For Americans, and perhaps American Muslims, no recent event has been as impactful as the unfortunate developments in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Yet again, a black man was shot by law enforcement. This man apparently stopped to break up a fight, wanted to get back in his car, and officers ordered him to stop. According to the police narrative, he continued getting into his car, so they shot him seven times in the back, in front of his children. Jacob Blake is alive, but likely paralyzed for the rest of his life. Not surprisingly, Blake’s shooting has led to demonstrations, for which the National Guard was called in and clashes ensued.
Present in the chaos was Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenager who belongs to the old fad of white people creating self-appointed militias to protect the country from an imagined enemy. This is an old practice in American history, where white people imagine themselves as the protectors of America, arming themselves with a distinctly white reading of American constitutionalism that declares that they have the right to create militias in order to protect the country. The Constitution did speak about militias when they were necessary to preserve the independence of the country, under the assumption that the United States did not have a military or an organized police force. Nevertheless, there have been white people who imagine themselves as the protectors of America, organizing militias and delegating to themselves the right to use force, at their discretion, against their perceived enemy - who are, more often than not, minorities.
In Kenosha, this 17-year-old proceeded to shoot people, wounding several and killing two, imagining himself belonging to a militia protecting the country against people, which he saw as mobs rather than demonstrators exercising their constitutional right to protest injustice. The situation was exacerbated further when police failed to immediately apprehend him.
To them, a black man attempting to get back into his car, who did not yield to their orders immediately, deserved to be neutralized with seven shots in the back. But a 17-year-old white supremacist, who shot and killed people was not immediately deserving of even being arrested. When Rittenhouse was finally arrested, they treated him very differently than any black would-be-suspect in custody. They provided him with refreshments, talked to him, joked with him.
Institutional racism remains anchored in the very structure of our country. Instead of developing mechanisms for cleansing institutional racism, we have an administration whose rhetoric and policies further legitimate institutional racism and exacerbate it by using the same means that have been used for centuries to solve the race problem in the United States: Brute force. The dominant white class uses brute force to oppress and preserve their traditional privileges in society.
Concerningly, there has been a considerable Muslim segment that responds to the Black Lives Matter movement with ‘All Lives Matter’. As a statement, all lives matter is true. But, the intention behind this statement is immoral. When we say, ‘Black Lives Matter’, what we are saying is, ‘Black Lives Matter Too’. The assumption that precedes this assertion that black lives matter, is that because of systemic racism, institutionally the lives of black people, as well as other minorities, is not valued the same as the lives of the privileged in the United States. It is a reminder of the basic Islamic principle that you cannot create an institutional structure that validates policies that treat a group of people as being of lesser worth than others. ‘Black Lives Matter’ aspires for equality. While ‘All Lives Matter’ seems factually correct, the intent behind saying it in response to Black Lives Matter is to deny the legitimacy of claims for equality made by the BLM movement.
It is a tenet of our faith that all lives are worth the same without exception, but our faith does not tell us to ignore the realities of racism, bigotry or discrimination. We could choose to believe that what our faith teaches as an ideal has been achieved in reality, but to do so would be deprecating our faith. Failing to differentiate between an ideal asserted as an aspiration and an empirical reality found on the ground is deprecating our faith. You can either take that ideal as one that represents reality or as a challenge your faith is presenting you with.
When God tells us that all lives are worth the same, is God telling us to ignore the world and believe in an ideal as if it has been achieved? If that is what you believe, then you have turned religion into an opiate of the people, and an instrumentality of the devil. God tells us, "All lives are worth the same," as a challenge. If you believe all lives are worth the same, then you side with those who say, ‘Black Lives Matter’. ‘Black Lives Matter’ does not deny the equality of life but acknowledges that blacks are not treated equally.
To put it bluntly, in today’s America, is the life of a black person equal to the life of a white person? As a matter of constitutional and theoretical law, they are equal. But, as a matter of practice, and as a reality in the institutions of law, no, they are not equal. Study after study has shown that the legal system targets, discriminates, degrades and dominates blacks. Studies have shown the gross disproportionality between the criminal sentences received by blacks, and those received by whites. Economically, the lived reality is, again, gross inequality. In our society, a white person is born with far greater opportunities than a black person. Furthermore, our institutions of power suffer from systemic racism; power is taught to suspect blacks. In the training of those who enforce the law, they are taught to suspect blacks in ways that they do not suspect whites. The same happens with Muslims, regardless of how much Muslims want to pretend otherwise.
The cops who shot Jacob Blake didn't wake up intending to shoot a black man seven times in the back, but because of their training and systemic, deeply ingrained processes in the institutions of power, police officers are taught to deal with a black man differently than they deal with a white man. For Muslims to respond to this reality by saying, ‘All Lives Matter,’ the truth is uttered for evil purposes. Islam is deprecated and insulted. God is used to undermine God. I cannot imagine a worse sin than using the ideals that God taught us to undermine the ideals that God taught us.
In 2014, Hamza Yusuf, the president of Zaytuna, forbade his students from participating in Black Lives Matter demonstrations. He waved away the BLM movement by simply saying that Islam taught us that all lives matter. Years later, Muslims from various institutions argue, ‘We can't join the Black Lives Matter movement because Islam taught us that all lives matter.’ They are using the rhetoric of equality to defeat the principle of equality, making them dogmatists and demagogues.
Why do Muslim leaders say, ‘All Lives Matter’ as an excuse to ignore the Black Lives Matter movement? Worse, why do some say ridiculous, offensive things like, "Cops kill as many whites as they do blacks. It's just we don't make a big deal about it when they kill whites,” which is just thoroughly racist? When minorities join the dominant majority, the minority often tries to negotiate for privileges with the majority. The way to do so is to try to assure the majority that they, as a minority, are not a threat. They tell the majority, ‘Please, don’t fear us. Please, allow us to have the opportunities that you have. Please, give us a place at the table. Please, allow us to be respected and dignified.’ The way a minority does that is by trying to perform the culture of the majority.
So, if the majority speaks a certain language, the minority tries to learn that language to prove that, ‘We love your language.’ If the majority dresses a certain way, eats certain foods or has certain habits and customs, the minority does the same to say, ‘See, we love your way of life. Don't be afraid of us, we’re fine with you. We are willing to be you, if you would allow us." In the American context, this is precisely what we mean when we say we perform whiteness.
There are whites who are biologically whites, but culturally are not treated as white. There are blacks who are biologically black, but culturally are given admission to the white club. Whiteness is a privilege, a set of social, economic and political entitlements within a dominant culture in the United States. In the United States, being white means that you're either Protestant or Jewish; that you have gone through a particular system of education; that you accept a particular understanding of American history and of the Constitution; that you believe in a particular understanding of American economics; that you have a particular moral attitude towards opportunity in the United States. If you buy into that particular cultural package, you may not be biologically white, but are culturally white.
Race is a signifier: you are black until proven otherwise or you are white until proven otherwise. When I see a white person, I will assume that they are entitled to all the privileges of whiteness, unless they prove themselves to be not deserving of these privileges. Then, I might start treating them as a minority. Similarly, when I see a black man, I will assume that he is not entitled to the privileges of whiteness, and should be treated with all the suspicions that I treat black people with, unless he proves himself to think like a white man, speak like a white man, act like a white man; then I may ignore the color of his skin, and treat him as if he’s white. Whiteness is about entitlements and privileges. Race is a simple signifier, but, that’s very problematic, because if you're a black person and race is a signifier, the police will suspect and kill you. Because most people only know you at the level of a signifier, they never get the opportunity to go beyond the superficial, the color of your skin.
It is fundamentally immoral and un-Islamic to have a culture of privileges instead of a culture of equality. This is why when we say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ we mean, ‘Black Lives Matter, too.’ What we're demanding is a culture of equality. What we're challenging is a culture of privileges and entitlements. Those who respond with, ‘All lives matter’ superficially are protecting a culture of privilege and entitlement. It makes me ill when I hear Muslims who are supposedly raised by the Quran and the Prophet utter morally and Islamically offensive nonsense, because as Muslims, we have not been taught to think clearly. Is it possible that what happened to Jacob Blake would happen to a white man? Yes, but how often does it happen to a white man? When you compare the percentage of black people in the population to the statistics of police having problems with black people, it is so disproportionate that the writing on the wall becomes very clear.
From the years that I've worked with LAPD, I found in the culture of LAPD – which is likely the common culture among police forces in the country – that the assumptions they had towards Muslims were bigoted. In order to overcome these assumptions and become in good standing with the police in a professional capacity, I would have to work much harder than I would if I was not a Muslim or an Arab. That offends my sense of equality. Why should I have to work much harder to prove that I am a human being, just like my colleagues at UCLA Law School, to whom you don't afford the same suspicions? The fact that I do have to work much harder is what offends me. It is precisely what we mean when we say, ‘black lives matter too’.
It is, of course, easier to join the culture of the dominant, privileged and powerful. But don't corrupt Islam so you can give license to your whims; so you can remove the sting of guilt as you try to win over the powerful. If you want to do that, don't drag Islam into it. Don't corrupt the minds of youth and convince them that if they fight racism, they're not being good Muslims. To do so is to work for the devil; you are no longer working for God.
In a previous khutbah, I have talked about one of the most shameful developments in recent history, the betrayal of the Palestinian people. The United Arab Emirates normalized relationships with Israel and stood by as Netanyahu said, ‘We didn't give up on the idea of annexing Palestinian lands. We just postponed it,’ and followed those words by proceeding to bomb Gaza. The UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia remained silent. The Trump administration wondered if, when they moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the Arab world was going to erupt. Instead, the Arab world responded with silence, effectively showing that they could take Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque and still enjoy the business of Muslims.
The UAE is often referred to as the Satan of Arabs in the Arab world because of its policies. The Emirates created a Fatwa Council and a council for peace in the Muslim world, both are headed by Shaykh bin Bayyah. The intent behind these councils is clear: to legitimate the very immoral policies of the UAE. In a recent meeting, the scholars that are part of this council all agreed to a statement praising Mohammed bin Zayed, “MBZ”, as a man of great wisdom who does great things. They blessed the agreement with Israel, which according to the statement, "saves and protects Palestinian lands from annexation," although it is clear that is false. This statement was signed by a collection of Islamic scholars from numerous countries, including the United States, Egypt and Lebanon. After this statement was issued, the representative from Palestine resigned in protest, citing that while they did meet, they did not agree to bless the accords between Israel and the UAE. Hamza Yusuf notably did not resign, so a number of articles critical of Yusuf were published in response.
In the typical style of Muslim obfuscation and exploitation of a superficial knowledge of the Islamic tradition to legitimate immoral and unethical positions, Yusuf responded, “My allegiance is and has always been with the oppressed people of Palestine, whether Muslim, Christian, or otherwise. Anyone who says differently is a liar. The Quran reminds us and damnation of God is upon liars. God is the judge and defender for the believer. I place my complete trust in Him alone. There have been some articles that have made false attributions about me and fabricated scenarios that've never taken place. The Quran says, 'If an ungodly person brings to you news, make sure that you investigate the news or you will regret it.' I was never contacted by any media outlet for a statement or clarification. Please, do not spread lies on the internet. Suspend judgment and seek clarification. And, the Prophet said, 'The best of servants of God are those who remind you of God when they are seen. The worst servants of God are those who carry gossip, separating between loved ones and seeking misery for the innocent.'”
His response is a classic example of Muslims using classical knowledge in a dogmatic fashion to obfuscate and avoid having to confront moral issues. Yes, the Quran said everything that Yusuf cited, but what does it have to do with anything? Unless you are so dogmatic in your thinking that you must find the text to give you license to think the most obvious thought before you can think it, that turns you into a robot, not a good Muslim.
Yusuf cited the Shafiʽi principle, that you can't attribute a statement to someone who hasn't spoken. It's a legal axiom, which when placed within proper legal context, is meant for evidentiary matters. It was not intended to apply to activists or political leaders, especially those who have lent their name and position to tyrants. Yusuf also said, "I have always been with the oppressed people of Palestine, whether Muslim, Christian, or otherwise,” but what exactly does he mean? If he is saying he has always been with the oppressed people of Palestine, so what? They're entitled to support and loyalty, whether they're Christian or non-Christian, because they've been oppressed as Palestinians. Yusuf never supported the Palestinian people. What you believe privately is your business, but if you go out in public and claim to be an Islamic authority, then it becomes our business, because we have to decide if you have credibility to educate our children. If you want it to remain a private matter, don't become an Islamic authority, don't accept positions on councils working with tyrants.
Yusuf works with and legitimates tyrants. If he meant that he is with oppressed people, whether they’re Palestinian or not, or they’re Christian or otherwise, this is precisely the problem. You can't stand with Palestinians without assuring the white man of your white credentials. It’s saying, ‘It's not that I just support the Palestinians because Jerusalem is an issue for me and Israel is a problem for me. It is that I just generally support any oppressed person in the world.’ Such a statement comforts the oppressor, because it marks you as a non-threat. It ensures the oppressor that you will not get in the way of them committing injustice.
Islam never said that a religious scholar can legitimate or work with tyrants. MBZ, MBS and Sisi are tyrants responsible for the torture, killing and maiming of thousands of people. To accept money from them and accept being their guest means becoming part of the tyrannical project. God has never taught humanity that tyranny is acceptable. There is no Sharia, fiqh nor fatwa that can legitimate the actions of a tyrant. Torturing and murdering people is wrong, regardless of whatever Sharia laws you want to exploit. This is precisely what bin Bayyah does with MBZ and precisely what his student, Hamza Yusuf, is doing. It is precisely what anyone associated with the Peace Council or Fatwa Council in the Emirate is doing.
It broke my heart to see the name of someone that I admired as a scholar in that council, Dr. Rizwan Sayyid, a respectable scholar. But, it reminded me that knowledge does not give you immunity from immorality. You could be the most educated human being in the world, but if you don't keep your moral compass alive and strong, you will fall. Being a scholar these days is exhausting. Eventually, you become so tired that the devil finds a million ways to convince you to give up; to say, "I've had enough resisting power. I will find a comfortable position with power rather than existing in opposition to power." Knowledge does not give immunity from immorality. Immorality doesn't change just because you have a million degrees. It is immoral to work with a tyrant, period. Look at what Imam Al-Shafiʽi said about working with tyrants, look at how Imam Al-Shafiʽi refused a judgeship and was flogged for refusing to work with the Abbasid state - a state not nearly as unjust as MBZ’s.
I'm tired of Muslims playing ignorant. Islam is not a license to quote some rhetoric taken from hundreds of years ago to try to convince people to not use their ethical compass or common sense, don’t quote the Quran to turn Muslims into intellectual zombies incapable of moral or ethical thought. That is not Islam.