Omar Suleiman, an American civil rights activist, explains how minorities in the US can repel the rising tide of racism and white nationalism — and how Islam can contribute to social justice.
ISTANBUL — Omar Suleiman, a 31-year-old imam and a civil rights activist in the US, has earned a reputation for mixing spiritual messages with political activism and marching with Black Lives Matter. In early March this year, he was arrested on Capitol Hill for protesting against US President Donald Trump's attempts to dump DACA, a government policy that saves children of 'illegal' migrants from deportation.
Born in New Orleans to Palestinian parents, Suleiman has been able to captivate not only American Muslim youth but also non-Muslims from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. He tries to bring them together to fight the current political, social and moral struggles in the US and abroad.
Suleiman talked to TRT World about the tradition of social justice within Islam, white supremacy before Trump, the problem with performative activism and fighting racism.
The global moment we find ourselves in is characterised by “Trump’s America” and the “Rise of White Supremacy.” Growing up in the United States, you have seen first-hand the crescendo that got us to this point. While many talk about this global reality as a Trump novelty, how would you put our current global moment into perspective?
OMAR SULEIMAN: Malcolm X summarised this in two terms: European imperialism and American dollar-ism. White supremacy never died. It is far beyond just the loud Trump supporter or the loud racist in public. I grew up in Louisiana, witnessing the Klan rallies upfront. In the Obama era, the KKK [Klu Klux Klan] membership went from 4,000 to 12,000. There was something particular about having a ‘black’ president that stoked white fragility in the United States in a way that made them feel like they were being conquered and losing their racial purity.
It's OK to have a black man at the table, it wasn't OK to have a black man as president. It's OK to have your token Muslim in the Republican Party. It's OK to have your Muslims coming in for the White House iftars. It's OK to have your few feel-good Muslim stories, but at the same time, America reacts viciously to fears of infiltration and fears of America losing its essential white dominant nature.
That leads to police brutality, that leads to militarism, ‘taming’ the world, as Trump would say. That leads to Islamophobia, that leads to anti-Semitism, that leads to America showing complete apathy to little children being trafficked by the government in cages.
But this is not a Trump problem. There are certain elements in society that got Trump elected. That's what we need to be addressing. So even if Trump goes and we get another politician that's going to throw really nice words and symbolic gestures and tokenise the Muslim community, we cannot afford to be rendered complacent.
Just as we want to avoid the outrageous Trump era, we also want to avoid the sedated Obama era where everyone just kind of sat back and thought that everything was great and wonderful. No, we need to actively address all of these elements that are not only detrimental to the Muslim community but detrimental to humanity as a whole.
At the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, you say you are invested in strong Muslim identity formation. What does that look like today? How do you preach this without falling in the trap of crude identity politics?
OS: We model our work after what Allah mentions in the Quran, where He describes this tree of faith as a tree that is deeply rooted in the heart and at the same time its branches are high in the sky to the benefit of everything around it and it's producing fruit at all times. It's not a seasonal tree.
A Muslim that is at peace with their faith, at peace with their existence understands not just the rights of the Creator upon them but the rights of creations as a whole upon them. A Muslim has integrity. A Muslim in the face of pressure may bend but will not break. You can nourish those roots so that they have a strong identity.
Yaqeen is about conviction and it's also about contribution. We study how to dismantle doubts, how to nurture conviction in the heart of the believers so they can have those roots and they can deal with the bigotry and Islamophobia: Both the Islamophobia of the Donald Trumps and the white supremacists of the world, as well as the more insidious Islamophobia of the Bill Mahers and the Sam Harrises of the world.
But at the same time, we also study contribution. How Islam can be a source of benefit and peace and justice to the world as it has been in the past. We also recognise that many times when we try to have difficult conversations or address others about our faith, it's often cosmetic and we need to have deeper conversations and so we address first and foremost young Muslims themselves on these topics so that we can have these conversations internally but in a way that anyone can appreciate.
A growing number of Muslim youth are coming out today saying how they're tired of the pressure to be “political,” or expected to take on this “woke” Muslim identity. But you emphasise the importance of social justice as a weapon to confront the politics of respectability. What answers do you give to the disenchanted Muslim youth on a form of social justice that doesn’t feel performative?
OS: I'd much rather a person be ultra-involved in a certain issue and excel in that issue than be involved in everything in a performative manner.
I'd also say that there's a dangerous element from a spiritual perspective of Riyaa — which is showing off — and ostentation. That is the spiritual disease that leads to this performative type of activism. How does that play out on the activist side? Going to a protest, getting your selfie and putting your hashtag there and not doing anything else for the cause.
Most meaningful work takes place outside of the protest, outside of the hashtag. Most of it is in the hunkering down and long meetings and long organising efforts.
Muslims communities, wherever we may be in the world, are often times busy trying to make ourselves palpable to others, or at least “the gaze”, but what about the work we have to do between each other, amongst each other? What about the racism we have inside and within our Muslim communities?
OS: I don't think that the Muslim community is particularly racist. I think that racism exists in the Muslim community, and we need to solve that problem. While Muslims are starting to recognise how all of us, as minorities, fall in the same group and we're all going to be treated in the same way by the “majority”, I think that Muslims also need to reckon with the way that we have treated each other, particularly the African-American community in America.
I think that inshallah (God willing) we will turn that corner fully as we start to recognise our own collective heritage. It was Malcolm and Ali that gave us shoulders to stand on as a Muslim community in the United States and we need to pay respect to that. Before them, it was our spiritual ancestors and the Muslim slaves that were brought to the United States.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.