Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of a great American hero, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It is a day when many are celebrating his legacy and the advances we, as a people, have made since his passing. But, on this day, I came across something that saddened me. It was a Facebook post of an African American father from our community whose daughter participated in a Muslim led program that I attended. In the post, the father describes a conversation he had with his daughter and how she, and her fellow team members, felt slighted by judges in various competitions they participated in, and she couldn’t help but feel like it was because they were black.
Now, the claim that this young sister makes deserves a conversation all on its own. Why would several children from a predominantly African American team feel this way? How do we go about addressing something like this? How can we improve the culture at Muslim events so that we’re fostering a more inclusive environment for all participants? All of these things need to be examined. With that said, just reflecting on this young sister's sentiment, I couldn’t help but wonder what she must’ve been feeling that would lead her to think such a thing could be the case, especially considering this is a “Muslim driven” event. Are this sister’s feelings solely the result of this one off experience or is it a symptom of a deeper rooted problem? Personally, I feel this father’s story serves as strong evidence that a serious problem exists within our Muslim community, and that problem is that a significant population feels disconnected and overlooked. Our fellow Muslim brothers and sisters in the African American community have dealt with this for far too long. The sentiment this young sister echoed should serve as a wake up call to all of us that this is a problem that needs to be recognized and addressed.
I remember sitting at the Reviving Islamic Spirit (RIS) conference in Toronto a little more than a year ago when I was listening to Dr. Abdul Hakim Jackson speak about race relations. One particular quote that he mentioned in his talk still sits heavy with me. He said, “The African American Muslim feels like they have gone from riding on the back of a bus to the back of a camel.” When I first heard this, I was taken aback because I had never been exposed to these types of feelings or sentiments from those within our Muslim community. Maybe it was my youth or my naivety, but I had never before heard in depth the grievances that our brothers and sisters within the African American community held against the larger Muslim community. As I sat there listening to several African American leaders paint a picture of resentment and frustration that exists within some of the population in their localities, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt for never even realizing these emotions exist, and that they are not uncommon. I mean, I would argue that it is this resentment and this frustration of a lingering problem that led the young sister from the competition to tell her father she felt slighted because of her race. Her claim may be surprising, but consider the circumstances she’s endured as an African American Muslimah living within a Muslim community that all but ignores her ancestral heritage and her place in the community. She consistently attends “community iftaars” where only biryani and pakoras are served, or she goes to Mosques that are run solely by Pakistani uncles on the board, or she attends events where the only students who hang out with her or give her salaams are those that look like her. How can so many of our fellow Muslim brothers and sisters feel this way and we not even realize that these feelings exist? And if we realize, how can we continue to allow them to feel that way?
Acknowledgement of the fact that a problem exist is the starting point to, insha Allah, overcome it. Just take the example of a doctor treating a patient. No doctor is going to be able to treat any sickness or illness until they first diagnose that there is a problem. I feel that many of us are not even aware that this problem exists, and how we as individuals and faith based organizations are contributing to the problem itself. Individually, do we reserve our salaams for only those who look like us or talk like us or share the same culture as us? If so, that’s a problem. As institutions, are we doing everything in our power to make our institutions as welcoming and inclusive to every audience? Are we working to support different organizations, different communities, and people of all backgrounds? Are we allowing all voices to be heard within our institutions? As Muslims, we have a responsibility to be aware of the social struggles that are happening across our society at large. When we do not grasp these social struggles, we are prone to commit microaggressions. Over the course of time, these microaggressions can lead to further divide and fragment within our communities.
One of my favorite stories of our beloved Prophet SAW relates to when he arrived in Madinah after the Hijrah. One of his first proclamations to the people was to “Spread salaam, break bread with one another, protect ties of kinship, and worship Allah SWT by night.” In explaining this, my teacher stressed that three of the four pieces of advice dealt with our relationships with our fellow human beings, and only one-fourth of the advice dealt with our relationship with Allah. In doing so, the Prophet SAW emphasized that in the sight of Allah SWT, our relationships with other people are just as important as our Salah. I mention this because we cannot expect to progress as a Muslim community if we have people within it who feel as though they do not belong. We cannot tackle all of the challenges that already stand before us, as Muslims in America, unless we actually begin to look after one another, regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, Masjid affiliation, Madhab, etc. The Prophet SAW spent his early time in Madinah stressing the importance of unity. This is evident as one of his very first goals in Madinah was to build bonds of brotherhood between the Muhajiroon and the Ansaar. These were people from two different societies (Makkah and Madinah) with different cultures, different backgrounds, different economic statuses, etc. But, the Prophet SAW stressed the importance of bonding early, as he, in his wisdom, understood that a fragmented community would never thrive. It’s important for us to take heed of this example. Currently, we have many in our community who are frustrated and feel like they do not belong. This shouldn’t and cannot be acceptable to any of us. The Prophet SAW said, “When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever [Bukhari].” There are parts of our community in pain, and it’s up to all of us to address this. So what are we going to do about it?
May Allah SWT unite all of our hearts and unite our community. Ameen.