Solidarity is not co-optation

March 5, 2015

Sofia Arias responds to a critique of the slogan Muslim Lives Matter that emerged prominently in the aftermath of the racist murders in Chapel Hill.

"On Twitter, the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter and #OurThreeWinners have become a rallying cry for so many people, and it feels to me, as someone observing this, admittedly from the outside, like a galvanizing moment for Muslim Americans--a Trayvon Martin moment, a Michael Brown moment, for Muslim America.

"Though obviously very different in the context and specific sets of facts and history, like the killing of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown, the senseless deaths of these three young people has struck such a profound nerve and mobilized so many, because millions of people who look like those victims are fed up with the routine stereotyping, the marginalization in the mainstream media representation and the vilification by political leaders seeking to score cheap political points. Whatever the motivation for this horrendous slaughter, it takes place in a context where subtle, persistent anti-Muslim bias is a part of American life and this feels like a wake-up call."

THOSE ARE the words of MSNBC host Chris Hayes, commenting last month on the killings of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina--murdered execution-style in their home by a white neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks.

A vigil in Chapel Hill for the three murdered Muslim students
A vigil in Chapel Hill for the three murdered Muslim students (Our Three Winners)

Hayes' statement shows how the tragedy has raised awareness of the scale of Islamophobia and the need to challenge it--summed up by the slogan "Muslim Lives Matter" that was inspired, of course, by the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted after the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner last summer. When thousands of people attended vigils and protests in North Carolina and around the country, the phrase "Muslim Lives Matter" spoke to their reasons for wanting to take a stand.

Unfortunately, not everyone has embraced the emergence of #MuslimLivesMatter. Several Muslim anti-racist activists responded on social media by urging people not to use the hashtag, and to use #JusticeForMuslims instead. At least two articles summarized the logic of this argument--one at by a contributor called Sabah, titled "Stop Using #MuslimLivesMatter," and another on the website of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative by Anas White, called "A Black Muslim Response To #MuslimLivesMatter."

There are several elements to the arguments from these articles and other commentary that I will address below. But the main contention is that #MuslimLivesMatter appropriates something that emerged specifically as a response to anti-Black racism, and should be respected as that.

I want to make the case that the opposite is true: The reason that the phrase "Muslim Lives Matter" spoke to so many people after the Chapel Hill killings is because they saw it as embracing the struggle against racist violence against African American, and linking that to another fight against oppression and bigotry.

SOME OF the criticisms of #MuslimLivesMatter resemble the arguments rightly made against the phrase "All Lives Matter."

But that slogan means something very different. It is used to deny that Blacks suffer highly disproportionate rates of police violence, mass incarceration and other forms of oppression. The phrase was first coined by conservative commentators when they were trying to smear the daily protests in Ferguson that attempted to assert the humanity of African Americans in the face of police murder and state repression. It gained further strength after the killing of two NYPD officers in December provided police supporters with the opportunity to push back against the momentum of the struggle.

Some liberal Black leaders also embraced the phrase "All Lives Matter," but in order to distinguish themselves from other parts of the movement that they wanted to portray as too radical. The implication was that anyone who said "Black Lives Matter" was alienating popular opinion.

So it may be no surprise that anti-racist activists are sensitive about what is being said with these three-word phrases.

But it is nevertheless mistaken to suggest that #MuslimLivesMatter is borne of the same racist backlash and attempts to demobilize the movement against anti-Black racism. Its emergence after the Chapel Hill killings shows as much. While the media tried to claim that the murders were the result of a "parking dispute," those who said "Muslim Lives Matter" were both exposing racism as the central motive and showing their connection to the mass resistance that developed after Ferguson.

These things were impossible to miss in the tweet of Haya Barakat, cousin to the murdered Deah Shaddy Barakat: "My cousin, his wife and sister in law were murdered for being Muslim. Someone tell me racism/hate crimes don't exist. #MuslimLivesMatter"

What's more, Muslims were not the only oppressed group to adopt this slogan to express their anger over the conditions of their oppression. Native Americans have organized #NativeLivesMatter protests to demand an end to police brutality and racism. In response to the murder of at least six transgender women since the beginning of the year, #TransLivesMatter is being used to express grief and rage against violence meted out constantly against trans people. The hashtag #ShiaLivesMatter began trending in protest at the massacre of more Shias in February by the Pakistani Taliban at a mosque in Peshawar, the third such attack in a month.

Isn't it obvious why other oppressed groups would find inspiration and power in this slogan? Rather than "appropriating" from African Americans, many Muslims are trying to find their own voice, and doing so by acknowledging the strength and courage of the Black Lives Matter movement. That is a testament to the continuing importance of the Black freedom struggle in the U.S.

Seattle-based Black feminist writer Ijeoma Oluo recently explained on Twitter why she would continue to use #BlackLivesMatter, #MuslimLivesMatter, #NativeLivesMatter and #TransLivesMatter, "I believe that recognizing the oppression & violence that all minorities face makes us stronger, not weaker."

STRUGGLES AND movements are inspired by many sources. In the early days of the Ferguson uprising last August, against the murder of Michael Brown, one African American woman interviewed by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! explained why she held a sign that read "Negro Spring": "The same as the Arabs fought for their rights, for their civil rights, to oust their corrupt government, we're fighting for our civil rights, our human rights."

This is solidarity. Oppression may look different in different countries, but there is much more shared by those at the bottom of society and much that is common about our struggles. Solidarity isn't something to be guarded or fenced off from others facing oppression--it must cross barriers and borders.

Despite the ebbing and reversals of the revolutionary uprisings throughout the Middle East, the spark of their memory continued to burn for this woman in Ferguson. There can be no talk of a Black woman in the U.S. "appropriating" the Arab Spring by finding inspiration from her Arab and Muslim sisters and brothers in Egypt and gaining strength to challenge her own oppression.

This association between the Black struggle and the rebellions of the Middle East is more common than one woman's sign. We find them often intersecting in references. At a St. Louis County Council meeting in September, one Ferguson man confronted officials, saying: "You are ISIS to Black people!" And of course, the images of Ferguson protesters braving tear gas, Long Range Acoustic Devices and the whole military apparatus of the Missouri National Guard evoked images of the Palestinian struggle.

If anything, we should keep alive the spark that Ferguson lit by encouraging Arabs and Muslims and many others to embrace the Black struggle in the U.S., and to join with it as a way of challenging the largest producer of terrorism, worldwide and domestically: the American state. If using the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter alongside and in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter is one way to point at a common oppressor and to challenge that oppressor, we should not discourage it.

The idea that a particular slogan--or a tactic or strategy or political vision--must be guarded and defended to stop other victims of oppression and injustice from appropriating it is completely out of place historically.

To take the example of the U.S. in the 1960s, the Black Power movement that emerged from the civil rights movement, with a goal of the radical transformation of American society, became a beacon of leadership for other groups oppressed in the U.S. and around the world. The struggle for Black liberation inspired many others to organize for their own freedom, and to borrow from the tactics, strategy and slogans of the movement.

In the U.S., there was a wave of radicalization among Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, Chicanos and Asian Americans, as well as white workers and the poor. Guy Kurose, a Japanese American who joined the Seattle branch of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense at the age of 16, reflected on this time, saying: "I...listened to [James Brown singing] 'Say it loud, I'm Black and I'm proud.' I wanted to be there, too." Likewise, the Black Power cry inspired the call "Red Power to Red people!" of the American Indian Movement activists, who occupied Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay to dramatize their struggle to demand the self-determination of all Native people.

The emergence of these radical organizations was typically in response to the conservatism of established advocacy groups. If one were to travel back in time to criticize them for appropriating a slogan or name from the Black Power movement, it would likely be treated with suspicion, since the main experience of people setting up barriers between struggles was of the moderate established organizations discouraging struggles from becoming too radical.

ONE OF the main points stressed by Sabah and Anas White is that Islamophobia is not experienced in the same way as anti-Black racism. Anas writes that #BlackLivesMatter began as a statement "against deep-rooted systemic racism, high rates of police brutality, extra-judicial executions, media smearing and vitriol, and the failure of the justice system to actually hold anyone accountable for dead Black men, except dead Black men. It is important to remember, that #BlackLivesMatter was not born of an occurrence, but of an atmosphere wrought with repeat occurrence."

But while there are, of course, differences between these two forms of bigotry, Anas implies that there aren't commonalities where there clearly are--"an atmosphere wrought with repeat occurrence," for example.

In an Al Jazeera article, Khaled Beydoun and Margari Hill go even further, suggesting that the experiences of Arab Muslims or South Asian Muslims is one of privilege that is not afforded to Black Muslims--and this is the primary reason for the outpouring of support and sympathy for the Chapel Hill victims. Aside from the downplaying of the scope of Islamophobia, this is also a sweeping generalization about the Muslim experience and community in the U.S., without defining it at all.

It is true that the Barakat and Abu Salha families mostly escaped having to deal with the vile character assassination that is typically used against Black victims of racist violence. Many African American families of the victims of police have to deal with the anguish of seeing their loved ones blamed for their own murders--portrayed as "thugs," "criminals" and "no angels."

It is also true that the murders of Black Muslims--for example, 28-year-old Somali Muslim student Mustafa Mattan in Fort McMurray, Canada, shot through the door of his home by an unknown assailant, a day before the Chapel Hill killings--have not received the same attention as the Chapel Hill killings.

Anti-Black racist sentiments and ideas do exist within the American Muslim community. Many mosques around the country are still segregated by national origin, religious sect, race and gender. The leadership of national American Muslim mosques and organizations are also middle class, predominantly Arab or South Asian, who promote an American Muslim ideal that is not always representative, and are often dismissive toward poor or working-class, immigrant and Black Muslim experiences. There is no monolithic American Muslim community that exists in a self-contained bubble, just as there is also no monolithic, classless Black community.

But to draw the sweeping conclusions that Anas and the others do is a mistake.

To start with, how can anyone say the experience of enduring Islamophobia is not a "repeat occurrence" in the "war on terror" era? The shredding of civil liberties and the presumption of guilt has taken place repeatedly in the U.S. government's war at home against Arabs and Muslims, leading to countless numbers of people harassed and intimidated by law enforcement, and even sent to prison on fabricated charges of supporting "terrorism." The media's lies and distortions about Arabs and Muslims who are prone to violence and who "hate us for our freedoms" are repeated constantly in the mainstream media, conservative and liberal outlets alike.

In their article, Beydoun and Hill argue that the widespread sympathy for the victims in Chapel Hill shows "a harmful hierarchy that privileges Arab narratives and excludes Black/African Muslims." But what are we to say of the Muslims--unknown to almost all of the U.S. population--who are the victims of not just racist vigilantes, but the U.S. government itself?

Anyone who knows the story of 13-year-old Yemeni boy Mohammad Tuaiman will know that no Arab privilege saved him from incineration by a drone strike. Neither was 16-year-old Yemeni-American Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, also assassinated by drone. Egyptian American Dr. Tarek Mehanna wasn't protected by his privileges from being stalked, blackmailed and charged with material support for terrorism when he refused the FBI's demand to be an informant in his community. No Arab privilege came to the aid of Palestinian-American Dr. Sami Al-Arian, imprisoned for five years on trumped-up terrorism charges, held under house arrest for seven more years, and subsequently deported.

Rather than dismiss #MuslimLivesMatter as a form of privilege, we should see it as a statement of protest against powerlessness. We know the names of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Ramarley Graham, Alan Blueford, Oscar Grant, Renisha McBride and others. That is because of the tenacious and courageous struggle of families, activists and communities to fight back--refusing to bury their children without a struggle against their murderers and against their racist dehumanization.

ISLAMOPHOBIA TOOK on a new shape and reached a new pitch after 9/11 and the launch of the "war on terror." But the impact of this wasn't just felt by Arabs and Muslims.

The period just before September 11, 2001, was a time when police violence against African Americans was sparking activist mobilizations--particularly in New York City, where the killing of Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets in 1999 and the torture of Abner Louima in a Brooklyn police station in 1997 brought thousands of people into the streets for protests. The 2001 Cincinnati Rebellion--days of protest and rioting after the murder of Timothy Thomas--was another example of the desire to confront racist violence.

But the drumbeats of war and Islamophobia after 9/11 had a conservatizing effect across politics. The U.S. government's ability to exploit the tragedy of a terrorist attack to whip up nationalism and jingoism also supplanted discussions of racial justice with national security, re-legitimized racial profiling at home along with bombing campaigns overseas and rolled back any challenge to the buildup of a military and surveillance infrastructure, from the war on drugs to the war on terror.

After 9/11, the American state--despite its clear record as the primary agent of racism against African Americans, through police brutality and mass incarceration--projected itself as a protector and defender of all Americans, against the alien threat posed by Arabs and Muslims.

Prior to September 11, 80 percent of Americans opposed racial profiling in opinion polls. That was reversed almost immediately--and as lawyer and author Michelle Alexander described, "What was most disturbing was that African Americans and Latinos agreed."

In September 2001, a Gallup poll found that 71 percent of Black respondents said they would favor more intensive security checks for Arabs, including those who are U.S. citizens, before they boarded airplanes--compared to 57 percent of whites and 63 percent of those who identified as nonwhite overall. The poll also revealed that 64 percent of Blacks and 56 percent of other nonwhites favored requiring Arabs, including U.S. citizens, to carry special identification as a means of preventing terrorist attacks, as compared to 52 percent of whites.

By the end of 2001, these numbers leveled off, but the damage was done, and the conservative tide that accompanied the "war on terror" had knocked back hopes for organizing for social justice.

This history is important to reflect on because it shows the strong basis for solidarity between those who have more in common with each other than what differentiates them. But it also shows that solidarity between those who have the most to gain from standing together should never be taken for granted, because it isn't guaranteed.

It is no coincidence that the weapons of war used in Iraq and Afghanistan found their way back to the streets of Ferguson. It is no coincidence that the officers of the Chicago Police Department involved in torture rings against Black and Latino suspects would have been trained in torture during the Vietnam War, and would in turn be sent to torture Muslim detainees at Guantánamo Bay. It is no coincidence that torturers from Guantánamo Bay would find jobs afterward in police departments in New England towns to brutalize Black people.

The state doesn't compartmentalize its agents and instruments of repression. Why should our movements? By emphasizing how struggles against Islamophobia and anti-Black racism are dissimilar, the critics of #MuslimLivesMatter prevent us from better understanding how to fight against both--while leaving the American state, the elephant in the room, off the hook.

SOLIDARITY CAN'T be reduced to discussions of the use and abuse of hashtags. But to honor those murdered by racist vigilantes, police and the U.S. military--whether Black or non-Black, Muslim or non-Muslim--we need to strengthen our knowledge of history and our politics in our activist organizations and coalitions.

There is a reason why we pay attention to Martin Luther King's and Malcolm X's opposition to the Vietnam War, which drew the ire of those who believed the struggle for civil rights at home was separate from U.S. wars abroad. For King and Malcolm, this opposition wasn't just a moral question, but one that directly linked U.S. imperial adventures abroad--hypocritically masked in the rhetoric of human rights, freedom and democracy--to the denial of rights and humanity of Black people at home.

Instead of separating our struggles, we must explain why Muslims should identify with the Black freedom struggle in the U.S.--and not with the American state, nor with authoritarian and sectarian states in the Middle East and South Asia. And we must insist that solidarity with ordinary Arabs and Muslims and their struggles in the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, Europe and North America will strengthen the struggle for Black freedom from terror and racism.

Instead of calling out others, this moment should be the time to deepen Muslim involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement and other social struggles. Now is the time to recall and strengthen recent initiatives of Black/Arab and Black/Muslim solidarity, like the Hijabs and Hoodies campus protests against the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, the hundreds of Arabs and Muslims who protested the honoring of LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing at the annual convention of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in 2014, and the historic Black Lives Matter delegation to Palestine in January 2015, among others.

In the words of Mustafa Abdullah, co-founder of Muslims for Ferguson: "My hope is that Muslims really begin to see that our own liberation, and our own freedom are intricately intertwined with the freedom of the youth that are on the street in Ferguson."

Further Reading

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