The auditorium—recently buzzing with greetings and jovial conversations—fell pin-drop silent, intent on hanging on Dr. Omar Suleiman’s words. Imam Suleiman’s résumé is more than impressive: Muslim scholar, civil rights leader, writer and public speaker. He currently works as a professor at Southern Methodist University and founder of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research.
At a luncheon prior to his speech, Suleiman moved from table to table, taking the time to engage with each attendee in thoughtful conversation. He was taking so much time talking to each individual that I began sweating through my shirt in anticipation of our interview—the interview he graciously remained behind for, even when his schedule required him to be elsewhere. Suleiman’s powerful calmness was unmistakable during the interview as he talked so passionately while maintaining an even-keeled demeanor.
During the interview and the subsequent speaker event, Suleiman emphasized Islamic theology as a source for liberation, using the Quran as the basis for his social justice values. He pointed to many liberation movements and leaders’ attraction to Islam because of the Prophet Mouhammad’s (Peace Be Upon Him) explicit anti-racist and anti-oppression rhetoric. From Malcolm X to Angela Davis to Muhammad Ali, countless Muslim activists have led the fight for civil rights in our country.
Suleiman expressed the importance for justice movements to support all oppressed groups. He drew upon the Honorable Malcolm X’s philosophy of recognizing the Black Americans’ plight within the context of all forms of oppression worldwide, not being afraid that incorporating other movements would dilute their own. A self-described student of Malcolm X, Suleiman quoted him when exploring Islam’s focus on justice.
“The Quran compelled the Muslim to take a stand on the side of those whose human rights are violated no matter the religious persuasion of the victims,” Suleiman said. “Islam is a religion which concerns itself with the human rights of all mankind despite race, color or creed. It recognizes all as part of one human family.”
A universal struggle against oppression is embodied in Martin Luther King’s words, “oppression anywhere is a threat to freedom anywhere.” This philosophy has played a role in many effective social rights movements, from Fred Hampton’s “Rainbow Coalition” to the Black Feminist Movement. However, Suleiman highlights this notion has been surprisingly rare in justice movements throughout the ages. From the women’s suffrage movement’s exclusion of Black Americans to the Mynmmar’s freedom movement’s oppression of Muslim minorities, many such movements ignore the plights of other marginalized groups and even support their oppression. Even today, many oppressed groups argue over whose plight is the most important instead of viewing their oppression as a singular issue.
Coming from a Palestinian household and as a child of refugees, Suleiman grew up with a responsibility to fight against Palestinian oppression as well as a connection to other oppressed groups. His family housed refugees displaced by the Bosnian genocide and was active in local civil rights issues, building the foundation for Suleiman’s global mindset.
Working towards a universal struggle for liberation, Suleiman strives to build coalitions across religious divides. During our interview, he talked about how “polarization is one of the greatest threats to a civilization,” causing people to isolate and “work in their own corners.” Suleiman emphasized that there are issues that cut across all identities, especially around exploitation and poverty. He approaches coalition-building by bringing different groups to the table and working together to champion commonly-held issues. He says these groups can form strong bonds by working together on these challenges.
Like Malcolm X, Suleiman emphasizes viewing oppression through a global lens. One issue he focused on during his speech was the intersectionality between climate change and oppression. Inside the United States’s privileged bubble, the connection may not be apparent, but Dr. Suleiman highlighted that climate change will continue to displace an increasing number of people around the world and create competition over increasingly scarce resources. He predicts these conditions will lead to increased oppression worldwide. His prediction aligns with the Institute for Economics & Peace’s prediction of 1.2 billion refugees by 2050 due to climate change and natural disasters. Michelle Bachelet, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, wrote: “As environmental threats intensify, they will constitute the biggest challenge to human rights in our era.” Suleiman contextualized his claim with his personal experience during Hurricane Katrina. The New Orleans native led a group to assist with the city’s recovery and saw how the natural disaster had disproportionately affected oppressed groups in the area.
Global oppression cannot be fully encapsulated without including Palestine. Suleiman described Palestine as “a filter to test a person’s commitment to human dignity” that “many people who pontificate on every human rights issue will suddenly go silent or worse.” His speech further laid out the grim reality of the ongoing oppression.
“Ninety-seven percent of water in Gaza is undrinkable,” Suleiman said. “Seventy-five percent of its people are food insecure. An estimated 91% of its children suffer from PTSD.” These statistics don’t account for the consistent acts of violence and systemic oppression Palestinians face today.
Suleiman laid out advice for students in the fight for equality. Most importantly, he emphasized the importance of courage and implored students to not be intimidated. He called on students to not only be charitable but to also challenge the underlying policies and stay steadfast when people turn against them for doing so.
While Suleiman focused mainly on how one should conduct oneself to advance justice and human rights, he did address the mindset of oppressors. I will leave you with another Malcolm X quote Suleiman shared. I think it’s incredibly pertinent to the structural and systematic inequality we see in our country, to the countless migrants displaced from their homes, as well as to countries ravaged by colonialism and imperialism.
“You clip the bird’s wing and then blame it for not flying as high as you.”
MiC Columnist Kuvin Satyadev can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.