February 26, 2012 will forever be etched in the American psyche of race relations. Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American teenager, was shot to death on his way home from a convenience store — allegedly by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman by the name of George Zimmerman. His only crime was that he was Black and walking in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. His only possessions were a bag of Skittles and a can of ice tea.
A month after the murder, this incident has sparked a national outrage and has prompted civil rights organizations, members of Congress, student groups, and the general public to demand a full investigation and an arrest of George Zimmerman. To this day, George Zimmerman has not been arrested due to a problematic Florida state law that allows Florida residents to “stand their ground.”
Sadly, this unfortunate event highlights the continued racial profiling and harassment of African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims and other minorities in this country. We have certainly been shaken, particularly by the emergence of the recording of Trayvon’s 911 calls and his screams for help. One can only imagine the pain his parents feel.
What is particularly noteworthy is the fact that — with the exception of a few Muslim advocacy groups and a khutbah given by Imam Suhaib Webb — no other Muslim organization or leader has made any statement of condemnation, offered condolences for the family of Trayvon Martin or sent messages of solidarity for protests across the country. Worse yet, the response from the Muslim community, particularly the immigrant community, has been silence. As African-American Muslims, we sense a general apathy that has permeated the attitudes of the immigrant, including second-generation immigrant, Muslim community towards the Black community.
As with many in White America, the idea of race and racism in the Muslim community is thought to have been a thing of the past. However, as incidents of Trayvon’s murder have come to light, our nation has once again been shaken by a reminder of a dark history that has come to haunt us. Americans, both Black and White, are responding with a united voice, “I am Trayvon!” But where in this unison is the Muslim community?
After an eventful twelve years of continued racial profiling, demonization by the media, illegal surveillance by the NYPD, and a whole host of other problematic incidents, one would think that our immigrant Muslim brothers and sisters would be on the front lines in support of an innocent Black life that was tragically taken. Why haven’t we yet built “true” coalitions that allow us to support each other’s struggles as we demand the respect and dignity granted to every citizen in this country?
The answer apparently lies in a commonly held, but rarely — if ever — expressed view that the African American community is irrelevant and inconsequential in the eyes of the largely immigrant Muslim community. This view need not be made explicitly; one need only look at the actions, or omissions, of the immigrant Muslim leadership and the greater community.
Unfortunately, it does not only seem to be the foreign-born Muslim community that has taken such an attitude. It is also their American offspring who have inherited this apathetic attitude towards African-Americans. There’s an irony here because this same generation has, in many cases, been influenced by Black or hip-hop music, with some imitating stereotypical mannerisms, using commonly used “Black” expressions (even amongst their own ethnic cliques), mimicking Black urban dress, etc. However, what that suggests is that even this second generation, in large part, does not identify with African-Americans. They are entertained by them. Yes, their music is good, they have charisma, and they can play sports. But when it comes to social justice? Nothing. It appears this generation doesn’t embrace the historic African-American struggle. To be fair, there are exceptions to this rule, but that does not change the broader point.
If we were to speculate on the reasons for this, we would surmise that immigrant Muslims fail to identify with African-American culture because it has been historically viewed as inferior and, as they have learned from their parent’s generation and White society as a whole, “White” culture correlates with success. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the myth of a non-racialized ummah. Prejudices such as racism, ethnocentrism and classism are systemic within our oft-romanticized Muslim ummah. Some classic examples of prejudiced behavior in our community relate to marriage. Many immigrants are willing to allow their daughters to marry anyone else from other ethnic backgrounds as long as they are not poor or African-American. We, as African-Americans, are often relegated to performing security related duties at Islamic functions — perhaps because of our stereotypical aggressive nature. Another example is the poor representation of African-Americans on mosque boards and/or within leadership roles — despite large numbers of us who are willing and competent.
If we are expected to grow closer to Allah and develop spiritually as an ummah, we have to be willing to be introspective and pragmatic; denial and prejudice have gotten us nowhere and it does not help that many khutbahs on Fridays remain silent on these issues while promulgating the need to help Muslims in foreign lands. The needs of Muslims overseas and in America must not be treated as being mutually exclusive.
As Americans and Muslims, we, African-African Muslims, are dismayed at the treatment meted out to us by various actors, whether it is law enforcement, judges, lawmakers, employers, educators, realtors, the media or our own immigrant Muslim brethren. We are taught that we are one ummah and all Muslims are equal, but this principle becomes a non sequitur when it comes to dealing with African-Americans. The past struggles of the African-American community are intrinsically linked to what our Muslim community faces today. As long as “our” community continues to operate on self-preservation and only speak out on issues that are relevant to our own ethnic sensitivities, we will see ourselves isolated from those organizations who have historically experienced prejudice and fought for equality.
وَمِمَّنْ خَلَقْنَا أُمَّةٌ يَهْدُونَ بِالْحَقِّ وَبِهِ يَعْدِلُونَ
And among those We created is a community which guides by truth and thereby establishes justice. (Qur’an 7:181)
This article was written in remembrance of Trayvon Martin, the People of Syria, James Craig Anderson, and Shaima Alawadi. It serves to encourage a discussion that has been long overdue.
Kaleem Venable, is a former teacher with an M. Ed in International Education. Kaleem Venable and Ishaam Abdul-Rahman are both Muslims living in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area.
(Photo Credit: Miami Herald)