The Muslim Students Association (MSA) organized “Being Black and Muslim,” a roundtable discussion in Lower Herrick Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. with social activists Margari Aziza Hill and Umar Hakim, two black and Muslim-identifying individuals. MSA executive board members Karim Sharif* (junior) and Izzie Ojeda (senior) posed questions to Hill and Hakim, intending to illuminate the experiences on Occidental’s campus of those identifying as Black and Muslim. The discussion centered around issues of activism, faith and community. The Black Student Alliance (BSA) and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life sponsored the event, and approximately 30 students attended, according to Sharif and Ojeda.
Hill is the co-founder and programming director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimArc), a professor and a writer. Hakim works with the ILM Foundation, an organization working to counter homelessness, hunger, domestic abuse and mass incarceration. Both Hill and Hakim converted to Islam in their late teens.
MSA began making arrangements for the event at the start of Fall 2016. Inspired by a Black History Month event in 2016 –– a discussion BSA organized focusing on the erasure of intersecting black and Latinx identities –– Ojeda and Sharif wanted to shed light on a topic they believe is not often discussed
“There are marginalized aspects within the black community that don’t get acknowledged. Black Muslims have contributed a lot [to the Black community] and have not been acknowledged,” Ojeda said.
Hill spoke at length about the misrepresentations of Muslims around the world and the exclusion of black Muslims from that narrative. She listed statistics: one-third of the world’s Muslims are black, fifteen percent of Muslims are sub-Saharan African, and around 19 percent are Arab. To Hill, these statistics indicate that the intersections of Islamophobia and racism are under-acknowledged. Hill used these statistics to examine the disconnect between facts and political discourse –– the amount of black Muslims around the world is huge, yet major media outlets rarely publicize their experiences.
Hill and Hakim addressed the combination of racism and Islamophobia. As an academic, Hill researches and studies four tropes of black Muslims.
“[The tropes include] the ‘jailbird jihadi,’ a radicalized Muslim inmate … the ‘burka bandit,’ a Muslim woman who uses her hijab to hide her identity and commit robberies … the ‘Somali shebab,’ a radicalized young Somali man … and the ‘undocumented West-African,’ a street vendor who is over-policed” Hill said.
Hakim’s early experiences with Islamophobia originated from his community in Compton. While growing up, Hakim first encountered Islam through the Nation of Islam, a black Muslim group that arose in the 1930s that focuses on black liberation in America through Islam. Hakim lost friends due to his faith. Some members of his community thought that converting to Islam would send him to hell. Hakim explained that after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, Islamophobia became ubiquitous, no longer confined to Compton.
“I faced Islamophobia mostly from my own community because I stepped out of the Christian mindframe,” Hakim said.
Hakim recalled that when he converted to Islam, many in his community believed he was a radical. Becoming Muslim meant recognizing another form of God than the Christian God, and therefore represented a betrayal to fundamental Christian belief.
When questioned about which aspect of their identity is most essential to who they are, Hakim and Hill acknowledged the impossibility of choosing.
“I was black for 18 years before I was Muslim, and I can’t hide that I’m black,” Hill said.
For both Hakim and Hill, code-switching, the process of altering and emphasizing different parts of their identities depending on context, is part of daily life. Instead of seeing this as a way of betraying who he is, Hakim sees it as a balance.
“I know I’m a black man in the United States, I know I’m from Compton, I know I’m a Muslim. It’s all about remaining authentic,” Hakim said.
Ojeda and Sharif considered the event an enormous success, both because of the amount of people in attendance and the quality of the discussion. Hill and Hakim were able to play off each other’s specialties –– academic research and community outreach, respectively –– providing a well-rounded discussion.
“It was important to have an opportunity where lived experience met political ideology and academics. It was about numbers, facts, legal statuses and lived experiences,” Sharif said.
MSA altered the design of the event in light of the 2016 Presidential election to involve more education and activism. Reporters from the Atlantic and Aljazeera have criticized President Donald Trump for his Islamophobic rhetoric throughout his campaign and into his presidency. Since his executive order calling for a ban of immigrants from seven countries, legal agencies and states have sued Trump. In the current political climate, MSA is trying to balance activism with self-preservation.
“This event took on a new meaning from when we originally conceived it last year. Before, we wanted to highlight people who have traditionally been erased from a narrative … [After the election] it took on a new urgency,” Ojeda said.
*Karim Sharif an opinions writer for The Occidental Weekly