Fighting Anti-Blackness and Islamophobia



03/27/2017

In early 2015, Craig Hicks walked into his neighbor’s apartment and shot and killed 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, her 19-year-old sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her 23-year-old husband Deah Barakat. The local police in North Carolina believed the murders were motivated by an ongoing dispute over parking rather than hatred of Arabs or Muslims.

Over a hundred Muslim American organizations thought this unlikely and signed a letter calling on then Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether or not the killings were motivated by hate. The letter exemplified the intimate involvement of Muslim American groups in the case. The outrage over the triple homicide was national and pervasive, cutting through racial and ethnic divides.

Just a year later, Atarvius Richards entered 808 East Lewis Street in Fort Wayne, Indiana and shot and killed 23-year-old Mohamedtaha Omar, 20-year-old Adam Mekki, and 17-year-old Muhannad Tairab. Two of the victims were Muslims and all three were Black.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) issued a press release stating it was monitoring the probe and one of its spokespersons pointed out the similarity of the Indiana murders to those in North Carolina the previous year. But that seemed to be the extent to which Muslim American organizations became involved. The kind of outrage which accompanied the North Carolina murders never materialized.

That silence proved to be a catalyst for many young Black Muslims in the Minneapolis—St. Paul area of Minnesota. “The community response to their deaths was disappointing,” says University of Minnesota student, Sara Osman. “Their names were not mentioned at the Friday sermons [and] their families were not consoled.” For Fatima Ahmad, a junior at the University of Minnesota, “it was a shock how little attention [the case] was getting from the media.”

A small group of young and mostly Black Muslims in the Twin Cities decided to remedy the negligence of the broader community and organized a vigil for the three victims. Nearly a year later that small group has coalesced into the Young Muslim Collective (YMC). After the vigil, says Osman, “we decided that it didn’t make much sense to wait around for issues such as racism and anti-Blackness to be discussed in our Muslim communities. We would force and demand these conversations ourselves.”

But rather than restricting its efforts to combatting racism and anti-Blackness, the group has broadened its focus to fight against Islamophobia and provide much needed resources to local communities.

The Young Muslim Collective

According to Ayaan Dahir, the YMC is “a place for young Muslims who want to create change in their communities.” It functions through what she calls, a “decentralized power structure.” After a formal membership process, which includes an application and orientation, members are free to contribute ideas, projects, and goals. Each member is encouraged to start a project with the help of the entire Collective.

Currently the Collective has roughly 50 members from across the Twin Cities. Most are university students or recent graduates and overwhelmingly Black, which is unsurprising given that Minnesota hosts the largest Somali community in the country.

“We focus most of our efforts on addressing anti-Blackness in the Muslim community as well as holding community leaders accountable,” says Osman. The group has also led local opposition to the government’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategy, charging it with promoting Islamophobia and anti-Blackness and stigmatizing local Somali and Muslim communities. In addition, the group believes that community organizing needs to be proactive and has also organized writing workshops, youth mentoring programs, and a mental health survey.

Remarkably, the YMC has accomplished all of this without any significant sources of funding and is only now raising funds for the first time. “Previously the Collective raised funds within itself,” Ahmad says, “but as we consider what we want to accomplish in the future it is important that we [can] finance some of the bigger projects [we are] planning.” The group maintains full-time programs throughout the year and Dahir believes it would “benefit deeply from the ability to hire and train staff.”

Countering Violent Extremism

The lack of any significant funding for YMC stands in stark contrast to many other Somali-led groups in the area which have received generous government grants as a result of their participation in CVE initiatives. Naturally, this makes the Collective’s opposition to CVE even more challenging but this has failed to deter its members.

“YMC is as anti-CVE as you can possibly get,” insisted Osman, “and we’ve been continuously speaking [out] against this program.”

Indeed, over the past year, the Collective has emerged as one of the most vocal grassroots organization resisting the implementation of CVE initiatives. While much of the criticism directed against CVE has come from civil rights organizations, the YMC is in a unique position to organize local community members and groups to oppose CVE.

In Minnesota, CVE initiatives have taken the form of government grants to promote community resilience through the provision of social services. The strategy relies on an unfounded assumption that disaffected youth, disconnect between youth and religious leaders, internal identity crisis, community isolation, and lack of opportunity constitute “root causes” of radicalization. The very real need many local organizations have for resources and funding is subsumed under the rubric of national security and tied to the prevention of violent extremism. In the process, it stigmatizes these communities as uniquely prone to “radicalization.”

Elsewhere, CVE initiatives have also been found to be a cover for law enforcement intelligence gathering operations and surveillance of Muslim communities.

Osman believes that the Somali Muslim community in Minneapolis is especially vulnerable to CVE initiatives because it is “a community of low income refugees that [does] not have the resources to protect [itself] in ways that … established Arab communities have done.”

For its part, YMC has organized and participated in rallies, community forums, and meetings with organizations participating in CVE initiatives to voice its opposition. It has also published literature and flyers to educate the larger public about the issue. Not only has the group refused to apply for CVE-related funding but it also refuses to work with any organization that has taken CVE-related grants or promotes the initiatives.

“We believe that organizing against CVE is fundamental [to] protecting our civil liberties,” says Dahir. “We have a firm belief that the focused targeting of Muslims through CVE is not only founded in unsubstantiated claims but also violates the very civil rights of our community.”

Mental Health

The securitized approach to social services adopted by organizations participating in CVE initiatives has the potential of undermining access to these services for many marginalized communities. In the UK, for example, counter-terror programs are adversely impacting the relationship between doctors and patients, raising concerns that many Muslims will forego necessary treatment due to fears that they may be erroneously reported for being “radicalized.”

Along with challenging these CVE initiatives, the YMC has also played a critical role in providing much needed youth mentoring programs and raising awareness about mental health services in local communities. The focus on mental health is especially important because, as Ahmad points out, “many of our parents left a war-wrecked country and never learned how to deal with the trauma they hold.”

There is often a stigma attached to seeking help. In order to facilitate access to mental health services, the group created a list of professionals that it felt could relate to local Somali communities and thus provide better services.

Osman says that the group’s mental health initiative “allowed us as a Collective to address the ways in which mental health was being discussed as well as what services were currently being offered and how … we get people to know about them.”

Unlike CVE’s focus on mental health as a way to counter “radicalization,” the YMC’s initiative is intended only to make mental health services more accessible for local communities. It is, however, in youth mentoring program that the competing agendas of CVE-affiliated groups and the YMC are most visible.

Young, Black, and Muslim

In 2015, Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) was awarded a CVE grant to create a “mentoring partnership … geared toward Somali kids” despite lacking experience with the Somali community. The program was supposed to launch in February 2016 but was delayed due to concerns raised by the community. Meanwhile, the YMC had learned of BBBS’ plan to create a mentorship program in a predominantly Somali charter school. The group met with BBBS and was confronted with denials that the program had anything to do with CVE.

“We wanted to ask the school to not partner with this organization” that had accepted a CVE grant, says Dahir. “At the same time, we did not want to deny students any enrichment they would have gained” from a mentoring program. The group quickly organized and recruited local students to join its own program. “To this day, our program continues to attract new mentors that engage students and build meaningful relationships.” BBBS, according to Dahir, “has not continued with their new [mentoring] program at this location.”

But the YMC’s mentoring program is not simply an alternative to CVE-related mentoring approaches. “We strongly believe in reconnecting with the young people in our schools and neighborhoods to build a sense of community and cohesion,” says Osman. “We are Muslims and we strongly believe in looking out for others and helping wherever we can.” For Ahmad, the program is a way to show the youth that “although the journey of growing up in America [as] Muslim and Black is hard, you can achieve just as much and [even] more than the next person.”

The group is currently planning on expanding its mentoring program after its fundraiser.

Building Community Power

The election of Donald J. Trump has made Islamophobia and racism visible to a wide swath of the public for the first time, inspiring many first-time protesters, but it has not had a significant impact on the work of the Collective. While members recognize the brazen bigotry now on display, they are more interested in the continuities between the Obama and the Trump administrations. “The previous administration did a lot of damage to Muslims abroad and here,” says Ahmad. “Drone strikes were very big during Obama. CVE happened during Obama. Trump will only build off of what Obama laid down the foundation for.”

If something has changed under Trump, it is how the broader community has responded to the work of the Collective. While the group previously collaborated with local and national organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Black Liberation Project, and the Twin Cities Media Alliance, it is now being approached by various other organizations and even politicians. “Folks that prior to this current administration would not have even stopped to speak to a Collective such as ours are now looking to collaborate,” says Osman.

While she is excited to see the support and ready to respond to the new administration’s policies, Osman wants people to recognize that it is not just the Trump administration that is the problem “I don’t think our plans for continuing to organize and mobilize under this administration are vastly different than the last [administration],” says Osman. “We will continue building our community and will respond to any absurdity that is sure to arise from this presidency when it does.”