LSA Student Government and the Muslim Students’ Association hosted Michigan state Rep. Abraham Aiyash Monday at Rackham Graduate School to speak about an ethnic lens to the Muslim identity in America. He opened by asking the audience how many of them have read the autobiography of Malcolm X — a text he considers to be one of the most important for Muslims to read.
Aiyash said Islam was preserved in America through the resilence of enslaved people, despite efforts to prevent them from practicing their faith through prayer, reading and gathering with their community.
“When we think of Muslims in America, the vast majority of us think of people that look like me: someone who is brown, someone who’s a child of immigrants, someone with a hyphenated last name, and less so those who were very quintessential Americans and were brought here against their own will,” Aiyash said. “So how did we how do we get to a point where Black folks that came here as Muslims were stripped of their Islam?”
Aiyash credits the shift of perspective of the representation of Islam in America to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“You had a phenomenon where so many Muslims that benefited from white power and white supremacy in passing as white folks began to lose some of that,” Aiyash said. “And this shifts the conversation of where Muslims sort of had a heightened awareness of their identity and the need to begin to emphasize that. But, still, despite that, Black Muslims were seen as an afterthought.”
LSA freshman Bilal Irfan, an LSA student government representative, attended the event and emphasized anti-Muslim bigotry and the importance of recognizing the intersection of Black and Muslim identities in an interview with The Daily.
“I really liked the fact that (Aiyash) touched on a lot of the historical issues … and how even Black Muslims are not a monolithic community in the United States,” Irfan said. “That was very interesting and it was eye-opening for a lot of people.”
Aiyash also spoke about the privileges experienced by today’s immigrants due to the history of oppression of Black people and, specifically, Black Muslim people. He used the example that Black Muslim individuals must be self-sufficient in comparison to other Brown immigrants whose families have been in America for generations and have had the opportunity to open businesses or attend colleges.
“So we all benefit from this system, the vast majority of us, whether you are an immigrant or a child of immigrants, even if you are a child of a Black immigrant, you benefit from this system,” Aiyash said. “You benefit from the system (that) gave more authority to people like us than those who actually preserved and allowed Islam in America to flourish.”
Wasey Rehman, freshman at U-M Dearborn, said he was looking forward to the event because of Aiyash’s identity as the first prominent Yemeni Muslim politician in America.
“(My biggest takeaway was to) learn,” Rehman said. “If you think you know everything, ask someone about their experiences and learn from them. Just keep learning because you don’t know everything, especially about others.”
Aiyash also shared his commitment to understanding the history of Black Muslims for his campaign for state representative in 2019 and 2020 because of the population of District 4 being made up of 60% Black individuals.
Irfan also said that as a Muslim himself, he connected to the topic of Islam because he has done research on Islam in America.
“I’m a Muslim,” Irfan said. “I’m a child of immigrants … This is an issue that I really care about. I’ve been working with a lot of different communities and I think it was really eye opening for him (Aiyash) to take a stand on how Muslims addressed specific issues, global issues, the stand with Palestine, the stand with Uighurs.”
Muneer Elshaikh, freshman at U-M Dearborn and speaker of the senate for the U-M Dearborn student government, said this event was enlightening and taught him about Black Muslim identity and history in America.
“My main takeaway would probably be that we, as Muslims, should probably take care of Black Muslims and Black people in general,” Elshaikh said. “We should look at their struggles as our struggles too, because they are part of us and we’re part of them.”
Aiyash ended the event by suggesting people should rethink the idea of solidarity, primarily used to emphasize supporting people of different backgrounds, as a term used by people to express support for people of the same identity.
“Solidarity, for me, implies you are sympathetic to the cause,” Aiyash said. “It’s the outsider’s perspective, and we have to stop thinking like that. If we really are all this other fun stuff that we love to tout, then we got to recognize that the Black Muslim struggle is our struggle.”
This article has been updated to clarify LSA Student Government and the Muslim Student Association put on the event.
Daily Staff Reporter Anna Fifelski can be reached at email@example.com.