Is There A Muslim Civil Rights Movement ?

Written by Wafa Unus Muslim Link Staff Reporter   
Thursday, 27 October 2011 10:19

On Sunday, October 15th, against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, a towering figure carved in stone presided over a crowd of thousands. It was day of the dedication of the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington D.C.

Nearly 50 years earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. stood just miles away and declared a dream on the steps of that memorialized the President who had abolished slavery and with it ushered in a new era of social change and one of the most turbulent eras in American History.

The ripples of these historic struggles are still felt today. On the same day of dedication of the Martin Luther King memorial, nearly one thousand gathered in nearby Crystal City for a fundraising banquet for a prominent national Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization working toward overcoming discrimination of American Muslims. Blocks away from the memorial hundreds of people out of jobs and in severe financial hardship protested corporate greed and economic corruption in government.

In a world reminiscent of that which King left just 43 years ago there is a reverberation of social and economic unrest that many feel can be best approached through the philosophies King left behind.

Throughout history almost every ethnic and racial community has faced some sort of discrimination or civil unrest. Many have been discriminated against, arrested, prosecuted, and killed based solely on the color of their skin or the evidence of their ethnic heritage.

Today, history has seemingly chosen the American Muslim community to face the struggles of so many before them. As the American Muslim community faces its own cases of discrimination, violence and hate crimes, questions unfold: What defines the struggles of the American Muslim in the post 9-11 world?

Is This The Era Of The “American Muslim Civil Rights Movement?”

Because American Muslims are more actively fighting against hate crimes through the legal system, the American Muslim struggle is often misrepresented as a legal movement.

While both American Muslims today and African American’s during the civil rights movement faced discrimination there is a clear distinction between the two. While African Americans were legally barred from living, eating, working and learning in particular places, American Muslims can legally live, eat, work, and go to school wherever they please. The American Muslim battle against discrimination remains a social barrier while the African American struggle against discrimination was a distinctly legal barrier. While American Muslims fight for the government to uphold their legal rights, African American’s during the Civil Rights Movement fought to bring those rights into existence.

Though American Muslims are taking cases of discrimination to court, their ability to do so is a direct result of the progress made through the Civil Rights Movement.

While African American’s became the face of the Civil Rights Movement through the trials of America’s racial intolerance, their struggle was not solely defined by race. For American Muslims to find the same progress that African American’s did during the Movement, they need to be willing to move beyond American Muslim issues, argues Reverend Graylan Hagler, a prominent local peace and justice activist and the Senior Pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, DC.

“We have begin to understand what the civil rights movement was about justice for everyone. It gave way to the women’s movement , the gay struggle, the chicano and native american struggle,” he continued.

Hagler argues that without the effort to share the struggles of a particular group of people through general terms that allow others to relate and empathize and even motivate their own empowerment, a civil rights movement simply cannot find success. As such, Muslims must stop speaking about Muslims and instead start speaking to the deeper issues of basic human rights that apply on a deeply human level.

Remember, Hagler noted, Martin Luther King Jr. did not die while he was fighting against the discrimination of African Americans, he died while working to mobilize the poor.

On April fourth of 1968, King was shot and killed  on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee where he was leading a march of sanitation workers protesting low wages and poor working conditions.

“If in our struggle we are just talking about ourselves then its no longer a struggle, its a selfish endeavor,” Hagler said.

However, in what seems to be the most prominent representation of the American Muslim struggle the American Muslim community has primarily focused on the issue of Islamophobia, thus distinctly making the problem of discrimination a decidedly Muslim focused issue.

In response to a growing number of hate crimes, Muslim communities across the U.S. have spewed out condemnations of acts by Muslim leaders across the globe, PSA’s encouraging Americans to get to know their Muslim neighbors, and events and conferences professing themes of love and compassion. In a distinct effort to combat “Islamophobia” the American Muslim community has often found itself in a campaign that seeks to change the social perceptions of Muslims in America and around the world.

Though the struggles that the American Muslim community face are seemingly perched on the shoulders of the Civil Rights Movement, therein remains a glaring distinction that separate the two as uniquely independent movements.

“The Black Civil Rights Movement wasn’t designed to make White people like Black people. It was designed to have equal protection under the law. The ‘Muslim Civil Rights Movement,’ if we can call it that, seems to have this other agenda which is to be accepted by “White people,” said Johari Abdul-Malik, Imam of the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia.

This desire for social acceptance is a slippery slope, said Hagler. In seeking approval from those who the community feels holds the power, the community itself is at risk of losing the power and control over its movement.

“If you give others the power, you don’t have your power. Your power does not stay with you when you give it to someone else. It’s gone,” he said.

This desire toward approval or acclimation existed during the Civil Rights Movement as it does today with the largely immigrant American Muslim community.

“Within certain pockets of the African American community, especially among some of the more well-to-do, there was also a desire to be accepted, to be acculturated, into the dominant society. It is true that many of our immigrant Muslim brethren reflect this same tendency, perhaps to an even greater degree. This is one of the manifestations of a colonized mind,” said Mauri Saalakhan, founder and director of the Peace and Justice Foundation in Silver Spring, Maryland.

The American Muslim And The Colonized Mind

Though he believes that American Muslims have begun to grasp the spirit of the Civil Rights movement to some degree, Reverend Graylan Hagler feels that the primarily immigrant Muslim population faces a deeper sociological issue that compounds the communities ability to fully engage in the type of civil disobedience that so effectively instituted change during the Civil Rights movement.

“Immigrants that have looked forward to coming to the U.S. to be able to support their families and to be able to create a better life for their families and so therefore there is a perspective that comes particularly from first generation immigrants that you keep your head low and you work hard and that somehow the whole idea and myth around America is that if you work hard somehow you’ll be blessed. Somehow everything will work out,” he said.

It is this false reality that gave rise to a fallacy in thought and as a result kept many immigrant communities in the United States quiet and complacent in the face of surmounting civil unrest.

Hagler believes that it’s the dramatization of the issues that stimulates real change.

“It’s a matter of people being able to dramatize and demonstrate the indignities that take place,” said Hagler. If the Civil Rights Movement was simply an effort through letter writing, there would be no movement at all, he continued.

Imam Johari Abdul Malik recalls an old college professor of his once partially attributing the success of the Civil Rights Movement to the ability of the African American community to “get a little crazy.” Perhaps, he said, this is what the American Muslim community needs to be willing to do. After all, though Martin Luther King Jr. was the youngest person to ever be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize,  he was also arrested over thirty times throughout the Civil Rights Movement.

Saalakan agreed, “Within the African American community of the 1960s there was a far greater willingness to struggle and sacrifice, even to the point of putting one’s own life in jeopardy, than what we’re seeing today in the Muslim-American community. Leaders and organizations in the Muslim community, generally speaking, are very risk averse. Our preference is to detest the evil in our hearts, the weakest of faith,” he said.

External Factors Facing American Muslims

In addition to the social challenges that American Muslims face in the United States, they must also face an onslaught of negative press from Muslim communities geographically across the world and arguably in a completely different sociologically era.

These external influences, that are often viewed as representative of the American Muslim, undermine the legitimacy of the representation of a common theology between Islam and the American belief system. The impact of a relatively small group of American Muslims suggesting that Shari’ah Law is similar to America’s constitutional belief system while Shari’ah Law is often most noticeably represented through lashings and stoning in the Muslim world, is quickly diminished.

“Though Muslims have a legitimate argument to speak the language of theology, that is not our argument. Our argument is a first amendment argument while the Civil Rights movement was coming for the perspective of God Given rights or human rights that they wanted to have manifested in law,” noted Abdul Malik.

“The Civil Rights Movement had significant theological underpinnings. As a result of that it spoke a common theology to the American people,” he continued.

Without the ability to speak the language of theology in a way that is clear and not compounded by external factors, American Muslims face a quandary. Though they largely believe their Islamic faith encourages the values of justice on which the U.S. Constitution is based, their ability to speak in these terms is largely combatted by their own brethren worlds away.

Seeking Knowledge Like Dr. King

In 1959, nearly ten years before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to India to study the philosophy of Gandhi, inspired by his dedication to civil disobedience. He said he felt connected to the Indian people, “by the common cause of minority and colonial people…struggling to throw off racism and imperialism.” King’s dedication to seeking knowledge from others in situations like his brings to light the question of whether American Muslims are willing to take the same steps to learn from their African American neighbors who have, and to some extent continue to, face a plethora of social injustices.

“Those members of the African American community who remain connected to their historical memory, can provide an enormous amount of context to the need and importance of collective struggle. They can also provide some inspiring insights on the degree of sacrifice needed to bring about positive societal change,” said Saalakan.

As the nations first African American president took the stage to memorialize a man who’s dedication to the Civil Rights Movement defined an era of American civil progress, he stood just miles away from a memorial of a former president who is best known for his emancipation of slavery, which nearly fifty years earlier that had served as the stage for King to share his dream. In that moment history reached full circle. During his memorial speech President Barrack Obama spoke of King’s teachings, a universal and timeless message that defined the Civil Rights Movement and remains relevant today.

“And so at this moment, when our politics appear so sharply polarized, and faith in our institutions so greatly diminished, we need more than ever to take heed of Dr. King’s teachings. He calls on us to stand in the other person’s shoes; to see through their eyes; to understand their pain. He tells us that we have a duty to fight against poverty, even if we are well off; to care about the child in the decrepit school even if our own children are doing fine; to show compassion toward the immigrant family, with the knowledge that most of us are only a few generations removed from similar hardships.”

A new era of civil disobedience and pressure on the legal system to guarantee the rights of all men has seemingly been awakened after a short but noticeable slumber. As Martin Luther King takes his permanent place on the memorial landscape of the nations capitol, the country is rising to his call once again and demanding the dreams of a new generation be heard, among them a growing American Muslim community that finds itself struggling through its turn in America’s continuing historical battle to uphold the freedoms granted by the U.S. Constitution.

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