At the recent panel “Mapping Anti-Blackness in Muslim Communities” at Regent Park, community organizer Rania El Mugammar recalled her grandfather’s words on the universality of anti-Blackness: “Wherever you go, people will drink tea, and wherever you go, people will be racist to Black people.”
The story of the Black Muslim, in particular, is a story of movement, as affirmed by co-panelist Lali Mohamed. To the Black Muslim, European and Arab colonialists continue to force their movement – slavery, displacement, deportation, migrant labour – from one continent to another. It does not permit belonging, and seeks to erase identity: be it Blackness, Muslim-ness, or both.
This past February, we recognized Black History Month and renewed conversations about Islamophobia following the Québec City mosque shooting. Both Blackness and Islam endure racialization and criminalization in the West, but are seldom acknowledged for their unitary identity and oppression.
The Eurocentric imagination homogenizes Islam as an Arab, Middle Eastern ‘other,’ characterized by a set of barbaric ideals. Beards, burqas, Arab names, and mosques become targets for persecution and violence. We may also observe an ‘Arab-centrism’ when it comes to Muslim identity: Muslims are by default considered light-skinned or brown, Asian, and Arabic-speaking. In this regard, white supremacy and Arab supremacy work to erase the nuances of Muslim identity and perpetuate a pernicious form of double colonialism that dissociates Blackness from Islam.
Consider last December’s Toronto Reviving Islamic Spirit Conference, where white Muslim scholar Shaykh Hamza Yusuf expressed antipathy towards the idea of Muslim solidarity with Black Lives Matter. He claimed that “the police aren’t all racist” and highlighted “black-on-black crime” in defense of the American criminal justice system.
In Toronto, similar to the way that liberal multiculturalists imagine that we are all equal Canadian individuals to divert attention from structural racism, Islam, too, theorizes a concept of ‘one Ummah’ — a community that shares the same faith, irrespective of nationality, culture, and class.
Selective Muslim reaction towards state-sanctioned violence informs the skepticism of Black Muslims. Why would some non-Black Muslims support Palestinian self-determination amidst Israeli occupation, for instance, but not also Black Lives Matter? Why would non-Black Muslims demand attention for Syrian refugees — who receive conspicuous affection from Canadian politicians — but not for East African Muslim refugees from South Sudan and Somalia as well, who face criminalization in Canada?
Worse yet, those occupying the ‘middle-tier’ of Muslims — namely, South Asians who are neither Black nor Arab — are complicit in the erasure of Blackness given the culture of favouring lighter skin. In Somali and Sudanese communities, curly hair and darkness are also seen to detract from beauty, which especially marginalizes Black Muslim women. Muslims, although collectively subject to anti-Muslim racism in the West, are susceptible to a colourist hierarchy that aspires to a light-skinned Arab ideal.
The dissociation of Black and Muslim identities was also clear in the aftermath of the Québec City massacre. There was much discussion about how six Muslims were murdered, yet no major recognition of the fact that two of the victims were also Black.
At U of T, Middle Eastern and Brown Muslims held a vigil in response to shooting at which no Black Muslim voice was present. Mayor John Tory and Toronto Centre MP Bill Morneau were invited to speak at the vigil, who in their professional capacities are complicit in policies that criminalize Black and Brown peoples, such as carding and provisions in Bill C-51 — a bill that gives police more freedom to arrest people in the name of anti-terrorism.
Even the rise of Black Muslims to power, such as the recent appointment of Somali-Canadian MP Ahmed Hussen as Minister of Immigration, is tokenized. The positive attention surrounding this specific appointment has distracted from the fact that Hussen’s ministry refuses to suspend the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement, which endangers refugees — and most inconspicuously, East African Muslim refugees.
In the case of Somali immigrant Abdirahman Abdi, who was killed by police last summer in Ottawa, it is clear that even those who arrive in Canada are not guaranteed a future. Ongoing state-sanctioned hostility shows that Black Muslim lives do not matter.
The story of movement and erasure of Black Muslims is felt in Black as well as Muslim spaces. As put by the U of T Black Students’ Association in response to the Québec City massacre, “[Black Muslims] can sometimes feel erased in Muslim spaces due to their race, and erased in black spaces due to their faith.”
However, at this year’s CanRoots conference in Toronto, organizer Gilary Massa claimed that Black spaces are relatively more welcoming to Muslims than Muslim spaces are for Blacks. Indeed, the Black community often embraces Islam as a possibility for emancipatory politics, given role models like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
This reveals that Muslim-ness can serve as a political identity by which marginalized peoples can solidarize and struggle, which has implications for social justice work going forward.
This political identity focuses less on strict, theological prescriptions of Islam, which are used by both liberal homo-nationalists and fundamentalist Muslims to essentialize Islam as patriarchal and homophobic. It highlights racism as a structural phenomenon that affects different identities unevenly.
Black Muslims need non-Black Muslim solidarity to deconstruct the Eurocentric and Arab-centric imagination of a monolithic, Middle Eastern Islam, and make way for an Islam of diverse lived experiences.
Muslim political identity has emancipatory potential for all oppressed peoples, especially Queer Black Muslims. In a more general sense, supporting those within the Black Muslim community who face intersecting oppressions — such as misogyny and Queerphobia — is to the benefit of all Muslims, since the most marginalized within Islam are the ones who tend to lead the struggle against Islamophobia. For instance, at the National Day of Action against Islamophobia and White Supremacy in downtown Toronto, it was Black Muslim women who were leading thousands to chant “All Black Muslim Lives matter”; “All Queer lives matter”; “No Muslim ban on stolen land,” and “Justice for all.”
Given the contemporary prominence of both anti-Blackness and Islamophobia, Black Muslims are resisting colonialisms that seek to dissociate and erase their identities in a story of constant movement. They are grounding their own counter-narratives and demanding justice for identities that transcend reductive imaginations. If non-Black Muslims wish to uphold ‘one Ummah’ and be on the right side of history, they must give Black Muslims the space to make that history.
Ibnul Chowdhury is a second-year student at Trinity College studying Economics and Peace, Conflict, and Justice Studies. His column appears tri-weekly.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the correct form of the word “Somali,” incorrectly indicated in an earlier version of this article as “Somalian.”