Calling ‘Islamophobia’ by Its True Name!-Shaykh Abdullah bin Hamid Ali

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In the name of Allah, Most Beneficent, Most Merciful

All praise is due to Allah, and salutations of peace and blessing upon His beloved Prophet Muhammad, his family, companions and followers until the Judgment Day. 

There is no “official” “Muslim” response to the Boston Bombings, nor could there ever be. As a matter of fact, there is no “official” “Muslim” response to any given event that has or can ever happen as long as we are on this earth. The reasons are many, but the most important of them in my view is (1) that the word “Muslim” is not an all-encompassing referent in psycho-social terms, among non-Muslims and “Muslims” alike. Take for instance, the fact that a “convert” to Islam even after being Muslim for 30 years is often still apprehended and apprehends him/herself as a liminal Muslim in permanent transition to “true” and “authentic” Islam, while similar ideas are often not entertained about Muslims who ascend from “Muslim” countries.

Another reason ideological uniformity is a false projection (2) is that ideological diversity of Muslims throughout the world is equal to or even more than the degree of their ethnic and cultural diversity. In other words, conditions on the ground often contribute to the adoption of particular ways of thinking and practicing Islam, even as relates to a single country. For this second factor, it is never possible to offer a “fatwa FOR AMERICA” or a fatwa that truly considers the realities, needs, and concerns of every person living in any given environment. Similar to this in secular terms are the so-called “national” discussions and debates about a number of issues, like gun control, immigration, and abortion. Such discussions almost never truly transcend their dominant white cultural biases, even though they are presented as matters beyond the scope or subjectivity of any given people.

I was recently asked by a reporter, “When you heard of the Boston bombings, did you say to yourself: “I hope it’s not a Muslim?”” To her surprise, I responded, “No! I didn’t.” Of course, this astonished her, so she pressed me further asking, “Why didn’t you feel that way?” And, this is where I need you to pay very close attention. I responded, “Listen! I’m an African American. I do not feel the sense of alienation that my brethren from overseas feel. I also feel that my way of being an “American” is likewise accepted as an authentic Americanness. And, those who are honest know that the word, “Muslim”, is a racialized word. The image conjured up in the minds of the average white American when they think of both “Islam” and “Muslim” is that of a brown or olive skinned person from the East.” I continued, and then asked this reporter (she was a white American), don’t you agree? To that she said, “I concur.”

The fact that a “Muslim” in national debates is not perceived of, by most non-Muslim white Americans, as an abstract personality is something that the overwhelming majority of African Americans (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) can take for granted knowing full well of what is meant by it when we start to speak of Islamic terrorism and radicialization. Interestingly enough to many over this past weekend, Muslim comedian, Preacher Moss, told a joke that echoed these very sentiments that I expressed to members of the mosque the night before. He said, “Some people when talking about the Boston bombings were saying: “It’s a bad day for Muslims.” I was like: “No it aint! It’s a bad day for TWO Muslims. I’m on my way to get me a cup of coffee from Starbucks.”

This invisible specter of racism is becoming very clear to many Muslims, which may lead us to question the way we respond to what we like to call “Islamophobia.” Though the term is a legitimate term which describes mainstream (largely white) reaction to “Muslim” otherness regardless of that Muslim’s color or country of origin, as a tool for promoting greater tolerance/acceptance it has largely failed to deflect the verbal and physical hate inspired assaults on Muslims. Muslims are more hated and mistrusted today since 9/11 in spite of the myriad condemnations and apologies for things that we collectively have not done nor endorsed, and in spite of the new sense of “patriotism” expressed by many of us especially those who have now decided to support imperialism or at least endorse America’s foreign agenda in the Arab world.

“Islamophobia” is a legal term we should keep. However, we must not allow our fear of being persecuted or our desire not to offend non-racist white Americans to not call Islamophobia by its real name: ANTI-ARAB RACISM! I say this because it is clear that everyone being attacked is either an Arab or perceived to be an Arab. Not even Sikhs and Hindus are safe from the racist attacks of the many white racists as we have seen on more than one occasion. Muslims need to get over this notion that racism is only racism when it involves a white person against a black person. Racism also happens when it involves a white person against any non-white person, just as it can happen between any other groups of people. When I see most of those being attacked verbally and physically are either Arab or perceived to be Arab and most of those doing the attacking (even those in the government trying to pass anit-Shari’a laws) are predominantly white, I have no doubt that this a recent manifestation of traditional American racism. Calling Islamophobia by its true name (racism) puts Muslim attackers on the defensive in stead of the offensive. Calling them an Islamophobe does nothing to disarm them one bit.

The irrational fear of “Muslims” is real in America. “Muslims” are perceived as an alien force seeking to adulterate the “purity” of American society and culture. It is as if Muslims at times understand this reality (i.e. the racial dynamic), and attempt to reinforce the idea that “real” Muslims come from over there, since after all, we want “white” acceptance and validation. That is our major goal, right? I mean, integration? To help you understand why I make this allegation, think about the following: Any time you as a Muslim offer your condolences, condemnations, and apologies for the actions of other Muslims, who are we trying to influence? Is it directed at Black America? Latino America? Native America? Chinese America? Japanese America? Hindu America? Or to White America? If your answer is that you are offering it as a Muslim’s religious duty in light of the fact this is a “national” event associated with Muslims and Islam, may I ask why there was no “national” condemnation or apology to the non-Muslim population of Philadelphia, PA last year when a group of Muslim men dressed up in Muslim women attire, robbed a bank, and killed an officer during the getaway? The Prophet – peace and blessing upon him – told us that, “A person will remain honest in speech until Allah records him as “an honest person” (siddiq).”

Many of us indeed do exploit this misunderstanding of whites for political and social gain in my view. However, the strategy has proven to be a failure as we can see today. We can’t expect to gain full integration in American society as long as we continue to subtly accentuate difference in such a way that it fuels white anxiety over a “Muslim” invasion. We are proud Americans today when yesterday many of us were disgusted with the notion of Islam and America coming together in the body of a single Muslim. We have given up formerly dominant perspectives about the division of the world into the Abode of Islam and the Abode of Unbelief when we were once proud of our Muslim moral and political exceptionalism. Though much of this is good or at least pragmatic for socio-political concerns, some of us employ a strategy that undermines the goal of integration whenever we speak of relations in terms of Islamic vis-a-vis American. This reinforces that old fashioned, “American-Muslim”, false dichotomy unknowingly in my view.

What I see amongst us today are three basic groups (even though the division is a bit more nuanced):

  1. Recent immigrants;
  2. the children of immigrants born and raised in the US;
  3. and Converts. If our collective goal is integration and/or acceptance in American society, there is much we can do to achieve this together. (Converts are already integrated). Firstly, we need to acknowledge that there are differences in the limits of our freedom and agency to tackle the issues facing us in the country. Converts (specifically white and black converts) enjoy privileges that our immigrant brethren do not. For one, converts are not typically targeted by the FBI for entrapment, fear of deportation, or being taken off to some secret prison or Guantanamo. We also don’t usually feel alienated from our countrymen and women. It is for these reasons it was easy for me to speak from the heart to the aforementioned reporter who also seemed very comfortable with telling how she truly felt about all these issues. I doubt seriously if I happened to be a big bearded Arab or Pakistani man that she would have felt totally at ease with speaking to me in such a manner, and I also would have probably tried my best not to say anything that I believed would make her feel uneasy.

It is because converts (especially white converts) enjoy such privilege that we have an added responsibility not to simply accept mainstream narratives of incidents ascribed to Muslims without raising pertinent questions. In other words, instead of us “imagining” that when there is anti-Muslim fervor in the country over an incident that it is directed against us as well, we should be courageous enough to at least give those accused the benefit of the doubt until all facts have been gathered and we can examine them for authenticity. “O you who believe! When a shameless sinner comes to you with news ascertain clear proof; lest you falsely accuse a people out of ignorance and thereafter suffer regret for what you have done” (Qur’an). Rather than saying, “I’m shocked that a Muslim could do such a thing!” Or “Those guys aren’t Muslims, because real Muslims don’t do those kind of things”, why not say something like, “I have nothing to say other than that I express my condolences for those killed and harmed.” If the police–nay! even better– the courts haven’t offered a final word on what happened, why should I feel obligated to offer my “opinion” on the people “accused” of committing the crime? As converts, we need to know that we do ourselves more harm when we imagine that we have become that “universal” Muslim we at times think is understood by the word “Muslim” in this negative atmosphere.

As for my immigrant brethren, I totally understand your uneasiness and fear. I understand as well why you would also be concerned whether or not a crime committed is attributed to a “Muslim.” It’s because deep down inside you know that “Muslim” is not a generic title. It is a racialized term that means “one of you.” So your condemnations are understandable.

However, I believe that there have been sufficient condemnations on your part that the rest of us can use as proof against racists in America that they desire something more than an apology or condemnation. They desire you to be uprooted from American society. It’s classic xenophobia. It’s classic racism. So we should no longer fear stating the obvious, especially if we hope to spare our children from growing up here with an inferiority complex and a fear to express themselves according to their own unique ways. Unless being America means to be white or (if you’re not white it) means to do all we can to assuage white fears while being content with living under white terror ourselves, we should remind America that it is a place that is supposed to accommodate the concerns, anxieties, and aspirations of EVERYONE, not just those of the dominant culture. If a Muslim is not equated with being Arab or Arab-like, than American should also not be equated with being white or white-like, even though that may be the popular sentiment.

As for the children of immigrants, keep fighting to find your true authentic identity, but let it be an identity of “your” choosing, not of others.

We are indeed NOT a monolithic people; not as Muslims and not as Americans, and neither are our needs and concerns. Black converts don’t have the concern for integration and acceptance that immigrants generally do. Our concerns are economic, educational, and moral in nature. Immigrant major concerns seems to be integration.

We ask Allah to make us brethren, true and sincere, resting upon Thrones in the Garden of Firdaws.


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