Racial, cultural, and social divides have been a disturbing reality in Muslim communities throughout the United States, despite the unique diversity of the American Muslim community. At the forefront of this divide are the two largest demographics of American Muslims today: indigenous African-Americans and immigrants. Since the immigration from Muslim lands began in the early 20th century, the complex, and often tense, history between the two sub-communities continues to be a barrier for second1 and third generation American Muslims trying to move the community forward in the 21st century. Though most may agree on the unity of the community as an ideal, putting it into practice requires an open, and sometimes uncomfortable, discussion.
Using the Qur’an as an anchor to guide this discussion, Imam Bilal Ansari, the Director of Student Life at Zaytuna College, sat down with Mohammed Saleem of Al-Madina Institute to examine the issues of race and class the next generation of Muslims must address. This series was first featured on Al-Madina Institutute's website.
Part 2: Immigrants & the New Racism
Mohammed Saleem: Imam Bilal, last time, in "Where Do We Start?" we started to lay the groundwork for a discussion on race between second-generation1 “immigrants” and “second-generation” African-American Muslims. One thing we mentioned was that we need to narrow the knowledge-gap about one another’s experiences. One of my contentions was that many second-generation immigrants may not be entirely aware of the reality of racism. We think of racism and envision the horrific discrimination of the old South, or someone using a racial slur. That type of blunt “old” racism, attributed to the moral faults of an individual, still exists, but it is now deemed socially unacceptable by many young Americans of all backgrounds today. Yet there is a more subtle system of racial hierarchy and subjugation that exists, structural racism, which in turn influences our individual attitudes on race, whether we know it or not—let’s call it the “new” racism. Calling it “new” here is purely semantics; it’s simply a way the “old” racism has been refurbished, updated and euphemized. It may seem "new" for those whose conception of racism is relegated to their preconceived notions, because it doesn't always appear to be outright prejudice. We use the term here only to point out it’s a prevalent form of racism today.
The first thing we need to do is to unequivocally admit that we have a problem with racism. Then, we need to identify how it exists in the American Muslim context and what we need to do to address it. I’d like to start with the blunter form of racism first. How do you feel it still exists in the second generation community?
Bilal Ansari: Brother Mohammed, I certainly still feel the existence of “old” racism in the second-generation community. One of the ways that I feel the blunt “old” racism still thrives in Muslim religious institutions can be found in the way in which they are governed. Today most Muslim religious institutions are overwhelmingly supported and maintained on the economic strength of the wealthy few over the sum of the whole of the striving many. Consequently, it is those few who ethnically or tribally then run the operations and governance boards. American race politics has always been rooted and sustained in its philosophic and economic capitalist ideals that then socially elevate practices that are predicated on moral relativism. General governance by the highest financial supporter allows, for example, for unethical decisions about an imam’s fair compensation and health-care, or marginalizing space priorities for women and children. This is the opposite of the healthy model of the early Islamic communities where the likes of Bilal ibn Rabah, Zaid ibn Haritha and Salmaan al Farisi all were cultivated, recruited and held key administrative positions of authority. Moreover, this “old” racism could not be found in the independently endowed Muslim religious institutions where God-fearing legal scholars managed and governed them based on the highest regard for mutual consultation. This helped to eliminate, or at least mitigate, the effects of “groupthink” easily perpetrated by the morally miscalibrated few who usually like to surround themselves with racial, ethnic and class equals.
Mohammed, I am 43 years old, so I can remember welcoming “immigrant” Muslim refugees or students in our inner city mosques as a young boy. Our Imam W.D. Mohammed inner-city communities across the country supported both the elite doctoral students and the striving poor refugees as familiar hosts in their strange land with our meager resources. As soon as they became doctors and engineers these same individuals migrated to the suburbs and most forgot the African-American mosque that helped them get established. The striving immigrants would build a savings in our mosques then share their resources with each other to open a neighboring store-front or build their own Islamic Center. Our imams had political connections with local government and lay leaders that we shared since the 1970s with immigrants and those connections gave instant credibility and a good name to the Muslim “foreigners.”
This low barrier of entry into the political arena is now not even acknowledged, let alone respected. We were ridiculed for our attachment to America before 9/11 and the long history of the African-American Muslim presence in America in the inner cities was largely ignored by those who left us for the suburbs. Nowadays, I have witnessed “immigrant” so-called interfaith organizations at the local and national levels claim and espouse how they originated and developed the safe Muslim presence in America through interfaith work as a response to the post 9-11 hostile climate. Organizations like ING, CAIR and MPAC do not credit or cite our history in their public material at all, as if my people of African-American descent under the leadership of Imam W.D. Mohammeddid not figure in their success. The truth is, for those same “immigrants,” if Islamophobia or racism against brown-skinned Muslims was not directly affecting them or their children, they could not care less about interfaith work. This is what I feel.
MS: I agree, though as the organizational milieu is complicated by additional factors beyond race (wealth, age, gender, theology, to name a few, we will discuss the issues specific to Muslim leadership in Part 3), perhaps our social behavior is where we can see how much of the “old” racism persists in the second generation in its less complex form. It’s with who and how we talk and associate with, how we speak about the “other” beyond closed doors when only our “own” are listening. I would surmise that probably every “immigrant” Muslim has heard a derogatory word or stereotypical caricature to describe Blacks, often in their culture-specific language, or how beauty is relative to skin-tone, and so on. That clues us in to how much individual “jahili” 2 racism we still harbor.
You have had unique experience interacting and mentoring young Muslim second-generation students in multiple collegiate settings. College is where most people break free from the worldview of their parents and cultivate an identity and life that they feel is their own. Are there any impressions or trending behaviors you observed in these students that points to racist attitudes and tendencies?
BA: That is a good question. In my chaplaincy at Williams College these racist attitudes and tendencies were present on my campus but the Muslim students did not allow that mold to grow at all. It is a small liberal arts college where I served mainly international Muslim students and some American Muslims as well. As an African-American Muslim chaplain, I celebrated their cultures and inculcated within them an appreciation and love for my culture.
My students learned how to identify what it is to be Muslim and how our behavior and character is shaped. They learned, discussed, challenged and absorbed what the distinction is between culture and religion. As a campus community, Williams College experienced several acts of racism and Islamophobia each year. Williams responded, and with each act of racism and Islamophobia, the counter culture expanded and embraced the other, listened attentively and grew collectively. My students felt it necessary to protect their Muslim identity from the onslaught of invasive ideologies and beliefs surrounding them. My role as a Muslim chaplain was to help steward that process.
The most common, as you call it, “jahili” racism I have encountered among youth occurs when marriage negotiations occur and this is because families must get involved. Skin tone and race become what the youth call major game breakers with families back home. This one is not fair skinned or that one is not of our race or ethnicity. It is as if our time and space together on campus is surreal and not connected to their home life. The result is that students will either secretly explore the boundaries and beyond or isolate themselves so as to not risk heartbreak and disappointment.
The major concern on college campuses, in my experience, and what I have witnessed among more and more students, is disgust, trauma and rejection of being identified as Muslim. Muslims are considered weak, insignificant, unintelligent, backward and unprogressive, lacking any sophistication in community and political life. This smells of the stench of both “old” and “new” racism. As a Black man in America, my major concern is the systematic racism that has been continuously propagated against an oppressed people by laws, social practices, customs, government or the silent complacent majority. This is why I stand in solidarity with various minority coalitions—and I think that this is what Blacks and Muslims in this country need to do more—in order to foster a community of purpose and common values when any historically oppressed community is significantly harmed. As a Muslim chaplain I feel compelled to be vigilant about being a pastoral presence for everyone rich, poor and especially those who felt excluded and underrepresented on campus.
A dangerous direction some of my fellow Muslim chaplains have taken is their misguided participation in a program misnamed the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI). It is a Zionist training of upcoming Muslim leaders in which Muslims go on two all-expense paid trips to Israel and study a Zionist-created curriculum about Zionism, Judaism, and the state of Israel. Now there are multiple problems with this, the most important being that these Muslim chaplains are, in effect, thumbing their noses at the collective will of the occupied Palestinian people who since 2006 have called for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) of Israel as the only viable, moral, non-violent resistance available to them to fight the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the destruction of Gaza. What the chaplains engaging in the MLI are doing is saying that their personal judgment and decision to violate BDS—for whatever their reasons— supersedes the collective will of the oppressed Palestinian people. They are setting themselves up as the arbiters of right, truth, and justice over that of Palestinian civil society and this model of arrogant self-interest sends the message to our already estranged Muslim college students that in order to be politically strong and considered significant in the eyes of the elite in power you must accept asymmetric and immoral relations of power by participating in a veneer of interfaith work known as constructive engagement. It teaches students to distance themselves from the minority solidarity causes of the striving poor prevalent in our dysfunctional mosques today. Instead of responding to the solidarity call students are being called to success by joining and aligning with the community of the powerful and privileged. In my opinion, these complicit chaplains who participate and support, through their silence, the spread of programs like MLI are perpetuating racism in both attitudes and professional tendencies. It was the courage and support of campus chaplains that helped Black Americans secure our safety, dignity and humanity. They stood with Black Americans. Their participation undermines our collective ability to unite for a common cause based on self-determination and mutual affirmation of our Muslim community in America. This reinforces or creates the dark and damp environments in the hearts of our MSAs on campuses that become petri dishes of moldy “old racism.”
MS: I think much of this symbolizes a morphing of the vestigial mentality of “old” jahiliracism with the “new” structural, racist jahili system. It draws “immigrants”, who may or may not be consciously directly discriminating, into participating into a system, usually for one’s own gain, that perpetuates discrimination.
Immigrant Muslims came to this country, in large part, in search of the materialistic American dream, a dream that was predicated on the idea of moving up on a racial totem pole established by white supremacy. Move up higher towards “whiteness”, and that meant a better life for you and your children—that went hand in hand with going along with whatever was popular with the ruling white establishment and staying away from whatever it disliked. Not aligning with any “black” causes, in this paradigm, goes part and parcel with this. Immigrants ingratiated themselves into the jahili system of white supremacy for their own benefit and survival.
The effectiveness of this system of racism is that it plays on deep-seated psychologies about race/culture to execute its goals, without many of its actors knowing they are being played. Centuries of European colonialism and Western (white) hegemony have insinuated themselves into the immigrant psyche and influence how they perceive “whiteness” and “blackness” (this does not absolve the diverse “immigrant” cultures from their share of home-grown racism, which has synergized with the Western narrative to augment these biases further). Our psychology identifies “whiteness” with prestige, prosperity, beauty, safety and authority. This is not unique to “immigrants”; research shows a similar psychology found both in white and black Americans themselves.
While Muslim immigrants might assume they come from an unadulterated, non-Western cultural tradition, the reality is that the tradition and the learned psychologies ingrained in it have been influenced by Western notions of race and culture since colonialism, just as white and black American psychologies have been shaped by centuries of slavery and white supremacy.
This is not to justify in any way attitudes of racial preference, but it is important to realize our actions may be being driven by a racialized psychology that we are not fully aware of. And by extension, this factors into the agendas and direction of some communities and organizations as you alluded to, who, to varying degrees, are towing a line to please our masters and move up the totem pole. In some ways, this has worsened in the post 9/11 climate as “immigrants” have more urgently desired acceptance, at whatever cost. It reminds me of Malcolm X’s exposition on the mentality of the “house Negro” — a psychology of self-benefit framed through social hierarchy, striving for the scraps of “whiteness”; and the house Negro/Immigrant, whose identity is now contingent on the master, is all the while oblivious to the fact that he thinks that way in the first place.
Hence, the befuddlement when race is brought up. Or the blindness to racial issues even in well-intentioned actions. “Why does everything have to be about race?”, it is said, a sentiment shared by many “immigrants”, as it is by many white Americans. Here’s the thing though, whatever the matter in question is, it may in fact have a lot to do about race, and it is just that we may not be conscious of it, or we deny it to such an extent that we lose consciousness of it. And since we are not conscious of it, we cannot believe we have accountability or a role in this. This is the mind’s acclimatization to a system of racism—others are racist, but we cannot be.
So where is the solution in all of this? Yes, educational deprogramming and other initiatives help provide a foundation of knowledge to raise awareness of racism, but a program of purification of the self (tazkiyah) is the only way to draw out and expose those often hidden ideas and inclinations that have taken root in our heart and are ultimately the source of the problem. Through continuous spiritual practice, those negative elements once hidden to us will become apparent, and we can finally be conscious of them and confront them. This is the way to address racism because altering such ingrained behaviors requires constant attention. On a regular basis, we need to do muhasabah [self-account and reckoning] of where we have erred in the past. We need an ongoing introspection of our racial attitudes and intentions in the present, and understanding—and challenging—the role we play in systematic racism.
“And Allah is Ever a Watcher over all things." [Surah Ahzab 33:52].
As we know Allah watches us, watching over ourselves (muraqabah) with vigilance, critically evaluating the inclinations and state of our heart at all times, becomes key. This constant process of watching; identifying any jahili notions or egotistic impulses within, as they ebb and flow; and struggling to remove them; is the only way to neutralize and eventually eradicate racism. That takes effort, lots of effort. White/brown privilege for most is the domain of those who don’t want to critically evaluate themselves regularly. Sometimes (or all the time) we want to be oblivious, go on auto-pilot and still benefit, not questioning our role in the bigger picture, not objecting to our unearned advantages. When challenged about race, our defensiveness is ultimately a reflection of our laziness or aversion to question and admonish our souls regularly. Following a spiritual action plan—which in its essence opposes self-exaltation and entitlement—corrects this. It's the only way to rid ourselves of those ideas that are not in conformity with what Allah has love for, ideas that keep us distant from Him and alienated from harmony with His Creation. We need to know peace inside to know how to properly implement justice outside.
A practical solution also means we need to accept the fact that, at least initially, we might have these psychologies and biases. It doesn’t mean they are “right”—indeed they are serious internal sins of the heart that must be rectified if we want to please our Lord. We strive to purify our hearts from these jahili notions with constant self-evaluation and spiritual effort, but the importance rests on how we decide to act, not letting these psychologies in the meantime, in any way, affect our actions that must be modeled in an Islamic ethos of merciful love and justice.
The Qur’an teaches us our condition is an expression of who we are inside; our external world of problems is but a mirror of our internal reality:
"Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves." [Surah Ra'd 13:11]
Ultimately, that means we do not exhaust all our energies in designating blame outward, but invest them into self-purification and its requisite action to remedy the situation. The only question of concern is, “What can I do?”, and the answer will be unique and different for each one of us. That is the most empowering position we can take.
This also necessitates that we be willing to take the counsel of those who, with adab[refined conduct] can point out where we are going wrong, as we may not be aware of our own psychologies and racism. If I truly desire to please God in my actions and become a better person for His sake, I should be thankful for that, not threatened by it.
BA: What can I do? This is the question everyone has to ask themselves going forward. Malcolm X also talked about the field Negro whose mentality was courageous based on a deep but temperate anger. Today we need moral courage more than anything. According to al-Ghazali, moral courage is anger (ghadab) that becomes courage (shaja’a) when anger and appetites are justly balanced under the function and proper control of reason (aql). Our traditional scholars affirm Ralph Waldo Emerson’s statement, “A good indignation brings out all one's powers.” Abu Bakr As-Siddiq, according to my teacher Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, was the embodiment of this cardinal virtue of moral courage. It was his good indignation that empowered him to go out and seek to assist in the liberation of the weakest and those suffering the most in his community.
Ghazali describes nine virtues that emerge from individuals when reason controls one’s moral indignation: generosity, bravery, self-respect, endurance, forbearance, firmness, gravity, dignity and weightiness. I have pondered and reflected on my teacher’s statement for twenty years now in light of the Black life of Bilal ibn Rabah and how and why it mattered to Abu Bakr. This is how and why he was able to make the ethical decision in his day and he did everything he could do to alleviate as much oppressive harm in his society. There was no ambiguity with the Muslim leadership and initiative of Abu Bakr—Black Lives Mattered! His own father questioned this seemingly rash behavior of using his precious resources and becoming known as a supporter of the weak—something counter-intuitive to the social, racial, and class-based norms of his tribal (jahili) community.
What can we do? Before we answer this we have to stress that we first need people who have moral courage. We need this today more than any other social virtue in order to eliminate racism and its systematic effects on our community. We also must eliminate the excessive anger that is outstripping the proportions of our reasoning capacity leaving us out of control of selfish individualistic appetites. This disproportion manifests in our rash decisions, audacious lifestyles, the jockeying for power, ethnic self-love and social media narcissism. Today, leadership in the Muslim community is in need of selflessness. The pulse of our mosques is barely beating with a rotating circuit of speakers and with no one responsible to shepherd the flock.
Today the world needs the spirit of Abu Bakr back, as racism as a construct was no concern to Bilal Ibn Rabah. Bilal knew that Islam ensured that his Black life mattered. There is a rock on the chest in Palestine and on the refugees from Iraq and Syria. This rock can be removed with the moral courage from leaders of MSAs to break cycles of generational “old racism”. Ultimately, looking beyond our suburban centers and reaching a hand out to lift up those under a rock is the type of Muslim leadership initiative we need today.
Who will drive the agenda for the Muslim community in the future? How will our distinctive racial and cultural identities and different life experiences cooperate or clash in such initiatives? Is there a place for distinguishing between immigrant and indigenous communities, or is it a dichotomy that should be avoided? This series will continue with “Part 3: Who Owns American Islam?”
1. The definition of "second" generation varies. For the purposes of this conversation, "second generation" refers to the offspring of parents who accepted Islam or Muslim parents who have immigrated to the United States, as elucidated in Part 1 of this series.
2. "Jahili", or ignorant, is a descriptive term for the ignorant, destructive and spiritually-savage tribal ideas and practices in Arabia before the advent of Divine guidance through the Prophet Muhammad.