As a Muslim Canadian outsider, the U.S's race problem is blaring and obvious to me whenever I visit. Even in the more liberal states, whites and blacks live in separate neighbourhoods, and the black neighbouroods are poorer and not looked after by the city. Whites and blacks have very different jobs and roles in society.
After over 300 years of slavery, 99 years of segregation, and 52 years of tumultuous race relations, the race issue still dominates public discourse in America. While most of the world has normalized relations with the descendants of former slaves, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in America was unique in its shear brutality. African Americans were stripped of their names, languages, cultures, and religions, and were deprived of a knowledge of self that other peoples had. "Black" became synonymous with cruelty, ugliness, and bleakness, while Social Darwinist whites put themselves in a position of natural superiority.
African Americans fought long and hard to gain the same civil rights and liberties as ordinary Americans. Since the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 however, the race issue has remained salient, with spikes in relevance every so often. In general, black people still suffer indiscriminately from police brutality, high rates of incarceration, the breakdown of the family, and lower access to education, health care, and high-paying jobs. Some of these issues stem out of policies that overlook African American issues, while others are more social. Several movements were established to redress these serious issues, such as the NAACP, Urban League, the Rainbow PUSH coalition, as well as the Nation of Islam and other religious organizations. In recent years, Black Lives Matter (BLM) has become the leading activist group on the streets and on social media, bringing awareness to issues in the African American community and seeking to redress them through progressive policies.
Hamza Yusuf recently suggested that Muslims should not join BLM, in fear that more identity politics would exacerbate race relations in America. The Shaykh went on to naively use trigger phrases like "black on black violence", "more whites are shot by police", and "police are not all racist", which had him labelled as a racist by legions of hipster Muslims on Twitter. As many have pointed out, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf comes from a pretty privileged background - he grew up in a wealthy neighbourhood, his relatives were wealthy, his parents were well-educated, and he went to private schools (see here). His family marched with the civil rights movement and against the Vietnam War, and explored different world religions, but like a lot of 60-70s hippies, the Shaykh is probably still a bit more out of touch with the working class than the average person. Still though, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf has actually lived in with bedouins in Africa, and he has spoken about poverty, inequality, and the civil rights movement on multiple occasions. His resume, as a Shaykh that balances the best of Western education with traditional Sunni scholarship, is far more impressive than that of most Western Muslim speakers.
On one hand, Hamza Yusuf could have worded himself better to address the very real race problem in the United States. Yes, there are anti-discriminatory laws in place, but clearly a lot more needs to be done to redress the race issue - body cameras on cops, judicial reform, and affirmative action in police departments in minority communities are a good step. But the onslaught against Shaykh Hamza has a few people scratching their heads - first off, why don't we get the same outrage when a Muslim speaker says something insensitive about Shiites, or when a speaker gleans over racist or sexist injustices in the Muslim world? More pertinently though, is what Shaykh Hamza said wrong? Hamza Yusuf is a Sufi, which attracts a lot of liberal ears to listen to him, but he is a traditionalist and a conservative at his core, and so every now and then he will say something that will get this type of reaction (this time being the climax).
Hamza Yusuf's argument is, if BLM is just an angry rebuke to the system, with few clear policy goals, then it has the potential of making problems worse - more violence against police officers (more police have died in 2016 than in the last 5 years, some during BLM protests), and worse race relations in coming months and years. BLM is more than just the issue of police brutality - it is a living, breathing organization with its own motives and goals. For the purpose of this article, it is important for our minds to mentally separate BLM and police brutality for a moment. BLM in essence is a cadre of identity politics, which highlights one's race or gender as an essential quality in a person (rather than an accidental quality), and very much sees everything through the lens of racism. Hamza Yusuf said that this only helps create the type of "whitelash" we saw with the election of Trump, which will only make things worse for minorities and not better. Hamza Yusuf once said, ethics should be rooted in verbs and adverbs, not nouns and pronouns. I agree with this, and while racism and white privilege is real, we should talk about the *issues* that plague society and not just about identity.
This controversy has caused me to think on multiple fronts. With regards to the Muslim community, it is clear that most Muslim youth identify with leftist politics, since it is multicultural and inclusive. Unfortunately, that comes with baggage: secularism, individualism, naturalism and religious skepticism, identity politics, LGBT rights, hookup culture and the normalization of sex, third wave feminism, body positivism, political correctness, and in general pro-revolutionary sentiments in almost every situation where even mild grievances exist. Balancing this with the Islamic tradition, which can be opposite on most of these issues, is particularly troublesome. The hipster Muslima with a rainbow scarf and a Guevara shirt marching at a Sl*tWalk is becoming increasingly more normal in Western Muslim communities.
I also began thinking about how Black Lives Matter differs from earlier black organizations. There's no doubt that BLM is the cool kid on the block, whom every Muslim revolutionary wants to embrace (Jonathan AC Brown, Linda Sarsour, Suhaib Webb to name a few). However, are their goals the same as the black community, and are they consistent with Islam?
In the 1990s, we saw another spike in relevance of the race issue, and this time, it was the Nation of Islam (NOI) under Louis Farrakhan that was the primary "race communicator" for black people in America. The NOI is a black nationalist American Muslim sect that differed from traditional Islamic views on theology and race. Irregardless of where the NOI may have deviated, the Nation of Islam organized a grassroots movement that brought black civil rights groups, religious groups, and activists together at the 1995 Million Man March. The Million Man March was a historic rally at Washington DC that brought leading African American figures together to demand justice and reproach, including Rosa Parks, Betty Shabazz, Jesse Jackson, Jeremiah Wright, Shaykh Ahmad Tijani Ben Omar, and Minister Farrakhan.
The Million Man March approached the issue of African American suffering in a very different way than BLM. First off, the March was only for black males, who were seen as the major agents of potential change in the Afro-American community. Over 72% of black children are born out of wedlock. Fatherlessness, which Hamza Yusuf mentions in his later apology lecture, is detrimental to any family, and leads to higher rates of poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental health problems. Considering the high rates of gang violence, incarceration, drug abuse, and unprotected sex among black males, any solution to the plight of African Americans must include black men. Secondly, the Million Man March sought to bring all religious organizations together to seek repentance and God's support. As people of faith, we don't see all suffering simply as a result of natural causes; rather some suffering can be a divine trial or chastisement, by which we must seek God's succor. The event's major themes were "Lessons from the Past", "Affirmation and Responsibility", and "Atonement and Reconciliation", and it was believed that the very real injustices that exist in America would only be solved through a return to traditional values. Thirdly, the Million Man March gave the means for thousands of black people to register as voters, making the black community a strong political bloc in the American electoral system. The event ended with a pledge to God that they would be good community members from that day forward.
Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, has a very different vision for black America. It is, of course, absolutely secular, and blames the collective suffering of black people on white supremacy. Furthermore, not only does BLM sideline black fathers, but it ignores them completely on their website. BLM has a lot to say about the LGBT community and [presumably single] mothers, its guiding principles leaves straight black males out completely, despite the documented problems that fatherless homes can cause in the lives of youth. BLM even sees traditional "nuclear families" as somehow white supremacist, even though families in Africa are largely patriarchal and nuclear. Yusra Khogali, the leader of the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter (remember, Hamza Yusuf made his comments in Toronto), infamously tweeted about "killing men and whitefolks", and shared articles telling women to avoid conscientious black men. Khogali recently protested against Dr. Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, for refusing to use genderless pronouns like "xe" instead of "he" or "she". BLM also hijacked the Gay Pride Parade until their demands on the Pride organization were met, and hijacked a Bernie Sanders event in 2015. Millennial organizations like BLM are the reason why the alt-right exists, who also use the same frame of identity politics to identify as white nationalists to attack Muslims, blacks, women, and others. Contributing to the frame of identity politics can awaken the sleeping white-nationalist giant in Europe and North America, and awaken far right-wing voices that want to push all minorities away.
Not only does BLM stand for things that are totally irreconcilable with Islam, such as the LGBT issue, but it is devoid of the religiosity found in other black movements, the participation of straight black men, and it does not responsibly address issues within the black community. It is focused on "fighting the system", rather than clamping down on a hookup culture that is destined to plague another generation with fatherless households and STDs. Rather than solving the problems related black fathers, it ignores their issues and fails to address them. It is common to find feminist circles that paint black fathers as irresponsible misogynists that are part of the problem and not the solution - this attitude can only make things worse.
At the very least, the Nation of Islam encouraged a self-help approach: they promoted strong family values, they started rehabilitation programs for those affected by drugs and alcohol, they deployed their Fruit of Islam unit to stop riots and gang violence, they established their own schools and curricula, and they rid their community of the social ills that affect other black communities. BLM on the other hand is a Soros-funded intersectional liberal organization with an agenda that does not jive with Abrahamic religion.
When women, Latinos, blacks, Muslims, and homosexuals began popularizing identity politics, it was a natural consequence that right-wing whites would start doing the same. Some people honestly believe that unless you are black, then you aren't capable of commenting on anything to do with the black community. A white person commenting on black affairs, even to defend black people, is considered a racist by liberals because he is "whitesplaining". Franchesca Ramsey recently appeared in a video arguing that very point. The result of this thinking however is potentially devastating. It means that white people will no longer speak up against racism, because they don't want to appear racist or patronizing. It also means that educated people with legitimate views will be silenced simply due to their race. It also limits outsider perspectives, which are always necessary in a democracy, as every group should be critiqued and held accountable by outsiders. Strange enough, it's also kind of contradictory to multiculturalism - by saying only black people can speak about black issues, and women can only be feminists, and males are inherently privileged, you end up segregating society further. A white male like Hamza Yusuf speaking about race relations or women's issues does not contradict the ethics of our religion - I'm not saying he's right or wrong, I'm saying that he has the right to speak on these issues especially as a trained scholar.
Let's keep in mind that the Muslim community in America in the 60s and 70s was largely an organic one (the biggest being Warith Deen Muhammad's movement), made up of working-class African Americans and white converts. The early Muslim immigrants to America even joined these communities and worked closely with them. But the big influx of bourgeois Muslim immigrants in the 80s and 90s, with their foreign funding (from Saudi and elsewhere), established their own separate communities, bought out the existing communities / swallowed them up, then ostracized the native population, until they almost fizzed out completely. Now, some of those same upper-middle class children of immigrants think they can be pro-black because of their liberal arts degree, a Malcolm quote and a BLM march, yet they themselves would never marry a black person, or volunteer with the homeless or at a prison, or mingle with working-class people in general. As someone who has decent connections within the African American Muslim community in the U.S, I can tell you that these second-generation Muslims really mean nothing to them, and often do more harm than good.
Overall, I agree with Mehdi that Muslims need to be doing more outreach with other communities - that includes the black community. We should also address racism in our own communities, which is more outward than in the average white community. In Trump's America, we cannot afford to stand alone; we need to do more for our cities and our Muslim and non-Muslim communities. We can reach out to black churches, support black businesses, and join civil rights organizations. At the same time, we cannot fall into the trap of supporting causes that are antithetical to our tradition.