Black History Month Discussion – Are We Allies to one Another?

“If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the night” – Angela Davis

On February 25, 2016, KARAMAH broached an important topic: What Does it Mean to be an ‘Ally’ in the Movement Towards Justice. Our esteemed panel included three amazing Muslim women: Ms. Saleema Snow, Ms. Raheemah Abdulaleem, and Ms. Rosieda Shabodien who shared their experiences of fighting for social justice through both their personal and professional lives.

At KARAMAH, we recognize that Muslim Americans as a whole cannot ignore the fact that our presence and our establishment started first with our African American sisters and brothers. Yet, we as a community have fallen prey to two issues: not raising up the stories of our African American ancestors and their impact on our society and secondly, intrafaith racism.

Unfortunately intrafaith racism, prejudice, and marginalization continue dividing our Muslim communities. This year, we chose to examine how Muslim communities and activists can better understand the intersections of multiple identities within our communities and how each play a role in our collective struggle to be allies to one another.

The panel and the town hall discussion that ensued highlighted how we can learn from the African American experience and the strategies they used in their struggle for social justice. The panelists and members of the audience explored how people can better inform themselves on how to become allies with African American Muslims and other Muslim communities.

After brief welcoming remarks by Ms. Katherine S. Broderick, dean of UDC David A. Clarke School of Law and by Ms. Aysha Iqbal, president of UDC Muslim Law Students Association, the panelists joined the podium in turns.
From an attorney’s perspective, Ms. Snow spoke about litigation as one of the strategies to effect social change. However, for systemic long-term change, Ms. Snow said that engaging the three branches of the government is very important, and building allies is the best strategy to do so.

Ms. Snow went on to speak about how Black Muslims built alliances with other Muslim communities after 9/11 to stand against discrimination regardless of the fact that those same communities might not have been supportive before. Having experienced discrimination for so long, the Black Muslim community developed a “spiritual maturity” that allowed them to do so. In a growingly anti-Muslim atmosphere where many are manipulated by fear, creating alliances is more important than ever for Muslim communities.

Society is currently rife with fear, manifested explicitly by Islamophobes and implicitly by those who deny issues of racism in some of our nation’s policing tactics. This fear paradigm leads Muslims and Blacks in America to also operate from the same position.
Ms. Snow spoke to the necessity to transcend our fears, form coalitions and alliances, and build a collective narrative to eradicate systemic problems facing the Muslim community. Our shared pain will help us to be advocates for justice and uplift our communities.
An outstanding example of a woman who did just that is Sister Clara Muhammad. She had a central role in uplifting and transforming the movement of the Nation of Islam. She also had a great impact on the Muslim community that evolved from it. She focused on the importance of educating girls and boys, and the entire community.

The fruits of Sister Clara Muhammad’s labor can be seen today in strong, highly educated women like Ms. Snow and Ms. Abdulaleem. Ms. Abdulaleem, for example, said that she grew up in a Muslim Philadelphian family that highly valued women’s education and considered it part of their Islamic faith. This framework helped guide her through her education and carrier- as a Yale and Harvard student, and as an attorney at Department of Justice and now the White House.
Unfortunately, many misperceptions surround the Black Muslim experience in the U.S., even among other Muslim communities. Ms. Abdulaleem said that the narrative surrounding Muslims in America should change to encompass more than national security issues because the American Muslim experience is more vibrant than what is being promoted.
Ms. Abdulaleem reminded the audience of Martin Niemoller’s famous quote:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.” – Martin Niemoller

Ms. Abdulaleem seconded Ms. Snow’s call for building alliances. When she worked for the Department of Justice, Ms. Abdulaleem litigated civil rights cases involving religious discrimination and religious accommodation – issues that affect Orthodox Jews and Sikhs as well. Therefore, building coalitions and alliances with other faith groups is very important. Muslim issues, for Ms. Abdulaleem, need to be viewed as human issues.

Speaking from a South-African perspective, Ms. Shabodien highlighted the Muslim South African experience against the brutal apartheid system and how a successful movement toward justice was formed in South Africa. Ms. Shabodien also spoke about her first encounters with Islamophobia in the U.S. She advised against acting as victims when confronted with racism and islamophobia. She said: “South Africans when confronted with racism didn’t act as victims but as change agents who wanted to change the course of history.”
Ms. Shabodien also emphasized the need to separate between what people say and their ideologies. “White people oppressed us,” she said, “but we didn’t hate their white skin, we hated the ideology that they preach. We didn’t avenge anyone who did something wrong to us.”

The brutal apartheid system lasted 50 years, during which brave people joined forces in the struggle for liberation. “The apartheid system tried to separate tribe from tribe, religion from religion, culture from culture” but this divide and conquer strategy did not stop them from building strong alliances against the oppressor.

The three panelists presented us with valuable lessons about the African American civil rights struggle and the South African anti-apartheid struggle. Brave and exceptional attitudes are needed in the fight for justice.
The following are the main takeaways from this event:
1- Don’t act like a victim!
2- Do not denigrate the suffering of other groups.
3- Don’t be selective in your struggle for justice.
4- Separate what people say and their ideologies.
5- Understand that “Islamophobia is the sibling of pathologies like racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-semitism and homophobia, which in turn were the off-springs of fear and ignorance on the one hand, and prejudice and discrimination in the other hand.”
6- Educate yourself and understand the reach of Islam.
7- Accept that people carry many identities 8- Stay joyful and do not allow your anger to work you up.

During the town hall part of the event, many in the audience shared their personal experiences with the misconceptions and prejudice dividing our Muslim communities. Students and professionals from diverse sectors talked about the necessity to take advantage of the diversity and intersectionality of identities in the Muslim community.

Black American Muslims historically have set the ground for the other Muslim communities in terms of setting up Islamic institutions and also preceding the others in the struggle for social justice in the U.S. Members of the audience said that this fact needs to be more appreciated. They were also resolved to follow through on the lessons learned during this event, break barriers, and build alliances in order to eradicate the collective injustices our communities face.

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