By Shaireen Rasheed
I shudder to think what the backlash against the Muslim community would have been if Mark Anthony Conduitt, the Austin bomber and the domestic terrorist who blew himself up after racially targeting and killing people of color, was a Muslim. Rest assured, draconian measures would have ensued immediately, the effects of which would have been felt across the nation. Yet as witnessed in the case of Conduitt (who was white) politicians, journalists, newspapers, and the majority of the conservative and liberal media, including political pundits, were reluctant to use the “T” word—terrorism. Unfortunately, the coverage of Mark Conduitt in the media is more or less the norm when it comes non-Muslim, non-Black or non-Brown bodies. The narrative in these situations has always included an element of surprise when a White male commits an act of violence. Assumed innocent until proven guilty, there is almost an implicit unwritten understanding when it comes to criminal profiles such as Conduitt’s that his behavior is somehow not in keeping with his character and with who he actually is. As the audience, we just take for granted that the media can delve deeply inside the souls of White men to decipher motive. “Lone wolf,” “mentally unstable,” “individual with a traumatic childhood” were some of the terms being used to describe Conduitt’s action following the weeks before he was labelled a domestic terrorist. The underlying logic of theses constructed narratives is that White men are not predisposed to domestic terrorism or any acts of violence—although statistics on domestic terrorism in the U.S. shed light on just how erroneous this logic is.
Now change the scenario: The perpetrator is Brown or Black, or even worse—Black, Brown, and Muslim. Let’s entertain for a moment how the scenario would play itself out. Of course, the guilty-until-charged allegation would be immediately enforced. No discussions of underlying motives, intentions, dysfunctional background, mental diagnosis. Just a universal acknowledgment of guilt based on the racialized body he inhabits. Moreover, given the color of his skin, his religious affiliations, his ethnicity, the assumption would automatically be that he somehow was predisposed to such a violent act. Brown and Black bodies in the U.S. immediately embody a potential threat in all spaces they occupy. Sarah Ahmed pointed to the fact that to be not White is to be not included (extended) by the spaces one inhabits. As she said, “If we do inherit habits, we can also inherit what fails to become habitual: to inherit a Muslim name, in the West, is to inherit the impossibility of a body that can ‘trail behind’, or even to inherit the impossibility of extending the body’s reach”. (162-3) For the body recognized as “could be Muslim” translates into “could be terrorist.” The experience begins with discomfort: The spaces we occupy do not “extend” the surfaces of our bodies.
The most recent example of the discomfort of inhabiting White spaces in a Black body is that of Saheed Vassell, a Black Muslim man who was known to be mentally ill who was gunned down by NYPD police officers on a Brooklyn street corner on Wednesday, April 4th, 2018 after he pointed what the officers believed was a gun at them, the authorities said. The object he pointed, however, turned out to be a metal pipe with a knob on it. Two weeks earlier, it was Stephen Clark, the 22-year-old African American Muslim gunned down 20 times in his own backyard while he held a cell phone in his hand. Shenila Khooja Moolji stated that Black Muslims constitute a significant portion of the Muslim population in the United States, experiencing violence that draws on both Islamophobia and anti-Black racism. To quote her, “even without a hijab, being a brown or black Muslim in America can be precarious. Racism and Islamophobia are deeply entangled in how we experience our worlds”.
When the media portrays Black and Brown bodies as criminals or terrorists, White America perceives such stereotypical images as reaffirmation of their own biased truth. This is what W.E. B. Du Bois spoke of when he talked about in his book, The Souls of Black Folks, when he said, “the sense of looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (p. 351). The Muslim African American identity has become the victim of what Du Bois calls “the double consciousness.” Double consciousness is a useful lens for those of us at the receiving end of this racism trying to negotiate and reconcile our intersectional identities of being Black, Muslim, and American. As a result, Blacks and Muslims as the racialized Other can suffer from an oppressed self-image shaped by the perceptions and treatment of White people. The internalization of anti-Black racism from the outside world thus begins to shape the Black American and, in this case, the Muslim experience. Double consciousness also creates an element of conflict within the Black Muslim American identity, as they struggle to reconcile their identity as a Black person, a Muslim, and an American.
According to Hatem Bazian, the construction of the Muslim in the West is part of a larger colonial project and the world it belongs to that no longer exists. Only “traces of negation are allowed to persist.” Double consciousness as a lens also allows one to be seen from outside the veil—staring at oneself through a racist lens—perceiving what White people really think of them. This provides one with the knowledge of how to survive in White spaces, while at the same time forcing them to control their actions from an oppressive stance. Because if one is able to see oneself from outside of the veil, with the oppressor’s eyes; every move one makes or sound one utters, is controlled from a psychological reaction to what they think will be most pleasing to the oppressor. The experience of living with double consciousness as a Black and a Muslim is manifested in every aspect of living in the United States.
Hussein Rashid and Precious Rasheeda Muhammad claimed that the American Muslim is aware of this double consciousness and performs Americanness and Muslimness with that awareness. And that if these categories of self-identifications are projected as mutually exclusive, then only specifically constructed narratives of being Muslim are acceptable. They state that, “in the twenty-first century, the performance of Muslimness for the sake of public perception is acute. Layering on minority identities of race, gender, and class makes it not double consciousness, but multiple consciousness” (p. 481). Yet the visibility of the nation’s native and immigrant Muslim populations have been obliterated due to the increased fears of terrorism post-9/11.
Minneapolis and St. Paul are a case in point as the twin cities have the largest Somali American population in the country. Despite their increasing immigrant populations, both cities are extremely segregated and have been national focal points in high-profile cases of police brutality and institutionalized discrimination. Magari Aziza Hill, an African American Muslim and Co-Director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, said the experiences of Black immigrant Muslims are often erased. “Since most black American Muslims are African-American, there’s a tendency to render African Muslims invisible. Discussions of anti-blackness within immigrant Muslim communities often erase the experience of African immigrant communities. I’ve certainly been guilty of that and have been trying, especially given recent events, to shed more light on those stories.” Recent reports of Somali Muslims include their unlawful detention for over 40 hours by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who had mistreated detainees, violating their basic human rights on a failed deportation flight.
According to Hind Makki, a Sudanese American interfaith and anti-racism educator, these anxieties are prevalent among many Muslim American youth, especially those of African descent. “A lot of black Muslims from immigrant backgrounds live at the intersection of Islamophobia and anti-black racism, which affects how they see America and how they raise their kids.” Makki goes on to say, “I think if I wore taqiyah [an Islamic prayer cap] on my head or if my beard were grown out, I’d probably receive more discrimination than I do now,” says Amir Mohammed, a Sudanese American rapper better known by his stage name Oddisee. “I can’t escape or hide my color, so I’m stereotyped based on being a black person in America. Because I’m not Middle Eastern, it’s only after they find out that I’m Muslim that I’ll also encounter the Islamophobia.”
Moustafa Bayoumi aptly summed up in an interview the Muslim predicament in the U.S. right now when he claimed that the Muslim identity has actually become more and more racialized. “When it is assumed that you’re Muslim, you somehow take on the performative role of being Muslim. To use Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay, ‘Anti-Semite and Jew Anti-Semite and the Jew,’ the Jew is someone others think is a Jew.” The main characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s are the Anti-Semite, the Democrat, the Jew and the “inauthentic” Jew. Anti-Semitism is not merely an idea, according to Sartre, “it is first of all a passion.” The anti-Semite confirms the stereotypes held against the Jew. The Jew is crude, malicious, dishonest yet extremely intelligent—in that dangerous sort of way. The anti-Semite is the opposite: cultured, cordial, sincere yet average and lacking in intelligence. But this Jew is a creation of the anti-Semite’s imagination, a manufactured construction that reflects everything the anti-Semite imagines he is not, thus becoming the very condition for his identity. Sartre stated, “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would have to invent him.” The book provided the central thrust to the fifth chapter of Frank Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks entitled “The Fact of Blackness”: “Sartre has made a masterful study of the problem of anti-Semitism,” Fanon wrote. “Let us try to determine what are the constituents of Negrophobia” (p. 124).
Black American Muslims have always been under intense scrutiny by law enforcement and vilified in the media. “Black Muslims often face a two-front challenge, both within the community and the larger American society,” said Noor, who worked for Take on Hate, a campaign challenging discrimination against Arabs and Muslims. “You can never be too sure if assaults or micro-aggressions are coming because you’re black, Muslim, or both”. Rashad, who works as the interfaith fellow and Muslim chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania echoed similar concerns when discussing her son’s future in a racially and politically divisive climate. “We are caught in the middle of the really intense discussion around the value of black life and the value of black Muslim lives,” she said.
Su’ad Abdul Khabeer , an associate professor of Anthropology and African American studies at Purdue University, discussed the juxtaposition of music, blackness, and Islam in her book, Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States. As an author, artist and an activist, Khabeer challenged common misconceptions about what it means to be a black and a Muslim today. It’s a term she uses to describe as she says, ‘’a way of being Muslim in the United States that engages blackness to counter anti-blackness, both as it appears in broader society and in the American Muslim community.’’
Farooque, a mother, visual artist and poet who lived in Denver, Colorado articulated her embodied experience as a black Muslim. To quote her, ‘’ I’m Muslim, I’m black and I’m a woman – so I’m no stranger to racism and discrimination. My ancestors have been systematically oppressed and targeted for centuries in the very country we helped build from the ground up. I think we do that by living without fear and standing firmly in our identities. Life shouldn’t stop because there are ignorant people trying to drown us out. That’s exactly what African Americans did during the Harlem Renaissance; we were unapologetically black and beautiful. That era gave birth to some of the best music, art and culture that America has ever seen. That is how you build bridges in this country, by loving yourself and those around you. Our strength lies in our differences.’’
Rashid and Rasheeda Muhammad believed that it is, in fact, possible for Muslims to reclaim their own narrative but only if ‘the performance of Muslimness is owned by Muslims’. According to them such a strategy includes acknowledging and including the multi-faceted ontologies of American Muslim histories, policies and voices of dissent and resistance. They claim that it has to go beyond the ‘African American struggle for equality and instead must be about recognizing a shared struggle.’ (489). Involving the ability, ‘to tell the story of those of Muslim heritage who lost their religion because of coercion based on their race and, in some cases, as a result of acts committed by their own coreligionists.’ (491). It is also ‘the freedom and the obligation to fully perform their Muslimness, their Blackness, and their Americanness’. (492).
Uzma Jamil in her nuanced review of the movie Black Panther elucidated its popularity in the Black and Muslim communities. Despite our divergent and sometimes fraught history of segregation in our own communities, we—as people of color embodying our colonial history in the United States—are dealing with the same tensions “about who speaks, from where they speak and who they speak for and about.” The film, to quote Jamil, “has opened up questions about who counts as Black (as a political identity), and who doesn’t, where do racialized Muslims and Black Muslims fit into this, what is or should be the relationship between Black people and people of color on issues of social justice?”
Bobby Rogers, in his published portrait series of an image of a Black Muslim alongside text of tweets using #BeingBlackandMuslim, shed light on issues of social justice as they relate to the complicated double consciousness of being Black and Muslim. Using actual quotes from the people featured as well as his own original writing, Rogers exhibited the portrait series on his website and social media platforms, describing the urgency for the series since “There is, and always has been, an erasure of Black Muslims from our historical teachings in America, just as there is an erasure of Black and Muslim cultures worldwide.” He explained, “With my series I want to show society that Black Muslims have always been an integral part of American history as well as Islamic history.” Furthermore, he wrote, “There is an increasingly prejudicial connection being made between Blackness & Islam which fuels the erasure of Black Muslims in pop culture…. Simply existing at the axis of #BeingBlackandMuslim can be exhausting. You’re always not enough. Always having to validate your existence.” Rogers’s series is also an effort to “challenge the mainstream meaning of what it means to be Muslim” and build “interfaith and multiracial coalitions to advance racial justice.” The intersectionality of the #BlackLivesMatter movement as a space to address some of these issues might be a good start.
Shaireen Rasheed is a professor of Philosophical Foundations and Diversity/Social Justice at Long Island University. She is currently a Fulbright visiting professor at the University of Salzburg. Her current research is due for publication in a monograph on Islam, Sexuality and the War on Terror. She has published articles on the Huffington Post and most recently has co-edited a series in the journal Studies in Philosophy and Education, entitled “Deconstructing Privilege in the Classroom: Teaching as a Racialized Pedagogy.” Her work has also appeared in journals such as Studies in Philosophy of Education, Educational Theory, Journal of Research and Practice in Social Sciences, Journal of South Asian Women’s Studies, Adyan, Journal of Religions, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, The SACP Forum for Asian and Comparative Philosophy, Journal of Human Rights, Minority Rights, Women’s Rights and Social Philosophy Today. This is a version of a larger paper entitled, “Heterogeneity, race and the politics of double consciousness.”
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