I'm a Black American Muslim. After the killing of George Floyd, I hope that my community will speak out against injustices faced by Black people.
- As a Black American Muslim woman, I was anxious to learn how my fellow American Muslims would react to the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who was killed after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
- I've experienced racism from the larger American Muslim community, and I've also seen that some members have been slow to speak out about the protection of Black lives.
- Over the past few weeks, I've seen things that have given me hope, including prominent organizations and leaders speaking out about the injustice.
- Even after the news cycle shifts, I hope Muslims in America never again shy away from protecting Black lives.
When George Floyd was killed under the knee of a white police officer on May 25 and a nearly 9-minute recording of his death became public, I was anxious to learn how my fellow American Muslims would react.
American Muslims can be reluctant to get involved in politics, or anything even resembling politics. Sometimes we can't speak out about something because it conflicts with legal rulings within our tradition. Other times, we have no choice but to get out and protest policies aimed directly at us, like the Muslim Ban.
Yet there are instances when we are torn about how to react. When the Black Lives Matter movement was born a few years ago, some Muslims weren't sure what to do.
Some thought advocating for the protection of Black and Brown lives was an "American" issue — a problem that existed between white Americans and Black Americans. Others believed we needed to utilize all our resources to fight our own battles against anti-Muslim rhetoric, FBI surveillance, and no-fly lists.
But I believe the biggest cause for hesitation — and indifference — was, and is, racism.
As a twenty-eight-year-old Black American Muslim woman, I've spent a large part of my life uncovering the complexities of my multi-layered identity
My parents both converted to Islam before I was born. My Afro-Latina mother was introduced to Islam as a child, after my grandmother started dating a man who followed the Nation of Islam. A decade later, my Black American father, who fell in love with my mother at a college party in Boston, converted before they got married.
Growing up, my parents worked hard to teach my siblings and I how to operate as a Black person in majority white spaces in the suburbs of Texas and Massachusetts. They tried their best to explain why the little white boy called me n— at the back of the bus in the third grade. They also taught us to advocate for ourselves, especially in school when teachers underestimated our academic abilities based on our appearance. But we were never prepared to feel "othered" within our own religious community.
Although I knew about the difficulties my father faced navigating mosque politics as a Black youth director in a majority South Asian mosque in Dallas, it wasn't until I grew older and became involved in my own community in Massachusetts that I fully began to understand the challenges faced by Black Muslims.
Strangers at the mosque would often mistake me for a convert after I told them I wasn't Sudanese or Somali. I learned to bypass their scrutiny about my level of religiosity and my ethnicity if I pronounced my name with the proper Arabic intonation, instead of the English pronunciation my parents use.
When I became a volunteer organizer helping to build partnerships between the various mosques in the Boston metroplex, I discovered the disparities between the Black-majority mosques and the Arab-majority mosques. Such inequalities — including a lack of funding and community participation — created tense relationships between the institutions.
My most eye-opening and traumatizing experience with racism and ethnocentrism happened when the Muslim man I wanted to marry ended our almost-engagement because his parents (who never met me) deemed us "incompatible" because I was Black and he was Arab.
My experiences with racism in the larger American Muslim community are not unique
Although the American Muslim demographic is diverse, and a high percentage are now US born, the two predominant ethnic groups are Middle Eastern/North African (known as MENA) and South Asian.
But they are tainted by pre-Islamic traditions that honored ethnocentrism, colorism, and tribalism. They continue to suffer from the miseducation of Western colonization. The residual pockmarks show in the continued use of derogatory terms like abeed (slave in Arabic) and kallu (slang for Black person in Urdu).
In conversations with my millennial friends — children of immigrants from South Asian and MENA countries — I learned their parents taught them to use face whitening creams, and gave specific instructions about which ethnic origins were acceptable for marriage (always preferencing fair-skinned spouses).
One friend, who is half Palestinian, half African-American, was ultimately rejected by her fiancé's mother (who was Palestinian herself) because she was considered too Black to join the family.
Given that racism pervades our homes and places of worship, it is not surprising that some non-Black/African Muslims have been slow to publicly support our Black American brothers and sisters. With the exception of a few — like Shaykh Suhaib Webb, Shaykh Omar Sulieman, and activist Linda Sarsour, who have been long-time supporters of protecting Black Americans — our community as a whole has been less adamant in demonstrating their support.
The younger generation — those who don't yet have positions of power on the mosque boards — have consistently called upon their local religious leaders to publicize clear statements that denounce police brutality. It is often the smaller mosques and lesser-known imams who don't have huge social media followings that refuse to show public support to Black communities, citing concerns that they've worked too hard to facilitate good relationships with the police to disrupt the peace.
Despite our past, I still believe change is upon us
In the wake of the current tragedy, disbelief and fury appear to have spawned a new consciousness within the Muslim community.
Last month, while observing the holy month of Ramadan in isolation, Muslims were forced to utilize online tools like Zoom Webinars and Facebook Live classes to cultivate spiritual rejuvenation. Highly esteemed Imams and scholars attracted thousands of viewers as they united us in our remembrance of the Divine.
Now, in the last week, I have witnessed those same popular religious leaders and teachers, of different ethnic backgrounds, utilize their massive platforms to discuss and dissect what social justice looks like through the lens of Islam.
Unequivocally, the response from our leaders has been that Islamic tradition commands us to stand up, speak up, and take action whenever we witness injustice and oppression. During one recent webinar, well-known African American leaders like Imam Zaid Shakir, Ustadha Ieasha Prime, and Imam Dawud Walid gathered to discuss Prophetic teachings that emphasize social justice, and Quranic verses that clearly condemn racism.
Each speaker provided guidance that makes it clear that the killing of a Black man at the hands of a white police officer was an injustice. As a Black American Muslim, it was uplifting to hear them speak about the history of Black people in America and how, in the eyes of our Creator, we are all one people, deserving of protection from oppression.
I have also observed well-known organizations like the Muslim American Association release statements condemning the killing of George Floyd. Other Muslim institutions have also shared statements encouraging American Muslims to be vocal supporters of Black Americans, and donate to non-profits like MuslimARC, which aims to dismantle racism through trainings in the Muslim community.
While these are great efforts, and indicative of change, they are really just seeds planted. Because I love my religion and my Muslim brothers and sisters, I pray we continue to grow. I also pray that even after the news cycle shifts to another concern, Muslims in America never again shy away from protecting Black lives.
Nailah Dean is a lawyer and creative writer based in San Francisco. She is currently working on a memoir about love and marriage in the American Muslim community. Follow her on Twitter @NailahDean.
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