The Entanglement of Islamophobia and Anti-Black Violence

Diverse human hands showing unity
Diverse human hands showing unity

Social justice activists working on issues related to Islamophobia must intensify their efforts to align with activists focused on anti-Black violence.

Blacks form a large portion of the Muslim population in the United States. Muslims from Pakistan, India, the Middle East, etc. who joined them later and/or who are now first or second-generation Americans, however, have maintained separate spaces of worship and recreation. This has created fissures within the American Muslim community along the lines of race and ethnicity - in addition to differences of interpretation of Islam.

In fact, there have been moments when non-Black Muslims have actively sought to set themselves apart from their Black brothers and sisters in order to partake in the racial hierarchy. South Asian Muslims, for instance, have benefited from being marked as a 'model-minority;' Iranian Muslims from passing as White. Others have benefited from labels such as 'moderate or progressive Muslims.'

This self-segregation by non-Black and/or immigrant Muslims can also be read as a mode of self-preservation as they struggled to establish themselves in a new host nation. However, such actions are no longer tenable.

Non-Black Muslims in the United States, like myself, have to understand that our everyday experiences of Islamophobia today are intimately linked with the racism that our Black brothers and sisters have been experiencing for centuries.

To understand this connection, we have to first recognize how racial discrimination operates and how marginalization is an effect of institutional practices.

'Race' is a social construction - that is, bodies that look differently (complexion, phenotype, etc.) have historically been categorized and placed into different buckets (namely black, white, brown, etc.) as part of a societal consensus.

This social production of race entails placing certain bodies in superior positions when compared to others (such as Whites over Blacks). It also includes allocating particular characteristics to legitimize such placements (Asians are hardworking; Muslims are backward, etc.). These characteristics are often presented as 'natural.'

For this hierarchy to be maintained day after day, a range of institutional practices and structures have to reproduce it constantly. These include policing, schooling, gentrification, employment policies, etc. Together, these practices limit the opportunity set available to Blacks, for instance, and hence reproduce the cycle of poverty and marginalization.

There is no conspiracy here - marginalization is an effect of a large number of unjust practices that work together day after day.

Thus, the oft-repeated slogan that 'Blacks are criminals, look at the crime rates' only points to the effect of what happens when a people are systematically marginalized and discriminated against. If this happened to Brown people or White people then they, too, would experience similar lived realities.

Marginalization of Blacks, hence, is a social and political process and has to be understood as such.

So why should non-Black Muslims care about racism and anti-Black violence? Because the very marginalizations that Muslims are feeling today in the era of Trump - the everyday racism, bullying, violent attacks - are part of the larger institutional processes that keep non-Whites at the periphery. Because Islamophobia is yet another aspect of structural oppression - oppression of Blacks, Latinos, women, disabled people, sexual minorities, etc.

Islamophobia, therefore, can never be understood - let alone addressed - if we do not understand how systemic oppression works.

Non-Black Muslims (and look-alikes, such as Sikhs and Hindus) have, of course, experienced racism before the recent GOP fear mongering. What is different today is the loud call to unite with other marginalized groups.

Anti-Islamophobia work must not erase the anti-racism struggles of Black American Muslims. In fact, good allyship entails sharing privileges, knowledges, and working together towards racial justice.

Shenila Khoja-Moolji's academic writings can be accessed here. She is on Twitter.