In a spacious room at New York Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., dozens of young Muslims Americans, mostly from Arab and South Asian ethnicity, along with a handful of African-Americans gathered. It was a humid Summer afternoon.
They were keenly listening to Saleema Snow, a 56-year-old African American Muslim as she gave her opening remark in the lectern. Her voice slightly overlapped with the sound of whirling fan in the church’s room. She began talking about the prominence to build allies between Muslims and Black people, given the fact that the two minorities are often discriminated against in this country.
“Undoubtedly, we are living in a time of Americans being molded by fear, a fear that suggest all Muslims should not be allowed to enter a country,” Mrs. Snow said, adding that the fear has come too close to reality.
“I, too, live in a state of fear,” she said. She continued with her personal story about the time when her son, because of being Black, was approached by two police officers and put his hands up, when walking on the Harvard Law School’s campus. She was thankful that eventually her son was able to walk away, and did not end up like Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, or Sandra Bland, whose deaths have made headlines and have become national issues due to police racism against Black citizens.
Mrs. Snow, who is a law professor at the University of District Columbia, was one of the guest speakers in Townhall Dialogue Series event which was organized by the Muslim community in D.C. area. The theme was around questions of the roles of Muslims in America in the movement for Black lives.
“Undoubtedly, we are living in a time of Americans being molded by fear, a fear that suggest all Muslims should not be allowed to enter a country.”
-Saleema Snow, an African American Muslim-
The questions have come to a pivotal moment especially when the number of police brutalities towards Black communities is still on the rise today. Some people say that Muslims in America should have given more support for the Black Lives Matter movement because one-third of around six million Muslims in this country are African-Americans. The history can also be traced back to the 19th century where many of the Africans brought to the shores as slaves were Muslims.
“The struggle of Black lives is a Muslim’s issue, I don’t doubt that it is,” said Kashif Syed, one of the volunteers with Townhall Dialogue Series. The 29-year-old Muslim of Indian ethnicity said that his reason to support Black lives is beyond the statistical data.
“There was a group of people who being systematically surveilled, were murdered on the streets when unarmed, thrown into a violent incarceration system, and (if) that group had no overlap with the Muslim-American community, I would still think that we have a responsibility as a community witnessing injustice to stand against it.”
Saleema Snow, who is a law professor at the University of District Columbia, was one of the guest speakers in Townhall Dialogue Series event which was organized by the Muslim community in D.C. area. She shared her personal story about the time when her son, because of being Black, was approached by two police officers and put his hands up, when walking on the Harvard Law School’s campus. Photo by Mellie Cynthia
Like Mr. Syed, another young Muslim volunteer, Rizwaan Akhtar had similar humanity reasons of why it was crucial to endorse the Black Lives Matter movement. But, he also pointed out that he too was a part of the community that was often being harassed and discriminated against because of his religion.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding and a very genuine hatred of Muslims in this country, (while) at the same time you have about 70-80% of Americans who have never met a Muslim before,” Mr. Akhtar said. “What Muslims can do is be proudly Muslim and by finding allies in this country to share our story with.”
Widespread racism and hatred towards Muslims in America began when September 11 attacks happened. Since then, the atrocity has tarnished the image of Islam from a religion of peace to a religion of violence. The negative image has been compounded by several terrorist attacks conducted by radical Muslims domestically and in the global world, prompting hate crimes and harassment against Muslims. Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump also said that he would ban Muslims from entering the country if he was elected.
“What Muslims can do is be proudly Muslim and by finding allies in this country to share our story with.”
-Rizwaan Akhtar, an American Muslim-
“I think the allies come on a number of levels,” Mrs. Snow said. “There are allies that we build based on class and race, but the most important thing I think is we build allies based on our shared pain.”
However, building allies and overcoming barriers between Muslims and African Americans in this country have never been easy. When divided into discussion groups, many of the young Muslims expressed their opinions of why faith communities, including Muslims, have failed to discuss racism against Black people.
“Stereotypes.” and, “Historical segregation,” said one participant.
“White privilege,” said another.
Stuart Perry, middle, an African-American Christian, was participating in the Townhall Dialogue Series discussing the possibility to build an alliance between Black people and Muslims. Photo by Mellie Cynthia.
The list of answers could be long, but the latter was considered as the most prominent cause. As a leading racial justice activist, Deepa Iyer wrote in her book “We Too Sing America,” in America’s evolving racial landscape, non-Black communities have coalesced to uphold White supremacy and its racial hierarchy in place (Blacks are in the bottom; Latinos, Arabs, Asians are in the middle; Whites are at the top).
Ms. Iyer wrote that non-Blacks (not excluding Muslim immigrants) have been, consciously and unwittingly, reinforcing White supremacy in their journey toward becoming Americans. It is because the country’s law and system perpetually support White elites. Moreover, in the religion realm, there is a false perception that perceives African Americans who are Muslims as a convert, second class community, and not a pure believer.
It would certainly take a lot of efforts to bridge the gaps between the two different cultural and historical minorities. And, even though African Americans are considered as a strong community because they have deep roots of resilience and civil rights movement, still they need allies to fight against oppressive authorities for equal justice.
“African Americans are more than capable of leading themselves and they don’t want others to lead them,” Mrs. Snow said. “However, every movement has gained momentum when we have a number of forces behind us.”
For Mrs. Snow, building the coalition between Muslims and African Americans is a no-brainer in a system steeped in ideas of racial, gender, and economic oppression. She recalled the prominent African American Civil Rights activist, Angela Davis, saying: “If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the night.”
Featured image by Creative Commons.