As part of CIOGC’s social justice campaign, we are releasing the first of a series of OpEds titled “Point of View”. These pieces will primarily focus on social inequality in America, and our perspective as American Muslims in today’s world.
When the recording of George Floyd’s killing first became public on May 25th, I did not have high expectations for Muslim Americans. For too long, we had long inadequately addressed the racial prejudices seen both in America as a whole and among members of our own community. And while the response to the Floyd killing has been heartening, it’s important that we take this opportunity to address the racism prevalent among members of the Muslim American community, and foster long term change within our Ummah.
My first experience with racism was in 2009, when I first started at an Islamic school at the age of 8. On my first day attending an Islamic school, my teacher pulled me aside before Dhuhr and asked me if I knew how to pray. Later in the day, my Quran teacher had brought me a Qaida, out of concern that perhaps I was not familiar with a Arabic alphabet. Oftentimes, I would receive assignments where the ‘ا’ in ‘زان’ would be crossed out, and replace it with a ‘ى’. I was told my name could not be Zan, since Zan isn’t a ‘Muslim name’. And while everyone involved certainly meant well, my name always stood out to those older than me, their questions and concerns about my parentage slowly wearing me down. I felt that, although I was a Muslim, I could never be as Muslim as an Abdullah or a Muhammad.
At least I am white.
Although I was different, I was different in a desirable way. Perhaps a remnant from their previous British suzerains, ‘whiteness’ is seen as a positive trait by many elder Muslims, as something to aspire towards. Look no further than the Gulf States, whose maltreatment and exploitation of South Asian laborers has been attributed to ‘deeply rooted… racial
discrimination’ by Human Rights Watch. Or take ‘Bollywood’, a term for India’s film industry,where actors and actresses claim to support the struggle against racial prejudice worldwide, but simultaneously promote ‘Fair & Lovely’, a skin-lightening agent that suppresses the production
of melanin, whose name speaks for itself.
And that is the crux of the generational issue in our Muslim American community. We often say the right things, but our underlying, oftentimes unconscious, attitudes reveal our true beliefs. We are against protests and riots, not because we don’t believe in the struggle against oppressors, but because we are ‘against violence’ (this same pacifist nature does not extend to the politics of our country of origin). We support converts on their journey to Islam, until our children ask to marry a convert. We claim that our Ummah sees no color, but use slurs such as kallu (a derogatory Urdu term meaning ‘black’) or abeed (‘slave’ in Arabic) to address Black
people behind their backs. We rightfully teach our children the inspirational stories of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, but how many of us are aware that the first American Muslims were Black slaves originating from West Africa? Or that over a fifth of American Muslims today are
Black? Or that many Black Muslims, originating from the Nation of Islam, were attracted to Islam because of its promise of racial equality and justice, a promise our community has so far failed to fulfill.
Oftentimes, in response to prejudices and insensitivities of our elders, I hear the excuse of a cultural divide; ‘They were not born in America, so they do not understand’ being the most common among them. And while that sentiment can be held for trivial things such as printing directions and the inability to operate a smartphone, it cannot be held for issues of social justice and human rights. Erasing injustice is deeply rooted within Islam. In the Quran, Allah SWT instructs to practice the principle of qist, or ‘fairness’. Qist includes everything from political movements to daily human interaction. Thus, everything from the casual use of kallu to our silence in response to the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more is not just a violation of morality, but a fundamental violation of Islam. We can no longer hide behind the walls of a contrived cultural incompatibility, but instead fulfill our Islamic duty as laid out for us in the Quran.
However, if there is a silver lining to be found within the George Floyd tragedy, it is just how effectively we’ve rallied around it. For the first time in my lifetime, social justice has not been relegated to a fringe movement composed just of Generation Z and ‘activists’. Protests have been held in all 50 states and across 40 countries, in every continent except Antarctica. Our Muslim community is no exception. Islamic activism, previously confined to celebrity figures such as Linda Sarsour or Imam Zaid Shakir, has been taken up not just by my generation, but by the generations of our imams, board members, and leaders, many of whom stood silent during previous movements. Our very own CIOGC has not only expressed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, but taken tangible steps to create change: hosting an interfaith dialogue and funding a social justice challenge for masajid in the Chicago community. Our generation is speaking up, and, for once, it seems as if the world is listening.
While the response of our Muslim community should be acknowledged and encouraged, I pray that long after these protests die down and the ever-turning news cycle moves on, Muslim Americans of ALL generations will never again turn a blind eye towards the plight of Black lives. I also pray that we all address the prejudices we hold onto, regardless of age or ethnicity. Combating injustice is not just the responsibility of the young, but an individual responsibility within our hearts, and the collective responsibility of our Ummah that we owe to our home.
Zan Hitchens is a junior at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign majoring in Materials Science and Physics. Zan is a biracial Muslim: the son of a Pakistani-American mother and a White father. He’s currently an intern at CIOGC, as well as an undergraduate research intern at Texas A&M University.