Benjamin Franklin once stated, “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”
The Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA) latest press release regarding the ongoing Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore has failed to leave unsaid the ‘wrong thing at the tempting moment.’ It reveals a disturbing continuation of a problematic trend among mainstream Muslim organizations.
It states, “In the past few days, what began as peaceful protests, have grown into wanton destruction, thievery, looting and arson, as well as uncalled-for attacks on first responders. Such actions undermine and distract from the real issues that need to be addressed, namely police brutality, profiling and lack of accountability.”
The dramatic disconnect between the national American-Muslim institutions and the community they claim to represent was demonstrated instantly across social media.
Linda Sarsour, Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York, responds: “Freddie Gray dies at the hands of police almost two weeks ago and ISNA issues NO STATEMENT. Thousands protest peacefully – NO STATEMENT. Minority of protesters engage in destruction of property – they put out a statement.”
Su’ad Abdul Khabeer notable professor of African American Islam also writes: “got a forward of a statement on #BaltimoreUprising from [insert your mainstream US Muslim org] No one needed them to “denounce the violence” of protestors. What [insert your mainstream US Muslim org] could have done was respect the #BaltimoreUprising by amplifying voices of the ppl and denouncing generational state violence.”
What is especially troubling is the statement may effectively rehash tired police talking points that have been spread since the protests began. By focusing its comments on the perceived immoral actions on the part of protestors instead of the numerous systemic issues facing Black people in Baltimore, it has made it appear as though the protests are the result of greedy criminals as opposed to citizens with legitimate grievances. This issue is more than one organization or one press release. It’s a structural problem throughout American Muslim institutions.
Yet, according to a Baltimore Sun investigation, “Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson … Such beatings, in which the victims are most often African-Americans, carry a hefty cost. They can poison relationships between police and the community, limiting cooperation in the fight against crime, the mayor and police officials say. They also divert money in the city budget — the $5.7 million in taxpayer funds paid out since January 2011 would cover the price of a state-of-the-art rec center or renovations at more than 30 playgrounds. And that doesn’t count the $5.8 million spent by the city on legal fees to defend these claims brought against police.”
By failing to discuss these systemic issues, our present organizations contribute to the marginalization of Black people in Baltimore. The organization also fails to support members of their own community, effectively ignoring the intersectional struggle of Black Muslims who are disproportionately targeted by police, in Baltimore and elsewhere.
There is certainly a long history of mainstream Muslim organizations failing to offer productive solidarity to urban populations, including Black Muslims. This is part of a broader trend of anti-Black racism within Muslim communities, which sees the long history of Black Muslims in America ignored and hate crimes against Black Muslims receiving far less attention than other Muslims. Yet Black Muslims make up 23 per cent of the Muslim population in America, and were the first Muslims on the continent.
In addition, the Civil Rights movement spawned by Black activists, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, has offered great benefits to Muslims in North America, in general, as we struggle against various injustices perpetrated by the state, especially after 9/11.
The sort of profiling, unjust detainment, spying and systemic oppression that has become somewhat known to Muslims as a whole after 9/11 was all too familiar for Black Muslims for hundreds of years prior. As such, perceived “Muslim issues” should not be limited to the struggle for Palestinian liberation, or the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq. Instead, the issues those protesting in Baltimore are decrying must also be seen as ones impacting large segments of the Muslim community.
It is time for the Muslim community that originates from an immigrant base to recognize the solidarity of the movement and acknowledge a new American Muslim paradigm that is being built from the multi-ethnic, multi-racial grassroots. In fact, as an American Muslim of Palestinian descent, the Black Muslim community has always stood with me in solidarity for the Palestinian cause.
One such person is Baltimore resident, Siddeeqah Fichman, the Coordinator for the Holistic Life Foundation, an organization teaching mindfulness to undeserved youth. Fichman explains, “When I was in college I visited a little village in East Jerusalem called Esawiya. The stories that I heard there of families who lost young boys to the brutality of the Israeli Defense Force who were policing that area, either through death or the judicial system, were strikingly similar to what I grew up witnessing in my own city.”
Fichman recalls the similarities in East Jerusalem were not only physical, but psychological. She was able to relate to the fact that men of a certain age were a target and had unfriendly sometimes traumatic experiences with the police or IDF. This was the same for her community. One of the commonalities that boys in Esawiya share with kids in neighborhoods in Baltimore is that both groups had to suffer systemic brutality and indignities at the hands of a foreign force that see them as less than human, she explained to me.
As a result, the statement by ISNA came as a surprise and strong disappoint to Fichman. She explains, “What I find both strange and sad is that ISNA has consistently championed the cause of the marginalized Palestinian population and largely ignored the marginalized population right here in the US. When after weeks of peaceful protests were largely ignored and anger and frustration boil over into violent civil disobedience, ISNA’s message is not one of solidarity, empathy, compassion or even genuine curiosity about how we got here, but rather one of condescending reprimand.”
Activist Malik Aziz of The Muslim Street agrees and sees signs of hope.
“There is a major shift underway among Immigrant-Muslim and Black- Muslim activist that threatens the status quo that ISNA and others’ seem to want to maintain,” says Aziz. “New emerging thought leaders from these traditionally separate agenda-led communities are now forming coalitions to change this paradigm. This represents a new ‘breath of fresh air’.”
The Muslim community should dedicate more time and effort to supporting Black people in North America, Muslim and otherwise. This must start with holding back from issuing press releases that condemn the marginalized, and instead seeking to offer solidarity to those challenging power structures. Muslims must also give financial and logistical support to uplifting urban centres. At the very least, Muslims should come out in protest for Black lives, including Black Muslim lives, the way they have for other pressing issues.
Essentially, Muslims must be willing speak up for justice, by saying the right thing at the right place and time, as Franklin so wisely advised. And they ought to provide support to the entire ummah, looking to go beyond issues that only directly affect themselves in their activism. This is the beginning of true solidarity, one which all Americans, and Muslims, in particular, can benefit from.