The Apathy of a Religious Generation?

z-and-me2In a recent post on Facebook, I came across an engaging “rant” (I use rant here not as as criticism, but as praise) from a good acquaintance of mine. His words rang true to me and yet, while I felt his frustration, understandably so, I also felt that this story is somewhat more complicated than simply labeling “them”, Muslim religious leadership, as not caring. Don’t get me wrong, as a religious leader, I find our current apathy and predicament equally vexing and frustrating. But before we can proceed, I feel we first must ask ourselves to whom are we addressing here. Are we talking about immigrant imams or indigenous? For immigrant imams (or imams of immigrants), whether we like it or not, they have lived an alternative history from us. Their focus was never on America or “us”. It would be inefficient and perhaps even absurd to expect them to have the same level of empathy towards Americans in general and towards blacks in specific. And for the record, Muslim immigrants are not unique in this. What tends to offend us (i.e., blackamerican or whiteamerican Muslims) is that we expect them to have the same emotional religious notions as we do. We see the injustice inflicted by officer Darren Wilson as a universal injustice, in the same manner some Muslims see the Palestinian cause as equally universal. And while they both may indeed have rightful claims to universal injustice, the propagators of this cry for justice have lived very different realities. One aspect of these divergent histories is that many immigrant Muslims (and again, immigrants in general) still labor under the weight of unpacked baggage. What’s missing here, in my opinion, is not the indictment of their apathy, but the indictment of ourselves, indigenous Muslims, who have embraced the faith, and plied little to no pressure to our fellow brothers and sisters to awaken out of their slumber. We placed, by and large, no real demands on them to address our needs. In fact, and here’s where things may get ugly and offend some of “us”, is that many of “us” were complicit in our own indoctrination in their religious world views. We equally participated in this form of escapism, vis-a-vie Islam. We (those who have awakened) must come to terms that as a result of this complicity, any change that may come, will not come easily, or — God knows best — soon.

So for me, the question is which religious rulers?

If we come to agreement on our above conclusion, the problem then cannot simply be chocked up to “(poor) leadership” alone. The rank and file Muslim also shares a healthy dollop of blame. Far too many of “us” have contented ourselves to reduce religious leadership and spiritual guidance and its current manifestation to a kind of “performance art1. This has only exacerbated the “Sage on Stage” platform we have with us today. Believe me when I say that many of us are dying to do culturally-relevant religious teaching. However, when those of us in positions of religious leadership attempt to do relevant material, we are often branded as “modernist“, not by other religious leaders, but by the typical Ahmad and Mariam. When we attempt to elevate the discourse beyond regurgitation, we’re castigated as non-traditionalists.

So let us all bow our heads in shame and implore our Lord for guidance and forgiveness, for we are all culpable. And then think anew, on how one can best serve that change that so desperately needs to happen.  I make no claims to prognostication, but I do not feel that success will come in abandonment, no matter how tempting it may be. Instead, I believe we must work with the system, either to change it via our voice, our presence, our pocketbook, or even ourselves, by stepping into roles of religious leadership itself.

And Allah knows best.

How shameful is it that Kobe Bryant, Josh Groban, LeBron James, Katy Perry, Cher, Pharrell Williams, and others have more to say about Ferguson and the Grand Jury decision than our own religious scholars! This is part of the reason why I have largely abandoned these individuals. I know enough of the rules. I don’t need to kiss your hand, spin around or bob back and forth singing words I can’t even understand. How are you going to remain RELEVANT in people’s lives if you can’t even muster a 160 character statement about why my humanity matters? I don’t want to hear your 1,000th lecture about how glorious we were 14 centuries ago. Shout from the rafters about how glorious I AM, WE ARE, WE SHOULD BE. A basketball player and a Vegas singer have more to say about this than someone who takes spiritual pride in having slept on sand and drinking dirty water from Goat guts? This is why your houses are empty of the young. LeBron shows he cares more about them than you! – Dasham Brooks

1. Dr. Muneer Fareed on “spirituality”: “(Modern spiritual practices have prompted) a slow, yet irreversible move away from a spirituality that (is) theocentric towards one that is increasingly homocentric.” ~ “Aesthetic spirituality differs from religious spirituality in two significant ways: it emphasizes beauty rather than truth, and more importantly, replaces traditional forms of devotion with a philosophy that plays out in the public forum not as worship, but as art.” You can read the rest of Dr. Fareed’s article, Spirituality Without God, here.

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.