For many people reading this, I’m sure you are now aware of the kerfuffle caused by Hamza Yusuf’s recent comments at RIS 2016 about anti-racist movements within the Muslim community and institutional injustice in the Black community in America.
To put it lightly, it didn’t go well. As I was listening, I started to sink into my chair at home, hoping that the rhetoric would get better. I had to stop the audio halfway. Many times Mehdi Hasan was trying to throw Hamza Yusuf the proverbial lifeline to steer the conversation in the right direction, but to no avail.
After the social media explosion, his apology in response didn’t help. As much as I would like to make this about Hamza Yusuf, it’s not. This is about a history of institutions, so-called activists groups, governments, political and religious movements dealing in what I call “cognitive dissonance” ideology, as it relates to the suffering of Black people in America.
There’s is no learning opportunity in deconstructing each word and intent behind Hamza’s Yusuf’s words. Like many, he is in a position of power, and his words hold a lot of weight within the Muslim and international community
I’m a 40 year old Black American Muslim convert born of Jamaican parents. I live in Qatar with a Saudi wife and two half Arab/Black kids that have afros that would make Angela Davis blush during her days as a young activist in the 70s. I’m youngish, but let’s just say I’ve been around.
My first wall of dissonance happened shortly after I did my shahada. I used to have shoulder length dreadlocks. It was more style than anything, but the wandering eyes from mosque attendees and the relentless suggestions of “Oh, you should cut it, let me show you the hadith, from non-Black Muslims was a cultural rub that always left me uncomfortable. At the time, I felt like a Muslim outsider. I often wondered, “What’s going on here?”. Do I need to come up with a remix to India Arie’s 'I Am Not my Hair'? Even walking with my wife, who clearly looks like an Arab woman, I would get stares from my fellow Arab Muslim brothers and sisters. That lack of understanding and feeling like an insider-outsider is a level of duality that many African Americans live with.
Many people feel they have a right to own your identity, including the cultural history that they’ve assumed you’ve sprung from. Several years back, I wrote a piece regarding the frequent ethnic stratification that occasionally happens in our mosques. In my opinion, this incident is no different.
If you’ve spent anytime with Black folks (no, not the "I have one Black friend" type), you’ll often hear the term, “there are two Americas”. One for Black folks, and one for everyone else. I’m not for crafting an identity around victimisation, which many outsiders do to dismiss our real concerns in America, but what I’m referring to is a form of social erasure.
Part of the Black struggle in America is to resist the erasure of our pain and our history. This type of erasure is what leads to the types of erroneous commentary that would have the public believe that Black cultural sensibilities are at the root cause of our economic and political plight, and not the types of policies that have been crafted around our community for the last 100 years. The ability to dismiss our reality, or outsiders speaking as experts on “our behalf”, is a time honoured pastime.
This time is not different. As I've said before, Black people are born sceptics. We’ve seen and heard it all. As Dr. Joy DeGruy, renowned scholar and lecturer on social justice said the following in her ground breaking documentary Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, "Black people are at the 600 level in understanding racism”.
If you are still reading this, walk away from this piece with the type of scepticism that helps you challenge your personal sensibilities. This is not about Hamza Yusuf, albeit he kicked off a lot of discussions regarding the criminal justice system and Black family life in America. This is about stepping out of our comfort zone to better understand the world around us. Revisit and challenge your assumptions of how you see Black culture.
I’ve intentionally dropped a set of breadcrumbs in this piece that links back to a lot of good information which can give you more food for thought. No one opinion piece can cover all this historical and sociopolitical ground.
Understanding humanity and respecting it, is a lifelong work. It’s not something that you can get from liking a Facebook comment, Retweeting a quote from your favourite thought leader, or Snapchatting your latest political whims. There is the unglamorous work of communicating with those individuals who are outside of your direct community when no camera is rolling. Pouring over countless source material to find those inconvenient truths. Connecting with real lives, to have true connections. There is no digital substitute for this. So while “e-high fiving” those who fall on either side of the discussion feels good, it’s honest human interaction which leads to the actions that undermine misinformation merchants and institutional injustice warriors. This is what matters, including Black lives.