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Plantation Redux: the Persistence of Racism Amongst Muslims

“Oh mankind We created you from a single (pair) male and female, and made you nations and tribes, that you
may know one another (and not despise each other). Verily the most honored with Allah is (he/she) who is the most regardful (of God).” Quran 49:13

The above verse from the Quran is one of the most oft-quoted, seldom lived-up-to ideals that God has set for us as human beings. Like many of our ideals, therein lies beauty and value that may only be realized on the other side of significant conflict and difficulty. The reality is that Muslims, like other human beings, have long grappled with the challenges of race and class. I discovered this in an African history class during my undergraduate studies.

While studying the history of South Africa, I found a curious perversion that impacted their social dynamic. It was the use of a critical word/concept in Islam – Kaafir, which is a designation for the status of one’s faith (or lack thereof), used as a racial and ethnic pejorative. From the mouths of Muslims, prior to and during the reign of apartheid, we find the assignment of one group to the bottom rung of class and race based on their ‘other-ness’. Of course in the Quran the use of the term kaafir, or literally rejecter or one who covers/hides faith, is used to designate one a liar or denier of the plain truth (of God). In its proper usage it is not a permanent state of being but an attitude and worldview that directs one’s being and mode of life. That the term was misused in that way led me as a new convert to Islam to want to understand the history of South Africa better. As a result I have many South African heroes and one of my favorite scholars of Islam, Farid Esack, is a South African. But what I also began to see was that Muslims in the modern period had often allied themselves with (and had become) oppressors and had adorned themselves with many of their unIslamic values and ideas.

To know that the Muslims of South Africa were arguably as much an impediment to the overthrow of Apartheid as they were an asset toward liberation was puzzling to me because Islam in America has its roots in a different tradition of Islam. In fact, Islam in American post-slavery was initially ensconced in an effort to disabuse its adherents of any sense of inferiority and remained, until recent times, in conscious opposition to hegemony that leads people away from Islamic ideals, specifically white supremacy (i.e. Malcolm X and many others). What Muslims have failed to unpack is that the Arab hegemony (and ingrained desire to assimilate to whiteness) in what is commonly accepted as orthodox Islam is closely associated with white supremacy and produces similar results especially for new converts – namely a value system that places them at the bottom of yet another stratification system. This Muslim plantation redux places new Muslims in a state of great cultural confusion. Converts are drawn into a system of thinking in which they see the foods, clothes, aesthetics, and fundamental human value of those from the traditional Muslim world as superior and place them inherently above their own. The major problem with this is that much of the traditional Muslim world is civilizationally and socially behind modern societies in human relations, technology, education, and systems of governance. New converts are also none-the-wiser that the traditional Muslim world has itself experienced a stark disconnection from its Islamic past and has undergone different movements and reform efforts to recover that past.

So I’ve seen many of my dear brothers and sisters drawn back to a plantation (to borrow a term from slavery) of a different and more perplexing type. They find themselves desiring to marry the ethnic or racial ‘other’ almost as a matter of principle, identifying Arab and Pakistani food as ‘Muslim’, aspiring to assimilate to Arab or Pakistani cultural norms and customs and privileging their perspectives, and assuming an Islamic approach that yet again places them as guests in someone else’s proverbial home. In conscious opposition to this impulse I’ve found myself having to assert that Black women are as beautiful as any in the world, that my mother’s collard greens is the best food in all the world (as long as I provide the halal/dhabiha turkey necks), and that our clothes, with a few adjustments for modesty, are ‘Muslim’ - No thobe or jilbab needed. I’ve seen so many of my dear friends disappointed and dejected that their engagement or relationship has been canceled because they didn’t meet the racial criterion of their significant other’s family and similar scenarios so persistently that I felt the need to write this short note. And as in my other notes, I thought I’d share a few recommendations and perspectives to alleviate this well established psychosis amongst Muslims.

  1. Marriage is something that should bring families together. Since many Muslims have not caught up with Islamic Ideals and ethics or with the rest of the modern world, avoid circumstances that will create rifts in families, even if they are unIslamic, rabid racists. For the love Allah, marry someone else.

2. Please accept the basic truth that the only ‘Muslim’ foods are those that are healthy, halal, and delicious. Mama….pass me them halal collard greens please!!

3. Black women are beautiful in every way and so are my Latina sistas, so please brothas….you don’t need a mail order bride from Morocco or the Philippines to find a suitable Muslim wife or defy an Arab or Pakistani family and push the boundaries of their delicate, though unIslamic, sensibilities.

4. The problems in west Philly and on the Southside of Chicago are legitimate, bona fide ‘Islamic’ issues (and for Muslims Americans more so) as are Palestine, Kashmir, and other causes to which Muslims dedicate time, money, and public discourse.

5. Someone who is a convert to Islam is as Muslim as someone raised by a Muslim family and often struggle with might and main to establish their Islamic identity.

6. Enjoy the diversity of the Muslim ummah with those who are open and prepared to acknowledge that our community is beautiful, diverse, and increasing running out of room for provincial mindsets.

7. Money and wealth does not establish leadership for Muslims. Our values, worldview, and diligent practice is what established our Islam and most of those who have sacrificed the most in American history to lay our foundation were poor and not possessed of the class-based interest that has come to define Islam in 21st century America.

Please share your thoughts on this. I’ve been consumed by the idea that Muslims desperately need to talk about race and class especially in the backdrop of the Park 51 Mosque controversy in which class-based values have loomed large and have overshadowed Islamic propriety.

Your brother in Islam

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