By Hiba Akhtar
Someone texted a friend of mine a few weeks ago looking for khutbah topics. “Flint,” she replied. It seemed obvious. We live in a country in which elected representatives of a state have actively and quietly made the decision to harm their own residents by forcing them to consume and bathe in water polluted with lead. What else would you talk about?
To him, however, it wasn't so obvious. “Um… is that a Muslim issue?”
When one-third of the American Muslim population identifies as Black or African-American, the premise of such a question is in itself a reflection of a fundamental disconnect– one which hurts us at our core, extending past a lapse in inclusion, a careless “forgetting,” to a space of silencing and erasure which is debilitating to our community as a whole. Dehumanization of any kind, I am learning, is a two-way street. Those who are silenced suffer in a space of invisibility… and those of us who create that space also suffer, from our own self-inflicted inability to humanize.
“Um… is that a Muslim issue?”
There is a moment in between asking the question and awaiting the answer. It is powerful but fleeting, demanding self-reflection, curiosity, vulnerability, and even fear and discomfort. What, after all, does render a social issue about the collective suffering of a group of people as worthy of “our” concern as Muslims? In these times of pervasive trial, such moments are gems with the potential of making or breaking us– individually, within our Muslim communities, and in society as a whole.
Such moments existed in another time of intense trial and revolution: the life of the Prophet . In one instance, a companion named Abu Dharr , known for his piety, chided another companion: Bilal . “Oh son of a Black woman…” he called Bilal.
It is narrated that when the Prophet saw Abu Dharr after hearing this rebuke, he became visibly upset. His face turned red and he grew silent. Abu Dharr picked up on the change, and asked the Rasul if he was unhappy with him and why. “You still have ignorance in you,” reportedly responded the Prophet(s), referring to the incident with Bilal. Abu Dharr, overcome with remorse, approached Bilal, placed his head on the floor, and asked Bilal to step on it. Bilal , of course, couldn't bring himself to. That was the beauty of Bilal.
But so too was there beauty in Abu Dharr, who, even after making a mistake, lived up to his reputation as a pious man. The mistake led Abu Dharr to the uncomfortable place of recognizing the ignorance within himself, taking a moment to reflect and step outside of his own self; and then make the choice to self-correct and re-align his outlook with that of the Prophet . The Rasul , upset at Bilal's disrespect by Abu Dharr at the hands of a system which subjected Bilal to oppression due to the color of his skin, challenged Abu Dharr to renounce a pattern of thinking, speaking, and acting in complicity with ongoing cultural and societal structures of racial injustice. In his complicity, Abu Dharr chose his own humanity over his ego.
What does this have to do with Muslims and Flint? Everything. We are living through a pattern of racial crisis followed by anti-Muslim crisis, followed by racial crisis, followed by anti-Muslim crisis, and on and on, to the point where a young Somali American Muslim boy was thrown from a building, and three African teenagers were found dead in a house. It seems as though the question of race and religion for Muslim America is blending tragically that I cannot help but wonder in awe at the way our Creator seems to want us to open our eyes and step away from our own shortsightedness and compartmentalized understanding of humanity.
Us and Them
Flint is the current circumstantial embodiment of institutionalized injustice against the innocent, helpless and underprivileged, blaring at America in a way that we cannot ignore. The CDC has called for over 8,000 children under the age of 6 to be tested for lead poisoning, simply because of a decision lawmakers made to save themselves money and allow lead-polluted water to contaminate some of the poorest (mostly Black) bodies in the state of Michigan. The gross deployment of injustice is blaring here, and yet we still wonder whether Flint is a “Muslim issue.”
After one of the major battles during the lifetime of the Prophet which the Muslims won, the Sahabah were looking at the dead bodies of the enemy party sprawled throughout the battlefield, cheering. The Rasul made the same walk in the battlefield, but did so crying for the dead. Even for the group of people he had just fought in battle, the Prophet's humanity and pain didn't know an “us” or “them.” It knew loss of life and pain, and so it mourned.
Thinking in terms of “us” and “them” is subtle yet debilitating, like any life-threatening disease. Yet, in failing to notice the very plain racial segregation which goes on every day in American mosques, Sunday schools, and community events, we deepen that disconnect; effectively numbing the deployment of humanity, which should be reflexive for Muslim, a knee-jerk reaction even, in the process. As the hadith goes, the ummah is like a body. If one limb hurts the entire body hurts. What is the state of our collective heart?
On Politicizing Pain
These times are not easy. We recently crossed the one-year anniversary of the horrific murders of three of our brightest and most humane: Deah, Yusor, and Razan. The mayhem and backlash following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino still have many of us, myself included, reeling. Recent news from Ankara, Istanbul, Brussels, and Lahore makes one want to reach for a pause button for life somewhere, take a break, and then return: shoulders hunched to our ears, walking on eggshells, praying for a year without more news of death and destruction. The icing on the cake is that its election year, and therefore open season on Muslims once again. Republican presidential candidates are doing what they do, stumping for votes armed with violent and inciteful anti-Muslim rhetoric. These times are not at all easy, and we are no doubt in pain.
But it is also in these moments that we are presented with the opportunity to self-reflect. There have been few other times in my own life where I've been overloaded enough with jadedness to sit down and wonder where we've gone wrong. The sting of otherization hasn't prickled and burned more than its seemed to these past few years.
We need to start somewhere. More and more, I find myself in conversations with other South Asian Muslims about the prevalence of racism, silencing, and erasure within our mosques and faith communities. Organizations like MuslimARC are addressing this head-on, highlighting the roots of these issues.
Mosques in suburban Muslim communities tend to be dominated by particular ethnic groups. In my area, this group is my fellow South Asian-immigrant community, while in neighboring Virginia, many of these are Arab-dominated. Uninclusive and racially aware politics tend to set a particular “culture” within the mosque which is built on the silencing and erasure of other groups, women included. Mosque and Sunday school boards will rarely be intentionally diverse. In this way, internal mosque hierarchies so prevalent throughout Muslim America eerily recreate the white heteronormative-dominated narrative which dominates our lives and erases us in greater society as communities of color.
The current discourse about Flint heavily intersects with that of ongoing current-day social justice movements such as #BlackLivesMatter. This makes #BlackLivesMatter a Muslim issue. The New York Times discussed in an article about Flint the perpetuations of “environmental racism” displayed in the actions of Michigan governor Rick Snyder and his staff to allow contaminated water to flow through the faucets in Flint. This makes environmental racism a Muslim issue. Understanding and challenging the intersecting mechanisms which allow for racism to perpetuate and oppress the lives of people on a national scale will only help increase awareness and set a chain of motion, prompting American Muslims to do the work of cleaning these diseases from our own communities.
God does not change the condition of a people until they change themselves. The work of stepping back and observing the self to evaluate we move about the world, in search of those silent hierarchies, those silent moments where there is enough level ground stand and look around, wondering where there is something in this internal terrain which is a breeding ground for the divisions and lack of empathy we find ourselves immersed in, is hard work. But it is rewarding work.
Conditioned Model Minorities
In my own house, we've had many conversations about racism and its manifestation in our own communities. My parents' arrival to this country is product of American immigration policy which for a few decades, privileged the intellectual promise of scientists and engineers educated in Asia while segregating schools and relegating Black students to abysmal standards in educational attainment. Racism is written into the very structure of my existence as an American-born South-Asian Muslim woman. My parents' immigrant Muslim generation was conditioned to operate as model minorities, whose silence and assimilation privileged them over the Black community, which caused societal disruption with their unrelenting cries for freedom and equality. We have to contextualize how we got here. But that doesn't mean we don't do the work of connection, conversation, and rebuilding our hearts.
Last year, my dad came home after having a long conversation with a Black co-worker who was complaining about the embarrassment he felt watching Black communities in Baltimore set fire to buildings and revolt in the streets after the shooting Freddie Gray. “I told him what you told me… man, there's a lot of history, and a lot of anger. Man, those people are rebelling against a system that leaves them with no options to advance.” We have to start somewhere.
To choose an open heart, and an attitude of humility and self-reflection in the battlefield of a paranoid, wounded, and overwhelmed society is to choose courage in a world which tells you to self-protect and worry about your own. It is to consciously take one step closer to embodying the legacy left to us by our Prophet . It is to walk towards victory in the arena which we cannot see on the news or read about on the internet, but which can incite a lifetime of change and revolution. It is victory in the most sacred, most difficult, and most tender arena of all: the arena of the internal. The arena of the heart. A collective heart. A societal heart.
As we go about our lives, we are blessed with moments which demand us to choose. They find us every single day. Our legacy as members of the ummah of the final Prophet is to choose humanity, every single time. To reevaluate, to reclaim, to repurpose. It is the merciful and most compassionate route, that challenges the way you come to see the world and asks you to self-correct and take a better path. On days when you are hurting, choose to do something for someone else. It seems counterintuitive at first, but in helping to heal others we tenderly remove our own bandaids and expose our wounds for divine healing as well.
May Allah bring healing and justice to Flint, Michigan, and allow us to be better in supporting the oppressed in our societies and around the world.
Hiba Akhtar is communications professional and a graduate student of gender studies in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area. She tweets @_7iba