Muslims’ Engagement in 2020 with BLM: Promise and Problems

Dawud Walid discusses Muslim communities’ responses to anti-Black racism in the US and within their own circles since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012.  Despite progress in addressing apathy and internalised racisms, Muslims have a long road to travel in the quest for social justice without compromising Islamic principles.

The summer of 2020 was a moment of resurgence for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, in part owing to many people feeling frustrated due to semi-confinement in their homes because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them facing perilous financial conditions. Blacks and non-Blacks burst out into the streets of not only America but much of the world after video footage went viral of a Minneapolis police officer savagely killing unarmed African American George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for seven minutes and forty-six seconds.  His crying out to his deceased mother and pleading, “I can’t breathe” sparked the largest protests and civil unrest since the chilling homicide of Eric Garner, another unarmed Black man who was fatally choked by the New York Police in 2014. 

As outrage spread across the globe, a significant portion of Muslims in various degrees expressed solidarity with BLM which was perceived as the leading voice in the quest for justice.  These varying expressions present layers of promise in that Muslims acknowledge the need to publicly resist anti-Black racism in greater numbers.  However, it also brings forth challenges in the current alignment with BLM and others who promulgate positions and tactics in their vision of seeking racial justice, some of which are antithetical to traditional Islamic morality and ethics. 

BLM began as a Twitter hashtag in 2012 after African American high school student Trayvon Martin was killed by a pseudo-neighbourhood watchman. Two years later it morphed into a movement with the extrajudicial killing of Mike Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, who was shot by Ferguson police. As people took to the streets for weeks of protest and rebellion, those who identified as Muslims were also present, though in small numbers.  Some Nation of Islam (NOI) members were in the streets with the masses echoing their pain yet calling for restraint.  Also on the ground from day one was Egyptian American attorney Mustafa Abdullah who was monitoring police misconduct against protesters on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  Abdullah, along with the Executive Director of the Missouri chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MO) Faizan Syed who is a Pakistani American, community organiser Muhammed Malik who is a Kashmiri American, New York based community organiser Linda Sarsour who is a Palestinian American, and myself being an African American founded a collective called Muslims For Ferguson to raise awareness among American Muslims about the systemic issues undergirding what took place in Ferguson and encouraged Muslims to join us in the streets.

Although there was engagement by a few thousand Muslims when we held a series of teach-in teleconferences and from a couple dozen of non-Black Muslims who joined protests in Ferguson, much of the non-Black Muslim American Muslim community reactions ranged from apathy to blatant anti-Black rhetoric.  In my proverbial backyard of Dearborn, Michigan which is the city with the highest concentration of Arabs outside of the so-called Middle East, I read social media comments such as Brown was not a Muslim, so what does it have to do with us, to Arabs stating that had he and other Black victims of police brutality simply behaved better and did not act like “hayawan” meaning animals, they would not be policed in such a manner to begin with.  I was forced to discontinue some personal relationships with a couple of men over their vitriolic anti-Black comments.

Even most national American Muslim organisations and scholars were timid about taking a definitive stand against anti-Black violence by law enforcement relating to Brown and other high profile cases which garnered corporate media coverage such as Freddie Gray who was murdered by the Baltimore Police the following year.  Even worse, there were instances in which statements were made focusing more outrage against looting than over Gray’s homicide.  One such statement by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) led the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC) to issue an open letter to national American Muslim organisations asking them to be more sensitive towards the African American community.  There were also unfortunate incidents in which some well-known scholars and imams like Shaykh Hamza Yusuf who made comments at the 2016 Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) conference in Toronto, Canada in relation to BLM which were interpreted by many Muslims who are Black as explaining away the reality of systemic anti-Black racism.

In a positive development three years after the Shaykh Hamza Yusuf controversy, different reactions from most major American Muslim organisations, activists, and scholars to the grassroots relating to anti-Black racism and BLM started to be verbalised.  From my anecdotal observations, it appears that the same held true in Canada and the UK.  As Americans of different creeds (non-Blacks outnumbering Blacks in many cities) poured into the streets protesting the murders of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there was an unprecedented solidarity from non-Black Muslims.  Every national Muslim organisation in America held series of virtual talks about anti-Black racism and the history of police brutality and mass incarceration in America.  For several Fridays pulpits were dominated by lectures about the ills of racism.  Many Islamic centres followed up with panel discussions featuring all Black panels talking about their experiences of racism within broader society as well as in the Muslim community.  I spoke specifically about these issues over 60 times in the month following Floyd’s death to audiences based in America, Canada, and the UK as well as taught classes about Blackness among the companions and descendants of Prophet Muhammad (prayers and peace be upon him & his family).  Moreover, Muslims in cities across America not only joined BLM protests but were at the forefront in some places.

Whether this shift was due to a greater consciousness of racism among Muslims in the West especially as it relates to anti-Blackness at the core of the false ideology of white supremacy or was the result of the mainstreaming of BLM and its wider acceptance amongst whites remains to be seen.  Nonetheless, there is some cause for hope that Muslims in the West may be at a turning point in not only joining the greater struggle for racial justice in Western societies but also that they will begin to deliberate more robustly about how anti-Blackness can be systematically tackled within the Muslim community.

With the promise of Muslims becoming more conscious about racism, anti-Black racism in particular, and displaying the willingness to begin challenging systemic racism in the West also come spiritual and intellectual challenges pertaining to many who seemingly jumped on the BLM bandwagon without critical analysis based on our spiritual tradition.  This especially holds true for those who sincerely view their identities firstly in terms of faith and objective moral truth which derives from the Qur’an.  This must be mentioned before continuing because there is a growing contingent of persons who view being Muslim as a type of inherited secular quasi-ethnic identity with socio-political implications without any real consideration or reference to the Qur’an.          

Returning to the heightened expressions of solidarity with Black suffering immediately after the police lynching of Floyd, several national and local Muslim organisations in America as well as ethnic based non-profit groups run by Muslims began to hashtag #BlackLivesMatter or #BLM in social media posts, e-mail updates, and on their websites.  When inviting speakers on their panels, they encouraged viewers to attend BLM protests in their respective areas.  Some of them even encouraged their non-Black Muslim constituents to donate to BLM.  The BLM bandwagon that many uncritically jumped on, however, raised eyebrows among many Muslims who are African American.  I admittedly am one of them.

For instance, the two national Muslim organisations representing African American interests, The Mosque Cares (Ministry of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed) and the Muslim Alliance of North America (MANA), the latter of which I am a board member, do not promote BLM.  Moreover, there is not a single Islamic centre in America with an African American congregation and spiritual leader which has BLM signs or banners.  Instead of conferring with the organisations which represent the bulk of African American Muslims and taking counsel from Black scholars, these non-Black Muslim entities and leaders stepped over those in their own faith community to champion BLM.  To say that this is problematic would be an understatement.  Moreover, if these non-Black Muslims did not see the most prominent African American Muslim leaders openly supporting BLM, this should have raised doubts.  Had they consulted us they would have soon learned that there is a difference between standing for the dignity of Black life and giving support to BLM.  The two are not synonymous.

African American Muslims have been at the forefront of standing against anti-Black racism and police brutality going back to when Malcolm X (may Allah have mercy upon him) led members of the proto-Islamic movement the Nation of Islam in protesting, then later successfully suing the New York Police Department for the 1957 savage beating of Johnson Hinton.  Likewise, Malcolm X with NOI members led a Black front including non-Muslim groups in rallying against the Los Angeles Police Department extrajudicial execution of Ronald Stokes.  Imam Siraj Wahhaj (may Allah preserve him) of Brooklyn, New York was at the forefront of protests which led to an eventual lawsuit against the New York Police Department for the police lynching of Amadou Diallo in 1999.  There have been many more cases of Black led Muslim efforts for justice against the brutalisation of Black folks by law enforcement long before there was BLM and since it has been in existence.  In short, African American Muslims have a legacy of confronting head on the issue of anti-Black police brutality.

The first reason for caution is more philosophical than tangible harm as it relates to not championing the BLM movement.  African American Muslim leaders in general have always hesitated to take up the banner of those who are secularly orientated and are predominately funded from outside the Black community.  It is no secret that the seed money for BLM did not come from the grassroots of the Black community but from (white) foundations that lean to the far Left.  After the homicide of Floyd, several Fortune 500 corporations have cumulatively given millions more to BLM beyond the millions received through foundation money outside of the Black community.  The point of contention is that the liberation of Black folks and the fight against anti-Black racism cannot be authentically led by those who are not primarily funded by the Black community and are embraced and supported by the liberal status quo.  Who funds the endeavors basically influences the agenda.  A clear historical example of this was articulated by Malcolm X in his 1963 seminal speech Message to the Grassrootswhich explained how such funding diverted the original intention and tactics of the March on Washington in 1963.

Another primary point of tension resides in the BLM approach that the liberation of Black folks and those who identify with the framework of LGBTQ+ are inextricably connected.  This is contentious not only from the point of view of framing the fight against anti-Blackness as being morally on par with the acceptance of certain sexual activities and gender identities but also on theological grounds.  The LGBTQ+ movement is not simply about protecting persons from being victims of vigilante attacks or hate crimes or being denied basic human rights such as access to housing and basic medical care.  It is a movement in which BLM is part and parcel of something that has morphed into aggressively seeking trans, gender binary, and gender fluid public accommodations in lavatories and locker rooms to inserting LGBTQ+ issues and history into public school curriculum for pre-pubescent children.  The perceived normalisation of homosexuality and redefinition and elimination of gender plus the perception that society must capitulate to accepting such even when going against persons’ sacred beliefs are part of a package deal in supporting BLM because that is part of their intersectional platform. 

In addition, there are some protest tactics of BLM leaders which have trickled down to their affiliates that run counter to the comportment of the Prophetic mandate of forbidding evil.  That they do not commit nor incite physical violence in achieving their aims is not a high standard for Muslims striving to be involved in the endeavor of sacred activism.  For instance, in 2015, BLM leaders stormed a campaign rally stage on which progressive Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) was speaking.  They forcefully seized the microphone from Sanders in order to air legitimate grievances relating to the homicide of Brown in Ferguson.  Something similar took place at a private fundraiser for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a donor’s home as well. During the summer of 2020, pro-BLM activists confronted white persons in a number of American cities chanting “white silence is white violence” and demanded that they proclaim their support for BLM.  One example of this was in August 2020 when a middle-aged white woman was surrounded and screamed at within centimetres of her face in Washington, DC while she was dining outside while trying to observe COVID-19 social distancing precautions.  Whether it is these situations previously mentioned or the purposeful disruption of traffic which blocked roads that ironically impeded poor Black people from getting to work on time or blocked emergency vehicles from getting individuals with dire medical emergencies to hospitals, such tactics ended up only alienating or distracting people from the actual issues at hand.   

As Muslims in the West deal with BLM or other purported justice movements, it is essential that they are guided by sacred principles and Prophetic etiquettes.  From this foundation, Muslims can better set our own terms of engagement instead of simply following others.  The 15h century Maliki scholar Ahmad Zarruq (may Allah have mercy upon him) stated:[i]

It is not permissible for anyone to proceed in a matter until he knows the ruling of Allah pertaining to it.  Ash-Shafi’i said, “This is a matter of consensus due to the speech of the Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him) who said, ‘Knowledge is the imam of action, and action follows it.’”

And when in doubt about matters and tactics, being cautious, learning the ins and outs, and taking consultation from more than one learned person in both text (sacred law) and context (socio-political environment on the ground) before acting are better than following the crowd or acting sinfully or mistakenly in haste which could very well do more harm than good. This principle was summed up in the words of 9th century Persian gnostic Yahya bin Mu’adh (may Allah have mercy upon him) who said, “If you cannot benefit then do not harm.”[ii]  

It does not require much explanation from Islamic texts that purposefully brutalising or killing anyone due their race is immoral and should be robustly deterred.  When calling for justice for the oppressed, there are indeed times in which public protesting and civil disobedience are necessary strategies.  This includes cooperating with those who share different beliefs and values to what is mandated in traditional Islamic teachings.  That non-Black Muslims in the West have become more active in racial justice movements and in particular addressing anti-Blackness is a promising sign that our community is moving beyond activism confined to particular issues pertaining to oppression outside the West.  When it comes to BLM, there are times when it is appropriate for Muslims to join the masses on the streets when calling for justice in a particular case plus for systemic legal changes.  That joining, however, should be on our terms and using our nomenclature without using tactics and terminology that violate our sacred law and Prophetic comportment.  It should not be the case that Muslims are completely copying BLM including using their language which seeks to normalise and promote the forbidden, nor should they be actively given platforms within our community which could further confuse our community, especially the youth.  Furthermore, there definitely should not be unrestricted donations or sadaqah given to BLM or any other organisation that unabashedly promotes the normalisation of public immorality even if they state that their bread and butter is “social justice.”  There are ways in which we can stand for Black life and selectively work in coalition with other people within our sacred parameters without violating our noble faith in the process.  It is simply not our way to correct injustices by using incorrect means or supporting those who are openly advancing wrongdoing.

Dawud Walid is an imam based in Detroit, Michigan, USA and author of the book Towards Sacred Activism.  His book Blackness and Islam (2021) is being published by Algorithm.  Pre-order here.

[i] Zarruq, Ahmad, Qawa’id al-Tassawuf ‘ala Wajh Yajma’ Bayna al-Shari’ah wa al-Haqiqah wa Yasil al-Usul wa al-Fiqh bi al-Tariqah, (Damascus: Jami’ al-Huquq Mahfuzah., 2004), p. 114

[ii] Ibn Rajab, ‘Abd al-Rahman, Jami’ al-‘Ulum wa al-Hikam fi Sharh Khamsin Hadith min Jawami’ al-Kalim, (Beirut:Dar Ibn Hazm, 2002), p.408