I have a few thoughts on a recent Reviving the Islamic Spirit 2016 (RIS2016) controversy that might be clarifying, or at least add to the intelligent discourse on the subject. First, let me start off by self-declaring as an African-Canadian Muslim, slightly removed from the direct reality of life as a black person in America, although inexorably drawn in due to the pull the United States has on Canadian politics and life as the hegemon of our continent, and arguably the world. RIS, held in Toronto, Canada, has become a mainstay in the annual Islamic conference circuit, an indication of the close connection between Muslim events and communities in Canada and the US. Finally, and most importantly, racism doesn’t adhere faithfully to borders.
Let’s begin with a few expositions, to prime you for the ideas that follow. First, the United States was built on racist foundations. America’s idyllic constitution, drafted by its founding fathers and containing the optimistic words “We the people”, gave fundamental human rights only to property holding white men. Why, you may wonder? America was built, in part, by slave labor, a brutal method of capitalistic exploitation that could only be stomached by considering the people subject to such treatment inferior. How else could chain gangs be used to cultivate plantations? How else could black slave bodies be destroyed as disobedient property? This history, which spanned centuries, is still un-atoned for in America; no president, not even Barack Obama, has offered an official apology to African Americans for their enslavement, let alone reparations. How much profit did America acquire through the exploitation of Africans? How many billions of dollars accrue to the hours of back-breaking labor African slaves gave to America? How many institutions of industry, finance and commerce were built with slave labor, including the White House? What share of the subsequent profits and benefits of these institutions should be shared with African-Americans, whose forebears built them without payment?
This history of oppression is deep, painful, and unfinished, due to the absence of frank and honest acknowledgement, apology, and atonement. America, in short, has a disease, whose aetiology is greed, a disease that has reached stage 4 because we call it benign rather than terminal. It is in the context of this disease that Shaykh Hamza Yusuf spoke at RIS2016. A disease that he, as an American Muslim leader should be intimately familiar with as a native to the country in which it is endemic. Racism is as American as apple pie, and each shooting of an unarmed Black American reinforces this understanding.
Let’s return to what Shaykh Hamza Yusuf said. Loosely, he cited American anti-discrimination laws as excellent in the US. He cited the prevalence of black on black crime. He cited the need to not paint all police with one brush, as some are black. He called on Muslims to check their own racism. All of these comments, when taken separately, are subject to civil and constructive dialogue; but taken collectively, they indicate a breathtaking insensitivity to the climate of anti-black racism in the United States. I sympathize with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf; I admire him as a teacher and a leader, and continue to look to him for religious guidance and as a personal example. I even identify with his intellectual outlook; as a philosophy graduate, I tend to look at whether a statement is factually accurate, not whether it is popular. I look for first principles, trying to uncover reality from the layers of received opinion and conventional wisdom.
However, one pitfall of comparing American laws to other countries where the laws against discrimination are weak or non-existent, is that one never gets to the heart of the matter. Deflecting criticism by saying it’s worse somewhere else exculpates the perpetrator of discrimination. Yes, discrimination, even virulent types (for example, the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar) exists elsewhere. But that does not mean that the struggle for equality and harmony is off the table in the United States; furthermore, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf has a responsibility as a leader in America to address the homegrown variety first.
Next, the prevalent talking point of black-on-black crime. This hobby horse is a favourite with Republicans and others who want to minimize or diminish the reality of violent discrimination in the United States. Black-on-black crime is real. But so is white-on-white crime, asian-on-asian crime, etc. Most murder rates as broken down by race can be explained by internal strife. This isn’t so surprising, given that more contact is likely between people of similar backgrounds. With regard, specifically, to police shootings, this recent breakdown from the Washington Post is instructive:
“White people make up roughly 62 percent of the U.S. population but only about 49 percent of those who are killed by police officers. African Americans, however, account for 24 percent of those fatally shot and killed by the police despite being just 13 percent of the U.S. population. As The Post noted in a new analysis published last week, that means black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.”
Furthermore, there is shock and anger at the lack of accountability police officers have upon killing an unarmed black person, often receiving complete acquittal. This is just the tip of the iceberg, with disproportionate incarceration rates for African-Americans pointing to another symptom of the disease of racism in United States. Again, from the Washington Post, “Black men are imprisoned at six times the rate of white men.” These statistics are disheartening, and add to the sense of frustration felt by African-Americans and their supporters in America.
To continue, the need to avoid painting the police with one brush is entirely secondary. As the wielders of the most important kind of institutional power, violent force, it is the onus of the police not to oppress African Americans, not the onus of the oppressed to love their oppressor. Any calls for African Americans to appreciate the police should be preceded by a concerted and real effort to clean up police practices, implement anti-racist training, and drastically reduce unnecessary killings. Anything else is filleted red herring, à la mode.
With regard to racism within the Muslim community, it undoubtedly exists. We will never have the moral capital to call out anyone else for discrimination, yet that’s no excuse. Those who are oppressed have no bandwidth for rarified and sophisticated personal moral quandaries. They need help, and it’s our duty to stand in solidarity with them. Whether we’re sincere or not is between us and God.
With regard to some of the commentary in the wake of this controversy, there has been some that has been instructive, and others that have been embarrassing. I’ve read some commentary that bemoans the inability of white people to celebrate being white, in the context of white privilege in America. It’s important to understand that ‘whiteness’ is fake; take a peek with me behind the curtain and you’ll see that whiteness has been created to justify the oppression of Africans. How else would the French, Portuguese, Germans, Iranians, Indians, British, Italians, etc, all be considered to be the same? There are no such things as white achievements. There are French achievements, Italian achievements, Portuguese achievements, etc. The social construction of whiteness is predicated on discrimination, power, and greed, and that’s why it must be dismantled; it’s also a fairly new concept. Here’s an interesting primer on the subject, compiled by Richard Dyer: https://www.amazon.ca/White-Essays-Culture-Richard-Dyer/dp/0415095379
Furthermore, the celebration of European achievements is well-ensconced in all Western education. It’s not an endangered discipline, soon to die out. In fact, many non-European people are forced to study and learn the achievements of Europeans, whereas the reverse is not true. Even worse, the achievements of the Ancient Phoenicians, Egyptians, and other important civilizations are taught as European achievements. But that’s a discussion for another day.
As Muslims with leadership positions, we need to be more sophisticated in our public discourse. It’s not enough to say, I have a friend who is black or I like Muhammad Ali. Most people have a black friend and most people like Muhammad Ali. Instead, what about giving up a speaking slot for yet another lecture on discrimination in America to an African American Muslim? What about boldly declaring solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, in spite of its flaws and its outliers? The mainstream of the Black Lives Matter movement is non-violent, and it should be endorsed wholeheartedly. What about denouncing police violence and police impunity unreservedly, and placing the onus on the power structures that be to reform, instead of on the oppressed to be polite?
One caveat I’d like to add, is that Shaykh Hamza Yusuf is an important, hardworking, and generous member of the American Muslim community. In that capacity, sometimes he may ask the community to adhere to a higher moral code than if he were speaking to a general audience. He may wish for us to be introspective, instead of focusing our attention on the oppression of the powerful. That being said, the most effective mode of fighting oppression is to carry a clear and unequivocal message to the oppressor. The conversation on personal probity is important, especially within the Muslim community, but I feel that it’s a separate conversation.
Finally, if Shaykh Hamza Yusuf does read these words, I hope he takes this opportunity to engage the diversity of views, not to be offended by the trolls that come out of the wood-work to deliver ad hominem attacks. I, for one, love Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, and what he has done for our community. A deep and current understanding of the oppression of African Americans is indispensable for anyone positioning themselves as an American Muslim leader, and it’s one he needs to get up to speed on, fast.