Racial Reckoning Among US Muslims

As a young student, Hind Makki recalls, she would call out others at the Islamic school she attended when some casually used an Arabic word meaning “slaves” to refer to Black people. 

“Maybe 85% of the time, the response that I would get from people … is, ‘Oh, we don’t mean you, we mean the Americans,’” Makki said during a virtual panel discussion on race, one of many organized in the wake of George Floyd’s death. 

“That’s a whole other situation about anti-Blackness, particularly against African Americans,” said Makki, who identifies as a Black Arab Muslim. 

In recent weeks, many Muslims in the U.S. have joined racial justice rallies across the country and denounced racism in sermons, statements and webinars. American Muslims, Black and non-Black, are also having raw conversations like Makki’s as they grapple with questions of racial equity, tensions and representation in their own faith communities. 

“Everyone is talking about this, like from the uncle who’s been here since the early ’70s, was a retired doctor somewhere, a retired board member of a mosque to … a high school student in the suburbs,” Makki, an anti-racism and interfaith educator, said in an interview. “The question needs to be pushed further than what words, what slurs you’re using, which you shouldn’t be using. How can we reach equity … in the spaces that we actually can change?”

Muslims in America are diverse. No racial or ethnic group makes up a majority of Muslim American adults, and 20 percent are Black, according to a 2017 survey by Pew Research Center.

Margari Hill, executive director of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, says she has seen a surge of interest, questions and demand from Muslim communities for her expertise: Can she look at a statement or provide topics for a program? Are there resources in Arabic or Bengali? Is it more appropriate to say Black or African American? Can she talk about anti-Blackness? 

“There’s been a lot of calling out and calling in and deep reflection,” she said. “We’re asking people to be committed to, like, unlearning, you know, and building authentic relationships” that last beyond the current moment. 

Questions about how much change the flurry of discussions can spark echo those about a larger, national reckoning.

“The openness of all different corners of the Muslim community to have this conversation in a really robust way is unprecedented and it is commendable,” said Imam Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “The challenge is when the protests eventually fizzle and the next calamity hits our country, will the conversation continue within the Muslim community?”

For this not to be a fleeting moment, Walid said, the makeup of leadership at national Islamic organizations must be more representative. He and others have called for more Black Muslim speakers and not just to talk about race or only during Black History Month. 

At the Islamic Society of North America, where the current elected board of 10 directors has no African Americans, executive director Basharat Saleem said the organization has been working to boost diversity but acknowledged that more must be done.

African American Muslims have been well represented as speakers at ISNA events, he said, but attendance from people in that community at annual conventions has been low. 

“We have to do more work to basically reach out to the community,” Saleem said. “Also, (the) same thing has to happen from that community.”

Through the likes of art and social media hashtags, many Black Muslims have worked in recent years to amplify their stories and highlight a narrative that many of them say have been overshadowed by that of other Muslims. Some reflect on what it’s like to be Black and Muslim.

Some experiences feel “exhausting,” Hill said. She remembers being referred to as a “slave” in Arabic at a Muslim store. One time, she was asked if she could “really read” a copy of the Quran she wanted to buy. “No one wants to, you know, feel like they have to justify their humanity or their faith.” 

Ubaydullah Evans, resident scholar for the American Learning Institute for Muslims, says he’s experienced “interpersonal racism,” from some Muslims. Still, other non-Black Muslims “have always sought to build community,” and work with African Americans, he said.

Walid, like many others, says Islam sends a clear message of egalitarianism. 

Over the years, there have been efforts to build bridges. More recently, some have taken an oath against using the Arabic word for “slaves.” 

Others focused discussions on how to improve relations between Arab and Muslim store owners and the Black communities they serve. Dozens of American Muslim organizations came together to demand police reform and pledged to support Black-led groups.

Evans credits younger Muslims with a lot of work challenging racial inequality. He hopes “we get the maximum mileage out of this moment,” but says some Black American Muslims “have been hurt so badly that it’s hard for them to summon that trust.”

Sylvia Chan-Malik, who teaches about race and about Islam in America at Rutgers University, said some of the tensions stem from divergent views of America. Many African American Muslims have, historically, engaged Islam as a repudiation of anti-Black racism and “have long viewed the police as a threat to Black communities,” she said. Meanwhile, some immigrants “really want to believe in the promise of America” and have faith in the system, she added. 

And because Islam’s history in the U.S. is “marginalized,” Chan-Malik argued, misconceptions by some about African American Muslims may include thinking that they are all converts or practice an inauthentic form of Islam. 

“Islam entered this country as a religious presence through the bodies, the culture, the voices and perspectives of enslaved Africans,” she said. “You cannot divorce Islam in America from the African American experience.” 

On a recent virtual panel to bring attention to the history of Black American Muslims and address racism, Imam Jihad Saafir said he was “hopeful and happy” about Muslims’ response. 

Some imams, he said, have been telling him they want to learn more and better understand racism. He shared plans to send African American imams to different California mosques for a day. 

“No co-opting our issues on that day,” he told participants. “The pleasure of Allah lies in us building community with one another.”

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