For me, Black History Month is not only about celebrating the contributions of my fellow Black Canadians, it is about remembering the impact that the enslavement of Black peoples has had on Africa and the world. It’s about building on the strengths of the Black community in Ottawa by working across the socio-economic, religious, ethno-cultural, and linguistic differences of the diversity of individuals who make up our community. It’s about examining how anti-Black racism still exists within Canadian society and recommitting myself to challenging it by trying to understand why it persists and how it affects my life and the lives of my fellow Black Canadians.
This year, I was honoured to be invited to speak about youth engagement through arts and media at the launch of Black History Month at the City of Ottawa and I was humbled to be presented with a Community Builder Award by Black History Ottawa. For me, Black History Month has definitely started out with a bang.
I have been asked by Muslim Link to write a piece commemorating Black History Month. I feel obligated to take this opportunity to admit something: I often find it frustrating to be around Muslims during Black History Month. Why? Because, although there is often a celebration of Black converts to Islam, like Malcolm X, and condemnation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade perpetrated by the West, there is little, if any, examination of the history of slavery in Muslim societies or of the persistence of anti-Black racism within these societies as well as within Muslim communities in Canada. The reality is I have faced more blatant anti-Black racism from my fellow Muslims than I ever did growing up in a predominantly White community.
Anti-Black racism, which includes beliefs that Blacks are inherently less intelligent, more violent, lazier, dirtier, uglier and more sexually promiscuous than other races, is just as prevalent within Muslim societies as it is in the West, if not more so, because there have not been similar movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, aimed at combatting these prejudices, within Muslim societies.
Unfortunately, although Muslims will often cite the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, to demonstrate that racism is condemned in Islam, there isn’t really an examination of whether Muslims over the course of their history actually stuck to these beliefs.
It is important for Muslims to look deeper at their particular societies of origin in order to see how the enslavement of Black peoples in these societies has led to the development of anti-Black racism. For example, the fact that in several Arab dialects the word ‘abd, meaning slave, is used to refer to any Black person demonstrates that in these societies the equation of Black people with slaves still persists.
To read the my complete article visit Muslim Link
Arab Views of Black Africans and Slavery by John Hunwick (academic essay available online)
Religions and the abolition of slavery – a comparative approach by William G. Clarence-Smith (academic essay available online)
Islam and Slavery by William G. Clarence-Smith (academic essay available online)
Islamic Abolitionism in the Western Indian Ocean from c. 1800 by William G. Clarence‐Smith (academic essay available online)
“Slaves of One Master:” Globalization and the African Diaspora in Arabia in the Age of Empire by Matthew S. Hopper (academic essay available online)
Straight, No Chaser: Slavery, Abolition, and the Modern Muslim Mind by Bernard K. Freamon (academic essay available online)
Oxford African American Studies Center: Middle East Page
Race and Slavery in the Middle East Histories of Trans-Saharan Africans in Nineteenth-Century Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Empire (American University Press in Cairo) Review by Gamal Nkrumah available online
Slavery and South Asian History (Indiana University Press)
Recently, while reading the essay Things that Make us Muslim, by Kashmiri Canadian writer Rahat Kurd, I was reminded of the hullabaloo in the Muslim World leading up to Michael Jackson’s funeral as so many Muslims believed that Jackson was one of us. Kurd discusses the appeal that the King of Pop had for young Muslims of her generation and even their parents. She writes:
Fortunately, Thriller is released in 1983. It makes music as a cultural phenomenon suddenly intelligible not only to Muslim kids but also, crucially, to our parents, who stop whatever they’re doing to watch the “Billie Jean” video with us every time it comes on. Somehow, when we watch Michael dance, everything about pop that had seemed previously inaccessible becomes ours. To see him at the same time as millions of other people, to react with the same pleasure and awe, is at once to become part of the same culture, and to begin to feel a certain confidence in our own tastes, our own creative potential.
But what about Michael Jackson put Muslim parents at ease? Simple Answer: He was Black. Kurd writes:
This confidence has to do with the fact that Michael Jackson is an African-American. As religious teachers and imams, black American men were unquestioned authorities in our eyes: they were the funniest, the coolest, the most engaging role models we had. We liked their easy, friendly style of talk, so different from our parents. They were highly sought after as public speakers; their sermons and lectures eagerly attended, often tape-recorded and passed around among teenagers. Kids who were reluctant to talk to their own parents could talk to the imams.
Living amongst Muslims in Canada, where only in the last twenty years there has developed a significant Black Muslim population, presents a great deal of frustration. Because although Blacks are definitely looked up to as speakers, particularly African Americans, you will seldom find us in leadership positions in Muslim Canadian organizations. Although many young Muslims are drawn to the radicalism of someone like Malcolm X, the critique is directed entirely at White Western society, not the racial dynamics of the Muslim world. Blacks are liked as long as we are supporting what Muslims already feel about the West. The appeal of African American Muslim preachers in particular is that they are harsh critics of Western racism, something which many Muslim immigrant communities have to face themselves but they are not expected to criticize racism within Muslim spaces.
As a Black convert to Islam you quickly learn that a great deal of your appeal lies in your ability to praise Islam to the detriment of your “former” Christian or “Western” lifestyle. You also learn that White converts are far more popular than you…particularly when it comes to marriage prospects. But I didn’t convert to Islam for popularity or to get married and most of the Muslims I am close to are either Black themselves or aren’t the type of Muslims who need to hear other religions being put down in order to feel good about being Muslim.
To be fair, everyone loves a convert. The popularity of figures like Ayaan Ali Hirsi can only be understood by the Western Conservative need for a conversion story. The way Hirsi talks about Islam and the West is so Black and White that it can only be understood if you realize that she is a true believer…and a fanatic one at that. The problem with many converts is that they are often incapable of seeing the flaws that exist in the way of life they have converted to and seem to only see the flaws in the way of life they have left. But conversion is seldom really about what religion or ideology is being chosen as it is about what these things represent to the person converting.
Unlike many other converts I know, I had really no interest in trying to convert my friends and family to Islam because most of them were quite fine as they were. I don’t see Muslims as being any more at peace than any other people of faith I know. I was the one who needed grounding; I was the one who needed to build a relationship with my creator. Following Islam is about making me a less selfish, greedy, arrogant, spiteful, envious, unkind, gluttonous, dishonest and miserable person. If I were to concentrate my energy in finding fault with other people’s immorality, it would probably be because I’m trying to avoid confronting my own. Being self-righteous is a cop-out and it’s often this self-righteousness that alienates people from religious communities. I would even argue that spending too much energy in analysing just how messed up Western civilization is actually leads to moral bankruptcy within non-Western communities. If our “intellectuals” took up half as much energy scrutinizing our own problems they might be on their way to solving them by now. That’s why so many “revolutionaries” just end up dictators-you need to be self-critical, you need to be humble, you need to realize that even if right now you are among “the oppressed” if you are a selfish, arrogant, unkind person (and being “oppressed” doesn’t stop you from being these things), if the tables were turned, you would be just as vicious as your “oppressors” maybe even more so. But I digress.
Another reason for the popularity of African Americans is, quite simply, they are cool. There is something inherently cool about African Americans. Western Muslim Youth culture often takes cues from African American Hip Hop Culture, even going as far as having Muslim kids of Arab or South Asian descent calling each other “niggas“, as was most dramatically witnessed by convicted Canadian terrorist and fellow Ottawan Momin Khawaja’s e-mail exchanges with his co-conspirators. The sense of being “an underdog” and resisting oppression definitely are key to the appeal.
An important factor of African American coolness is the African American voice. The African American tradition of oratory goes back to our common ancestors in West and Central Africa and has been honed through Black church traditions. Obama definitely picked up his public oration skills and accent from the preaching of Jeremy Wright in Chicago. It is the Black Church that also fostered African American musical traditions as well and many young African American singers, from Sam Cooke to Whitney Houston, got their start in the church choir. Michael Jackson is something of an anomaly in this respect. He wasn’t raised in the Black Church tradition. His musical skills were honed under the strict and violent discipline of his stagefather, Joe Jackson. When it came to religion, MJ was raised in a Jehovah’s Witness household after his mother, Katherine, converted to the religion in the early ’60s.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims living in the West have something in common: mainstream society is almost completely ignorant about who we really are and what we really are about and as a consequence we totally WEIRD them out. Founded in the United States in the late 19th Century, Jehovah’s Witnesses have experienced religious persecution in North America and Europe, most notably within Nazi Germany, where Jehovah’s Witnesses were executed for refusing military service and thousands were put in concentration camps. I grew up watching media coverage of Jehovah’s Witnesses that was usually sensationalist, centering around their refusal of blood transfusions, objection to military service, mishandling of allegations of sexual abuse, or their shunning of those who left the religion or seriously broke its rules. (For example, MJ’s notorious sister Latoya Jackson was disfellowshipped (shunned) by the community in 1988.)
I remember growing up with classmates who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They weren’t allowed to celebrate birthdays or sing the national anthem. One time, one of my classmates and her parents went going door to door in my neighbourhood passing out Watchtower Magazines and trying to get my neighbours to convert to their faith. When she came to my door she was visibly embarrassed and I was embarrassed for her, unlike on other occasions when I would run my juvenile mouth off at these folks for having the audacity to knock on my door on a weekend and try to save my immortal soul by converting me to their religion, I just smiled, took the magazine and said thank you but I wasn’t interested.
I have come to realize that Ottawa’s local Jehovah’s Witness population has many Black members, most originally from the Caribbean but now a growing number from the African refugee and immigrant populations settling in the city. Being Black and really wanting to support the community and “up the race” means having to learn all about the varieties of Christianity that exist because Black people are members of all of them.
As Muslims were eagerly awaiting the announcement that MJ was being buried as a Muslim facing Mecca, Jehovah’s Witnesses were wondering if he was going to be buried as a Jehovah’s Witness, meaning with minimal pomp and circumstance. You can imagine their horror when it got out that he was going to be buried in a 14 karat Gold-Plated coffin!!! Rumours that MJ was a Muslim had begun to spread among Muslims and in the tabloids after his brother Jermaine Jackson, who is a Muslim, said that MJ was expressing interest in learning about Islam. In Canadian Muslim circles, alleged statements by singer-songwriter and convert to Islam Dawud Wharnsby got Muslims’ hopes up (After Jackson’s death, Wharnsby had to go on the record denying that he had even met Jackson; it seems that this rumour was spread by the British Tabloid The Sun and Canadian Muslims ran with it, without consulting Wharnsby himself). These rumours were further fueled when MJ spent a lot of time in Bahrain with its royal family. Of course, this ended badly with MJ getting sued by the King of Bahrain’s son, who fancied himself a pop song writer.
Judging from the final memorial service, all that I could conclude with certainty was that Jackson was buried as a Christian. Celebrities, being sort of like the “popular kids” of the universe, can make something seem more appealing by endorsing it. That’s why they are sought after by companies to advertise their products. But religion should never be a “product”, something that you sell (The film The Big Kahuna, based on a play by Roger Rueff, starring Danny Devito and Kevin Spacey, about three salesmen stuck in a hotel trying to cut a deal has a great monologue about this). Faith isn’t a commodity; it can’t be consumed. Faith should never be something that you need others to buy into so that you can feel more confident about your own choices.
So, I don’t care if Michael Jackson wasn’t a Muslim. His choosing to be Muslim would not make me “prouder” to be Muslim. (Frankly, I’m not proud to be Muslim, that would fly in the face of my attempts to cultivate humility. But I’m certainly not ashamed.) I think it would have been good for MJ to have followed a life path that surrounded him with good, honest people who wouldn’t have taken advantage of him. That’s what I hope for myself. May my brother in Blackness rest in peace.
Things that Make Us Muslim by Rahat Kurd (article available online)
Will Michael Jackson’s Funeral be Jehovah’s Witness or Muslim? by L. Gornstein (article available online)
M. J. You Take My Breath Away by Shelina Merani (article available online)
Jehovah’s Witness Interactive Map of World Wide Work available online
I’m a bit angry tonight and I don’t know why. So I’ve decided to do some free-writing. Let’s see how it goes.
Today is September 11th. We Muslims are also still celebrating Eid al Fitr, the festival celebrating the end of Ramadan.
It’s a strange time to be Muslim here in Ottawa. Three men from Ottawa have been arrested and charged with plotting a terrorist attack as a result of a CSIS-RCMP investigation called…ahem…Project Samossa. The last and youngest man to be arrested, Awso Peshdary, is well known and respected by his fellow young Muslims, who have rallied around him in his defense.
Although I feel that your average Canadian is beginning to realize that judging Islam based on the actions of The Taliban and al Quaida is like judging Christianity based on the actions of The Ku Klux Klan, I am still afraid.
In the fallout of all this, a colleague of mine said that non-Muslims are probably more afraid than Muslims in Ottawa are, what with the alleged plot to attack our city.
Well, I have to disagree. As a Muslim living in Ottawa, I am pretty afraid, of a lot of things. For one thing, if there actually was an attack on Ottawa, I could be killed, just like a whole lot of other Muslims living in Ottawa where we are a highly visible minority (There are about 65,000 of us in Ottawa). Actually, when one looks at terrorist attacks around the world, it’s mostly Muslims who are dying in places like Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and it’s not like no Muslims died in London or New York. But this strangely gets forgotten when discussions about Muslims and terrorists begin.
I also have to be afraid of hate crimes. I have to be afraid that I, as a “visible Muslim” because I wear hijab, might be attacked, even killed by someone who decides to hold me personally accountable for whatever threat that he or she perceives Muslims to present. Like poor Ahmed Sharif, a taxi driver originally from Bangladesh, who was recently stabbed by a 21 year old film student for the crime of being Muslim. There is worry that Islamophobic rhetoric is actually escalating, particularly in the wake of the proposal to build the Cordoba House near Ground Zero in New York.
Now, let me make it clear, being hated isn’t anything new to me. I’ve been hated long before I became Muslim. I grew up on welfare, living in subsidized housing here in Ottawa. I was called names by fellow students like trailer trash and welfare trash. I got to see my mother and my neighbours referred to as white trash…sometimes even by my teachers. My guidance counsellor advised me and my friend that we were a burden on hard-working taxpayers like himself and he didn’t know why schools had to waste time with kids like us seeing as we were just going to drop out and get pregnant and go on welfare like our mothers did. Our mothers who were trash. I grew up accepting that the people who really mattered, not people like us but people who worked who didn’t have to depend on charity and the goodwill of taxpayers, thought we were as good as garbage. I dropped out in junior high because I felt like I was a burden to my teacher, seeing as I was reading at a Grade 2 level in 8th grade…
During the Mike Harris years, there was a sharp escalation of hatred towards people on social assistance and the poor in general. I had to get used to Lowell Green’s tirades about welfare bums and editorials in the Ottawa Citizen about how people like myself, my mother and my neighbours were plotting to defraud the system. As if we lived just to piss taxpayers off. I remember being so afraid that we would be cut off, that our neighbourhood would be sold off to Minto and we wouldn’t be able to pay the rent, that we would end up homeless, and that no one would care because we deserved this…because we had not earned the right to exist.
My fears proved all too real. John Baird, who is now a minister in the cabinet of Stephen Harper but was then a minister in the cabinet of Mike Harris, was involved in implementing a policy of zero-tolerance for “welfare cheats” that placed life time bans on people convicted of welfare fraud. Kimberly Rogers, who was placed under house arrest for welfare fraud for receiving welfare along with student loans (Before changes made by the Harris government, people could receive welfare to cover living expenses and separate student loans to cover the cost of studies, under Harris this changed, meaning that people had to take student loans to cover their living expenses as well). The judge who convicted Rogers told her the following:
This is how serious the matter is, Ms. Rogers. There is a jail term that is going to be involved, it just happens to be a jail term that will be served in your home, and not at the expense of the community. You have taken enough from the community.
Rogers was required to stay under house arrest while pregnant. She was only allowed to go out three hours per week. She had to pay rent and buy food without any income. She committed suicide in her apartment during a heatwave in August of 2001. The coroner’s jury at the inquest into Rogers’ death recommended that the Harris government’s zero tolerance policy needed to be scrapped or more people would die. I feared that someday this could be me or my mother.
There were times when the level of hate rhetoric got so high that I really thought people were going to come to our neighbourhoods and lynch us. Kind of like how Premier Ralph Klein got drunk and went to a homeless shelter and verbally attacked the homeless…for being unemployed!
That’s the kind of hatred I grew up with.
So, when I became Muslim in the post 9/11 world, I had some idea what it would be like to be hated.
As a Black person, I was familiar with being called names. Being a Black Muslim just means that on top of being called a nigger, I am now also called a sandnigger (interesting variation on the original) and a paki, my personal favourite as it hold so much irony. Paki means purified so although it is intended as an insult it’s actually a compliment. One of the significant changes has just been that I now have more than hateful words thrown at me. I have trash thrown at me as I walk along the road-I once had an egg sandwich thrown at me when I was pushing my friend’s baby in a stroller and recently I had a can of beer thrown at me. At least it’s not stones.
However, I have been pretty disappointed to experience the level of anti-Black racism that exists in Ottawa’s Muslim communities, particularly those that are more affluent and therefore less likely to interact with Blacks, at least within Ottawa’s Anglophone communities…there is more interaction with Blacks among Francophone Muslims, most of whom are North Africans. When you are poor and live in a poorer neighbourhood you eventually learn to get along with everyone. In my neighbourhood, I can chill with Afghans, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Kurds, Iranians, and a vast assortment of Arabs with no problems or off the cuff ignorant remarks. We are all struggling and many are or at some time were on social assistance so no one has any business turning their noses up at anyone else. But among the middle to upper middle classes it’s tough, you have to face a lot of ignorance due to a lack of experience interacting with Black people-from listening to bizarre stories of how some “uncle” threatened his parents that he’d marry a Black woman if they didn’t let him choose his own wife, with such a threat hanging over their heads they acquieced-“How Funny Ha Ha Hee Hee!”-to people expressing surprise if you are a Black person who can express yourself in English fluently-“Well, you don’t sound Black”-To commiserating with Black Muslims who had been rejected by their South Asian or Arab fiance’s family because they were Black-“What would the children look like? What would the community think?”-To comforting Black Muslim kids who’ve moved to the more affluent suburbs and have difficulty making friends with their Arab and South Asian counterparts…sometimes even being shouted at by these children’s parents-To volunteering to collect and distribute halal meat for Eid and being told that it shouldn’t go to those “Somalis“-To watching a Muslim woman call Black Muslims in Africa “savages” during an interreligious dialogue and having to be the only one in a room of over ten people willing to confront her. Being Black among the “established” Muslims of Ottawa can feel like death by a million papercuts, which is why I prefer to spend my time in the ghetto among poorer Muslims. I’m scared of being hurt. Muslims my age and younger are learning to overcome these prejudices but people my age and younger don’t make up much of our community’s leadership. The newly formed Muslim Coordinating Council did put in its constitution that a least one member of their board had to be of African descent, demonstrating how much of an issue Black exclusion from leadership in Ottawa’s Anglophone Muslim communities really has been.
I then have to cope with the rampant Islamophobia within Ottawa’s Black communities. Some of this comes from ignorance, some of it comes from actually lived experiences of oppression by Muslims, some of it comes from Christian religious zeal, some of it comes from a bizarre anti-immigrant sentiment that exists particularly among Blacks who are the descendents of slaves and often also gets directed towards any immigrants including non-Muslim Black immigrants.
The ignorance factor is the easiest to resolve. Again, regular interaction between non-Muslim Blacks and Muslims of whatever race helps. This depends on both communities as the anti-Black racism in Muslim communities can prevent this interaction as much as the Islamophobia of Black communities. I would like to see interreligious dialogue groups exclusively for Blacks of all faiths. This is actually pretty important as I haven’t seen many Blacks, either Muslim or non-Muslim, actively involved in Ottawa’s interreligous dialogue groups. Why I say these groups should be exclusive to Blacks, at least to start, is to address the “actual lived experiences of oppression” of Blacks by Muslims, and vice versa, and the ignorance and resentment that Blacks have about each other is probably best aired amongst Blacks. These dialogue groups should be focused on conflict resolution, reconciliation and finding common causes for action and solidarity…and should prioritize representation from people under the age of 40 as both Black and Muslim communities are both younger than the mainstream Canadian community and I feel that younger Blacks and Muslims are more open-minded than our elders…call me ageist but this has been my experience. I’ve met people who I know will never change their minds and seem to want to take any and every opportunity to make hateful statements; I don’t see the point of wasting time with them. By the same token, I’d love to see entirely South Asian interreligious dialogue groups that bring together Muslims (of all sects), Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians etc. to achieve similar objectives. I’d love to see dialogue groups between people of colour and the indigenous peoples of Canada with similar objectives. A girl can dream. But for now, I also tend to avoid the “established” Black community, because I’m scared.
Truth be told I avoid the middle to upper middle class of all communities, Muslim or non-Muslim, Black or whatever, because I am afraid of them…I am afraid of what they will say to people like me or about people like me…my early experiences of hatred as a child growing up on welfare have shaped how I interact with people and what spaces I can feel safe in.
The Islamophobia of the mainstream Canadian and American community has taken familiar forms. Daniel Luban, in his article The New Anti-Semitism, outlines the similarities between Islamophobia and the fear and hatred of members of the Jewish community. This fear and hatred usually revolves around a belief that Jews are conspiring to control the world. They are therefore dangerous and All of Them must be considered suspect. The Old anti-Semitism is still very much alive and well and I have come face to face with it on a regular basis among Muslims, Blacks, and mainstream White Canadians. Whenever I am faced with another person’s hatred for a community that I don’t belong to, I actually get more scared than if I was the one having hatred directed at me. This is because I don’t want to become complicit in their hatred by not being brave enough to confront them and I always wonder why they feel comfortable saying these things to me…why don’t they realize that their hatred horrifies me…do I come off as a bigot, someone who would sympathize with them? I feel the same way when people express homophobia to me; they think that because I am a practicing Muslim I must also hate all Gay people. Last year, I was let in on the global conspiracy of gays to convert Africans, particularly children to homosexuality, which is just one part of their grand plan to take over the world. As the details of this diabolical plan were laid out to me by a young African academic with a Master’s Degree, I had to restrain my laughter and dispute her assertions calmly and reasonably. So, it looks like some people think Jews and Gays are conspiring to control the world…
Muslims also appear to be jumping on the world domination bandwagon. Well, at least according to Islamophobes. We’ve planted Barack Obama into the Oval Office, we are using the constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights to defend our barbaric religious practices, and we are breeding like rabbits in order to populate Europe and North America with Muslims until we devour the remains of Western civilization like a swarm of locusts. I remember reading comments about the Octo-Mom, Nadya Suleman, whose father is Middle Eastern, stating that she was a Muslim (She’s not) participating in Biological Jihad against the United States. Luban rightfully compares this with Anti-Catholicism as well, something that Canada is very familiar with (It was Catholics’ fear of Protestant exclusion that made it necessary to include the public funding of Catholic schools in Canada’s first constitution, in the British North America Act). The current Pope has also gone on the record stating his fear of the high Muslim birth rate and the need for Christian Europeans to get with the program and start making more babies.
After the arrests in Project Samossa, so many media reports emphasized how “normal” the suspects were. The point that they were trying to get across was that a terrorist could be anyone…well at least anyone Muslim. I feared that maybe my colleagues and acquaintances would come to suspect me. “Well, she seems fine now, but who knows what she’s really plotting? You never can tell with these people.”
How do you prove that you don’t want to take over the world? Particularly, if you are someone like me, who is quite opinionated and does want to make change? How do I prove that I am a loyal Canadian citizen if I openly criticize our government and its policies? Does wanting to hold your government accountable to your ideal of human rights and social justice make you less of a patriot? And what is patriotism anyway? As the daughter of a deportee (See Note below), who has also seen friends and neighbours deported after spending years in this country, I know that Canadian identity is a pretty precarious thing. I am angry that people I know and love have been ripped from their families, often arbitrarily, never to be able to return. Does being angry mean I am not a Good Canadian? Will I someday have to sign a special loyalty oath? Because I am a Muslim, and therefore suspect will I someday be interned like Japanese Americans and Canadians were during World War II?
People might think I’m overreacting. I don’t think I am. Because it’s been nine years since 9/11 but it feels like only yesterday. Because the fears I have carried with me since childhood are still all too real. Because my fears aren’t based on ignorance but experience. Because our Prime Minister is talking about Russian airplanes invading Canada although the Cold War’s been over for 20 years. Because we are still at war and there seems to be no end in sight.
So, I’ve always been hated and I’ve always been afraid but I guess I still haven’t gotten used to it.
But I know that my creator won’t give me anything I can’t handle. And just as I am learning to overcome the deep sense of shame and worthlessness that the hatred I faced as a child growing up on welfare fostered in me, I won’t let myself be ashamed for choosing Islam as my religion. And I won’t be silent and I won’t “keep my head down” for fear of being seen as unpatriotic because I believe in democracy, and democracy can only survive if citizens hold their governments accountable. I don’t want September 11th to become a day of mourning for Canadian democracy the way it is for Chileans, who mourn the 1973 US-supported military coup that overthrew their democratically elected government. I will end my reflection with words borrowed from Chilean American writer Ariel Dorfman, whose sentiments I share:
The terrorists have wanted to single out and isolate the United States as a satanic state. The rest of the planet, including many nations and men and women who have been the object of American arrogance and intervention reject – as I categorically do – this demonization. It is enough to see the almost unanimous outpouring of grief of most of the world, the offers of help, the expressions of solidarity, the determination to claim the dead of this mass murder as our dead.
It remains to be seen if this compassion shown to the mightiest power on this planet will be reciprocated. It is still not clear if the United States – a country formed in great measure by those who have themselves escaped vast catastrophes, famines, dictatorships, persecution – it is far from certain that the men and women of this nation so full of hope and tolerance, will be able to feel that same empathy towards the other outcast members of our species. We will find out in the days and years to come if the new Americans forged in pain and resurrection are ready and open and willing to participate in the arduous process of repairing our shared, our damaged humanity. Creating, all of us together, a world in which we need never again lament not one more, not even one more terrifying 11 September.
NOTE: My father’s defense lawyer when he was trying to appeal his deportation on human rights grounds was Lawrence Greenspon, the same lawyer who defended Momin Khawaja. I guess Greenspon likes a challenge. I would like to think that Laurence Greenspon is the only connection I have to Khawaja…well that and a love for hip hop. If I ever had a chance to meet Khawaja I would take him to task on his use of the word nigga seeing as he constantly referred to his friends as his niggas and they referred to him as their nigga. Is there a word yet for Middle Class South Asian kids who act like they are Black Americans from the ‘hood, claiming everything but the burden of Blackness and Poverty? Keep me posted.
Tracking Attacks on Muslims This Summer by Seth Freed Wessler (article available online)
New York Taxi Workers Alliance: Ahmed Sharif Family Support Fund Info
Ground Zero’s Slave Graves by Jamilah King (article available online)
When will those brave critics of Islam decry this mob hate? by Pankaj Mishra (article available online)
Muslim Presence Website (on bilingual Muslim Canadian organization promoting peace and community engagement among Muslims in Ottawa and Montreal)
Welfare Fraud, Necessity, and Moral Judgement by E. Kimel (Rutgers Journal of Law and Public Policy article about the Kimberly Rogers case)
The New Anti-Semiticism by Daniel Luban (article available online)
Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia, a new report by the Rev. Kapya Kaoma (report available online)
The last September 11th by Ariel Dorfman (article available online)
Nigs R Us or How Blackfolk Became Fetish Objects by Greg Tate (excerpt available online)
Being Black and Being Muslim is a double-bind. You have to face the Islamophobia of the general public, but particularly other Blacks, who seem to perceive Islam as an inauthentically Black religious option. Some of this comes from Islamophobia that is deeply rooted in the various forms of Christianity Blacks adhere to, but some of it comes from a dislike of Islam because of its associations with the Trans Atlantic, Trans Saharan, and Indian Ocean slave trades. As understanding of the history of slavery in Africa by both Black Muslims and Black non-Muslims is sadly biased, inadequate and ill-informed, it is hard to engage Black people on this topic constructively.
You then have to face the anti-Black racism of Muslims themselves. I have to admit that since becoming a Muslim there are times when I have felt that I have been transported to the America of the 1950s and accidently crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. All this said the reality of how all these communities interact with each other in a city like Ottawa cannot be understood by simply saying there is racism. Black Muslims and other Muslim communities attend mosques together, study together, and intermarry at a striking rate, particularly among the younger generations (although it is more common to see Arab and South Asian Muslim women marry Black Muslim men than Black Muslim women marrying into Arab and South Asian Muslim communities. But this is true for all communities; women always seem to have more courage in crossing the colour line than men do.) I myself am very close to Arab, Afghan, Iranian, and various South Asian and South East Asian Muslim community members. I don’t face racism from these people although I am often told and warned about the racism that does exist in their respective communities.
Here in Ottawa, there are various groups that members of the Muslim communities are involved in whose intent is interreligious dialogue. Unfortunately, most of the Christian denominations involved are Anglophone and “Mainline”, meaning that there are not many Black Christians involved as Black Christians often are involved in non-Mainline denominations or, if Roman Catholic are Francophones. So, much of the interreligious dialogue that I feel needs to be happening between Black Christians and Muslims isn’t happening. Blacks belong to probably almost every incarnation of Christianity from Ethiopian Orthodox, to Roman Catholic, to Baptist, to Reformed Calvinist, to Seventh Day Adventist, to Jehovah’s Witness, as well as an amazing array of Pentecostal, Evangelical and independent Churches. Unfortunately, this poses a serious problem for interreligious dialogue, as there is as much need to encourage dialogue and understanding across these Christian denominations as there is to encourage dialogue and understanding between these Christian denominations and other religious communities. I believe that the situation is probably better in the US, at least between Black Muslims and Black Christians but I am not sure and need to explore this more.
There is also the added challenge of recognizing and respecting indigenous African religious traditions. This is something that both Black Muslims and Black Christians need to work on. I consider myself lucky to actually know something about the indigenous religious traditions of my father’s ethnic group, the Ijaw, including their pantheon of deities, such as the Supreme Creative Being, Woyingi, after whom this blog is named. Again, having a blog focused on my Black and African identity as opposed to simply my Muslim identity opens up the possibility of exploring all the religious traditions of Black peoples, including those that do not fall under the Abrahamic Tradition (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).
Black communities in Ottawa strike me as incredibly insular, sometimes not even taking the time to explore the culture, history, and challenges of other Christian Black communities. An advantage of being of mixed race and not raised in one particular Black community (ie Jamaican, Somali, Haitian, Congolese, Nigerian-Yoruba, etc..) is that I feel free to learn about them all and see all of their experiences as part and parcel of my own experience as a Black Canadian.
There are Muslim communities all over the world and one of the few benefits of being a minority religion in North America is that Muslims emigrating from such diverse parts of the world are forced, so to speak, to worship together. If I wasn’t a Muslim, I probably would not be able to move so easily through such a variety of ethno-culturally diverse communities as I do in Ottawa. Again, I feel that being a convert Muslim is what helps me, as I was not raised with any preconceived notions about Muslims from particular countries, ethnicities, religious sects or class backgrounds as many born Muslims are.
I feel grateful for being both Black and Muslim because both identities connect me to such diverse communities whose histories are often inaccessible, even to their own community members, and are understudied and deeply misunderstood. There is so much wisdom to be gained from exploring the Black experience in the world as there is in exploring the Muslim experience; however, the bigotry that exists in both communities limits our ability to truly harness this wisdom for our benefit.
I became Muslim a couple of years before I found my Nigerian father. I am grateful to members of the Nigerian community here in Ottawa for making it possible for me to reconnect with him. However, during those years of searching, I discovered that being Muslim and trying to connect with the Nigerian diaspora is no easy task.
Religious conflicts have been a constant in Nigeria’s history. Most Nigerians in diaspora are not Muslims but Christians. Many Nigerian Muslims have actually converted to Christianity while in diaspora. Islam is generally concentrated within certain ethnic communities in Nigeria, such as the Hausa. But the majority of Nigerians in diaspora are either Igbos or Yorubas. Southern Nigerians, who are predominantly Christian, are more highly educated than Northern Nigerians which has led to a great deal of class resentment. Because corruption and nepotism in Nigeria is widespread many educated Nigerians leave and settle abroad, often doing quite well for themselves.
Often when I attend Nigerian community functions or just end up somewhere where there is a lot of Nigerians, I get asked about my conversion to Islam. Almost all of the time, the conversation ends up leading to my interlocutor trying to get me to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour and abandon the “demonic” religion that has destroyed Nigeria. I politely refuse. I know many Muslims reading this will think: “How Islamophobic of those Nigerians to do that to you sister!” Well, the truth is, I get where they are coming from. I don’t think Islam has “ruined” Nigeria (Oh dear, now some Nigerian is going to write me a comment elucidating in great detail about just how Islam has ruined Nigeria…I’ve totally given them an opening.) However, I do believe that Islam has been used as a tool to manipulate people into committing acts of aggression against non-Muslim communities. It’s far more convenient for the Muslim religious and political leadership (remember the North of Nigeria is a caliphate) to distract their people from challenging their corruption and bad governance by blaming Christians for why they have no jobs and their region is so underdevelopped. If it wasn’t Islam being used to do this it would have been something else, like ethnicity or language. This is an old story.
Interreligious dialogue between Muslims and Nigerian Christians in diaspora would be really useful but unfortunately, most Muslims involved in this work really just want to talk to White Christians (I’m discussing the Canadian context, things might be different in the US…hopefully). Also, often it is only between such Christian denominations as Roman Catholic, United or Anglican. Pentecostals and other evangelicals are, it almost seems, purposely avoided. However, it’s these denominations that Nigerians and many other Africans often belong to. Also, if there is to be real interreligious dialogue between Muslims and African Christians, Muslims are going to have to leave off this whole triumphalist approach many of us seem to take when discussing our history. We often describe Islam’s spread from the point of view of the conquerors, not the conquered. That’s pretty imperialist. Yes, I said it…Imperialist! Certain Muslim communities have a history of imperialism and seem almost “put out” that the rest of the world refuses to recognize that they are the supreme rulers of the universe. To these Muslims I say: Get Over Yourselves!
Historically speaking, Muslims have not always been the “underdog”, sometimes we were the oppressors. This history has created a legacy of resentment and distrust between Muslims and many other communities. If we hope for reconciliation we need to get off our high camels. We need to be willing to look at our history and current politics as frankly as we demand that White Westerners look at their history and current politics. We will have to learn to speak about the slave trade carried out by Muslims in Africa frankly. We will have to learn to talk about the destruction of indigeneous African religions in the name of Islam frankly. Muslims always emphasize our respect for Christianity and Judaism but those aren’t the only two religions in the world!!! We will have to develop strategies for reconciliation, particularly if we are having a dialogue with people who have actually directly experienced violence in the name of Islam.
Sadly, I don’t know how many Muslims are ready to do this. I find that whatever religious violence happens in Black Africa is brushed off by Muslims who aren’t African as just a sign that Africans are barbaric animals and need to be taught Islam properly by their ethnic superiours. Thanks for the Racism! You are of course totally ignoring the brutal history of violence committed against Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Bahai and other non-Muslim communities by Arab, South Asian, Turkish, Malay, and Persian Muslims. When you actually look at that history it’s pretty clear that we Africans don’t have a monopoly on barbarism. So put that myth to rest right now people!
Nigerian Christians, as well as other African Christians need to learn too that Muslims don’t have a monopoly on barbarism either. I understand that for many Africans Christianity has represented many positive things like the abolition of the slave trade, education, respect for human dignity, and democracy. But that hasn’t been true throughout the history or even present practice of Christianity either in Africa or in the world. It’s all about context. Most violence and oppression happens because people want something the other has: land, food, money, natural resources, women, livestock, access to the sea or a waterway, etc. People will use whatever reason to justify their right to take this stuff from others…religion (ie: Sunni Islam in Afghanistan during the attacks against the Shia Hazara, Christianity during the conquest of the Americas, Protestants versus Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland, Hinduism during the Gujarat Riots), ethnicity, language, level of development, political system (ie: Bush’s “Democracy”).
Attacking Islam as inherently evil isn’t going to help there be reconciliation. Muslims aren’t going anywhere. We are all going to have to learn how to live together on this planet and Muslim and Christian Nigerians are going to have to learn how to live together in Nigeria without one community claiming supremacy over the other or desiring to erase the other’s existence. I’m committed to seeing this reconciliation happen. Are you?