The Arab community's role in dismantling Anti-Black racism

Wednesday, June 3, 2020 - 7:28pm

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Graphic by Hibah Chugtai

I address my community not from a place of guilt, as I, too, have been there and found it to be unproductive and paralyzing. I address my community from a place of love and urgency. 

We non-Black Arabs, especially those of us with proximity to whiteness, have played an immense role in the anti-Blackness and colorism which pervades our communities and contributes to the degradation of Black people. Those of us who live in Dearborn are especially separated from Detroit by just a few miles and a lifetime’s worth of oppression, subjugation, ignorance and stark difference in worldviews. We Arabs and Muslims need to stop playing the “we’re all minorities” card and get to work. 

It should not take Black people dying for us to care about Black lives — anti-Black racism is what this country was founded upon and has its roots in every corner, every system, every institution and structure. And it does not start or end with the United States. 

The roots of anti-Blackness in Arab communities can be traced to the Arab Slave Trade. Its effects are still prevalent with the corrupt system of domestic work in the Arab world, akin to modern day slavery. The branches can be seen in the lingering and ever-present anti-Blackness many of our communities harbor, which Susan Abulhawa also details in her article, including the idolizing of lighter skin and European beauty standards. 

Another branch is the colorism which exists in our own communities, reverberating the harmful message that lighter is better. Additionally, especially for Arabs and Muslims in Dearborn, racism can be seen in the interactions between us and Black people in our community, the use of Arabic racial slurs, the way gas station and store owners treat their Black customers, the stark division drawn between Dearborn and Detroit and the villainization of Black people beginning with the older generation and trickling down into ours and the ones below us. It can be seen how even Black Arabs and Muslims are treated in our very own communities. There is a certain superiority complex among lighter skin, Levantine Arabs. 

What’s very disheartening is the fact that many Arabs and Muslims are able to vehemently denounce Israel and the IDF’s abusive treatment of Palestinians, empathizing with and raising awareness for the Palestinian struggle. Yet they fail to realize that American police are often trained by the IDF, adopting their brutal techniques and militaristic nature. They fail to realize our struggles are intersecting and how we are hypocrites if not standing with our Black brothers and sisters in their fight for justice. The same government we criticize for its treatment of us, we must criticize for its ongoing and inhumane oppression of Black people since the inception of this country. The same way we denounce the War on Terror, we must denounce the War on Drugs and recognize its role in destabilizing the Black community, beginning a system of criminalization and subjugation.

I attended a Facebook Live event by Muslim nonprofit Wasat, “The Way of Iblis: Racist Violence and Capitalist Excess” which is part of a series called “Breaking the Idols of Our Time.” Dr. Bilal Ware began by speaking about God’s love for humanity which is proven throughout the Qur’an. He explains that in the Qur’an, as well as the Bible, God creates through speech.

“He has only to say unto a thing: Be, and it is” but “humanity is made with a caress, and animated with a kiss, in contradistinction to other things that are made with speech” 

He then goes on to discuss the origins of racial violence from an Islamic perspective, beginning with the fall of Satan for refusing to bow down to Adam due to arrogance and feelings of superiority. This arrogance was rooted in bodily composition and origin, as Satan believed he was superior to Adam because he is made of fire, while Adam is made of clay. The fact that we as human beings, all made of the same fragile and fleeting bodily composition have created a hierarchical system that ranks some above others and treats them accordingly is evidence of sickness of the heart. But that sickness, whether we are aware of it or not, lives on in fragments of various sizes, in our hearts and our communities, and it is on each and every single one of us to spend our lives eradicating that sickness where we see it. This includes but transcends intrapersonal and interpersonal racism and goes back to the origins — the laws, policies and corporations which keep it in place and how we are contributing to them. The resources to learn about these origins and how we can do our part are endless and we need to be reading and watching relevant content, not solely relying on social media to educate us with brief stimuli we are likely to soon forget. 

The other “Satanic force” Dr. Ware refers to its capitalist excess — America’s insatiable obsession with greed and wealth.”

“These two Satanic forces express themselves in a fascist state that is more concerned with protecting property and wealth than it is with protecting people,” Dr. Ware said. “And its foot soldiers are an occupying force designed to preserve racial and class hierarchies.” 

Looting, he explains, is the way you attack corporate capitalism. It is a logical response. So to those ignoring the atrocities being committed against Black people for centuries and speaking out against looting and rioting, I implore you to assess how you have been conditioned to value property over lives. Arabs and Muslims, we have a special and urgent role to play. Our people have been not only complicit but aggressors. We must begin a lifelong education process in which we learn from Black authors, educators, activists and spread that knowledge to those around us, helping them learn and unlearn too. And the more we come to know, the more we have to act on that knowledge. It goes far beyond checking your racist friends and family members and beginning those conversations in your circles, but it can start there. 

Stop comparing struggles. Stop telling people to “prioritize our own struggles” and focus on those in the Middle East that need our help. Our Black brothers and sisters need us here, now. Years of media circulation, brief outrage and then continuing life as normal has desensitized us. It is time to re-sensitize. Begin to heal that sickness. 

“Oh you who have believed! Be upholders of justice, and bearers of witness to truth for the sake of Allah, even though it may either be against yourselves or against your parents and kinsmen, or the rich or the poor: for Allah is more concerned with their well-being than you are. Do not, then, follow your own desires lest you keep away from justice. If you twist or turn away (from the truth), know that Allah is well aware of all that you do.” -The Holy Qur’an 4:135

Maya Mokh can be contacted at mayamokh@umich.edu