Protests have swept across the streets of America regarding the need for new policing measures after the brutal murder of George Floyd by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department. Indeed, the cries of Americans of varying racial and ethnic backgrounds reside in the reality that Floyd is but one of countless Black people who have been killed while unarmed by law enforcement. The list of those slain include Muslims who were Black such as Amadou Diallo, Mohamed Bah and Stephon Clark. Whereas Black grassroots organizers, civil rights groups, and Black clergy have always spoken out, now, unlike any time in American history, many others, from politicians to corporate leaders, are now speaking about the need for systemic change in addressing anti-Black racism. Many of them are invoking the mantra “Black Lives Matter” while also giving corporate donations to the non-profit organization Black Lives Matter. There are Muslims who are also doing this and encouraging the same in varying capacities. There is perhaps no time better than this for me to share some thoughts on whether Muslims should actively support Black Lives Matter.
There are differences between #BlackLivesMatter as a slogan, the masses of Black people who attend protests that local Black Lives Matter activists have organized, and the 501c3 non-profit organization Black Lives Matter. To have an informed conversation about Black Lives Matter, the distinctions between these should be known. Then we can engage in a healthy assessment of how or if American Muslims should deal with Black Lives Matter.
#BlackLivesMatter as Mantra
#BlackLivesMatter as a slogan initially came about on Twitter after the murder of Trayvon Martin, a Black honor roll student, by George Zimmerman in 2012. Zimmerman, who was not a law enforcement officer, was charged and later acquitted for that crime. #BlackLivesMatter rose as a slogan to say that the lives of Black people should matter in America and in fact have never mattered as much as white lives since the inception of the 13 colonies. The origin of #BlackLivesMatter thus was a statement of affirmation that Black lives should be treated with a level of dignity and respect just like non-Black lives. Its meaning on its face is compliant with the noble deen in my view as Allah (Mighty and Sublime) said, And We have certainly honored the children of Adam.1 Also, we know that the Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him and his family) made numerous statements on this. On Mt. Arafat in front of his companions which consisted of Arabs, Abyssinians, Nubians, Persians and pre-Arabized Egyptians, he stated, “your blood, your property and your honor are all sacred.”2 So again as it relates to its surface meaning, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is a not a problematic affirmation from the position that the lives of Black people, who have historically been the most oppressed people in the history of America, along with Native Americans, should matter as much as the lives of those in the dominant culture.
Black Lives Matter Protests
Black Americans have been protesting police brutality for decades long before I was born. The issue of Black people addressing the issue of anti-Black violence by law enforcement has taken on many avenues, including, but not limited to, protests. For instance, Malcolm X (may Allah have mercy upon him) led a demonstration against the New York Police Department in 1957 after the brutal beating by officers of Johnson Hinton, a Black man who was a member of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X later spearheaded a legal action against the NYPD that resulted in the largest police brutality settlement in the history of New York at that time. During that initial protest, the streets of Harlem were filled with Black people in solidarity with Hinton. Not all of them knew the teachings of the Nation of Islam and many of those that did join did not agree with their theology. Those Black folks joined because of the collective pain of Black suffering in this land.
Likewise, many Black Americans after the 2014 police murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri joined protests led by local Black Lives Matter organizers, not because they agreed with all of the platform of the organizers but because of the pain and the desire to see an end to systematic police brutality. In fact, in protests in the past in Metro Detroit against specific cases of police brutality, I was part of the organizing teams and though no members of the nebulous Black Lives Matter movement were part of the organizing, some protesters showed up with homemade signs with “Black Lives Matter” written on them.
The point here is that the matter of joining protests in which people chant “Black Lives Matter” and self-appointed Black Lives Matter activists organizing or in some cases attempting to hijack others’ protests is not a simple black and white issue of whether one should or should not attend because of having concerns with the Black Lives Matters organization. All protests which have been labeled as Black Lives Matter protests are not really about the organization nor affirming its funding sources or platform. The primary concern why most Black people go into the streets is due to a long-standing grievance in which those who feel voiceless are trying to have their voices heard. Engaging in such protests right now should be taken on a case by case basis, especially given safety concerns due to COVID-19 and ascertaining if the protests are actually being led by reputable Black community leaders rather than outsiders who may have hidden agendas woven in.
The Non-Profit Organization Black Lives Matter
It is important to know that the Black Lives Matter organization is not a Black grassroots-funded organization in its origin. The organization’s large seed money came from secular-based non-Black led foundations which have their own “intersectionality” agendas, meaning the connection of issues such as Black suffering and mass incarceration to other issues such as the LGBTQ agenda. The logic behind these foundations and activists who share their vision is that all groups who claim oppression should intertwine their struggles so that they all can be liberated from the ultimate system of oppression which originated from the position of “white straight patriarchy.” As the Black Lives Matter organization does air many legitimate grievances and suggests solutions, the framework that anti-Black racism cannot be addressed without also advancing the LGBTQ agenda is problematic not only from a historical analysis but more importantly from an Islamic theological perspective. My book Towards Sacred Activism addresses problems embedded in supporting the LGBTQ agenda more broadly and gives suggestions on how to navigate the legitimate positions of being against hate crimes and school bullying versus actively advancing and celebrating what Allah (Mighty and Sublime) has made forbidden. Besides the “intersectionality” portion of the Black Lives Matter organizational platform, many Black activists question their funding sources and lack of transparency. It is questioned whether this organization is truly serving the issues of the Black community, including healthy Black families, when its seed money and continued funding is not predominately from the Black community. This enduring issue of the social engineering of priorities from so-called liberal or progressive foundations was addressed by Malcolm X in his seminal speech "Message to the Grassroots", long before Black Lives Matter was in existence.
Promoting the dignity of Black people in America and working against anti-Black racism can be done without supporting the Black Lives Matter platform. Some have mistakenly conflated that the former cannot be done without supporting the latter. Instead of asking Muslims to donate to the Black Lives Matter organization, I suggest supporting Black people by firstly supporting Black led institutions and projects within the Muslim community that are operating from the lens of the Qur’an and Sunnah. Furthermore, there are efforts that are led by groups and organizers who are not Muslims working on particular grassroots initiatives for policing reform and other systemic issues. We all have the personal responsibility, however, not to rush into giving support to any organization or cause without researching who we are donating to and what is their overall agenda. Furthermore, if you plan on joining protests, do due diligence in assessing who the organizers are. If the messages and tones of the organizers seem agreeable, there is no fault in going while wearing masks and attempting to physically distance.
To be clear, everyone does not need to be on the frontlines protesting right now. For those who decide to go, please do not attempt to seize this moment as a public relations opportunity to show how your group or masjid is joining the crowd because it is trendy. Any cause that we join demands sincerity per the teachings of our deen. Whether or not we can give monetary support or express ourselves about this moment through art and spoken word, we all can make a prayer that Black lives will truly matter equally in America one day. That does not mean, however, that we are obligated to support the Black Lives Matter movement or the non-profit organization.
By Dawud Walid , 14 Jun 2020