuals who seek to do so risk moral condemnation and can be banished to the periphery as ignorant, barbaric and rude. These aforementioned protections are precisely what Blackamericans have earned and it is these rights that are being squandered, more specifically here for the sake of this post by Blackamerican Muslims. And while there are still many of us who are waiting to till their land with that ever elusive mule as well as that reparations check that just never seems to show up in the mail, four hundred years of mournful mistreatment on a part of American society and its government have afforded Blackamericans many civil liberties and protections that, if continued to ignore, may slip away. And if you think your immigrant brothers aren’t jealous, you’ve got another thing coming.

Since the attacks of September 11th, the United States has cracked down on groups or people it believes as being responsible, actively or tacitly, for those attacks. High profile cases in the news covering Muslims [and here we should point out immigrant Muslims], who while flying have experienced increased scrutiny or down-right racist treatment simply because of their religious/ethnic backgrounds and perceived terrorist affiliations. While blacks may be woefully guilty of DWB [Driving While Black], Arabs, Pakistanis and even Sikhs [who aren’t even Muslim] are guilty of FWM [Flying While Muslim].

And in light of these civil infractions, Arab-American and other ethnic Muslims groups have taken up the torch and rhetoric of Civil Rights – we see CAIR leaders and other interest groups using nomenclature right out of Martin Luther King’s play book. Why? Because Civil Rights are two big key words when fighting against those in American society or government who would seek to infringe upon those rights. In contrast, Blackamerican Muslims, at least to date, have not been subject to the same form of scrutiny. Why? Simple. Because they are Blackamericans. In other words, due to the legacy of state-sponsored racism against peoples of African descent in this country and the reformation of those laws, blacks can no longer be perused by such means without hostile legal and social reactions. Our immigrant brothers and sisters do not share these luxuries. And they are most certainly that – a luxury. Just ask an older Blackamerican man or woman who lived through pre-Civil Rights reformations and they can easily tell you how different the social climate was. Yet despite those victories won, Blackamericans continue to ignore the bounty that has been cast upon them. Am I saying that American society has been rid of racism or even de facto racist policies? No. Of course not. I myself have witnessed those ideologies at the end of a policeman’s gun pointed in my face for doing nothing wrong. What is different though is that there are consequences for those actions. It is this lesson we must learn or else we are apt to loose this luxury precisely because society isn’t fixed or perfect.

A recent case that reminded me of this situation is the Don Imus incident, where the radio host made some flagrant remarks to a number of Blackamerican female basketball players. When the DJ made those remarks he was swiftly condemned and the results of his words has cost him his position. Is racism a thing of the past? No. Can white people still make inflammatory remarks about blacks? You bet’cha. Is there a price to be had? Currently, yes, there is. You cannot publicly attack blacks in America without facing social or even legal action against those words. Simply put, anti-black rhetoric is no longer tolerated, at least not publicly, socially. This public shield extends to all blacks, regardless of economic position or religious affiliation. It is here that I bring this to my point. Blackamerican Muslims are in a unique position in this country where we have the God-given-right as well as the sanction of the United States government to openly and freely practice our religion. Even outside of black social circles, Islam is accepted as a viable religious form to be practiced amongst Blackamericans versus the type of cultural apostasy that white American Muslims risk if they choose to convert. No one, neither white nor black would look askance at a Blackamerican Muslim woman who covers or a Blackamerican Muslim male who prays while he’s on the job. It has been successfully assimilated into American blackness. Again, many of our immigrant brothers and sisters do not have such an easy path to tread.

In addition to this cultural normalcy comes that fact that while many of us who do come from black backgrounds in America and all that entails [reconciling our “Americaness” and how that can prove to create a difficult psychology because of how closely that equals “white” for many of us], we are in a very unique position as Blackamerican Muslim to dictate to a great extent not only how Islam will be practiced in America [incorporating pluralism and so forth] but its success or failure as an enterprise in America as a whole. If Islam is to be “normalized” in the greater American psyche [and yes, we are talking about white Americans here] then that normalizing process will depend on the success of Blackamerican Muslims to create a conduit for Islam to not just abide [Islam has been in America for some time now whether you count the first slaves or the first wave of Middle Eastern immigrants] but to grow and attach itself successfully to the root of the American cultural experience. No other group in America has as much potential to accomplish this as do Blackamericans. We have the time invested, have made the sacrifices to be a part of the country and for better or worse, Black Folks are here to stay – and so is Islam. So the question remains? How are we going to do this? And when? And while I can only speak for myself, I feel a sense of urgency. What we do now and for the next twenty to thirty years will greatly dictate how Islam is practiced in America and the level and extent of its success or failure. And God knows best…

Two Muslims – A Small Skit

Man#1 stands outside a small food stall on a dirty corner somewhere in a North American city. While waiting for his sandwich, Man#1 is approached by Man#2. Man#2 addresses Man#1 with a thick accent:

Man#2: You Muslim?

Man#1: Yes, I am. Are you?

Man#2: [Chuckles]…, you Muslim, huh? Where you get that bag?

Man#1: I bought it. Online.

Man#2: You know what this means [Man#2 points to Man#1’s bag]?

Man#1: Yes. It’s the Prophet’s San…

Man#2: Yes, let me please tell you. It’s the Prophet’s Sandal.

Man#1: Yes, I know it is. I bou…

Man#2: Where you get this? You Muslim?

Man#1: Yes, akhi. I am a Mus…

Man#2: You read Holy Qur’an?

Man#1: Yes, I do. I used to teach…

Man#2: This book is Holy Book. In Arabic language. Not like your English.

Man#1: Yes, I know. I studied Ara…

Man#2: My father was shaykh. I used to know many Qur’ans. Many suwrah.

Man#1: Oh, that’s great. Umm…, well, I gotta be…

Man#2: You pray? You pray the salah?

Man#1: Yes, akhi. I pray 5 times a…

Man#2: My grandfather was a shaykh. He knew the whole Qur’an.

Man#1: That’s great. Look, I’d really love to…

Man#2: Ma’sha Allah, may God guide you. I have to go now. I own a party store. I have to get back.

Man#1: Oh, okay. We’ll maybe I’ll see…

Man#2: It’s not haram!! Wa’Allahi al-‘Adheem!, I don’t drink. This is for the kafirs. I sell only to kafir.

Man#1: Sure. Okay, well, it was nice…

Man#2: I have to go. You Muslims, right?

God as my witness, this exchange took place right after my moving to Philadelphia. It was one of the funniest moments in my life. I know there are some of you out there that have had this same experience with almost the same exact guy! Well, just a little humor to start the week with.