by Khwaja Ahmed
A Muslim caucus was held for the first time at the Students of Color Conference this past November. The conference has been held by the UC system for 27 years. It acts as a powerful tool for different minorities to come together, share stories and begin the move towards social change on a UC-wide level.
What makes this specific year so ground-breaking is that it held its first caucus, specifically geared towards Muslim minorities. The caucuses discuss issues pertinent to the community at hand, usually as a collective group, and then split off into smaller groups for more personalized takes on the issues. The overarching theme that was examined by the Muslim caucus was the role of intersectionality in Muslim Student Association(s)—more specifically, the dilemma of not properly understanding the importance of intersectionality in an MSA space.
Before proceeding, it is important to understand the meaning of the word intersectionality. As tends to happen in Berkeley, sometimes foreign terminology is adopted without a true grasp of the nature of the word—I do this as well. To avoid the cliché of Berkeley intellectual culture, intersectionality is when two different spheres of viewing the world come together to combine a mixed outlook, with the default being a white, male perspective. One example of this is being Muslim and also being American; these identities do not contradict one another, but rather influence each other. This is the default for humanity; we are all made up of varying identities, but only until around the Civil Rights Era has this been adopted into the academic realm. The term brings with it a pull of popularity by being able to address people in a more nuanced sense by respecting backgrounds that are usually lumped together by the larger demarcation of identity. Something the caucus members recognized was that the Muslim community across campuses fails to do this at a very fundamental level.
Throughout the room, the resounding feeling was that each member had faced exclusion or had known someone who was pushed to the perimeter unfairly. Muslims throughout the UC-system shared similar stories on not feeling included within their regional MSAs. The exclusion took many forms, but the two most common were about wearing hijab and difference in skin tones. Some women spoke of being judged for not practicing physical hijab, and Muslims of African descent discussed being treated poorly based on pigmentation of their skin. Not being from either group, I personally cannot claim to understand this struggle, nor speak on their behalf as to personal afflictions caused by this. I have never been judged for my attire by the Muslim community, nor has my skin tone been a factor in my treatment, making it inappropriate for me to act as their voice on the issue. But this does not disclude me from realizing why this is a problem at an individual and a group level, along with it being a perversion of the practice of Islam as an institutional body. Intersectionality is not a production of modern thought—though classifications may be—and has existed in humanity from the time of the Prophet. The issue is not the diversity of backgrounds that coexist in MSAs, but it is the recognition of these backgrounds and responses to them. I am also not here to propagate the ‘don’t judge me’ culture, which many times acts as a baseless justification for an unwillingness to change. Rather, this medium is to discuss the problems associated with pushing people out of the MSA space and potential solutions to this problem.
Starting first with the intersection of women and Islam, the common theme that arose was judging women on the physical hijab as outlined by the Qur’an. This runs both ways, as some women undergo discrimination based off of not adhering to guidelines, while others are pushed away for adhering too strictly. This interesting yet contradictory dichotomy exists because of a lack of firm understanding of Islam and its implementation. On one hand, women are being told their faith is incomplete for not abiding by the rules laid out to them, while others are criticized for abiding by them. The issue can be traced many times to practicing Islam as a culture rather than a religion. Culture many times plays identity politics, making an ‘us vs. them’ paradigm for the people to adopt. Islam does not preach an all-or-nothing view; it allows for growth, disagreement and conversation. With culture, a critical lens is not applied as liberally. There is more stagnation in a culture towards understanding foreign concepts. This delay makes space uncomfortable for those who do not ascribe to the dominant lifestyle. Islam was not taught like this; the Prophet (PBUH) made sure to include those Muslims who varied in levels of practicing the guidelines that were spelled out for them. The masjid, which was the main form institutions took at the time, was open to all believers who walked in. The intersectionality of women and Islam balances on notions of morality as dictated by culture rather than Islam itself. This sort of intersectionality is more so limited in an insular way to the MSA, while the intersection of race and Islam influences the outside community as well.
The second issue that arises from not properly addressing intersectionality is the treatment of African American Muslims in Muslim spaces. What makes this unique from the discrimination of women is the origination of why this exists, along with the implications. The intersectionality of women and Islam is not properly understood due to a mixture of Qur’anic perversion and cultural preferences. Anti-black racism and colorism that exists in Muslim spaces is rooted nowhere in the Qur’an, and rises from the historical developments of colonialism and racist views held even prior to European invasions. It can mostly be attributed to jahilliyah, which implants the notion of bigotry in the hearts of Muslims. This corrupts not only individual Muslims, but also the institutions that are set up by Muslims. Anti-black sentiment also pours beyond the boundaries of these institutes and affects the relations Muslims have with other groups. But first and foremost, those affected by this sort of mentality are the Black Muslims in these spaces. Long ago, Muslims of lighter skin looked down on their African American brethren based solely on how they looked; these views, many times stemming from jahilliyah, were deeply mixed in with the culture of the of people who held these attitudes. This is still present now, where Black Muslims are either outside the folds or uncomfortably in the corners of Muslim institutions. Already many times a minority in the organization, now they are an unwanted demographic. This ideology does more than burn internal bridges; it influences external politics of the MSA. When issues of race arise where African Americans are robbed of their rights, it should be the Muslims who take an active role in reaffirming the rights of the oppressed. Yet, so many times, it is the Muslims who are silent on these issues. Here, one should, again, look at the life of the Prophet to deal with these issues. The treatment of Bilal (PBUH) by the Prophet was one of high esteem; he gave him the rank of mu’adhin of the ka’ba. The other important development to notice is the influence of Malcolm X into the psyche of the modern American Muslim identity. His role is so central to the creation of our identity in countless regards, and yet so many Muslims push away others because they share the same skin tone as Malcolm. Lastly, it should be noticed that other Muslims who are not of African descent but share dark skin colors are also incorporated into this bigotry. The irrationality of this is so ironic—it punishes those who follow this paradigm, yet look the same as those they demean.
These were the dominating conversations in the brief meeting at the Muslim caucus. It is clear that as a community across the UCs, Muslims are very much unincorporating of those who don’t fit into their idea of a Muslim. From women who don’t practice hijab to Muslims with darker complexions, there is a complete lack of understanding of these groups of Muslims. This undersight arises from the poor understanding of backgrounds that exists in the minds of many Muslims. Notice, the Prophet never bent Islam itself to allow it to make those around him comfortable. Instead, he softened the institutions and hearts of other believers to make a space for those who were not fully practicing or were rejected by larger society. Accepting them on the basis of their religion and potential for growth, our Prophet never excluded those who accepted his message, and only helped them grow. Now, it is up the Muslims across the UCs to help elevate their fellow Muslims as the Prophet of Islam did.
A collection of photos from the Students of Color Conference this past November. All photos courtesy of the ASUC student union.
jahilliyah - ignorance
muʾadhin - person who makes the call to prayer
ka’ba - holiest shrine and site of pilgrimage for Muslims