Photo by Jorge Quinteros, Creative Commons
It feels increasingly difficult and dangerous to be a Muslim in this country, given the recent rhetoric spewing from the political pandemonium of the presidential election and the alarming rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes. Sometimes it feels like any shred of logic once remaining in so much ignorant discourse has dissolved. Frankly speaking, it’s impossible to diagnose where exactly so much has gone so wrong. We’ve hit a point past which Muslims simply cannot endure so much Islamophobia on our own.
“Ally” is a delicate term, and one that’s hard to define. While the role of an ally can differ in every situation, there are some foundational principles that apply throughout one’s evolution as an ally.
As the route to ending Islamophobia in our culture at large grows more fuzzy and frightening—and thus more futile—perhaps it’s useful to give those who wish to stand with Muslim-Americans a simple lesson: the ABCs.
While this by no means serves as an absolute set of rules and regulations, I hope it at least inaugurates more clarifying conversations for those who want to help.
MUSLIM ALLYSHIP: A-Z
Here’s a hint: not Fox news.
Social media has consolidated the sharing of an entire story or event into a few thumb taps. Use these, and use them well. Your own absorption of these pieces is critical, but so is sharing powerful writing with friends and family. Reach beyond your own radius. Chances are your approval or recommendation of a piece will encourage people who might otherwise retain previously narrow or uninformed ideas. Following prominent, powerful voices in the Muslim community online is a great place to begin: Wajahat Ali, Reza Aslan, Tahera Ahmad, Sana Saeed, Nabeeja Syed, Hend Amry, Zahra Noorbakhsh, and Tanzila Ahmed are eight solid, stellar people whose opinions and perspectives vary.
Call it and kill it. Don’t stand for it. This especially applies to halting hate talk by people within your own racial sphere and realm of privilege. Read: white allies, shut shit DOWN. Please. Someone you’re talking to says they’re not sure Muslims aren’t sympathetic to terrorists? Or that Islam is a violent religion? Tell them they’re wrong. There is so much utter intolerance spewing from so many kinds of people on so many kinds of platforms. Your objection and denouncement could help change someone’s mind.
Culture vs. Religion
There’s a difference. Also culture versus cultural baggage—the latter specifically is an issue in the Muslim community—and it can often be traced as the source of problems like gender inequality. Please don’t conflate culture and and religion: It’s a blurry line that even Muslims have a hard time discerning, but be mindful of it. Even if you’re not sure how to define it, just know the difference is there and acknowledge it if someone references it.
Don’t Try to Rescue Us
We’re not here to be saved from some evil spawn of an oppressive religion, like some people imagine. Honestly, I’m just trying to save myself from bigots and Islamophobes. There are lots of things Muslim women care about other than headscarves, like police brutality, racial profiling, and job discrimination. Please don’t try to save us from some image of Islam you have in your head.
Educate (Yourself and Others)
Learn some facts and spread the word. Reliable facts can help debunk a decent chunk of whatever all this “Islam” stuff is. Not all Muslims are Arabs! Not all Arabs are Muslims! There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and around 12 million in America–about less than one percent of the U.S. population. There are five pillars, like fasting and praying. Not all women cover. Not all men have beards. Muslims compose a significant number of leaders and luminaries in American history! Wow, facts!
But seriously, educate yourself, and others, too. It’s highly fatiguing for Muslims to be constantly interrogated or defensive of their identity; allies can help by facilitating such conversations. Muslims have bigger systems to be fighting than dumb trolls on the internet, or even in real life.
Feel Your Privilege
This applies to many allies, but specifically white allies—feel your identity. Feel your privilege. Understand what your privilege entails and what that shared privilege with others has enabled. White privilege has catalyzed a disproportionate amount of unhealthy mindsets—like white supremacy—and a lot of the hate, crimes, and hate crimes that have precipitated as a result. As many people have pointed out: Donald Trump is a white people problem. W. Kamau Bell said it well: “Denouncing Trump from a position of whiteness, declaring that he disgusts you as a white person and does not speak for you as a white person does something different, something kind of cool. It’s a way to claim and use whiteness, to wield it with authority rather than apology, and that’s something white anti-racists seldom get the chance to do.” Trump is a consequence of white supremacy and it shouldn’t be solely on people of color to call out his racism and Islamophobia. I have to feel my race every day. Feel yours, and unpack the privilege that accompanies it.
Get Active With a Group
There are numerous groups working on issues of anti-Muslim discrimination across the country. One great way to be an ally is to be involved with the local efforts of organizations like CAIR, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Support their work and show up when they need you.
Human to Human
Social media is helpful in boosting the voices of people who are rarely represented in our mainstream media. That being said, discourse with a real Muslim in a face-to-face conversation might be unparalleled. Touch base with your Muslim peers, colleagues, neighbors, relatives, bosses, employees, doctors. Let them know you are there–chances are a lot of them have encountered hate. Don’t interrogate them to a point of discomfort, but let them know you support them. Ask them if and/or how you can help. Lots of Muslim institutions and immigrant organizations around the country are holding public lectures, discussions, and rallies these days—seek out and attend one near you.
Impact, not Intent
A huge part of being an ally is understanding that the impact of your words trumps (ha!) the intent. But don’t let the possibility of misstep dissuade or discourage you. A simple apology and commitment to edit your future words and ways will likely be enough if something you say has an unintended negative effect. This is similar to realizing that, as an ally, there are things you must learn, unlearn, and tackle, and comprehending that these realizations will only help you progress in supporting Muslims around you. When you slip up, own up to your actions and incorporate those lessons going forward. No one should rag on you for trying to grow as an ally.
Sometimes the most immediate reaction to coping with racial slurs or Trump-type rhetoric is humor–and fairly so, since some of the ideas are simply ridiculous. But there must come a point of assuming responsibility beyond a snarky retweet or “LOLOLOL”— use these reactions to call things out. I don’t get to go home at the end of the day and tuck these jokes to bed for the night. I have no choice but to let them fester in my brain and pick at who I am, as I try to doze off and take a break from what has begun to feel like the unraveling reality of my world.
Keep an Eye Out For Harassment
In the United States, 69 percent of women who wear hijab report at least one incident of discrimination, according to the ACLU. If you see people being harassed, say something. Do something. Especially in public, and yes, even with people you may not know. Exercise kindness to hijabi women–and stand up for them when people act inappropriately. You don’t need to have the perfect comeback to a racist slur—in most situations, a simple “Hey, you’re being very rude” let’s the person who’s being harassed know that someone cares what happens.
I wish “L” came first in the alphabet, but alas, here we are. You are here to speak UP, not OVER. But before you know what to say, you need to absorb what actual Muslims are trying to get at. There’s a bad track record of Muslim voices being hushed and silenced–ESPECIALLY women’s. Just listen. It’s the foundation of allyship, and you cannot adhere to any of the other letters without this basis. Enough said.
You’re going to make them. Apologize, be accountable, apply the lessons to revise your future attitude and actions, and move on. Don’t get mad at yourself or even (especially!!!) at a Muslim for pointing it out. It’s part of it.
News Is Sometimes Nonsense
Often, mainstream media manipulates news into nonsense. I urge you to be conscious of who is writing what you read. Allowing people the authority to speak for themselves instead of relying on an outside source to frame it sensationally is a good strategy. Please exercise logical discernment in analyzing which articles you read and their sources before taking them to heart.
Opinions: Yours matter!
Your opinion likely influences others, so help spread the word. Tell politicians that stopping Islamophobia matters to you. If you read an ill-informed editorial, write to the outlet that published it. In your personal life, facilitate understanding. Breed compassion. Teach love, not hate. Never underestimate the power your opinions can have on strangers, representatives, and children.
Muslims are working on this whole solidarity thing—trust me. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on all issues and political ideas. Muslims are a minority bound by self-affiliation to an identity, but all of our views, backgrounds, or opinions aren’t going to line up. The idea that Muslims are a monolith is a dangerous and reductive myth. Respect varying values and allow others to exercise and celebrate plurality. There’s no clear continuum with the extremist on one end, the token American-Muslim in the gray middle, and the non-Muslim on the other side. Smash the gray-zone rhetoric and realize Islam is more like a rainbow you can’t just put on an x-axis in relation to ISIS.
Qur’an, featuring: Questions
But what about the Qur’an, you ask? Doesn’t it serve as some infallible resource of answers? Well, yes and no. The thing is that the Qur’an was revealed during seventh-century Arabia, in quite nuanced and loaded Arabic–further layered with and framed by cultural references specific to the time. Human interpretation is an important component of Islam, but where exactly people begin drawing lines, translating certain phrases, and applying meanings leaves a substantial vacuum for questions, debate, and differences. It’s important to note that historically, Qur’anic interpretation was left solely up to certain spheres of educated men in specific societies. Today, we’ve seen a gradual shift toward allowing people other than old Arab men in long beards and flowy white robes to read and regard verses for themselves. Of course, some people think that violates tradition, while others see it as only fair that diverse approaches should be a guiding force of the religion. That’s just the beginning of so much of the range and plurality in beliefs and thoughts.
Phew, okay, that was a lot, but see? Just asking a question, even about something as loaded as the Qur’an, can go such a long way.
Recognize Religious Differences
Plurality has been mentioned, but let’s emphasize some key points again. People exercise their faith differently, and your judgment of these variations does not license you to decide who the “right” Muslims are. Hijab (head covering) isn’t a correlating indicator of piety and religious knowledge, nor is it an emblem of extremism or oppression. Some Muslims might not align with your cookie cutter image of one, but that doesn’t disqualify their opinions or thoughts.
Sympathize, Don’t Equate
Your support is key, but in your sympathy, please recognize that your lived experience is different than ours in some ways. It’s really simple: if you’re not Muslim, you don’t know how it feels to be Muslim. Sass aside, acting like you completely get the issues at hand may make you appear trivializing or narcissistic, and thus alienate you in ways. Just avoid it. It’s hard to be any minority, yes, but some challenges remain unique to certain groups. There are many ways to show sympathy without inserting your version of empathy into the equation.
Take time to say sorry!
Being a Muslim right now, frankly, is stressful. I try to keep a lot of this to myself, not because I consider my feelings unwelcome or even illegitimate, but mostly because constantly talking about this all the damn time is exhausting. Along the lines of “mistakes,” there may definitely be times when you, as an ally, upset or further fatigue a Muslim. Just apologize. Sorry JBiebs, but it’s NEVER too late to say sorry. A lot of Muslims are dealing with having to outwardly discuss their faith in new spheres and personally uncharted territory, along with aforementioned internalized struggles–so any support, kindness, and patience would be highly appreciated. A lot of that entails saying sorry when you say or do something that sets someone off-kilter–be it family, a friend, or a stranger.
There’s a solid chance you yourself currently hold some misconceptions about Islam and Muslims–THAT’S OKAY. Be willing to unlearn things that are untrue and grow from the knowledge you encounter. Don’t back away just because you feel unequipped or unqualified–if you’re willing to put in the effort and evolve from the new things you discover, Muslims will embrace you. Trust me–we have way bigger problems than someone making a mistake, owning up to it, and moving on with us.
“Ally” is not a cute noun or a hip label–it is a status predicated on deliberate action. Embrace ‘ally’ as a verb. So work through this alphabet and do all that you can: attend rallies, makes yourself a known ally and supporter, contact your government officials and representatives, teach the children in your life, do your research, and write and speak to your community.
Back to the topic of plurality and religious difference–despite all this chaos outside, Muslims are still dealing with inter-community issues. It’s impossible to tackle every problem at once, but please remain mindful that there is a decent amount of work to do within. I’ll be the first to say that right now is NOT the time to quit addressing women’s issues, like leadership, representation, and assault, just because of the external attacks we face; nor is my criticism of gender dynamics within the layers of my religious sphere license for you to use it as a tarnishing example of my community. Like any other group, we’re not perfect, and we are combatting issues on many fronts at the moment. Your support, not retort, is appreciated.
X Out Xenophobia
Islamophobia takes a lot of forms, including xenophobia—just look at calls to ban refugees, specifically Muslim refugees, from settling in the United States. Don’t shy away from discussing how xenophobia is hurtful. This term reflects both the truth of the situation, and provides gravity to remind people how intolerant and ludicrous this racism is.
Yesterday Is Not Today (#logic)
Muslims don’t get to take a break from being Muslim, so please don’t take a break from being an ally. It’s not fair to pat yourself on the back for that one time you spoke up the other day and reclassify yourself as an #ally4life–it doesn’t work like that. Not only must ‘ally’ be a verb, but it must be a consistent, continuous one.
We’ve gotten to a scary point–the one at which the ideas that “it’s just a joke” or “it’ll blow over” don’t hold much meaning anymore. “Fear” as a word doesn’t seem to cut it at this point.
This morning in class, for the first time, my mind began mentally narrating what a 2016 Trump America would look like for me–or more realistically, that it wouldn’t look like much. Don’t tolerate any more of this hate. Don’t make me think through the end of the story–otherwise the story might end me.