O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. – The Holy Quran 49:13
I was born and raised in Pakistan, a country predominantly Muslim. I never knew about lofty ideas such as interfaith dialogue, although I had friends who belonged to other faiths. Religion wasn’t really discussed, it made us all uncomfortable and slightly offended. How do you talk about different beliefs if everybody thinks they have a monopoly on the truth?
Immigrating to the United States has been an education for me in more ways than one. There is definitely more diversity here in worship, even among the same faith group. Whereas in Pakistan virtually all Christians I knew were Catholic, here I have found any number of denominations. Whereas in Pakistan we all looked the same, here we can be identified in terms of skin color, accent, and ethnic group. Does any of this really matter? Maybe, maybe not. Interfaith dialogue is precious and necessary regardless of how homogeneous we are. Sometimes it’s even more fun when we are different races and cultures, because it brings more nuance into the conversation. We can talk not just about faith similarities and differences, but also about cultural ones. It’s a great learning environment as long as all participants are really interested in learning and sharing.
I’ve been working in the area of interfaith (and intra-faith) dialogue for close to a decade now. I came to issues of racial justice much later. I’m surprised it wasn’t on my radar much sooner, but sometimes we get so involved in our own little world of activism that it takes us a while to see the bigger picture. It certainly took me a few years to understand that while I was pushing a message of tolerance and harmony among various faiths, I wasn’t doing the same regarding various races. I didn’t feel the need for the longest time, because personal experience taught me that those who are open and respectful towards other religious beliefs are usually the same towards other ethnic or racial groups. I don’t know if actual studies would back up my experience but at least in my little corner of the world I didn’t regard it as an important issue.
Much of my perspective changed a couple of years ago due to my involvement with a group called Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (Muslim ARC). In a short time this organization has not only identified racist attitudes within the Muslim community but also dedicated significant efforts to educating and informing, with the aim of removing the racist bias among my own faith tradition. Now, first and foremost I should say that it’s disturbing for me to even write that last sentence because Islamic teachings are so clearly just, with so much emphasis in the Quran and hadith about the equality of all races, that I have been stunned to see racism exist within Muslim society. In my naiveté, or perhaps because I had never been on the receiving end of racist remarks or stereotyping, I was somewhat unaware of this hugely problematic issue. When I became involved with Muslim ARC in its infancy I felt that in many ways I was also growing up along with them. I was opening my eyes finally and seeing the world for what it was, in terms of color and background.
“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 black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.” Prophet Muhammad.
For a devout Muslim, racism is anathema. To see Muslims like myself judging others based on their physical appearance or on their accent or which country they have immigrated from is ugly, disgusting and wholly painful. I cannot describe it any other way. Once my eyes were opened I couldn’t close them again, I couldn’t unlearn this knowledge, and so I decided the only way was forward. What to do with this information? Can it be an aspect of interfaith and intra-faith dialogue? Can we discuss some racial justice topics at our interfaith meetings? Can we share stories not just from a religious perspective but also a racial and cultural perspective? Can we learn about each other’s struggles not only as Muslims/Christians/Jews/Sikhs etc. but also as black/brown/Asian/immigrant etc.? Can we add a social justice component to the mix? Can we volunteer together to join in marches, walks, petitions and so forth? Can we teach our children to respect and love not just our neighbor of a different faith but our neighbor of a different color and the neighbor who speaks a completely different language?
Certainly all those things are feasible and in fact necessary. These are all questions that the interfaith community should be asking and thinking about. Yes, racial justice is a difficult topic for Muslims for a number of reasons. They don’t want to be seen as too vocal against the “establishment” because of the stereotyping, profiling and sometimes outright discrimination that seems to have become their lot in a post 9/11 world. Furthermore, Muslim Americans are such a diverse group – coming from approximately 80 countries and 37% born outside the United States according to Pew Research – that finding common ground is tough on virtually any subject. Muslim advocacy groups are fighting bigger battles that deal with immigrant and discrimination issues, leaving black Muslims alone to focus on racial justice. That’s not fair and it’s not religiously acceptable.
When I look deeper, though, I see much work being done already, now that my eyes and ears are willing to take it all in. I see a new awareness among not only Muslims but other faith groups, where people are slowly leaving their comfort zones and becoming vocal about a topic that isn’t typically seen as their concern. I see younger Muslims beginning to get seriously associated with the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, as I see white Christians, Jews and others do the same. And that really gladdens my heart, because I can see the unity despite the differences. We have a national hero in Malcom X. who was not only American but also black and also Muslim, and his activism was fueled by his background, identity and faith. With his example and using him as an inspiration, I believe that Muslims can work in intra-faith and inter-faith environments to promote and enhance racial justice. Ultimately a world without stereotypes, discrimination and injustice is a better world for our children.