When #BlackLivesMatter and #JusticeForMuslims Intersect

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In “Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology,” feminist scholar and socialist Barbara Smith speaks of a “simultaneity of oppression,” a concept that describes the concurrent oppressions faced by people of color. This approach to systematic oppression, she writes, has allowed for the connecting of struggles, creating a "particularly conducive atmosphere for coalition-building."

Intersectionality, a term developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, director of the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) at Columbia Law School, is used to illustrate the way in which "the many experiences Black women face are not subsumed within the traditional boundaries of race or gender discrimination,” showing that “the intersection of racism and sexism factors into Black women's lives in way that cannot be captured wholly by looking at the race or gender dimensions of those experiences separately." Crenshaw describes the concept as follows, from her work “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex”:

“Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in an intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination... But it is not always easy to reconstruct an accident: Sometimes the skid marks and the injuries simply indicate that they occurred simultaneously, frustrating efforts to determine which driver caused the harm.”

Barbara Smith argues that joining struggles has powerful implications, indeed that it is a way to “stay alive,” as activist Bernice Johnson Reagon puts it in the anthology. Intersectionality as practice is transformative; when applied, intersectionality is a revolutionary tool — it has been used to interrogate not only race but concepts such as class, reproductive health, postcolonialism, religion, disability, and Islamophobia.

“This has hate crime written all over it,” said Dr. Mohammed Abu Salha, referring to the brutal murders of his two daughters, Yusor and Razan, and son-in-law Deah Barakat, last week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The rise of Islamophobia in the United States, and across many parts of Europe, has been alarming — institutionalized Islamophobic policies have buttressed violence against Muslims, allowing for attacks against Muslim houses of worship, verbal assault, and physical violence, all of which are treated as ‘isolated incidents’ instead of normalized and systematic. According to a list compiled by writer and activist Imraan Siddiqi there have already been at least seven recorded events at the time of publication wherein Muslims faced potentially life-threatening force. In Dearborn, Michigan a Muslim family was assaulted at a shopping center “for speaking Arabic.” The father, who was with his children, was punched after witnesses heard the assailants use the words “raghead,” “terrorist” and the phrase “go back to your country.” In Houston, Texas an Islamic center was burned down, ravaging the entire building and instilling fear in the already stigmatized community. In Bothell, Washington, a Hindu temple was vandalized with swastikas, and the words “get out,” and a nearby school was tagged with “Muslims get out.” In response to this crescendo in Islamophobic violence the hashtag #JusticeForMuslims was created, after #MuslimLivesMatter was rejected by prominent Muslim users and non-Muslim Black activists.

Eman Cheema explained that #MuslimLivesMatter “takes away from the construct, labor and visibility around #BlackLivesMatter” and pointed users in the direction of #JusticeForMuslims. #BlackLivesMatter, created by Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, three queer Black women, “is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression” according to Garza:

“When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement Black poverty and genocide is state violence. It is an acknowledgment that 1 million Black people are locked in cages in this country–one half of all people in prisons or jails–is an act of state violence. It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families, and that assault is an act of state violence. Black queer and trans folks bearing a unique burden in a hetero-patriarchal society that disposes of us like garbage and simultaneously fetishizes us and profits off of us is state violence...it is appropriate and necessary to have strategy and action centered around Blackness without other non-Black communities of color, or White folks for that matter, needing to find a place and a way to center themselves within it. It is appropriate and necessary for us to acknowledge the critical role that Black lives and struggles for Black liberation have played in inspiring and anchoring, through practice and theory, social movements for the liberation of all people...if we are committed to a world where all lives matter, we are called to support the very movement that inspired and activated so many more. That means supporting and acknowledging Black lives.”

Black Muslims, in this case specifically those in the United States, are regularly excluded from the larger discourse on Islamophobia — they face double marginalization. According to a 2012 poll by the Associated Press, 51 percent of Americans expressed “explicit anti-black attitudes,” which grew following the election of a Black president who was seen by many Americans as a symbolic threat to white supremacy. Anti-Black sentiment amongst Americans is rife with dehumanization, which has long translated into policies that inflict wide-ranging violence, categorically targeting Black communities. Anti-Blackness and racialized Islamophobia, each in possession of their own respective histories, share commonalities including expulsion, conquest, exploitation and resistance. Where there is concerted force targeting Muslim communities there also exists a pervasive and violent system which is focused on Black communities, and Black Muslims are forced to inhabit both margins. Anti-Blackness and Islamophobia oftentimes work in tandem to produce oppressive procedures and practices that further reinforce systematic inequality.

While racialized Islamophobia has been used to normalize war, anti-immigration policies and invasive and discriminatory surveillance programs, anti-Blackness has been used to justify policies that detain, torture, and inhibit communal progress. The state frequently experiments on one group to further subjugate the other. Richard Zuley, a detective from Chicago, “repeatedly engaged in methods of interrogation resulting in at least one wrongful conviction and subsequent cases more recently thrown into doubt following allegations of abuse” while working on Chicago’s north side. According to a report for The Guardian by Spencer Ackerman, Zuley’s history “suggests a continuum between police abuses in urban America and the wartime detention scandals” which include prolonged shackling, sleep deprivation, and other forms of torture. Without becoming responsibly aware of erasure and anti-Blackness and thereafter organizing and working to directly combat and unsettle these destructive and institutionalized power structures, non-Black Muslims risk bolstering them.

In “Pursuing Intersectionality, Unsettling Dominant Imaginaries” Vivian M. May, associate professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Syracuse University, writes that "an intersectional analysis can help unpack how Islamophobia has been utilized to justify state violence and war transnationally or to govern religious dress codes and police women's bodies within national boundaries." May also notes that intersectionality was "developed as a means to intervene in and resist oppressive mindsets, structures, and processes” and thus is directed towards uprooting inequality. “Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment” written by author Patricia Hill Collins, Distinguished University Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, is a necessary reader on the subject of intersectionality and coalition-building as a necessary and transformative component, which works to advance social justice projects. Collins writes that “dialogues associated with ethical, principled coalition building create possibilities for new versions of the the truth”:

“Coalitions are built via recognition of one's own group position and seeing how the social location of groups has been constructed in conjunction with one another. Empathy, not sympathy, becomes the basis of coalition…[helping recognize] that group histories are relational."

Understanding systems of oppression, including Islamophobia, as relational, and acknowledging that they exist in various territories, allows us not only to build alliances. Further, it leads to the recognition that subjugated communities and groups can themselves engage in harmful behavior that undermines solidarity work, thus promoting neoliberal solutions, which facilitate and sustain injustice. Challenging Islamophobia, while acknowledging religious plurality and the multilayered and distinct histories that color Muslim experience, will help contextualize state violence, and develop and preserve alliances that challenge several structures of power.

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Sydney based Lebanese-American journalist and commentator. She tweets @roqchams and writes 'Letters From the Underground.'

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