By Kyle Isma’il
“America is unique among western major democracies in that…a sizable number of its Muslims are native born converts…We are already a part of America, the Black community has secured that position for us. They are our Banu Hashim in the West…Through carelessness, through callousness, through…almost stupidity…we have not been taking care of our relationships in the Black community.”
– Dr. Sherman Jackson, Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) 2016
I began studying Islam nearly 25 years ago in southern Illinois, with teachers and mentors who were beloved by their community. They instilled in me the idea that compassion is a key component in working with people and transmitting knowledge. These teachers are living proof that this approach bears fruit because, until this day, they are respected business people, professors and leaders. They garnered so much respect in the broader community, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, that when the town’s first masjid was to be built, it was highly-anticipated and welcomed in this primarily Black community. In fact, the plan was to build it right across the street from the neighborhood’s community center where the soon-to-be Resident Imam had served as executive director for many years.
Members of this Muslim community talked for years about hosting an appreciation dinner for the community’s founders and all the residents and graduates who they assisted in coming to Islam. Members of the local neighborhood took action and hosted an appreciation dinner for the masjid’s resident imam. This is the example of my very first Muslim community. They cultivated and inspired a Black Banu Hashim for the Muslim community. Muslims in that small university town will never need to worry about their place there so long as they cherish and maintain the relationships facilitated by decades and decades of service to the community.
This sense of comradery is a high standard to maintain in the very complex, larger Muslim American community. Since the first Muslims in America were enslaved in the antebellum South, their faith tradition was seemingly erased until the highly unlikely emergence of pro-Islamic movements that would build a protective housing for an unwieldy religious development that spanned the 20th century. The Muslim community now boasts three Congressional representatives—Reps. Keith Ellison (Democrat [D]-Minn.), Andre Carson (D-Ind.), and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) (and it is of no coincidence that they are of African descent)—and a deep set of relationships in the Black community that serve to ensure Islam’s place in America, come hell or high water.
If our experience is to be sustainable, moments like this one will have to be navigated
strategically, as high water has indeed come, in the form of a white backlash that threatens to turn back the advances in civil rights to a more caustic environment of racial rhetoric and open overtures of white supremacy. In President elect Donald J. Trump’s America, police violence against People of Color and Islamophobic rhetoric have fueled a pendulum swing in the political discourse. It is in this environment that the controversial Shaykh Hamza Yusef dialogue at RIS 2016 happened.
If we are to be agents in answering the prayers of our enslaved Muslim forbearers, Black Muslims must do one thing far better than we have done over the past three decades —care as much about our engagement with the Black community as any other aspect of our religious community work. And the weight that falls on Muslim immigrant-based communities is to develop an authentic analysis of systemic racism that can lead to real alliances and partnerships.
Dr. Jackson’s statement did not strike me as praise of Black Muslims and our transformative history. It struck me as a reminder of the maxims of that history, and a call to return to the type of community engagement that has been our life-blood. It was not a chastisement of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf for his misleading and insensitive racial statements. It served as a reminder that when insensitive statements are made by a respected and influential individual, they need to be moderated and mitigated by people who have successfully navigated the very difficult terrain of balancing our Islamic identity with our many societal obligations and relationships.
As the Banu Hashim protected Prophet Muhammad [saw] from his enemies when he was vulnerable, the Black community is ready to take a stand for us. Recently, this solidarity is admirably exemplified when Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) came onto the House floor to cogently lambast Rep. Peter King (Republican-N.Y.) for his Islamophobic campaign (Rep. Peter King Hearings). This is a representation of a protection that extends from a distinguished civil rights history. But as Black Muslims, we must ask ourselves:
1. Have we embraced an understanding of Islam that renders non-Muslim Black people as persona non grata?
2. Do we support any Black institutions or are we merely appendages of Muslim immigrant-based organizations?
3. What issues are we engaged in solving in the Black community?
4. Do we engage in interfaith dialogue and work in the Black community?
If we cannot affirmatively answer these questions, we are the primary subject of Dr. Jackson’s critique, not the aloof and often ill-informed Muslim immigrant-based community.
Similarly, Muslims whose parents or grandparents migrated to the United States must ask themselves:
1. Who do we care enough about to put ourselves on the line for?
2. Do we understand American history well enough to have a trenchant social analysis that can feed our advocacy and community work?
3. Do we have friends and associates of different races and faiths that prevent us from maintaining stereotypes about the “other”?
4. Have we challenged ourselves well enough to shed the psychology of our former colonizers?
Every indication is that Trump’s presidency and the psychological and political violence that is likely to ensue will require that we look at this experience through a broader lens.
The statements made by Shaykh Hamza at RIS 2016 were more than just insensitive, they were dangerously misleading, and they serve as a signpost of a much worse kind of thinking that will likely come from conservative quarters in the government to turn back the progress we have made. A couple of points that were particularly problematic, and that we need to really understand for ourselves are:
Black-on-Black crime accounts for the majority of violence taking place in America, and this is the cause of police brutality.
This statement is misleading and very dangerous. No other community is branded with such a moniker to explain the violence taking place within their community although the vast majority of crime in any community could be characterized this way. Why isn’t crime and killing in the White community called White-on-White crime? This is in part because, for most of our history, we were far more likely to be killed by White people. In the 1960s, as racial violence shifted away from its traditionally overt and psychopathic form, more typical crime patterns emerged. The term Black-on-Black was used to denote the end of the era of Whites as the primary purveyors of community violence. It has now served as a dog-whistle to criminalize the Black community, exculpate White guilt, and implement a set of policies that led to what would become the prison industrial complex. Recent anti-racism movements such as Black Lives Matter and others have worked to reduce the policy effectiveness of this trope, and turn both scrutiny and accountability on police departments. The statistics regarding police killings that were cited by Shaykh Hamza are, sadly, false. We should know that there is no centralized data on the number of people the police actually kill because the FBI does not gather these statistics. Part of the anti-racism movement for accountability is to require that the government actually gathers this information.
If you are in doubt that such tropes are racist, ask yourself: has any of the wanton violence happening in non-Black, Muslim-majority places ever been reduced to Syrian-on-Syrian violence or Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence? I sense that people who forget history do not understand what the Black community in the United States has endured and the casualties that we still suffer. In fact, some members of our community are a forgotten underclass and those who would change that have to love the people instead of finding ways to blame and indemnify themselves through a condescending morality. It is the Prophetic example to obligate ourselves to do something with a real morality that has a personal, vested interest.
Racism isn’t the real issue for African Americans, it’s the breakdown of the Black family.
This represents an equally anti-intellectual formulation (I would invite readers to research articles or books by Professor William Julius Wilson to more deeply engage this topic). Any serious understanding of racism and white supremacy begins with a structural analysis. The family institution in our present time is largely affected by the broader context of access to employment, affordable housing, education and health care (not to mention the prison industrial complex). We work on these larger issues because of the fundamental impact that they have on our families. There will always be those who defeat the odds, but we strain the boundaries of reason and compassion when we expect that defeating the odds should be the norm. When you consider that every system mentioned above is grounded in a history of institutional racism, to say that racism is not the problem but the breakdown of the Black family is the problem means that you understand neither.
It follows that we must seek solutions to these issues. Some points to keep in mind:
Alliance building is fundamental to the way forward, even with people with whom we don’t fully agree.
The Banu Hashim of the Prophet’s day (and our Black Banu Hashim) was a community fraught with issues and practices that we disagree with, but those sets of relationships still preserved a nascent Muslim community. We must ally with people who are fundamentally good, despite having serious disagreements about issues. We would have no Black Banu Hashim if members of the Black community knew that the Muslim community had major anti-Black biases and that stereotypes about their violence, depravity, and pathology were so pervasive. These ideas among the broader Muslim community are part of what has hindered stronger alliances. We have to actually know people and listen to their experiences. Immigrant-based communities have to step out of their narrow spaces so that when they hear disrespectful and half-baked formulations, they won’t be tempted to applaud but can instead confidently dismantle them.
Just because you don’t see yourself as racist doesn’t mean that you don’t uphold racism in very substantial ways.
Anyone can think in stereotypes. Anyone can give wrong statistics and misleading information, and anyone can minimize the humanity of another group. We have no reason to believe that people like Shaykh Hamza are racist. We have every reason to believe that the types of ideas he shared are counterproductive and feed into racist formulations that we are going to have to deal with, likely in the form of policies from the incoming Trump administration.
I wrote this article to encourage Black Muslims to engage in relationship-building within their own Black community. I also wrote this for Muslims who do not understand why mistakes like this are a big deal, especially coming from trusted leaders. We need to fortify ourselves as a community against what promises to be a difficult four (or eight) years ahead under the Trump administration. We have to address these false statements; if we accept them, they will threaten our relationships in a Black community that has preserved and protected us since our very origins in this country.
Kyle J. Isma’il is a program manager for the Corporation for National and Community Service, the largest funder of nonprofit organizations in the country. For the past 15 years, Kyle has worked in government and and nonprofits at all levels to create positive change. He has
served as national programs manager for Islamic Relief USA, the largest Muslim charity in the world whose mission is to alleviate poverty. Previously, Kyle served as the first associate director of the Inner-city Muslim Action Network (IMAN).