As a Muslim woman of Afrikan descent raised within a predominately Arab-American community, I have had my fair share of frustrations. Like many other Black Muslims, I have to deal with many instances of subtle prejudices as well as blatant racism from first and second-generation South Asian and Arab-American Muslims. So when I read the press release that the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) put out in the wake of the Baltimore uprising, I felt the familiar feeling of exclusion that I have experienced many times before. ISNA desperately needs a Black Muslim woman’s perspective, and that’s what I’m here to offer to this organization and its President Mr. Azhar Azeez.
On April 28th, ISNA issued a biased and politically charged press release condemning protesters and “rioters” in Baltimore for resorting to violence after the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody on April 19th. The umbrella organization, which claims to “foster the development of the Muslim community,” was “disturbed by the escalation of violence in Baltimore.” ISNA had maintained a deafening silence on Gray’s death and policing practices in marginalized Black neighborhoods, and only after the Baltimore protests did it speak up, and even then only to condemn the “rioters.” I doubt that even one Black person was consulted when ISNA drafted this misinformed press release, because if a diverse collection of Muslims, including Black Muslims, had been involved in its formulation, the press release would have read differently—very differently.
The biased tenor of the press release did not go unnoticed. In the days that followed, Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC) pointed out that ISNA’s insensitive and tactless statement failed to recognize the lived realities of a segment of the population that has been routinely disenfranchised for centuries. An independent online petition began to circulate, demanding that ISNA be held accountable for its negation of Black life.
I couldn’t agree more. The writers and editors of the press release not only need cultural sensitivity training, but an education on the reality of what Black folks have been enduring in America for centuries. Clearly they are oblivious to the fact that Black Americans are under siege on a daily basis, and those of us who are Muslim are doubly attacked, because not only do we have to constantly explain our Blackness to the outside world, but we also find ourselves defending our race to the wider Muslim community.
People turn to faith and religious spaces for a sense of belonging and solace, yet most Black Muslims in this country spend an exhausting amount of time educating and correcting the prejudices of their non-Black brothers and sisters. Frankly, it is draining. The Muslim community, as ISNA so aptly demonstrated by its press release, is absurdly prejudice against its black members, but employs Islam and the concept of brotherhood as a guise for personal and institutional advancement. Behind closed doors, many Muslims and Muslim organizations promote, or at the very least allow, the same fears and attitudes concerning Black people that the general American population fosters. ISNA purports to represent Muslim-Americans from any and every culture and ethnicity. Well, one-third of those it claims to represent identify as Black, and yet ISNA’s press release belied its dismissive and callous attitude towards this segment of the Muslim-American population.
For decades now, the immigrant Muslim community has tried its best to disconnect itself from the struggle of Black people. When you look at me as a Black person, you do not see your own struggle as a Muslim of color in a country that has neither of our interests in mind. You have come to this country in the hopes of assimilating into the white majority; you seek white approval while looking down your noses at your brothers and sisters in the struggle. You intentionally negate our fight for equality and freedom, rather than learning from us and building with us. With this recent press release, ISNA burned yet another bridge of solidarity. It threw away yet another opportunity to align the Muslim-American struggle with the Black -American struggle.
Delivering sermons on racial justice and citing the Prophet’s Afrikan companion Bilal will not suffice me any longer. I am not going to remain complacent as my life and those of my fellow Black brethren get lost between your hypocritical words of equality.
ISNA’s press release and the group’s subsequent attempt to apologize, or as it stated “clarify,” further confirmed the suspicion that much like the immigrant who seeks the approval of the white majority, ISNA simply wanted to align itself with white America. Mr. Azeem, you do not understand the community you claim to serve and you do not get a pass on this ridiculous and callous press release. Your organizations are not located in Black communities, you do not attempt to come to our neighborhoods and quite often we are not welcomed into your mosques and institutions. It seems Blacks are only of relevance to the immigrant Muslim community when they can fill Muslim convention halls, add to the number of Muslim converts and buy from Muslim business owners. It is only then that Black lives matter. Perhaps that is why ISNA was so “disturbed by the escalation of violence” because we were, in fact, burning down your businesses in the hood that rely on the Black community to make money.
We are not profit, or a personal tool you can use to advance yourself. Black folks are people and many of us happen to have Islam deeply rooted in our families. It is time you recognized that.
Ihssan Tahir is a twenty something self-proclaimed “SistaQueen” from Chicago. Raised by an Afrikan American mother and a Kurdish stepfather she has a broad perspective of the world. Ihssan has globe trotted from Switzerland to Bangladesh. You can follow her candid blog about love and life at http://muslimnlove.com/.