Dr. Robbins is the Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations – Massachusetts.
In the weeks since the election, the American Muslim community has seen a massive outpouring of support. As a community advocate, I’ve personally received hundreds of e-mails and calls from people asking how they can help, and letting me know that they’re with us and will do everything that they can to aid us during this time. People across the political, religious and political spectrums have reached out to their Muslim neighbors like never before and have offered to aid us in any way needed.
But the tone, the tenor, of these messages of support concerns me.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m extremely moved and grateful for this outpouring. But in the rush of people lining up to help the American Muslim community, many are motivated by an urge to protect those who are weaker, those who can’t help themselves.
Right now, Muslims in America are pitied. And an object of pity is not respected, valued or recognized as having strength.
Too often, the giver of aid is positioned above the receiver, so that the movement of anything of value is purely a one-directional interchange between those who have and those who don’t. When we accept this support (and I’m not saying we shouldn’t), it reinforces the idea that Muslims are in need, and that the wider—usually white—community has something to offer, but doesn’t need anything in return.
In assuming that Muslims deserve pity, allies can inadvertently create and reinforce the same inequality that has for too long consigned minorities to second-class status in America. Pity limits Muslims to being aid recipients, not a group that has something valuable to contribute. In contrast, respect recognizes their capacity to bring something to the table as well, to meaningfully provide for themselves and others.
Pity limits the giver, too. It blinds those who want to help Muslim communities to what they can learn and gain from the exchange. By being open to a two-way connection, an ally’s life will be much richer.
Of course, it’s always incumbent on those in positions of privilege to work to tackle those structures of oppression that have historically ensnared minorities. But if the Muslim community is truly going to see lasting improvement, we need to move from objects of pity to sources of respect.
And here’s the true problem: Right now, in the heat of the moment and when emotions are running high, we’re experiencing an outpouring of support. But with time, people may become concerned about other issues, or forget that passion entirely. Well-meaning allies may be sincerely committed to helping the Muslim community now, but in months or years, the vigor that fueled their commitment may die down. Pity fades, but respect endures.
If we are going to sincerely tackle the power imbalance in this equation, allies will need to use their genuinely well-intentioned desire to support the Muslim community to create lasting self-sufficiency that will transcend the current political moment.
Here are some specific steps that can be taken during these times to chart that path ahead:
- Begin practicing mindful inclusion. We’ve been well-trained during the last few decades to be mindful of whether our groups and institutions contain diversity of gender and race, but we need to become more aware of whether Muslims are also present during discussions around issues of social and economic justice. Allies can begin actively including the Muslim community, asking whether workplaces, leadership committees and elected positions fully reflect our country’s diversity. If you meet a particularly talented Muslim friend or co-worker, consider recommending him or her for membership in the PTA, or offer to help him or her run for city council.
- Look for opportunities for partnerships, not charity. Rather than viewing interactions only as occasions to give something to your Muslim neighbors or friends, start noticing opportunities to include them in meaningful ways. For example, a group of churches that hosts an annual food drive might invite their local mosque to be a co-sponsor, and ask their Muslim neighbors to help secure donations and prepare and serve food. Similarly, advocacy groups can bring Muslim organizations to the table in greater numbers when negotiating for new legislation. Both types of activities recognize and utilize the resources of the American Muslim community, while also providing them with the opportunity to build their expertise and access greater exposure.
- Always build. The scope of many interfaith or community-driven activities often doesn’t extend beyond the immediate event: a rally can show support, but once it’s over, it’s over. Consciously engage in projects or events that create something that will have a long-term impact on the community. You can encourage people to get on the listserv for Muslim activist associations such as mine, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, for example, by bringing a sign-up sheet to groups you attend, your workplace, your house of worship, rallies for any cause or even social events. People power is real power, and 20 people doing this kind of work locally can significantly boost the capacity of these organizations to influence legislators and draw large crowds to events.
- Make lasting commitments. One-time gestures and events are meaningful, but they’re often crisis-driven and their impact can be fleeting. Sending flowers to a mosque following an act of vandalism, for example, is certainly a thoughtful and needed gesture, but far more impactful would be using such occasions to also make a commitment to bring five new people to that mosque each month to observe prayers and interact with the congregants. In a climate in which many Americans have never met a Muslim, building sustained connections between people of different faiths can be game-changing.
Genuine engagement with minority communities can take many forms, but it’s crucial that we take advantage of the current influx of support to strengthen these links for the long term. We can use this moment of challenge as an opportunity, but only if we act in sustainable ways that build up respect, not pity.