talk at UCI Law School – April 14, 2011)
I’d like to extend my thanks to the Asian-Pacific American Law Students and the entire team who organized this timely event: examining the racialization of and racism against Muslim Americans.
Assuming that most of you are law students or justice advocates, I prefer tonight to expand the scope of my presentation beyond my grievances as a Muslim and instead have us all think and speak simply as Americans and examine where and how do we all fit in this discussion of racism, hate, and bigotry in our country today.
Racism is as old as America. It was that vicious racist ideology and practice of White supremacy that left its permanent scar on all spheres of American life since its founding. The earliest slave traders propagated seeds of racism in the most formative days of this nation.
The problem of bigotry in the twenty-first century remains the problem of the color line -- not just Black but every ethnic and racial group and all the possible combinations – now compounded by the new dynamic of racism based not only on color but religion.
For our purposes tonight, we’ll focus on the religion is Islam, …. “the religion that is evil” as Jerry Falwell declared. “It is the religion of pure hate,” according to Falwell’s minion, Deborah Pauly, city councilmember of Villa Park, which she proclaimed loudly at a recent hate rally in Yorba Linda.
I will not deny that there has been racial progress in America but I would dare you to deny the lingering legacy of white supremacy in America. It is deliberate, it is visible, and it is a poison to our society.
To engage in a serious discussion tonight about racism and hate, we must begin not with the current problem of Islamophobia but with the flaws of American society – flaws rooted in historical inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes. How we frame the terms for discussing hate and bigotry shapes our perception and response to these issues. As long as Muslims are viewed as “they,” the burden falls on Muslims to do all the internal moral work necessary to become part of “us”. The implication is that only certain people can define what it means to be American, and the rest must simply fit in. Well, I have news for you America: I am ME and I refuse to fit in!
It is not necessarily only our actual skin color that has been the source of our separation of races; it’s also our attitude. Historic figures such as Malcolm X have made great studies of the language of hate in our society. Naturally, his experiences with Whites in America had shaped his attitude. But despite his ethnocentric view of Whites and Blacks, it was the Whites with blue eyes who helped him in the desert of Makkah to judge humanity by virtue of their attitude and not by color. Whites in America treated Malcolm as sub-human but the non-American and non-European Whites in Makkah transformed him from Malcolm X to El Hajj Malik Shabazz. Indeed, attitudes matter.
So now it is the attitudes of politicians, pundits and also of the populace that has given birth to this new wave of Islamophobia, a prejudice borne of historic racism in America impregnated by today’s economy and fear of the “other”. It appears, my brothers and sisters, that we Muslims are now the “other.”
However, more than a century before al-Qaeda, there was “Al-Klan” – the Ku Klux Klan! More than a century before Usama bin Laden, there was the Grand Wizard Nathan Forest. It was not in the caves of Afghanistan but at a convention in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1867, the Klan was declared as “the Invisible Empire of the South.” In their night raids, KKK did not cry out Allahu Akbar - but they burnt crosses on the lawns of churches and public spaces. Shall we tally these acts on a terrorism scoreboard?
About two years ago, in early 2009, Ali Mohammad, a father, husband and an Imam for the high desert Muslim community, was burnt alive in his own house while tied to a chair. It is well you should gasp. It was reported that on the walls of his house graffiti was painted that said: "F*** you Arab," "KKK”, “sand n**er”, and "go home Arab".
A few months later a Mosque in Cypress was vandalized with graffiti, reading, "F**k You”, "we're going to kill you”, and "US Military is going to kill you all."
And on the evening of February 13, 2011 in Yorba Linda was a replay of the morning of Sunday, November 14, 1960 when five little girls braved the mob and entered into McDonogh #19 Elementary School, in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, Louisiana.
At the Yorba Linda event on February 13th, as I was tending the main door, a young Muslim girl, clinging to her father’s chest asked me this:“What do we do after the program – how do we go back to our cars without being beaten up by these people?” I clenched my fist, bit my tongue, hid a tear in my eye and replied to this young Muslim: “Don’t you worry my little sister. We will still be here and they will be gone.”
I did not live the ugly sixties but I am reminded of a poet, philosopher, activist - Leroi Jones (later named Amiri Baraka after conversion to Islam) who reflected on those times: “It is hard enough to be a human being under any circumstances, but when there is an entire civilization determined to stop you from being one, things get a little more desperately complicated. What do you do then?”
I wonder if the young girl I spoke with on February 13 asks herself the same question: “what do I do now?”
Friends … She may or may not ask that question, but I find myself asking it on behalf of many young Muslims in schools or answering the many mothers who find their car vandalized after they return from shopping (as it happened in Anaheim) and so many of our community members whose Mosques are vandalized (two of them within these past few weeks – as recently as one yesterday in Los Angeles) - “what do we do now?”
I ask you the same question: “what would you do differently than what Muslims in America are doing today?”
It is in the search for the answer to this question, my friends, I invite you to commit tonight to be fiercely vigilant and humbly virtuous in our collective efforts to meet the formidable challenges that face us in our country today. For most of us, it should be an urgent question of power and morality. For Muslims, it is an everyday matter of life.
And in some cases death.