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‘At the Intersection of Two Criminalized Identities’: Black and Non-Black Muslims Confront a Complicated Relationship With Policing and Anti-Blackness

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Before Jacob Blake’s father spoke to media last month about how police gunned down his son in Kenosha, Wis., he took a moment to say a Muslim prayer.

“Our family is very diverse and we don’t represent just one thing, so if you all could give me one second please, this is for my son—Jacob Blake,” Jacob Blake Sr. said shortly before reciting a verse from the beginning of the Qur’an and proceeding to talk about how police shot his son “seven times, seven times, like he didn’t even matter.”

Blake Sr.’s recitation of the prayer moved Iesa Lewis, a Black Muslim graduate student at the University of Chicago and part-time community organizer, evoking for him “just how deeply embedded Islam is within the Black community.” But the moment also encapsulated the complicated relationship that the Black Muslim community has with non-Black Muslims. Lewis says that while many non-Black Muslims would likely embrace Blake Sr.’s decision to recite the Qur’an, many would also continue to perpetuate anti-Blackness in their own lives and communitieseverything from non-Black Muslims not returning greetings, to assuming ignorance about Islam, to not considering Black Muslims worthy of marrying their non-Black children.

The Black Lives Matter Movement is forcing the Muslim community to reckon with its own anti-Blackness and scrutinize its already tense relationship with law enforcement. The police shooting of Blake, as well as the murder of George Floyd—whom Minneapolis police killed after staff at a non-Black Muslim owned store called 911 over a suspected counterfeit $20 bill—has sparked introspection within the non-Black Muslim community about how they may contribute to overpolicing despite also being profiled by law enforcement.

Black Muslims account for at least one-fifth of all Muslims in the U.S. even as they face discrimination from within their religious community. Some mosques are segregated by race, reflecting the neighborhoods they are located in. The refusal to fully integrate Muslim communities runs deep, Lewis says.

While some Muslims want to maintain good relations and cooperate with police in an attempt to assimilate without causing trouble, others have been angered by secretive surveillance programs targeting Muslims as well as police brutality directed toward Black Americans.

Muslims have a complicated history with law enforcement

Both non-Black Muslims and Black Muslims have long dealt with government surveillance and profiling by law enforcement. A 2017 Pew Survey found that “nearly one-in-five (U.S. Muslims) have been called offensive names or singled out by airport security, while one-in-10 say they have been singled out by other law enforcement officials.” A more “distinctly Muslim appearance,” like wearing a hijab, is common among Muslims who experience discrimination, the survey notes.

The Patriot Act and other federal policies enacted in the wake of 9/11 enabled expansive government surveillance that civil rights groups say “cast a cloud of suspicion” toward Muslims and paved the way for their detention and interrogation.

Of particular concern in recent years is a U.S. Department of Homeland Security program called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Experts who spoke to TIME say CVE grew out of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which was used to spy on perceived political dissidents and civil rights leaders, many of whom were Black, in the Civil Rights era.

DHS describes CVE as a set of “proactive actions to counter efforts by extremists to recruit, radicalize and mobilize followers to violence.” The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law institute, says decades of research has debunked the idea that predictive risk indicators can identify potential terrorists. They say CVE programs allow federal agencies to “mask efforts to gather intelligence, identify individuals who are not suspected of wrongdoing for surveillance, recruit informants and co-opt community leaders to promote government messaging.” The center says it does not prevent terrorism. DHS did not respond to a request to comment about CVE.

The federal government launched CVE under the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration has nearly tripled the amount of CVE money going to law enforcement agencies, as well as expanded the program’s scope to also target Black Lives Matter activists.

Although Muslims of all ethnicities may face challenges with law enforcement, being a Black Muslim makes life even harder. Lewis says that as a Black Muslim, there’s no escaping the “day-to-day effects of just being seen as a Black person.”

“I don’t think people walk around and can identify me as Muslim. The first thing that comes to mind is that this is a Black man,” Lewis says. “So I’m constantly profiled (for being Black) but then as a Muslim” he says he has to think about government surveillance issues.

For many Black Muslims, interactions with law enforcement in recent years have been fatal. A sheriff’s deputy fatally shot Sudanese-American immigrant Yassin Mohamed—a Black Muslim man—in Georgia this May. Local police shot and killed Shukri Ali Said, a Black Muslim woman in 2018, also in Georgia. Sacramento police killed Stephon Clark, another Black Muslim while he was in his family’s backyard, in 2018.

In 2017, Phoenix police restrained and killed Muhammad Muhaymin Jr., a Black Muslim man. The 43-year-old yelled “I can’t breathe” as multiple officers “placed the weight of their bodies on his head, back, arms and legs” according to a lawsuit filed over his death by his family, accusing the police of using excessive force. “They basically choked him to death,” says Haytham Faraj, a lawyer for Muhaymin Jr.’s family.

Bodycam footage revealed Muhaymin shouted out “please Allah,” and one officer responded by saying, “Allah? He’s not going to help you right now.” None of the four primary officers involved in the incident have faced repercussions, per Faraj.

Nabihah Maqbool, a Muslim attorney who focuses on surveillance and racial justice issues, wrote in an Intercept article earlier this year about how programs like CVE would result in local police departments viewing “youth as would-be terrorists, criminalizing Black Muslim youth with federal dollars and remaking local law enforcement agencies into miniature national security agencies.”

“There’s no guarantee (…) that information collected in the context of community-building programs is not also being shared with federal law enforcement and intelligence-gathering agencies,” Maqbool tells TIME. “Participants have no idea about whether what they say and do will be contextualized in a format like a criminal investigation but they are then also encouraged to be frank and forthright with law enforcement whose primary goal is not to build communities.”

A closer reliance on police will ultimately harm Black Muslims more as they are “at the intersection of two criminalized identities,” Maqbool says.


A group of Muslims gather for Friday prayers and Khutbah, and a subsequent Black Lives Matter march, outside of the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, New York, June 5, 2020.
A group of Muslims gather for Friday prayers and Khutbah, and a subsequent Black Lives Matter march, outside of the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, New York, June 5, 2020.Justin Lane—EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Tensions between the Black Muslim and non-Black Muslim community

The Black Muslim community’s response to government surveillance has in some ways diverged from that of the non-Black Muslim community.

African American Muslims have historically been more wary of law enforcement’s reach into mosques and the Muslim community because of a “longstanding suspicion” of federal agencies’ involved with surveillance and their history of racism, says Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty & National Security Program. However, the remainder of the Muslim American community—many of them South Asian, Arab or Indonesian immigrants— showed relatively more willingness to cooperate with law enforcement as a way to distance themselves from the Islamophobic narrative that likened Muslims to terrorists, according to Patel.

Some Muslim organizations continue to foster close ties with law enforcement. For example, in Brooklyn, Muslims formed a community patrol last year to “serve as the eyes and ears for the NYPD,” The New York Times reported. In Washington D.C., Masjid Muhammad—a religious Muslim organization— accepted a CVE grant exceeding $531,000 to contain extremism and introduce Muslim groups to local law enforcement “through dialogue and engagement.” The police department in Arlington, Texas, received a CVE grant of more than $47,000 to “strengthen partnerships” with the Muslim community as they focus on “Islamist terrorist movements.”

Muslim events in recent years have also exposed divisions about policing. Tensions rose in Texas when the East Plano Islamic Center’s invitation for the suburb’s police chief to speak about systemic racism and policing policies led to outrage from some Muslim Americans. In 2016, remarks from white Muslim American scholar Hamza Yusuf drew sweeping criticism for stressing that police are not always racist and saying, “any police now that shoots a Black is immediately considered a racist.”

In the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, the role of corner stores—particularly immigrant-run corner stores in Black neighborhoods—have come under greater scrutiny for how they interact with and may contribute to the over-policing of Black communities. Black Lives Matter advocates are working to change the ways non-Black immigrant Muslim owners react when they sense tension; is their first instinct to call the cops or to start a dialogue to defuse the situation? Minneapolis police arrived at the scene after staff from Cup Foods, a neighborhood store owned by a Palestinian immigrant, called law enforcement over a suspected counterfeit bill Floyd used. The store owner has since spoken out against police brutality.

“Not all (non-Black Muslim store owners) have been bad but not enough of them have been good partners in supporting the viability and the wellbeing of the community,” said Makram El-Amin, a Black imam in Minneapolis, during a Facebook webinar called “Doing Business In Black Neighborhoods.” The panel, organized by The Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, took place about a week after Floyd’s death and highlighted a history of discrimination toward Black people from South Asian and Arab store owners.

Rana Elmir, deputy director of ACLU Michigan and a non-Black immigrant from Lebanon, said during the webinar that aspirations of being a model minority can contribute to anti-Black sentiment in the Muslim community. Non-Black Muslims “have believed (…) in this kind of American dream that can shield us…from ignorance from racism,” she says.

Combating Racism and Rethinking Public Safety

Although tensions about how closely to associate with law enforcement continue to divide parts of the non-Black and Black Muslim community, some of those who practice Islam are taking efforts to better address racism within the religious community.

The Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), a community organization invested in social issues affecting people of color in Chicago and Atlanta, works to defuse racial tensions between Muslim Arab store owners and their customers in majority-Black neighborhoods through a “corner store campaign.” They also run a health center, a transitional housing program, life skills education, construction training and an arts program focused on fostering a community space.

“We don’t need more police in schools. We don’t need more police presence on blocks,” says Shamer Hemphill, deputy director of IMAN. Hemphill says cities instead need more of the kinds of programs that IMAN is working on as a way to ensure public safety.

Muslim organizations have worked to address racism for years, from progressive groups like MPower Change, Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative and IMAN to larger associations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. Recent Black Lives Matter protests have renewed and amplified conversations about overpolicing among them all.

Zuhdi Masri, a non-Black Palestinian corner store owner in St. Louis, Mo., opened his store in 1982 when he first moved to the U.S. He has long made it a point to get to know his Black clientele. “I know their names, their addresses, their mommas, their grandparents,” Masri tells TIME. “I mean 38 years is enough to know everybody.”

Masri’s Yeatman Market includes a small cafe with WiFi. He says he doesn’t want his Black customers to feel like they have to drive miles away to a white neighborhood just to get reliable internet and a place to hang out.

Masri’s story was recently featured in Muslim advocacy group MPower Change’s campaign to start conversations about the “Muslim communities’ complicated relationship with police” called #PolicingIsHaram. (Haram means forbidden in Islam.) The campaign has since been renamed to #UnrelentingJustice.

Police presence at mosques doesn’t always equate to Muslims feeling more safe, says Sijal Nasralla, Campaign Director for MPower Change. “In communities where Muslims have been targeted by the FBI or other undercover officers, they do not portray an image of safety,” Nasralla says. Further complicating the matter, mosques often need protection from vandalism and violence, particularly from Islamophobic individuals, so a legitimate need for security remains. In the absence of a trusting relationship with law enforcement, some mosques are relying on volunteer marshals to enforce security instead.

Nasralla says MPower Change has received dozens of calls from Muslims wanting to organize their mosques to confront police brutality. During Ramadan, it became more common for Muslims in the U.S. to give part of their zakat, a form of almsgiving undertaken by Muslims every year that is one of the five central pillars of Islam, toward bail funds, Nasralla says. MPower Change has worked with mosques around the country to raise money for bail funds for Chicago-based Believer’s Bail Out, an organization that fundraises to bail out Muslims in pretrial incarceration and ICE custody.

“Zakat is being framed within many U.S. mosques as a politicized charge to support those who are being targeted by state violence,” Nasralla says, noting that zakat has often traditionally gone toward causes like hunger and poverty.

Masri, the Palestinian store owner, has a zero-tolerance policy for violence but refrains from calling the police. (The last time he called them was more than a decade ago, he says.) He prefers to resolve conflicts through dialogue and says his store functions as a sort of “peace corner” in the community. He recalls saying a few times, “just drop the guns guys, let’s talk, let’s sit down.”

“We don’t call the police for that. We just try to resolve the problem,” Masri says. “Police aren’t going to make it any better; they are going to lock them up.”

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com