I open social media as the “Black Lives Matter” movement is at its height. I scroll through videos of police brutality, pictures from peaceful protests, posts with informative content about racial injustice, and occasionally, a Muslim urging other Muslims to not support the movement.
In the last few months, racial issues have been a major point of discussion in the United States. The calls for racial justice that erupted across the country following the death of Black Americans, such as George Floyd, at the hands of the police and the subsequent developments have been met with mixed reactions by Muslim Americans. Many have been vocal advocates for the Black Lives Matter movement and joined protesters on the streets in support. Others, citing the lack of media attention on the suffering that the Muslim world faces and the discrimination that American Muslims face, express that there is no need for such a movement when Muslims are also struggling at large.
However, those who are truly knowledgeable about American history and Islam will know that this is a fight that must be fought by Muslims. Black Americans make up a significant part of the Muslim community in America — around 20% of Muslims in America are Black. In addition to this, Islam constantly emphasizes the importance of speaking up amongst injustice towards anyone, regardless of religion, and caring for one’s neighbor: One day, when a person approached Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) with the question: “O Messenger of Allah, I have two neighbors, to which of them should I send a present?” He (PBUH) replied: “To the one whose door is nearer to you”. (Bukhari).
We can consider those that live closest to us, the people in our immediate community within the country we live in, to be our priority. As long as we live in the same country, we are each other’s neighbors, and we must fight for one another. To ignore the plight and suffering of Black Americans would be completely against the principles of Islam.
In fact, although racism is something that everyone should be paying attention to, it should strike more deeply a chord in the hearts of Muslims. In the Last Sermon, Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) reiterated some of his most important teachings so that they may be passed down and live on in the world that he was leaving behind. One of these was “An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also, a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”
Racism, although it took a different form then, was a reality even at that time. It is the essence of Islam to protect the vulnerable against injustices and to speak up when injustices do take place. In one hadith, the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) states: “Whoever among you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand [by taking action]; if he cannot, then with his tongue [by speaking out]; and if he cannot, then with his heart [by at least hating it and believing that it is wrong], and that is the weakest of faith.” (Muslim) Applied to the current moment, this would require that Muslims take action against the injustices that they see occurring, even if by only speaking out. The Black Lives Matter movement is a perfect embodiment of these very core values of the Islamic faith.
Islamophobia in the United States is also rampant and dangerous. However, while widespread bigotry against Muslims in America is relatively new, the oppression that Black Americans face is unique as it traces back hundreds of years and has become deeply ingrained in the systems that govern us. The injustices that Black Americans face in the country today are a result of the combined legacy of slavery, segregation, and discriminatory ideologies that they have faced since the very foundation of this nation. These systems designed to disproportionately disadvantage black Americans and the ideologies that view Black Americans as inferior have persisted and created long lasting effects on American society.
Slavery existed for hundreds of years before the 13th amendment abolished it. However, in order to maintain the enslavement of Black Americans, new laws called “black codes” were created to criminalize minor offenses, such as being unemployed, in order to arrest and enslave Black Americans once again. Slavery was legally abolished, “…except as a punishment for crime” allowing a new form of slavery to rise. Following this period, white America continued to exclude and oppress Black Americans through what is now known as the Jim Crow era. Redlining was a method used to exclude Black Americans from certain ‘nicer’ neighborhoods by being refused mortgages so they would be forced to live in areas of poverty. They were denied higher paying jobs and other opportunities, making it impossible for them to escape destitution.
Today, Black Americans continue to disproportionately live in poverty and face incarceration. “Black Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet they are 40 percent of those behind bars. This is the result not of criminality, but of policies that target communities of color. For example, Black Americans use drugs at roughly the same rate as whites, but they make up 31% of those arrested for drug law violations, and nearly 40% of those in prison.” A black person is also five times more likely to be stopped without just cause than a white person. The high cost of education along with low wage jobs combined with the restrictions put on those that are black and poor lead to those growing up in these environments to helplessly be stuck in this cycle. Poverty leads to greater crime which leads to more policing in these neighborhoods and disproportionate levels of brutalization and deaths at the hands of the police. Some of these incidents are recorded and spread online, while others go unseen. George Floyd was suffocated and murdered under the knee of a police officer, and its video enraged the public and ignited the protests that have been occurring for the past few months.
This is only a fraction of the difficulties that Black Americans have faced in this country for hundreds of years. It is evident that racism and injustice continues to thrive in the United States, therefore it is a Muslim’s duty to tackle this as the Holly Qur’an explicitly states the importance of justice: “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives…” [4:135]
We must also be vocal about the plight of Muslims throughout the Muslim world and encourage others to do so as well. The lack of attention to their suffering should be of great concern, but fighting for justice in one area does not mean you cannot or should not fight for it in another area. You also cannot pin the struggles of Muslim Americans and Black Americans against one another. They are both a part of the battle in the greater fight against injustice and oppression in the world.
These forms of discrimination overlap with the lives of Black Muslims like Malcolm X. He, a very high profile and an extremely influential Black American in U.S. history, who was incredibly frustrated by the racial injustices that he and his community constantly faced, understood after becoming a Muslim and completing his pilgrimage to Mecca that Islam has no tolerance for any kind of racism. He realized that truly no race is superior over the other, no one is born with hatred, and that peaceful coexistence of the races was possible. “I saw all races, all colors, blue eyed blonde to black skinned Africans in true brotherhood! In unity! Living as one! Worshiping as one! No segregationists, no liberals; they would not have known how to interpret the meaning of those words.” The life and death of Malcolm X is exemplary of how black Americans are treated in the country, and how Islam can play a role in tackling discrimination.
At the Black Lives Matter protest in Brooklyn, New York during June of this year, Muslims paused their chanting for a moment and joined shoulder to shoulder for a prayer outside as the non-Muslim protestors silently gathered around them for protection until their prayer was over. This moment should stand as an example for what should be seen around the country; Muslims from all races standing side by side with non-Muslims in solidarity, fighting for justice and equality. We should not use our suffering as an excuse to belittle the suffering of others, but rather we should stand in solidarity with all those facing injustice across the world to create a stronger collective voice against oppression.