How Muslim Sectarianism is connected to Islamophobia, by Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad

la tanaaza'oo.jpgAmidst the climate of increased anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and the cacophony of noise decrying the evils of islamophobia and the islamophobes, confronting Muslim sectarianism is not a palpable topic for front line attention. Why should American Muslims even stop to think or care about sectarianism within our own ranks, when everyone is worried about islamophobia?

Why consecrate cerebral real estate to thinking about deep-rooted division within the Muslim body when Muslims are being harassed, harangued, mowed down and killed in the streets? That’s a good question. After all, as American Muslims, there are more immediate things to contend with; our honor, our reputation, our dignity and our lives that are at stake. Islamophobia is an assault on all of that. However, what many of us fail to realize is; so is sectarianism. It’s easy to look at islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment and think that is was formed in a vacuum and simply came out of nowhere, or that is fueled by pure ignorance, and good old fashioned American bigotry, without there being any underlying factors that contribute to anti-Islamic sentiment.

Such an assessment is flawed, and underscores just how much more Muslims need to understand the American people and how we form our ideas, and even our biases. What many people fail to understand is that there is a direct link Muslim Sectarianism and islamophobia. They are connected in more ways than many of us are willing to concede.

Sectarianism, extremism and racism, are the trifecta of pathology in moral dysfunction that plague Muslims world-wide. If you look at the fighting in Iraq, the fighting in Syria, the fighting in Pakistan, the bombings of mosques, and the war lording factions in the Muslim world, you will see Muslim sectarianism. Despite the blame we can attribute to western powers and their meddling in the Muslim world, there is still at the core a basic concept of Muslim on Muslim killing, legitimized through ethnicity, sect, and sub islamic ideology, especially between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and through racial differences. But what does one have to do with the other, and what does any of them have to do with islamophobia?

Muslim sectarianism is not an imaginary monster; it is not a fairy-tale or a Hollywood horror movie. it is real, it is pervasive, and it is consequential. Obviously we can see its results in the Muslim world, but we can see it’s consequence as well in various and sundry ways in our own American Muslim sectarianized communities.  These are not imagined problems; these are real shortcomings that affect Muslims and non-Muslims alike. When Muslims emigrate to the United States from the places where sectarian strife is ingrained in the society, it is only reasonable that some people will be concerned that some of this sectarian modality that we’ve become famous for, will germinate here in the United States. You can call such a person an Islamophobe, but others would say that such a person is a pragmatist. I’m not justifying bigotry, or generalization, or implying that this is always the case, but what I am saying is that is grossly unintelligent to suggest that it is never the case. Furthermore, by our own admission, we are a sectarianized community on many levels, and if such be true, then it is a reasonable assumption that this could be a contributing factor to anti-Islamic sentiment. Whether or not Muslim sectarianism should influence people’s views about Islam and Muslims is another conversation. However, the fact remains that it does, whether we think it should or not. Not only that. sectarianism affects us morally and spiritually and it raises important questions about who we are as a religious community.

Amongst the thousands of Muslims with whom I have spoken, interviewed, taught or lectured during the last twenty years, there is an almost unanimous consensus that Muslim sectarianism is a ubiquitous cancer affecting our communities here in the United States. It is problematic, it is ugly, and it affects our lives and the lives of our children. If it is present, and if it affects our masaajid, our interaction with each other and contributes to our division, then it goes without saying that these eventualities could and are likely to influence the way that people look at Muslims, and contributes to anti-Islamic sentiment, or what people call islamophobia.

Therefore, American Muslims cannot adequately address islamophobia until we address the irrefutable dynamics that help define the narrative of our civilizational personality of which sectarianism is at the top of the list. The Muslim ummah in many ways is against itself and against each other according to race, nationality, ethnicity and sub-religious doctrine. We ourselves cannot deny that. We ourselves complain about it, talk about it and write about it. It is flippant to think that the world has not taken notice of that. It is intellectually disingenuous to think for moment that the way we are as a Muslim people, does not influence the way that people look at us. More importantly, it is close to heresy to believe that the way we are in reality does not determine how our Lord looks at us.

Anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States is directed at immigrant Muslim and immigrant Muslim communities in a much higher proportion that it is directed at African American or white American Muslims who were born and raised here. In the inner cities, people are changing their attitudes towards  African American Muslims not because they are Muslim, but because of their association with immigrant Muslims who are viewed as racist and some of whom capitalize on drug, alcohol and gambling addiction, by selling crack pipes, meth pipes, liquor, lottery tickets, blunts and pornography in inner city neighborhoods and then shutting down for two hours on Friday and heading off to the local mosque. People see that. People are aware of that, they talk about it, and it contributes to anti-Muslim sentiment and there is nothing irrational about that.

It goes without saying that as Muslims, we should be very concerned about islamophobia or anti-Muslim rhetoric and we should do whatever we can to curb it. However, recent history has shown that in spite of all the resources that Muslim American organizations have put into combatting islamophobia, the incidents of anti-Muslim rhetoric, hate, violence and vandalism is as high as it has been during the last 16 years.

That does not mean that we should not try to present a positive image of Islam and Muslims but it’s increasingly difficult when people are acutely aware of the factionalism that we practice is our faith.   Notwithstanding that placing responsibility for Islam’s image on other than ourselves is a flawed and unstable paradigm that siphons away valuable time, energy and spiritual as well as temporal benefit. It distracts us from individual and collective responsibility and sets in motion as’baab (causative factors) that could deprive us, at this critical juncture in our history, of what we need most: divine intervention and support. This can only come from Allah.

One of our problems is that Muslims only like to discuss what they perceive to be external threats, whereas the Prophet ﷺ, in addition to addressing external threats to Islam and Muslims, spent a great deal of time addressing internal threats to our religion and to our moral well-being. Our relationships inside of our faith were very much a part of his messaging. All these issues have been bottled up, but at this point is history, there’s no place left to bottle them up any more. Islamophobia is just another type of sectarianism; it’s non-Muslim against the Muslim. From a non-Muslim perspective, why should people be hands off about Muslims when Muslims aren’t hands off about Muslims?

Division within the Muslim body only emboldens anti-Muslim antagonists.

One sure way that the American Muslim Community will have a positive effect on the Greater Community is to address racism and sectarianism within our own communities. Racism is the major unresolved issue in the united states, if Muslims send a message that they not only cannot deal with the racial issue; they will not deal with it or face it, it says that we have not matured as a socially conscious community. It says that there is a flaw in our moral foundation. It also says that we’re hypocrites. I’m not calling anyone a hypocrite, but that is certainly the visual takeaway.

Sectarianism is the most widely used and most successful weapon against the Muslims. The first racist was Iblis. “I am better than him; you created me from fire and you created him from must”. Ever since then, Iblis has used racism and sectarianism to diminish the message of Islam and to enable us in writing our own self-destructive narrative.

In not addressing the racial and sectarian divide in Muslim America, we are, instead of solving sectarianism, cultivating new strains of it. All of this is happening at a time where our country has made fighting violent Muslim extremism a priority, and while Muslim communities have made fighting islamophobia a priority. Violent extremism is fueled by sectarianism, and sectarianism is a subtler form of racism, and all three; extremism, sectarianism, and racism are inextricably connected and Muslims are dead in the middle of it all. So where do we go from here?

American Muslim communities (where applicable) should embrace this conversation, and work more to open their masaajid to more indigenous and convert Muslims (of all races). Because this would produce a diversity of thought, a diversity of policy, and solutioned approaches to other and broader issues affecting our Muslim communities. Muslim communities need to address these things not just on the surface, and not just with pats on the head and the Bilal story, or the Suhail ar-Rumi story, but on their boards, in their leadership, in their decision making, in their community strategy, as well as in their core ranks. And I’m not just talking about superficial talking points; we’ve already been through that. African American Muslims especially have dealt with bigotry in this country for a very long time and we shouldn’t dismiss their experiences like they’re new to this, or insult each other’s intelligence. Both communities could learn from each other.

The more people outside of Islam view our communities as foreign, and behind the times on the issue of race, the more likely people will express and act on their bigotry and dislike for Islam and Muslims. Of course when we seriously start to address racism, we would have to deal with other issues like sectarianism. If we unpack sectarianism, we will find extremism and if we unpack extremism we will invariably find racism. Racism is itself an extreme ideology that presupposes that Allah is not a just Lord, and that He sanctions the subjugation, disparagement, and marginalization of one race of people over another simply on the basis of skin color. Islamophobia, the Muslim American Godzilla, is simply another form of racism; it’s just that the shoe is on the other foot. At some point, we’re going to have to resolve this issue of racial, ethnic, and religious discord within the ummah. It is inevitable. Our future is connected to it.

Imam Luqman Ahmad

Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad, a Philadelphia native, is a writer, a researcher and Imam of the Islamic Society of Folsom, in Northern California. He is a former executive committee member of the North America Imams Federation (NAIF), and the CEO of ‘Mosque Without Borders’, an organization that address Muslim sectarianism in the United States. He is also and the author of the new book, “Double Edged Slavery “, a critical and authoritative look at the condition of African American and convert Muslims in the United States, and the book: “The Devil’s Deception of the Modern Day Salafi Sect “, a look at the ideological underpinning of modern Salafist extremism. He blogs at imamluqman.wordpress.com, and can be reached at imamabulaith@yahoo.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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The American Muslim Convert Revolution, by Imam Luqman Ahmad.

revolutionmuslim_jpg-vi1In his book; Race and Slavery in the Middle East (1990), Bernard Lewis suggests that the topic of race in Islam is so “highly sensitive” that it would be “professionally hazardous” for young scholars to embark on it. I’m probably going to get some negative feedback for talking about this. ( I already have) but given the choice of being complacently compliant, or controversial truthful, I choose the latter.  So I’m going to say it anyway.

A couple of years ago, I said that this would likely happen, and it has.

There is a quiet, but momentous revolution going on in the heart of Muslim America that will potentially change the moral trajectory of Muslims and Islam in the United States. This revolution is not a violent, armed insurgency. There is no name for the movement. There are no flags, no slogans and no particular leader. There are no planned attacks against anyone, no public demonstrations or protests, and to date, no calls for boycotts.  But it is a revolution nonetheless. However, this is a different kind of revolt.

There are no street marches, no sit-ins or sit-downs, or picket signs hoisted over the shoulders of converts as they circle the local mega mosque. No one is talking about boycotting anything and there are no specific demands anymore. It is as organic a revolution as there ever was. This is a low decibel revolution that doesn’t really seem like a revolution at all in the conventional sense. Nevertheless, there is a revolution going on in Muslim America; it is growing, and before it is over, it will likely reverberate into every corner of every mosque in the United States.

Black, White and Latino American Muslim converts to Islam are breaking out of the cultural molds that they were herded into in the name of islam. They are revolting against what many of them view as racism, racial injustice,  and subtle anti-convert bigotry in many of our nation’s masaajid (mosques). In a non-stop fusillade of verbal indignations, recriminations and resentment appearing all over social media, people are recounting in vivid and often granular detail, their personal experiences of marginalization, racial slurs, indifference, slights, being left out, put down, ignored and looked down upon by immigrant Muslims. People are recounting their experiences of having to give up their families, their American culture (nearly all of it) and their identity in the name of being a good Muslim. People have been finding out that the requirements of Islam, and the requirements placed upon them by Muslims are two different things.

The vitriol expressed by converts to Islam detailing their unwelcoming experiences in culture based masaajid, the insults to their intelligence in being discouraged from thinking, and the pressure upon them to assimilate a foreign culture in the name of being Muslim, rival those of the staunchest anti-Muslim purveyors of hate, and it’s bound to get worse before it gets better. Interestingly enough, many Muslim immigrants themselves are voicing dismay as what they see as racial division amongst Muslims living in the United States.

The good news is that more and more American Muslim immigrant communities are starting to address these issues incrementally, masjid boards and imams across the country are slowly beginning to make purposeful and courageous strides at recognition, inclusion and honest dialogue. However, this conversation is complex, scary, and revealing, and many Muslims are just too afraid to have it. It is a controversial, and sometimes incendiary conversation that evokes a lot of emotion and is not always easy to unpack.

Racism, and issues relating to race in Muslim relationships in the United States, is a tough, touchy topic. In June 2015, journalist Zeba Khan wrote a very good article in Aljazeera about the problem entitled; “American Muslims have a race problem”, and in June 2002, almost 15 years ago to the day, I wrote an article entitled “Racial Politics in Muslim America”. The responses in my inbox were overwhelming. It was like I discovered something. However, it wasn’t that I discovered anything new; it was that I dared to speak publicly about race relations in Muslim America.  Many convert and born Muslims from different nationalities applauded the piece and thought it was an honest depiction of reality. Others, nearly accused me of treason for bringing the subject up in a public forum, especially as it was within a year of 9/11.

Publicly bringing up the topic of race in Muslim America can get you ostracized. When African American Muslim leaders talk about it in mixed public setting, people’s faces turn red with the; “how dare you!” look.  Even Arab, Pakistani, Indian, and other Muslims of conscience who attempt to deal with the issue of race, or the treatment of Black Americans get plenty of pushback. Imams have been relieved from their positions for pushing the race issue to the forefront. Muslim leaders and organizations have been reluctant to take a direct stab against racism in Muslim America, or to even openly suggest that racist, or anti-Black sentiment exists at all in Muslim America.  Some exceptions are ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America), ICNA (Islamic Circle of North America) who are trying to stick their toe in the water and organizations like the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (Muslim ARC), the Muslim Empowerment Institute (MEI), and the recently formed organization, Mosque Without Borders, who are wading in deeper. However, it is becoming clearer and clearer that converts and convert communities need to chart their on course.

I don’t relish being one who brings this up or writes about this because it comes at a high cost. Failure to call this monster out is what it partially fueling the anger, the moral indignation and the revolt by Black American, as well as White American and Latino American converts to Islam. Born Muslims of Arab, East Asian, and African decent are revolting as well.

Many American Muslim converts, despite experiencing what they perceived to be clear racist tendencies from immigrant Muslims, used to brush it off as simple misunderstanding, a mistaken inference, a cultural glitch, or the unintended consequences of migration to an unfamiliar environment. Maybe he didn’t hear my salaams although I’m standing two feet away from him. Maybe they didn’t think it was patronizing to ask me if I know how to make wudu, or if I heard the Bilal story, or if they asked me am I fasting and it’s the middle of Ramadan, or if I am a Muslim and I’m sitting in the masjid wearing a thobe with a kufi on my head. These are the types of stories Muslims have been recounting for a long time except that now, they re-tell their experiences on social media and other platforms where it gains traction.  People are feeling empowered to speak out about what they consider a moral catastrophe.

Just a decade and a half ago, it was virtually unheard of for an African American Muslim to speak openly about racism or racial disparagement in the Muslim community aimed at Blacks, even though it is no secret that African American Muslims have always been treated as a sort of a second class, inferior Muslim. For a long time now, there has been two distinctly different Muslim Americas. People talk of disappointment, pity, and disbelief that we have come as far as we have regarding race relations in the United States, only having to revisit it, in what seems like a Jim Crow era of Muslim America.

Many people of the older generation who emigrated to the United States were born during the time where the enslavement of Blacks was still practiced in their born countries. This is not to disparage any particular nationality, but they still have open slave markets in the south Libyan city of Sabha, so if you just got here from Libya, it’s not too difficult to look at a black American and see “slave” or ‘abd’. I’m not justifying it of course, but I’m pointing out how easy it is to entertain racial bigotry in Muslim in America if you’re not aware. People cannot simply erase their mental image of Black people when it has been instilled in their culture for centuries that blacks are an inferior slave race with some exceptions to the rule. Even ibn Khaldoun in all of his genius concluded that the black race were little more than a dumb animals.

African American and White converts Muslims are largely invisible in most of the national television coverage about American Muslims, and for 30% of the population, that’s a pretty significant omission. Whenever there is mention of American Muslims in the media, the reference is made to immigrant Muslim communities, indigenous American Muslims are almost completely ignored.

What converts to Islam (of all races) experience is a deep sense of disappointment, a spiritual let down, and a sense of loneliness as well as embarrassment for themselves and for the ummah. Imagine growing up in America knowing that many White Christians and Jews marched on Washington, and stood side by side with blacks in their fight against racial bigotry and then enter Islam and you can hardly get a salaam from your own co-religionists.  There is hardly anything more embarrassing than bringing your friend to the mosque that you attend, knowing that he’ll be treated with indifference but if you were Christian and took him to a church, they would embrace him. Convert Muslims are not asking for or demanding respect anymore. It seems to have gotten past that. Many are starting to look at the Muslim immigrant community as incapable of change, incapable of enlightenment. However, such a view is not true. Many immigrant Muslims and communities are looking for ways to deal with the racial problem we have as Muslim Americans and to their credit, it is not a problem that can be solved overnight.

What many converts are forcefully asserting now is that they need to have their own masaajid, their own schools, their own communities and forge their own futures as Muslim Americans. They are saying that they need to deal with their own issues, tend to their own culture, develop their own islamic scholarship. In fact, it’s gone beyond even that. Converts Muslims, White, Black and Latino are expressing open abhorrence and contempt towards the immigrant Muslim community. Yet, there is still an overwhelming sense of hope, and wishful, prayerful thinking, that we will somehow get a grip on racial relations in Muslim America, and somehow turn the page of understanding. I don’t endorse the contempt, and I certainly don’t endorse reverse racism. We have to understand recent history of the Muslim world and see that there are many factors the contributed to the bigoted mentality that many bring with them from the Muslim world.

Race is the single most divisive issue in our nation, the growing perception amongst converts is that the immigrant Muslim community is taking the religion backwards at a time when we need to be moving forward. A sort of civilizational suicide. They control the majority of the nation’s mosques and Muslim communities where racial disparity and discrimination is most felt. Yet, they are afraid to look at themselves in the mirror. Everything is someone else’s fault. This is becoming the consensus.

African American Muslims have come to expect racism from society, from White people (although the situation has improved), from our government, law enforcement, and from many of our institutions.  They expect that when they are pulled over for a traffic stop that they were targeted and will be treated differently than a white person. They expect they will have problems moving into some neighborhoods, that expect that they will pay more for auto insurance, that their schools will be less funded, and inferior in quality than schools in White neighborhoods. African American Muslims have come to expect that. However, what they did not expect was to find racism and marginalization inside of the arctic of islam. They didn’t expect to be treated with indifference, and disrespect by Muslims coming from abroad. They didn’t expect that. However, by and large, that’s what they got, and now they are revolting.

Marginalizing the convert community does not seem to be anywhere near it’s ending; we’ve got quite a way to go. Our domestic portrayal of a singular image of Muslim Americans that does not include African American, Latino, and White American Muslims is likely to continue, and if it does, the criticism will get louder and eventually make its way to the mainstream media and then it’s going to be messy. That’s just my own prognosis.

Americans of conscious have come too far, and have sacrificed too much to settle for a racist Muslim America. No one owns Islam, it is the religion of Allah, and He has declared that we are all equal except by taqwa and we are morally obligated, all of us, to strive for these ideals. fortunately, we as American Muslims, are a moral community and many Muslims of all backgrounds are rising to the occasion although there is a lot of works that needs to be done.

It’s not about Black power either; overblown black pride is just as insidious as overblown White pride or overblown Arab pride. African American Muslims who believe that they are entitled to some spiritual preference because of their skin color, are just as deluded as White, Arab, African or Asian Muslims who believe that their skin color or ethnicity makes them better. The religion of Islam is championed by people of all colors, ethnicities, and lineages, and the best of them are the ones who have the most taqwa.

The goal is that eventually moral minds will prevail and American Muslims of different races and cultures will embark upon candid, intrepid conversations that will lead to greater understanding. Understanding will hopefully lead to collaboration and collaboration will give us a richer vocabulary of options to address some of the problems facing Muslim America, and for that we may need to see this revolution through to the end. In the meantime, American Muslim converts need to realize, that across the board, they essentially are on their own.

Luqman Ahmad

Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad, a Philadelphia native, is a graduate of Omdurman Islamic University, and the son of converts to Islam. He is a writer, a researcher and Imam of the Islamic Society of Folsom, in Northern California. He is a former executive committee member of the North America Imams Federation (NAIF), and the CEO of ‘Mosque Without Borders’, an organization that address Muslim sectarianism. He is also and the author of the new book, “Double Edged Slavery “, a critical and authoritative look at the condition of African American and convert Muslims in the United States, and the book: “The Devil’s Deception of the Modern Day Salafi Sect “, a look at the ideological underpinning of modern Salafist extremism. He blogs at imamluqman.wordpress.com, and can be reached at imamabulaith@yahoo.com.

 

 

 

 

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