Muslims in America are becoming more aware of Islamophobia every day. Tied to the rhetoric of fear from many Presidential candidates, American Muslims are being targeted for attack because of their religion. Sadly, it is not just Muslims, but people perceived to be Muslims, whether Sikh or Hindu. At the same time, many types of Muslims escape the same sort of vitriol directed to people with brown skin.
Muslims are the victims of discrimination now that other faith and immigrant groups have faced in the past. These statements are true, but they should not be an excuse. As a country, we should not point any jingoistic hazing as a source of pride. Rather, the fact that this sort of exclusion happens should be a shock to our system; no matter when or where we are talking about in our history, there is always hate against other people, including against other Americans.
The founding of our nation started with the exclusion of the Native Americans from their land. We have gone so far as to create a separate polity for indigenous peoples, as an attempt to remove them from the American narrative.
But the people we hate the most in this country are Black people. They were enslaved, and it is literally on the backs of Black people that we built this country. Yet, at every moment, as a nation, we say that Black people are not of our national body. That Black lives are not worth the same as White lives. At every moment, we see a new way that says Black Lives do not Matter, whether it is housing, failing to ensure equal economic opportunity, or policing.
If we say that the people who were on this land first are not part of the nation and that the people who worked to make this country are not part of the nation, it is no wonder that we find it so easy to say other people who arrived later are not part of this nation either.
Islamophobia is yet another ongoing manifestation of our inability as a nation to recognize that Black Lives Matter. We accept that there are, in practice, gradations of being American, and as long as we can easily penalize a people based on the color of their skin, we can do so to anyone we find different than what we perceive as American.
With respect to Muslims, it is really an easy conflation between perceived immigrants and religion. The majority of Muslims in America are Black, but are not often the targets of Islamophobic attacks. Black lives are demeaned in different ways that have become ingrained in our society. Muslims with brown skin are more obvious targets, which is why Islamophobic attacks incorrectly include Sikhs and Hindus. It is not about religion, but about race.
At the same time, the presence of Black Muslims also tells the long history of Muslims in the United States, starting with the slave period. Much of the possibility of an American Muslim experience is due to the long history of Black Muslims in this country. My own views of justice include the teachings of Imam Ali, the religious successor to Prophet Muhammad’s authority, and wisdom of Malcolm X.
When I think of Ahmadou Diallo, I know that he was Muslim. But he was not shot because he was Muslim. He was shot 41 times because he was a Black man reaching for his wallet. These parts of who Diallo was cannot be separated from each other, but what we see first is the color of his skin.
To truly contend with the rise in Islamophobia, we need to understand that Black Lives Matter. Until we get to a point that we recognize the grave injustices committed against a group of Americans since the founding of the nation, and that are continuously committed both implicitly and explicitly, there can be no justice for anyone. Once we recognize that Black Lives Matter, we also see the richness of Black contributions to America, including from Muslims.