On Black Lives Matter and Muslim participation

Picture of Hamza YusufOn Friday evening a well-known western Muslim scholar, in an interview with the British journalist Mehdi Hasan at the Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) 2016 conference in Toronto, made some offensive and inaccurate remarks about racism both in American society and within the Muslim community. This has caused outrage online, with African-American Muslims particularly hurt and his traditional supporters closing ranks, claiming he said nothing wrong, disimissing it as social media gossip and emphasising his greatness compared to those criticising him. Although the video was initially deleted from the RIS website, two eight-minute clips of his interview were eventually posted on YouTube and there is no getting away from the offensive nature of some of his comments.

Just to clarify, I became Muslim in 1998 and the teachings of that group of English-speaking scholars and speakers formed the backbone of my Islamic education: Shaikh Nuh Keller, Abdul-Hakim Murad (also known as Timothy Winter; he has also used the pseudonym Kerim Fenari), Zaid Shakir, Abdullah Hakim Quick. Theologically I haven’t moved from that position. Politically, I’ve become more disenchanted by how conservative and pro-establishment the movement has become since 9/11 and especially since the Arab Spring, although not all the speakers mentioned are implicated. In the past I’ve defended him from accusations that he was a sell-out and worse. I’ve noticed that the most eager to condemn him in this case were those who have hated him since 9/11 or even before that, when he was on the same side as Shaikh Nuh (during the “Literalism and the Attributes of Allah” period of the 90s) but not all of these people are particularly active in fighting social or racial injustice other than where it affects Muslims. A few of the attacks were personal, vulgar and appeared motivated by envy.

There were several fallacious aspects of the shaikh’s response to Mehdi Hasan’s questions. One was to compare unjust police shootings, mostly of unarmed Black people but of some others as well, with “black-on-black” crime. Regardless of the statistics, which others have addressed better than I can, the comparison isn’t valid because common crime isn’t committed, usually, by people paid by the public to keep the public safe. As they carry arms in public and may be called on to use them, they should be expected to be calm in the face of provocation. It’s true that not every police officer who shoots a Black person does so because he is a racist, but a disproportionate number of unjustified shootings or killings of unarmed Black people who were seen on camera not giving the officer any cause to use lethal force, followed by the officers invariably being let off by the law, has prompted widespread protests. It should be pointed out that other victims include disabled and mentally ill people; in one case, an officer shot a man during a crisis after declaring, “I don’t have time for this shit”. It’s well known that Black parents give their children, sons especially, a “talk” on what to do if they are accosted by aggressive police demanding to search them; families of the mentally ill are commonly advised never to call the police when their relatives have a crisis. Both of these are signs that the police are aggressive, out of control and unaccountable.

The comparison is rather like the observation that Muslims only demonstrate against wars against Muslim countries and not against terrorism; the simple answer is that those wars are perpetrated with public money, including taxes levied on Muslims, while terrorist attacks are not. We are not responsible for what al-Qa’ida or ISIS do as they finance their activities themselves, through donors (and, no doubt, criminal activity).

The shaikh also claimed that the US has some of the world’s best anti-discrimination laws, which has some truth to it (although some of these laws have been eaten away at both by legislation and by the Supreme Court), but it also has some of the most unjust criminal laws (e.g. mandating life sentences for sometimes trivial offences, making non-citizens liable for deportation, despite having family in the US and no remaining connections to their home country, often for misdemeanours committed long in the past), a judicial system in some states where “due process” is considered to be of greater importance than the facts, such that innocence is not enough to get someone released from prison, an education system which fast-tracks poor youth into the prison system from their teenage years and a constitution which has, among other things, twice in recent history handed the country’s, and the world’s, most powerful office to a moron despite his losing the popular vote, substantially in the most recent case. If you’re white and middle-class, you can generally expect rational and unprejudiced treatment from the law — as, for example, happened to a mother in Irvine, California, who had drugs planted in her car by a local couple with a grudge against her. A poor woman from a Black or Latino background might have had a very different experience. He can say this only because he comes from the race that is most favoured by the American political and judicial systems.

Finally, he tries to divert discussion of American racism against Blacks by bringing up Muslim racism against Jews — the whites’ favourite ‘minority’ — and racism against Pakistanis or southern Indians in some Arab countries (and notably not Arab anti-Black attitudes which are rife throughout the Arab world and in the USA). He tells us that his shaikh, Abdullah bin Bayyah, has never said a bad word about Jews; the shaikh is from Mauritania, a country where Jewish settlers are not harassing native Arabs going about their daily business, building fences between them and their land, stealing their water and so on. Hostility to Jews is only to be expected in a population facing these abuses, or an immigrant population with a high percentage from that country or its neighbours, particularly where Jewish Americans are heavily involved in supporting Zionism, lobbying for military aid to Israel and punishment of anyone choosing not to do business with them, and agitating against Muslim (and particularly Arab) participation in society and in favour of wars against Muslims and attacks on Muslims’ civil rights. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the mainstream of Jewish society, both in the UK and the USA, is pro-Zionist; those Jews (or people of Jewish ancestry) who are sympathetic to Palestinian rights are a fringe group, many of them not religious.

He also mentions the racism (and appalling working conditions, etc) facing Pakistani and Indian workers in places like the United Arab Emirates. The fact is that, apart from watching Qatari TV news channels, most of us have no connection with the UAE, Qatar or any other Gulf country. Most of us don’t have the money to take holidays or attend Islamic conferences there. The UAE isn’t a democracy and doesn’t give permanent residency, much less citizenship, to other than its natives, so why on earth should Muslims with no right to live there, or even go there in some cases, be held responsible for what goes on there? Besides, Muslims (many of those in the UK are of Pakistani origin) talk about such things and share stories about it among themselves and on social media, but racism in the west, where we live, affects us, now.

He also made some remarks about whether racism or the breakdown of the Black American family was a greater contributor to the current status of African Americans. All I will say to that is: there is no record of the police asking questions about whether anyone’s parents are married or ever were before shooting them, and bullets do not discriminate on such grounds.

The US is not a country founded on justice. It’s a country with legislators and judges for whom injustice comes as naturally as mother’s milk, who hate anything most of us would think of as justice. Clive Stafford Smith, the British lawyer who worked for years getting people freed from Death Row in various southern states, said that the US is “a society that is so full of hatred of people” and blamed politicians, who constantly encourage Americans to hate and despise others. I’m not going to speculate on why he thought American Muslims should not be involved in a cause like Black Lives Matter, but Muslims of any ethnicity born in the USA are not going to turn a blind eye to injustice in the way that an Arab immigrant grateful for refuge from other oppression or poverty might do. He didn’t offer any reason why they shouldn’t — no Islamic critique of the ideas peddled on the BLM website, or call to concentrate on Islamic knowledge or their spiritual development — only a diversion onto things that are irrelevant to American Muslims. I’m not justifying anyone hating him; he’s a scholar who has invested years of his life in gaining and transmitting Islamic knowledge and his translations are of immense value — but these remarks are ignorant and damaging, and whether he changes his views in response to the community’s feedback or not, they needed challenging.

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