Namira Islam, executive director of MuslimARC, speaks at the organization's Michigan Gala on Nov. 10, 2018, at the Arab American National Museum Annex in Dearborn, Michigan. Photo by Tamanna Azim

In Detroit, one organization is schooling Muslims on racial justice

(RNS) — It began, as so many social justice movements these days do, on Twitter.

Namira Islam, a Bangladeshi-American lawyer living in Detroit, had noticed that many of the ongoing conversations about Muslims online showed ignorance of the faith group's racial demographics.

Black Muslims were often presumed to be converts or activists. Black Muslims discussing their experiences with racism would receive messages saying that promoting separatism is un-Islamic. Non-Muslims as well as many prominent Muslims seemed to equate the faith with being Arab or South Asian. And the slur “abeed” — Arabic for “slave” — was commonplace.

As Black History Month approached in 2014, she rallied a crew of about 20 activists and scholars to launch a new hashtag: #BeingBlackAndMuslim.

“We wanted to reflect on the erasure of black Muslims in the conversations we were seeing online, as well as in our communities and institutions,” Islam said. "Because those erasures reflect what we're seeing everywhere else."

And it resonated. For four hours that Feb. 10 five years ago, the hashtag trended on Twitter not only in the United States, but globally. The responses showcased black Muslims' pride and joy in their culture and experiences, Islam said, as well as the heartbreak and betrayal they felt at the hands of their brothers and sisters in faith.

Because of the racially egalitarian messages in the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, “people think if you’re Muslim you can’t be racist,” Islam noted. But that couldn’t be further from the truth, she said.

According to the Pew Research Center, black Muslims make up a fifth of U.S. Muslims. While black Muslims are significantly more likely than nonblack Muslims to say that Islam is important to their lives and that they pray five times a day, nonblack Muslims sometimes believe that their black counterparts are not real Muslims. Part of that may be rooted in inaccurate assumptions that most black Muslims belong to the Nation of Islam, which many consider to be heretical. In fact, just 2 percent of black Muslims currently identify with the Nation of Islam, Pew reports.

And while about 92 percent of black Muslims say black people face “a lot” of discrimination, only 66 percent of non-black Muslims agree.

Islam, 31, and educator Margari Aziza Hill, 43, saw in the viral hashtag an opportunity to expand the campaign into a long-term educational resource for Muslims who wanted to teach their own communities about race and religion.

Namira Islam. Courtesy photo

Together, Hill and Islam launched the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, now commonly called MuslimARC. Their mission statement: “Education for liberation.”

Almost immediately, organizations reached out to the pair asking them to lead trainings and consultations about racism within Muslim communities. They hosted a panel at the Islamic Society of North America’s conference that year and were invited to address a group of high school students competing at the annual Muslim Interscholastic Tournament. They were expecting an audience of 25 bored teens. Instead, they found themselves facing a rapt audience of 250.

“So right away we realized this was more than a hashtag,” Hill, MuslimARC’s managing director, said. “These people all thought they were alone in their experiences. So we started to think about how to sustain the conversation, how to intervene in this issue that clearly needed to be discussed.”

Five years since that conversation began, their project has helped to train some of America’s largest Muslim advocacy organizations in racial justice.

Hill — who has a background in curriculum design and has taught at a community college as well as Islamic school and summer camp — had been taking a course on virtual instruction at the online education platform Coursera ahead of #BeingBlackAndMuslim’s launch.

“I had this idea to make anti-racism accessible in the same sort of way,” said Hill. “Because how do you even learn anti-racism if you’re not on a campus or working with a social justice organization? If you’re just a regular lay person, how do you access that?”

Their solution was to develop a set of curricula: for organizations to train their members about racial justice and combating Islamophobia, and for individuals to understand how to be better allies. They produced a toolkit to help Muslims understand how to respond to police brutality and Black Lives Matter — “we must unequivocally affirm the egalitarian nature of Islam in which the Qur'an and Sunnah (Islamic traditions based on the actions of the Prophet Muhammad) clearly condemn racism,” it noted — and hosted or facilitated online courses, webinars and meetups. Ahead of the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, they asked imams around the country to focus their Friday sermons on the shooting and his life.

They also lead workshops and consultations for groups who need guidance in adopting inclusive practices. Their clients and partners have included the Council on American-Islamic Relations, MPower Change, Faith in Action, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, Take On Hate, the Chicago Regional Organizing for Anti-Racism and Pop Culture Collab, with whom they consulted on the upcoming Sameer Gardezi-directed film series “East of La Brea.”

Margari Aziza Hill. Courtesy photo

Many mainstream Muslim advocacy organizations are now actively working for movements such as Black Lives Matter and pushing for funding more black Muslim grassroots projects, movements they once shied away from.

At an event Feb. 10 celebrating MuslimARC’s five-year anniversary in Los Angeles, Hill told local Muslim leaders “we can trace the lineage of the language that we introduced.” National organizations that were once ruled by “respectability politics and a white aspirational lens,” she said, have now shifted to a “social justice lens.”

Since that first hashtag conversation, MuslimARC says, it has reached more than 20,000 people in more than 40 cities.

That number is multiplied by those who have been impacted by their work, like Islamic studies scholar Kayla Wheeler, who teaches at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University. Wheeler said that a series of interviews Hill and Islam conducted with Muslims of different racial backgrounds, which she found on Twitter, has helped her inform the way she teaches about Latino and Asian Muslims.

#BeingBlackAndMuslim also inspired Wheeler's 2-year-old Black Islam Syllabus project, in which she is compiling educational resources on black Muslims based on contributions solicited via Twitter.

Wheeler, in turn, has inspired other academics to collect resources, such as the Sudan Syllabus, curated by University of Pennsylvania doctoral student Razan Idris, and the Islamophobia is Racism Syllabus, curated by 10 prominent scholars.

“For me it's a space to not only see myself recognized but also to challenge my own assumptions about what Islam is and who is involved in Islam,” said Wheeler. “It does a disservice to graduate students when we teach about Islam in a way that is Arab-centric and ahistorical.”

MuslimARC executive director Namira Islam, from left, managing director Margari Aziza Hill and administrative director Hazel Gomez stand outside the site of ARCHouse in Detroit, Michigan. Courtesy photo

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Hill and Islam say they want to lead a faith-driven dialogue that disrupts the often-fraught dynamics between non-black and black Muslims. Such tensions are particularly high in Detroit, which has America’s highest percentage of black residents, next door to Dearborn, America’s most Arab city.

The demographics have led to clear tensions, particularly due to Arab-Americans’ entrepreneurial success (which some would call exploitative) with small businesses.

This summer, Hill and Islam plan to open their first brick-and-mortar center, ARCHouse – a largely crowdfunded office and training space near Detroit's historic Muslim Center mosque, founded in the 1980s under the leadership of Imam W. Deen Mohammed.

The MuslimARC team is aware that the organization's growth has something to do with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the election of Donald Trump. Terms like “intersectionality” and “microaggression” – once nearly exclusive to academics – are bandied about easily these days.

In some ways, that awareness has made MuslimARC's work easier, Islam said. “It’s opened up a greater willingness to understand.

“But while anti-racism is trendy now," she added, "we have to remind folks that there’s long-term work to be done. We have to make sure we’re not so distracted by the crisis response that we don’t focus on the systemic issues that were there under Obama, too.”

The founders of MuslimARC say they are themselves continuing to learn and relearn the meaning of racial justice. Part of that is because they have put together a diverse board that includes black, Latina, Arab and South Asian members, which they say helps expose them to new viewpoints – and puts them in a better position to call out the racism they see.

“I’m not asking people to do anything that I myself have not done,” said Islam.


  1. Our monotheistic religions should operate in our hearts to turn us away from racism, but I am less and less convinced that religions necessarily fix us in that regard, or even help much. The best fixes for racism are people-enacted public policies (via governments) which demand our respect of other people and other people’s rights. Our scriptures are vague and mostly off-point on this issue, and only have meaning anyway to those who volunteer to read or follow particular versions of them. But our societies’ secular governments can say, “Hey, we are going to treat everyone right” and enact laws to put all skin colors, all ethnicities, and national origins on equal footing with equal rights, opportunities and expectations of fairness anywhere inside the governments which do so. This kind of humanism really can do what God Writings have never accomplished. Don’t settle for any religions that diss or interfere with our secular sources of progress on racism. We don’t get the progress from anything else.

  2. “combating Islamophobia,” Want to combat it? Tell them to stop killing each other
    Maybe consider the jizya?

  3. “The best fixes for racism are people-enacted public policies (via governments) which demand our respect of other people and other people’s rights.” And we want mommy government to step in again

  4. Muslims teaching about racial discrimination? Give us a break!! They need to clean up their own act first with the discrimination of Sunnis against Shiites and the reverse. Get back to us when you finish.
    Some comments about the situation:

    Al-Sistani was apparently referring to Abdullah bin Jabrain, a key member of Saudi Arabia’s clerical
    establishment, who last month joined a chorus of other senior figures from the
    hardline Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam that regards Shiites as infidels.

    Bin Jabrain described Shiites as “the most vicious enemy of Muslims.”

  5. Even today, in the Sudan, tribal Africans endure slavery, and just a few years back, 2.7 million tribal Sudanese Africans were displaced by the Muslim Central Government during the conflict, by Government backed Janjaweed raiders.

  6. Christian Arabs cannot even gain citizenship in Saudi Arabia, the land of their ancestors, while Muslims all over the world are welcome to make pilgrimage to Mecca, where no non-Muslim can set foot in Islam’s two holiest Cities. The world seems to be fine with that unbalanced scale. Could you imagine if Jews told non-Jews that they could not set foot in their holiest City of Jerusalem??????

  7. So you are saying it should be right for muslim? The horror of the atrocities should be celebrated for another culture?

  8. You seem to have a lot of knowledge on these issues peep. Thank you

  9. The difference is that 50 million Christians killed each other in WWII Europe, along with 6 million Jews rounded up and exterminated, but not in the name of Jesus. They definitely were not walking the path of the mythical Jesus. Islamists that perform their regular acts of terrorism are doing in the name of Islam, exclaiming “God is Great”.

  10. Not in the name of Jesus. It would not make any sense.

  11. 2000 years of Christian love in Europe has seen inquisitions, conquering of the New World and Africa, decimation of native tribes, the European slave trade to America for which the Church of England has apologized for being at the heart of it, the wars and genocides, and even WWII Europe seeing 50 million white Christians kill each other while the Vatican remained neutral. And what are we seeing in 2019, just more walls and fences and the production of devastating weapons of war never seen before.

  12. There have been plenty of wars with Christians on both sides fighting in the name of Jesus and praying to God that their side will win. And Western Christians killed plenty of Eastern Christians during the Crusades, in the name of Jesus.

  13. I get what you are saying. I am an atheist, but how can you kill someone in the name of the Prince of Peace, the Purveyor of Love, the King of Angels?? It is a massive contradictions to his teachings.

    But I get your point as I was sent to Vietnam to kill the “Godless Communists, and when I got there, they were actually Confusists, Buddhists, Taoists, and Christian. And while we were in their Country reeking havoc, they sent clerics out to bless us. So I definitely get your point.

  14. Again, so you are saying it is wrong for Christians but ok for the muslim? Two different weights there peep

  15. It is never OK! Islamists, on the other hand, are very honest about their ambitions to conquer the world, even though they do not have the means.

Leave a Comment