This week marks the one-year anniversary of a potent Twitter campaign started by Michigan preacher Dawud Walid to get his fellow Muslims to stop using the Arabic word “abeed.” In its plural form, “abeed” means “slaves,” and Walid publicly challenged Arab-Americans for using it to describe African-Americans. Inspired by Walid’s activism, California-based educator Margari Hill decided to address racism anew within American Muslim communities. This past February, she co-founded MuslimARC (Anti-Racism Collaborative), a multiracial virtual education and training organization. After this past summer’s killing of Gaza civilians and the fatal police shooting of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, the group is grabbing attention for bringing fresh energy to what Hill calls an old conversation within Islam. Colorlines spoke on the phone twice and about how American Muslims tackle racism and build solidarity with other communities.
Dawud Walid’s twitter campaign inspired you to help start MuslimARC. What happened last year?
Last September there was an incident [in Detroit] where an African-American woman verbally insulted an Arab-American merchant. Dawud Walid, a preacher and the executive director of Michigan’s Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) saw that while discussing the story, some online commenters kept using the racial slur, “abeed.” He wrote an article saying it was unacceptable, and he got a lot of negative responses to it. So then Dawud started tweeting about why we shouldn’t use the word and I followed his campaign. Some people apologized, others ignored him, and some people cussed him out. I thought, “Wow, he shouldn’t be doing this alone.”
Like roughly one-third of Muslims in the U.S., you’re African-American. Had you ever experienced something similar?
I’ve been Muslim for 20 years and I’ve dealt with micro-aggressions. But I grew up in a multiracial environment in Northern California. This was first time outright hostility and name-calling was so blatant. “Abeed” is very derogatory.
What kind of response have you been getting from Muslim-Americans about MuslimARC?
I haven’t really heard any negative responses. For the most part, most people say it’s needed, but online may be a little bit different. [There,] people may feel bolder and say things like, “Aren’t there other issues that’re more important, like, Gaza?” But, overwhelmingly, people see it as a positive development. What’s actually been surprising is that we’ve had a lot of support from traditionally trained Muslims, too. Those are people who’ve studied overseas in traditional Islamic institutions and within the classical Islamic sciences. You’d think they’d be really conservative and wouldn’t welcome critical race theory, but they’re actually very responsive! For instance, Abdul Nasir Jangda, who is very traditional, was one of the early re-tweeters of our Twitter campaign where we asked people to do a khutbah (Friday sermon) based on Malcolm X. It’s not like this is a new conversation.
No. A lot of people have condemned overt nationalism and ethnic chauvinism in the Muslim community–even going back to Muhammad’s time 1,400 years ago. But it usually comes out in altruistic statements and recitations of certain [Quranic] verses. It’s like, “OK that’s it,” and nothing changes. So people will tweet back, “We know racism is haram (forbidden), that’s clear. Why not move on from there?”
Well, why not move on from there?
You still see a lot of excuses for discriminatory behavior and practices. Take inter-marriage: It is very common to have parents disown their children for marrying outside their ethnicity. Or, some parents are like, “You can marry anybody but a black person!” [Laughs.] It’s so ridiculous. And [some of us] point out, as Muslims, as brown people, you’re subject to so much discrimination in America and yet you do it too?
Intra-community conversations around race are really tough. Why do you feel called to help lead them?
As an educator I felt like I had a special skill set I could bring to the table, and no one was having the conversation in a way that I felt would produce change. Also, when we first started the hashtag #BeingBlackAndMuslim, we got comments from Omar Suleiman, an increasingly popular teacher. It felt like, “This is our time to make an impact and bridge divides.” We found threads within our faith tradition that were being overlooked. This [anti-racism conversation] is soul work.
There’s also this kind of urgency as we’re dealing with Islamophobia. In New York, you have those [racist subway] ads [that imply] that Boko Haram is Al Qaeda, Hamas is Al Qaeda and CAIR is Al Qaeda. I know people who work for CAIR, and to be vilified as Al Qaeda is really horrible. You have elected officials calling for us to be interned. Our identities and status as Muslims in America is still precarious. I feel that being a vulnerable minority, it’s very important that Muslim-Americans build solidarity and alliances with other communities. In order to do that we have to tackle racism in our own faith community, including racism against Latinos, blacks and Asians.
What inhibits solidarity between Muslim-Americans and other oppressed communities in the U.S.?
It’s a lack of vision and also a lack of [cultural sensitivity and anti-racist] training within our national and local organizations. We look outward towards transnational solidarity, but there’s a missing piece: solidarity within America. So we thought, “Hey, here’s this void we can fill.” Our approach isn’t just within the Muslim community, but it’s for Muslims immigrating to America [and] benefiting off of civil rights and yet some of them reinforce their privilege in a society that discriminates against African-Americans. Our hope and aim is to make these [domestic] issues very important. That’s what we’ve struggled with, really talking about domestic as opposed to international issues as the driving force of MuslimARC.
Muslim-American perspectives on race in the U.S. isn’t a conversation many people are privileged to hear. Who are some of your influences?
There’re some very powerful thinkers. Dr. Sherman Abdul Hakim Jackson’s “Islam and the Blackamerican” made this conversation about race OK. Aminah Beverly McCloud and Carolyn Rouse are also in that first generation of my elders whom I look up to. There are more contemporary folks like Suad Abdul-Khabeer [and] Zaheer Ali. There’s also Donna Auston* and Kameelah Rashad, [who] very much understand the dynamics of micro-aggressions, and people on the ground like Rami Nashashibi.
Tell us a bit about how you came to Islam–or, how Islam found you.
I was interested in this idea that I could transform myself into an ethical person. It was the 1990s and I didn’t like how I was living my life. I grew up with N.W.A and DJ Quick, music where it was like, “We don’t love these hoes.” There was no space for someone like me where the idea of family life and love was important. And the first Muslim family I knew had sons, both of whom were married to black women. At the time you didn’t see black men in their early 20s getting engaged and married. I grew up in a single parent-household. My grandmother was a single mom, my aunts were single parents, and Islam showed me a different model of an intact family structure. It was conservative but revolutionary.
How did your family react to your conversion?
They were [mostly] OK. My brother would always buy these bacon cheeseburgers from Wendy’s and be like, “Are you gonna eat it?” He’d crack jokes every now and then, but for the most part everyone was accepting.
What’s next for MuslimARC?
In the next few months we’re having a membership drive. We’re looking for volunteers and to we’re looking to partner with organizations for workshops and training, especially for Mulsim youth. We have a needs assessment, which will be the first ever study of race relations among Muslims, that we’re launching in November. And of course, people can follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
*Post misspelled surname, Austin