Category Archives: Racism in the Ummah

To be a Black. Convert Muslim. Female.

Hello everyone. My blog has been rescued from the depths of oblivion after I have read quite a few blogs for the “Convert Truths” blog carnival and felt compelled to contribute. (And yes, I’m way late…sue me). I wanted to share what my own personal experience has been like as a Black, convert Muslim, female living in the United States. Here goes:

I wish I could tell you about the beauty. I wish I could tell you that I took shahadah after being fascinated with Islam and seeing the goodness of Muslims. I wish I could tell you how I found a family, a community and a new place to exist. I really wish I could. And I wish that because I am quite aware of the fact that Muslims don’t want to hear my kind of story. It’s too painful and too much truth for one person to digest. The reality is my convert experience has been a rocky one. It has been, at times, fraught with doubt and confusion as to why I chose to be a part of this community and around these particular people. Once the initial convert zeal wore off, I found myself in a miserable circumstance.

Many of you are quite aware of my story. For those who aren’t I can give you the quick rundown. I converted to Islam when I was 17 years old. I was initially part of the predominately African-American masjid where I took shahadah but became distant from the community after it folded due to mismanagement, personal scandals and a failure to help new converts like myself navigate the pitfalls of the larger world around us. Unwittingly, I fell in with members of the Tablighi Jumat (though I never officially joined it) and eventually the Salafi movement (which I also never officially joined) because my Muslim friends and support were part of these movements. I was only able to maintain that level of Islam for a couple years before I found myself burnt out, tired and wanting more. I “took a break” from practicing Islam for several years. I eventually found my way back after I moved to South Florida and became part of a Caribbean Indian and Indo-Pak mixture community. That is where it all began…

If you ask me what it has been like to be a Black, convert, Muslim, female I will reiterate it has been rough. Having spent most of my Muslim experience in non-Black immigrant communities, I have faced a great deal of racism, sexism and colorism. Though I often heard how we are “all Muslim” and have been reminded of the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) last sermon where he says, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action,” the reality amongst Muslims was and is far from the ideal. Beyond all the beautiful speeches given to me by my Indian, Pakistani, Caribbean Indian, and Arab brothers and sisters I realized that being Black, a woman and a convert made me less than. The litmus test was marriage. I watched as my fair-skinned Latina friends were repeatedly asked for their hand in marriage. I watched as the White female converts were held in high esteem and absorbed into immigrant Muslim families (their babies will be so fair, mashallah!) and I laughed inwardly at the sisters’ tales of being proposed to at the annual ISNA convention because that NEVER happened to me. Yet, I continued to subject myself to this mistreatment because I didn’t know what else I was supposed to do. It occurred to me that my presence was being tolerated. I was angry at myself because the Afrocentric movement was what had led me to Islam. Before becoming Muslim I was confident and proud of the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, the shape of my nose and of my slave ancestors. How did I move from that to being ashamed of taking off my hijab at sisters’ only events? How could I sit silently as people insulted my skin color or asked me if I was a convert or Muslim? What happened to me?

I eventually woke up. I divorced the Arab husband I was married to, left the masjid that I had been attending and rediscovered/reclaimed my identity. I was free and ready to reconnect with my people, Black people. One would think that moving to a predominately African-American Muslim community would’ve been better for me. I thought I would find myself welcomed into my local W.D. Muhammad masjid with full and open arms. I was coming home! However, from the moment I set foot in the masjid I immediately knew I was an outsider, not to be welcomed in. This time it wasn’t because of my skin color or cultural background. I was an outsider because I wasn’t part of the Nation of Islam experience and I didn’t have an entire family who was. I was also an outsider because I was attractive, single and a threat to the sisters. The fact that I wore abayas, full hijab and tended to be more conservative (due to the years I spent in immigrant Muslim communities) didn’t help either. Sure, I could come to Jumah, participate in community events or even help out with the tasks the masjid administration assigned to me but I got the message loud and clear: don’t think you’re going to come in here and change things or try to be a better Muslim than us. Nepotism was the order of the day and I had no family connections.

Outside of the Muslim community I found myself in a strange predicament. Before 9/11 people would assume that I was from the Nation of Islam. That’s what being Black and Muslim meant. However, after 9/11 I was suddenly “foreign” and from “over there.” People assumed I didn’t speak English, that I was passive and docile, and that someone was forcing me to cover my hair and body. The strangest part of all was that Black people no longer recognized me as Black. My light brown skin (once considered too dark in Arab and Indian/Pakistani communities) combined with my hijab made people assume I was East African or a “Black Arab.” There were no head nods, complicit glances, or casual words spoken to me from other Black people. Somehow, being Black meant you had to be Christian. To be anything else was to be a cultural apostate.

One may ask, why be Muslim then? Why don’t you just leave? Why subject yourself to this? After all, I have had so many negative experiences in the Muslim community. Best believe that I have asked myself these questions many times since I converted. To sit here and say that I haven’t would be a lie. So, why do it? Why remain here? I believe without a doubt or hesitation that there is no nothing or no one worthy of worship of worship except Allah (who has no partners, no equals, no sons) and that the Prophet Muhammad ibn Abdullah is his messenger and the seal of all Prophets. If I left Islam where would I go and who would I be? Despite the negative experiences I have had and continue to have, the Quran has offered me guidance and peace during these tumultuous times. After all, when I am focused, when I remind myself of my purpose, when I lay that rug out and face the kiblah, I remember that there is nothing and no one else in the world except me and Allah.

Profiting off of misery: Muslim Immigrants Selling Haram in the ‘Hood

The first contact I ever had with Arabs was on the Southside of Chicago. Every summer and school vacation I went there to visit my father, siblings and paternal grandparents. When I wanted to buy potato chips, soda or other candy, my sisters and I would make our way to the corner store. (I realize now we actually called it ‘the A-rab’ store). If anyone in the neighborhood wanted to play the lotto, buy a forty or bootleg videos, the corner store was there. By the same token, if we wanted to sink our teeth into a pizza puff or have a gyro, we’d go to the local fast food joint. Both places were owned by Muslim immigrants. I remember seeing Suras from the Quran hanging in the back, behind the bulletproof glass. (At the time I didn’t know it was Quran, I just saw some funny-looking gold writing scrawled on a shiny black background).

I quickly learned that none of the people who owned the store actually lived in the neighborhood. They’d come early in the morning to open their business and they’d leave late at night. (Some of the businesses stayed open all night). On occasion, the store or fast food owners would hire a person from the neighborhood to work in the place. Maybe they’d sweep the floor, take out the trash or wipe down the windows. (They were never allowed to work the cash register). More often than not, the person acted as a kind of broker between us (the patrons) and the store or restaurant owners. If there was a dispute between one of the patrons and the owner, the person would try to resolve the dispute by relating to both sides. They’d assure the patron that the store/restaurant owners were “good people” and vice versa. “Just a little misunderstanding.” Tension diffused! When I look back on it now, I realize people in the neighborhood felt better about the presence of Arab store/restaurant owners when they saw “one of our own” working in store.

Nonetheless, it was clear that the store/restaurant owners had a love-hate relationship with their patrons. They loved for people to spend their money in the stores or fast food joints but they didn’t seem to have much respect for the people they served. They looked down on us. We were Black, poor, and some of us were uneducated. There were frequent shootings in the neighborhood, drugs, teenage pregnancy and so many other vices. We continued to patronize businesses who sold us inferior products, whose owners treated us with disrespect and suspicion. More often than not, they wouldn’t even extend us the courtesy of saying hello. (A big no-no in African-American culture. You always speak to people!)

It was no secret that some of the store/restaurant owners slept with women and girls in the neighborhood. After all, they’d hit on us constantly. They’d make rude, sexual comments to us. I’d seen young girls pushing a stroller with a half “A-rab” baby in it. There was no talk of marriage or courtship. And I’m sure the “relationship” existed only in the ‘hood. Outside of that, there were no trips to the mall, fine dining at restaurants or late nights at the movies. And certainly no introductions to family members. However, when their women would work in the store it was clear that the men were not to interact with them whatsoever. The veiled woman would quietly work behind the counter uttering a “thank you” or “come again” on occasion. When she did speak it was in their language to her family members who owned the store.

If the Arab business owners had a love-hate relationship with their patrons, it was the same with us. I’d heard my grandparents, aunts, uncles and other people in the neighborhood complain about “them A-rabs.” They didn’t like the way they were being treated when they went into the store. Someone from the neighborhood (one of the few who had a car and could venture out) had seen one of the store owners on the other side of town buying products which they would later mark up and sell at an exorbitant rate in their store. Words like exploitation, oppression, boycotting and Black ownership floated around my head. On the other hand, some people said if we didn’t like the way we were treated we should open our own business. The store/restaurant owners had come from other countries. Some of them barely spoke English yet they had managed to open up a small business. They were only trying to make a living like the rest of us. Could you blame them?

Fast forward

I had accepted Islam and was attending college. By then, I had interacted with Arab and other Muslim immigrants in the masjid and in the Muslim Student Association (MSA). I felt like I had a different perspective and a better understanding of their cultures and religion. By then I knew that selling pork, lottery tickets, alcohol, pornographic magazines, and bootleg videos was against the very religion that the Arab store/restaurant owners claimed was so dear to them. (They actually had the nerve to display portions of the Quran amongst all of the haram!) I also knew that some of them rationalized their actions by saying that their patrons were “kaafirs” who were killing themselves anyway. The women were loose and immoral. The men were lazy and criminal. The store/restaurant owners were “helping them” by setting up businesses in the neighborhood. Otherwise people would have to catch the bus or the train out of the neighborhood in order to get provisions like milk or a pack of cigarettes. If they wanted a quick meal, they’d have to do the same.

So there I was, in Chicago visiting my family again. This time I was in hijab. My sister and I journeyed to corner store so she could get a few things. When we entered the store, the owner’s gaze immediately landed on me. He looked stunned. Eventually his surprise turned into a warm smile. “As salaam alaikum sister!” he yelled to me from behind the bulletproof glass. I returned his salaam. An older man had come from the back of the store and he also looked stunned. They proceeded to ask me where I was from, which masjid I attended etc. They explained that they were from Palestine. They told me they were my brothers in Islam. (From the corner of my eye I could see my sister, hand on hip, eyebrow raised, looking back and forth from me to the store owners). I must’ve looked doubtful or conflicted because before I knew it, the older man had come from behind the bullet proof glass to show me his copy of the Quran. In broken English he said, “We both Muslims. You our sister.” When I tried to pay for my items they refused to accept my money. “We cannot charge you,” they said. Once we got outside my sister was so upset she was shaking.

“Their sister!” she spat. “How are you their sister? I’m your sister. They don’t even like us. They come into our neighborhoods, treat us all like criminals and now you’re their sister? She paused before speaking again. “You’re not the same kind of Muslim they are. I know that! And they didn’t even speak to me. They didn’t even acknowledge me until you said something. Was I there? ”

I agreed with her. I expressed my surprise at the new way I was being treated. I told her if I didn’t have the hijab on I’d go back to being “one of them” and no one would be rushing from behind the bulletproof glass to call me sister. We laughed about it. Yet, during the course of my stay in Chicago, similar incidents would happen every time we went into a convenience store, gas station or fast food restaurant. My shock eventually became disgust.

Profiting off of misery (continued)

The Stores and Restaurants

Chicago is not the only place where Muslim immigrants have set up convenience stores. I’ve lived in South Florida, the Twin Cities, Ohio, and in Southern California. I’ve also visited other cities where I’ve seen the same thing. Sometimes Pakistanis or Indians own the stores, other times it’s Arabs. I’ve even met a few Turkish immigrants in corner stores. (And I’m excluding non-Muslim store owners like Koreans). Whatever the ethnicity of the Muslim immigrant, one thing was clear to me- there are Muslims who are making a profit off of selling haram to people in historically oppressed communities. Rather than using their presence in the community to empower people, give dawah and build alliances they are taking advantage of people, exploiting them and mistreating them all in the same breath. And even if they don’t mistreat people in terms of the way they interact with them, Muslim store/restaurant owners are selling Black and Chicano/Latino people products that they wouldn’t even eat, drink or use themselves. How Islamic is that? It shocked me to see Palestinians participating in this nonsense. After all, every Palestinian Muslim I’ve met has talked about the oppression of their people and the need for me, as a Muslim, to lend my voice to their cause. How can some of them turn around and exploit people in my community when they know what it feels like to be oppressed? And then they expect people to be sympathetic to their cause? I’m just sayin’…

As a result of the way they’ve been treated in the ‘hood, some Black people have come to despise Arabs, Indians/Pakistanis and/or Muslims. After 9/11 and the subsequent targeting of Muslims (esp. immigrant Muslims) many people in the Black community had little to no sympathy for them. (Us?) I’ve heard my own family members or friends of the family say as much. “Now they know what it’s like to be treated like us” was the common response I’d hear. Though I try to explain that it’s unfair for them to blame all Arabs, SE Asians or Muslims for what a few individuals are doing, I know how difficult it is for some of my family members and friends to see it that way. The only contact they have with Arabs (who they usually see as Muslims whether they are or not) has been through the corner stores and fast food restaurants. I cannot completely blame them for the way they feel even as I try to connect the mistreatment of Arabs, SE Asians and Muslims to the larger struggle against racism.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

A friend of mine called me from the west coast. She had something very exciting to tell me; a diverse group of Muslims (including immigrant and second generation immigrant Muslims) were formulating a plan to approach the Muslims who were selling haram and exploiting the people in predominately Black and Chicano communities. The group was going to give the owners a choice- stop selling haram or they would be shut down. The store owners would not find any support in the Muslim community. They would be boycotted. (My friend told me that she’d heard a similar movement was taking place in Chicago).

I couldn’t believe it! For years African-American Muslims had talked about it amongst ourselves. I’d heard about different groups of people (from specific neighborhoods) approaching store owners in New York and Philadelphia. The only missing piece for me was for immigrant and second generation immigrant Muslims to step up to the plate. I’d been in masjids where wealthy store and restaurant owners were proudly accepted into the community. People knew how they made their living but no one said anything. They even contributed to the masjid with their haram money! But now my friend was giving me hope.

So I suppose that is what needs to happen. As Muslims we cannot simply shake our heads and say, “how unfortunate.” Or worse, live in a state of denial. We have a responsibility to speak out against the injustice that Muslims are committing against other people. I think we will find that different cities and communities are at various stages of development in regards to this issue. Some people need to start by “outing” Muslim business owners who are committing the wrong. No more protection, acceptance, denial or burying heads in the sand. It might mean venturing out into poor communities to witness the harm they’re doing. Some people, who are aware of what is going on may be at the stage where they have enough people to support the cause and can approach Muslim store and restaurant owners about their behavior. The bottom line is that I want to see something happen and I want to be a part of it…

Why are you boycotting ISNA?

Several people have emailed me privately to ask me why I’m boycotting the annual ISNA convention. Before I give you my reasons let me start off by saying the word “boycott” sounds a little strong. Yet when I think about my reasons for not attending anymore they’re beyond simply being “tired of it.” My reasons are pointed and purposeful. They’re both political and personal. Shall we begin?

Reason #1: Relevancy to my life

I’ve attended the ISNA convention three years in a row. Apart from one workshop about Africa or African-Americans, there was nothing else that spoke to my reality as a Black Muslim. Most of the workshops focused on American Muslim life from the perspective of immigrant Muslims or second generation immigrant Muslims- namely Desis. A central question that has run through each workshop and main lecture was “How do I develop an identity as an American and as a Muslim?” Another question was, “How do I navigate through the larger American society and culture?” As an African-American Muslim (and more pointedly as a ‘Jamerican Muslim’) I already know how to do those things. I don’t see any conflict between being Black and being a Muslim. And I certainly don’t have any questions about where I fit in American society. Furthermore, I am not seeking American (read: White, non-Muslim) approval or acceptance. Year after year it’s the same rhetoric and the same problems being discussed.

Reason #2: The Incident

I stepped into the conference room for the main lecture hoping to find a seat close to the front of the room. If I remember correctly, Hamza Yusuf, Zaid Shakir and a host of other well-known speakers were about to begin. I found a row with a bag resting on the aisle seat and a bag leaned against a chair about five seats down. I was delighted to see that no one had claimed the seats in the middle. I dropped my bags on the chair and went to the back of the room to get a drink of water. When I returned to my seat I saw a 30-something year old Pakistani woman rifling through my bags! I flew over to her just in time to hear her ask, “Whose bags are these?” I looked her squarely in the face and said “Mine.” I took my bag from her hands and sat down. I couldn’t believe what happened next. She approached me with her hand on her hip, a scowl on her face and yelled, “These seats are taken!” Though I was shocked by her tone (and the fact that she felt comfortable standing over me, scolding me like I was her child), I calmly looked her in the eye and said, “I don’t see anyone sitting here.” By that time a crowd was starting to gather. I told myself to stay calm because the last thing I wanted to do was cause a scene at an Islamic conference. The woman, still scowling with her hand on her hip said, “I put a bag over there [pointing to the aisle seat] and a bag over there [pointing to the bag five seats down] to mark the seats. I saved these for my family. They’re taken!” I could feel the anger rise from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head. I wanted to snatch her by her scrawny neck and mop the floor with her. I took a deep breath and looked at the people gathered around us. If I told this woman off, would they say I started it? If I refused to move would I be thrown out of the conference by security? Would I be “that Black woman” who caused a scene at ISNA? Furthermore, what would be the appropriate thing to do at this juncture? I decided it wasn’t worth it. I grabbed by bags and found a seat in the back of the room. The last thing I saw before I left was the woman’s triumphant smile…

Reason #3: The Rudeness:

Apart from the aforementioned incident, I was appalled by the number of people that would answer their cell phones, have conversations, or get up and walk around during the middle of a lecture. How rude! It happened in every single lecture I attended. At one point during the main lecture Imam Zaid actually asked people to turn off their cell phones and to show the speakers some respect. At times I had to strain to hear the lecture.

People would often bump into me without so much of an “excuse me.”

Before salah people would save places for their friends or family members who hadn’t arrived yet.

Then there was the whole shuttle situation. Oh boy! I, along with many other people, stayed at a hotel that was some miles away from the convention center. We had to rely on a shuttle to take us back and forth. (It was very inconvenient). When the last lecture of the evening concluded people would cut in line or push each other in order to get on the shuttle. One man actually tried to save four seats for his family members who were nowhere in sight, leaving the rest of us (including a pregnant sister) to stand. By then my patience had run low and I’d already been through “the incident.” I asked him, “Do you really expect everyone to stand while we wait for people who aren’t even here yet?” I sat down and refused to move. Eventually the pregnant sister sat down next to me. Just as we were about to take off the man’s wife and three kids came running up to the shuttle. I put on my headphones and looked out the window. I was not moving.

Reason #4: What about us?

Last year I watched as ISNA welcomed a Shi’a imam and talked about how we need to build an alliance between the Sunnis and Shi’as. Everyone was hopeful and cheering. I don’t have any problem with Shi’as. I haven’t had much contact with them and seldom think about them apart from the news headlines or the occasional non-Muslim who asks me the difference. The immigrant-African-American divide seemed far more significant to me than the Sunni-Shi’a division. As ISNA celebrated its representation of the Muslim community and the achievements of MYNA and the MSA, a question kept running through my mind, “What about the fact that the largest American Muslim movement to date, was holding a separate conference on the other side of town?” Why wasn’t anyone acknowledging that division? I didn’t need to be a Statistics major or an ISNA board member to notice that the African-American attendance to the annual convention was dwindling. (There were fewer African-Americans at last year’s convention than the year before and even fewer than the first time I attended).

As the excitement swirled around me I realized it was time for me to hang it up. Why was I wasting my time and money? Apart from the bazaar I wasn’t getting much out of it anyway. Maybe I was on the wrong side of town…

Maybe next time..

I recently attended a lecture about Islamophobia and the war on terror. There were three panelists who spoke about different subjects; the depiction of Arabs and Muslims in the media, the legal aspects of the war on terror and one Muslim professor who talked about being a Muslim after 9/11. Overall I thought the lecture was useful and informative. I definitely learned some things. However, as time went on I noticed that the discussion turned towards the perceptions that Muslims in predominately Muslim countries have of Americans and vice versa (with immigrant Muslims acting as a kind of broker between the two groups). I just knew that someone (anyone) would put an end to this kind of binary, black and white conversation that was taking place. (After all, how could Muslims in predominately Muslim countries speak for those of us who actually live in America)? Unfortunately, the event came to a close with only a passing comment about the diversity that exists in the Muslim community. I left feeling a little upset; like I didn’t exist. Like an entire group of Muslims- African-American, African, Caucasian, Chicano/Latino, or West Indian- did not exist.

I started asking myself why there was no mention of African-American Muslims (who make up 50% of the Muslim community by some estimates). Why did no one mention the long history America has with Islam (including the voyages of Muslims to America before Columbus or that by some estimates 30% of the slaves who brought to America were Muslim?) There we were, at an American university, at an event co-sponsored by CAIR (the Council on American Islamic Relations), at the beginning of Black history month and no one even mentioned American Muslims. Eventually, my shock turned to anger. Once again, the Muslim immigrant perspective dominated the discussion. It became the only perspective.

When I was in the hallway I overheard two African-American brothers speaking. One of the brothers was asking, “How can you ignore an entire group of people?” I couldn’t resist. I walked over to them and told them that I didn’t mean to intrude but I was feeling the same way! We talked for a bit and I left feeling slightly better. At least I wasn’t alone in my thinking. I kept hearing the brother’s parting words in echoing in my head, “maybe next time sis.” I had my doubts but I smiled and said yes, “insha’allah, next time.” But I’m doubtful.