Something to Rally Behind

On January 13th, 2015, the Muslim Advocates will hold oral arguments in front of the United States Court of Appeals in Philadelphia to challenge the constitutionality of the NYPD Muslim spying. The New Jersey plaintiffs include a Muslim Students Association member Moiz Mohammad, Imam W. Deen Shareef, Specialist Farhaj Hassan, U.S. Army Reserves, and Imam Abdul Kareem Muhammad.  According the New York Times, the Demographics Unit of the NYPD mapped communities inside and outside of New York. Plainclothes detectives focused on 28 “ancestries of interest” collecting information, such as, “where Albanian men played chess in the afternoon”, “where Egyptians watched soccer” and “where South Asians played cricket.” The arms of the surveillance program of Muslim students extended its reach into Philadelphia. For some of the UPenn students who were spied upon simply for their faith, it was a traumatic wake up call. Although most of those students graduated since then, the NYPD case remains current in Philadelphia, making the city a relevant place to the ongoing debate on civil liberties related to Islam in America.

Simultaneous to the hearing, and in consideration of the diversity of the plaintiffs for this case,  Mohammad Naquvi organized  the January 13th rally: A Monumental Moment for Muslim Civil Rights and #Justice4All, which will take place outside the court while the lawyers argue their case.

It remains unclear the degree to which national Muslim organizations engaged with the predominantly working class in Philadelphia in leading up to the hearing. This question is part of a larger one working to address the rift between national Muslim civil rights organizations and the black American community.  The organizers of Muslims Make It Plain rally, who endorsed the event on the 13th, see this as an opportunity to create bridges across sectarian, racial, ethnic, and class lines. Arguably, it was after September 11th, that these patterns began to shift, when there was a rupture from the “aspirational whiteness” of some immigrant Muslims.  Many black Muslims responded with a welcome-to-the-club message in light of the increased surveillance, not so random screenings at the airport and patters of employment discrimination that all Muslims faced.

But more than a decade later, it remains clear that there is still a division in the attitude of civil liberty issues amongst American muslims.  Police brutality and the prison industrial complex are considered to be black issues while surveillance and torture are Muslim issues.  But we know that both of these make black Americans some of the most vulnerable to surveillance, which can have dire consequences for those entrapped in FBI counterterrorism tactics.  The discourse on Ferguson, NYPD police officer slayings, and even the Make It Plain Philly protests reflect a type of paranoia surrounding black and Muslim identities. Islamophobes called Ferguson and New York protests jihads against America.

Further, there is a tendency to discuss Muslim civil rights from the context of immigrant Muslims, drawing upon an “integration model.”  In a recent article, Daniel Tutt explains the integration paradigm stating that:

Much of this strategy is repeated in American Muslim civil rights activism, where the key objective is to focus on integration through empowerment triggered by Islamophobia alarmism. This model encourages Muslims to identify with a cultural narrative that resembles that of a racial other persecuted by government apparatuses of power. While mostly led by immigrant Muslims, due to privilege and resource allocation within the community, this model often suffers from being unable to connect its narrative to the long history of black civil rights activism that might otherwise strengthen its present strategies. Black Muslims exist in this model largely in theory, invoked in sermons and speeches, and a handful of articulate spokespersons grace immigrant Muslim conferences, but they are not given substantial leadership roles. This may be one of the reasons that, at the grassroots level, the civil rights model of activism has been unable to rally black Muslims to the cause of Islamophobia.

Failing to deal with patterns of anti-blackness in the Muslim community, the civil rights efforts of Arab, South Asian and immigrant Muslims will remain largely disconnected to the freedom struggles that have shaped, and are currently, shaping this nation. National organizations are cognizant of this, but the way out must be through empowered black leadership and partnerships rather than paternalistic relationships or tokenizing black leadership.

Like many of the Muslim students and doctors working in Center City in Philadelphia, some organizations have yet to navigate the dynamic local Muslim community in Philadelphia. Although Temple University, Drexel University, and University of Pennsylvania are largely urban campuses with mosques in the nearby vicinity,  many of the students hardly venture beyond campus to visit places like United Muslim Masjid, Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, Jami’a masjid, Al-Aqsa Islamic Society, Philadelphia Masjid, Quba Institute or the many other Muslim communities that have deep roots in the city. Philadelphia is often overlooked in larger narratives about Islam in America, although you’d be hard pressed to walk a city block without encountering someone identifiably Muslim.  It is a place where people feel safe expressing their Islam, which is a marked contrast to other parts of the country where the fear of profiling make outward manifestations of faith more problematic. Philadelphia is where the constitution was ratified, so the symbolic meaning of Islam’s presence here should not be lost.

This civil rights case has the potential to bring about a more synergy between the MSAs, Muslim professionals, intellectuals, and local communities. If we want Muslim civil rights organizations to help spark a grassroots movement, we need to reframe some of these narratives. That means we need to listen to those who have walked down this road.  There are many lessons to learn in black resistance and black institution building. Black Muslims are not begging for a seat at the table. This is a meal that black Muslims prepared in a house that they built.  Black Muslims know the layout, it’s boobey traps and secret doors.  The sense of belonging cannot be predicated upon winning the acceptance of those who are willfully ignorant and wish to violently hold on to their privilege and power to oppress. Working together for shared causes is one way to create connections that instill a deep sense of belonging in our society.  This includes having a resounding sense of belonging in which our American identity, Muslim identity, and cultural identities complement each other.

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  • About the autor
    Margari Aziza Hill

    Margari Aziza Hill is a co-founder and Programming Director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative. She holds a masters from Stanford University. She is currently researching colorism in Muslim education.

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