Critical Race Theory and the Muslim West.

As of lately, there have been numerous efforts to impugn the legitimacy of Critical Race Theory in the Muslim community. Abdullah An Dalusi in his lecture the Middle Way argued that Critical Race theory is liberal and western. In this article, Professor Shareef Muhammad further elaborates on why Muslims need Critical Race Theory.


What is a Critical Theory?  How is it useful to Muslims?

A “critical theory” has one aim: to expose the ideology implicitly guiding word and deed which is justifying some form of social or economic oppression. In exposing this truth it can contribute ending that oppression.  Therefore, a critical theory aims to “provide a kind of enlightenment about social and economic life that is itself emancipatory.” Since knowing is half the battle, a person who comes to recognize the oppression they are suffering as oppression and are partly freed from it. This is the central tenet of Critical Race Theory that survives the various transformations.

Critical Race Theory is a theoretical framework that uses critical theory to examine society and culture as they related to categorizations of race, law, and power. It’s origins are in Critical Legal Studies that developed in the mid-to late 1980s by students and professors in American law schools focused on civil rights. Critical Legal Studies maintained that laws are used to maintain the status quo of society’s power structures and that the law itself is a codified form of society’s biases against marginalized groups. In addition, Critical Legal Studies sought to: 1) Demonstrate the ambiguity and possible preferential outcomes of legal doctrines that are supposed to be impartial and rigid 2) publicize historical, social economic and psychological results of legal decisions, and 3) clarify legal analysis and legal culture in order to establish transparency on legal processes so that they earn the general support of the citizens.(“legal theory Critical Legal Studies Movement” Harvard University , Cambridge, Massachusetts USA (Bridge Program)”). Critical Race Theory  posits 1) white racial power are maintained over time, and that the law is the concrete form of this power, 2) although de jure racial discrimination was suppressed by Civil Rights legislation it sublimated as de facto discrimination  which required an analytical framework designed to expose this, and 3) it looks to use the findings to change this defaco racial discrimination.

The pioneer of Critical Race Theory was African-American attorney Derrick Bell. Bell was an academic and activist who got his feet wet while working with Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP in Mississippi. As a budding attorney he worked to undo segregation in public schools. It was during this time that Bell says he “learned a lot about evasiveness, and how racists could use a system to forestall equality.” Bell’s CRT was born of real life experiences. It was forged in the fight against the established racist social order that exerted tangible damage.

How Muslims Already Use Critical Race Theory 

When Muslim immigrants left their homelands for Western countries they were placing themselves smack dab in the middle of the social-cultural issues of these societies whose problems were very different from those of their native lands. Race is the dominant theme in American history. It acts on our conscious and subconscious. It permeates every aspect of our society serving as a marker in our social strata. It is fact that every society has stratification and aspiring to succeed usually means closing the gap between the people on the upper rung of that society. At the top is overwhelmingly white and the bottom is predominately black. Many immigrants have naturally based their success and legitimacy as Americans on their proximity to whites. Whether the United States or Europe whites were the embodiment of power and prestige. When 9-11 happened these same immigrants in the U.S. learned how fragile American success and legitimacy were for people of color. The event revived latent attitudes about identity.

Many who disparaged Africans and blacks in their home country found themselves on the receiving end of racial and religious discrimination. Mainstream white America took license to express crude antipathies toward Islam and Muslim immigrants that had been suppressed. Legislation, books, and experts appeared seemingly out of nowhere as if these were on the shelf awaiting the perfect moment. For Muslim immigrants their religious identity was highlighted in a negative way. Many who were not practicing Muslims or only nominally religious found themselves in the cross-hairs of the U.S. government, the legal system, the media, and the court of public opinion. The success they had worked hard for and achieved as business owners, professors, cab-drivers, tax-paying citizens could not shield them from what was happening. If they were openly Muslim with hijab or kufi then they were called terrorist. If they shaved their beard, removed hijab, or went by the name “Sam” they were accused of practicing tazkiya and called a terrorist. Sikhs were mistaken for being Muslim and were attacked and murdered. Cornel West was correct when he called 9-11 “The niggerization of America.” They were now perceived by their adoptive country as the new existential threat.

If they had studied American history and how race operates they might have been better prepared to navigate the maelstrom. They would know that Islam would not be judged on the merits of teachings but what it symbolizes vis-à-vis the white imagination. The religion became racialized. The racializing of Islam is deeply entrenched in Islamophobia (a phenomena which Islamophobes deny exists). This is a cultural racism not rooted in the biological essentialism but in the essentializing of culture. Cultural racism selectively assumes a number of cultural traits as immutable, attributes to them labels such as “inferior,” “savage,” “barbaric,” “terrorist,” “criminal,” or “bad” and then arranges those characteristics within a hierarchy where what is considered white culture is at the top. Cultural racism accounts for the attitudes in media coverage, crimes, policy and law. There is a long history of cultural racism. The Irish, Italians, Armenians, and European Jews were all legally deemed non-white in many parts of America during the 19th century. The fact that Catholicism and Judaism could disqualify someone as white shows the malleability of whiteness.

Of course these ethnic groups were eventually given full acceptance without giving up their religion or changing their names precisely because they were European and their religions belonged in the European tradition. Islam on the other hand was viewed as not just foreign but dangerously alien. It is a religion that has never been shaped and molded by white masters and given the Crusades and military challenges to European kingdoms since the medieval period it is even considered a perennial foe. So the assimilation of immigrant Muslims in the West and the Americanization of Islam was not likely because in the imagination of white America Islam is a cultural-religious identity synonymous with high levels of melanin and non-European languages which comprise a threat to an essential American identity. Cultural racism proves that trying to neutralize racism by pointing out that race is a construct is naïve. Of course the categories of race are not fixed but this only explains the fluidity of racism.

Muslims living in the Western lands of their former and current colonizers use Critical Race Theory even when they do not realize that they are doing so. Whenever they mention double standards such as the word terrorist only being applied to a Muslim but not to a white man carrying out acts of violence or when someone who “looks Middle Eastern” is profiled they are  peeling back the layers of behavior and language to unmask inherent biases. Understanding the relationship between categories of identity and power essential to proving a hate crime.

The language of anti-terrorism, patriotism, and national security are racially coded. The laws surrounding these are influenced by the stigmatization of non-white groups who are targeted for behavior. These laws which target Muslims in the United States were modeled on laws which targeted African-American groups during the early half of the twentieth century. The War on Drugs and the War on Terror emerged almost simultaneously and effectively criminalized both African-Americans and Muslims. Both have used state violence, social control, and mass incarceration and deportation against people of color. Assata Shakur went from being on the FBI’s Most Wanted List to being a terrorist after 9-11. A black woman who became Muslim in New York’s infamous Rikers Island and an active member of the Black Panther Party, convicted for the shooting of a New Jersey police officer, and was able to escape to Cuba, her religious affiliation was now a fact in the post-9-11. She was now at the intersection of anti-black and anti-Muslim government policies. These parallel campaigns (WOD and WOT) have converged and with this, the convergence of black and Muslim immigrant interests. The post 9-11 security regime and its apparatus is simply the reincarnation of the anti-black and xenophobic measures taken by J. Edgar Hoover to preserve an idyllic American exceptionalism centered on white power.

The anti-Muslim violence and suspicion buttressed by the event of September 11, 2001 crystalized in legal policies as Homeland Security and President George W. Bush’s PATRIOT Act. This ACT gave the government broad measures for fighting terrorism that included interpreting what constituted terrorism. Sami Al-Arian is a Palestinian who was an computer engineering professor at the University of South Florida when on February 17, 2003 he was indicted on 17 counts related to aiding and abetting terrorism according to a broad definition under the PATRIOT ACT. In 2018 New York City settled a law suit agreeing that the police department illegally spied on Muslims and Mosques was unlawful. The blanket spying that extended to over 20 mosques, 14 restaurants, 11 shops, and two schools where extensive notes were taken on which little girls wore hijab and long dresses yielded no actual intelligence that lead to the prevention of a terrorist act. Add to this the innumerable incidents where Muslims, often women in hijab, have been barred and harassed at public spaces and work. The implicit application of Critical Legal Theory and Critical Race Theory allowed advocates to articulate how Muslims were being criminalized because of their identity even as the perpetrators concealed their malicious intent with the law.

The Association Fallacy of Muslim Anti-Critical Race Theorists 

Nevertheless, there are some Muslims who vehemently oppose Critical Race Theory insisting that it is anti-Islamic. These detractors always make an association fallacy which argues that because Critical Race Theory has Marxian and postmodern roots (by way of Critical Theory) then its observations on race must be invalid because Marxism and postmodernism are un-Islamic. It is an irrelevant association and an emotional appeal that makes a spurious use of religious sensibilities to shut down debate. They think of Critical Theory as narrowly referring to the Frankfurt School that began with Horkheimer and Adorno but in practicality any philosophical approach that has practical aims to uncover and challenge the assumptions inherent to behavior is a critical theory. So, the flaw in their logic: Since Marxism and postmodernism are related to Critical Theory then Critical Race Theory is therefore, Marxist and postmodernist.

In reality, there are no Marxian or postmodern elements in Critical Race Theory that are so overbearing that the theory is consumed them and cannot work without them. Since it is not a belief system nor is it a moral framework it does not obtrude on one’s aqeeda. It does not make claims about The Creator, the origin of creation, or the purpose for our existence. Unlike science which these Muslim critics accept despite Darwin’s theory of naturalism or the atheist worldview embedded in physics Critical Race Theory does not require the rejection of any of Islam’s foundation. It is simply a tool for understanding how racism implicitly influences everyday behavior so that we can develop strategies for pushing back against it in concrete ways. Those who use the word Islam to discredit its use should study Islamic history.

They would know that Muslims dating back to the salaf and tabi’een have always employed methods that were created outside and before the world of Islam. Today’s Muslims still read Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah although he relied on Greek humourism to assess the value of other cultures and Tabari’s Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk even though he references the curse of Ham despite knowing the curse of  Ham not being found in Quran or ahadith. Muslims have done questionable borrowing in the past with more controversial methods than Critical Race Theory.

Muslim critics refer to an “Islamic epistemology” as a more suitable alternative to the secular Critical Race Theory. Yet, they can never articulate what they mean. There is no Islamic epistemology about modern race relations in the West. Why would there be? This is a problem that only developed within the last 500 years. All of the ayot and hadith references to race serve as a guide for pursuing justice for racial oppression but as for strategies and methodologies, these are left up to Allah’s vicegerent who he endowed with the intelligence to understand the modalities of a problem then devise solutions. Questioning the Islamic validity of Critical Race Theory because it does not have its start in the seventh century when this is true for so much that the Muslim community relies on to practice Islam today is dishonest.

The dynamism of a civilization requires discernment. The Quran is a book of guidance not a technical manual. It tells us which foods are permissible and which ones are not but it doesn’t tell us how to cook. The shariah imposes strictures on warfare but does not go into any detail on which weapon to use, techniques in battle or strategy. It provides timeless virtues and principles to guide our search for the best tools to realize our goals and then, recognizing that the means are provisional, leaves us to our own devices. Critical Race Theory is not different. It should not evaluated on the basis of being “Islamic” but is it anti-Islamic.

How Muslim Anti-Critical Race Theorists are Separated From Black Struggle 

The latest attempts at creating a “pure Islamic” approach to racial oppression by these  anti-critical race theorists Muslims  who are detached from the political tradition of black America from the 60s and 70s have been flaccid. The Black Muslim tradition is further along at realizing such an epistemology if there is to ever be one. Islam for black people in America began as a justice movement that seized on how the Quran apotheosized struggle: “Oppression is worse than slaughter” (2:191) and transfers agency for collective liberation: “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is their heart” (13:11). Instead of building from this tradition they are trying to move away from it and go back to the drawing board. Instead of building on Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, and Malcolm X they wish to start from scratch. Should we stall seeking redress why they figure it out? The primary goal of Critical Race Theory is the decode racist practices which are carefully carried out by the offender so that they can pass as legitimate and therefore legal. When a prospective employer or leasing office denies someone over the phone because their voice “sounds black” or their application is passed over or not given as much consideration because the name is Curtis Johnson or Muhammad these are not incidences that can be explained by some idealistic, non-existent, half-baked “Islamic” epistemology conceived by a few people whose can only comprehend race as a construct.

The issues raised in Critical Legal Studies and Critical Race Theory have been organically drawn from when applied to actual cases where Muslims’ civil rights and liberties were undermined. Cage, ACLU, CAIR, etc. have activists and academics who try to interface academic theory with legal practice. The “Islamic epistemology” crowd are absent from the fight against injustice because they are waiting to create the perfect weapon.

Much ado has been made about the Frankfurt School’s influence but the inspiration for Bell was more Malcolm X than Karl Marx. Malcom’s perspicacious insight into race matters and the psychic disturbance caused by an officious social order predicated on what Imam Jamil Al Amin (then H. Rap Brown) called Die Nigger! Die! were part of the proto-critical race theory that was simply given the name decades later. The theory is not intractable but eclectic. Methods are evaluated on their efficiency and, yes, for Muslims, their compatibility with Islam. It is silly to suggest that just because we recognize class as an indicator of social behavior, political, and economic policy that we subscribe to a materialist view of history. Critical Race Theory does employ Marxian analysis mainly the exploitation of the individual vis-a-vis the market place but departs from the theories materialist reductionism.  Today’s Critical Race Theorists have arguably moved away from dialectical-materialism, a dogma that never resonated with most African-Americans in the first place.

The opponents also love to cite postmodernism as influencing Critical Race Theory. Jacques Derrida formulated that binaries intrinsic to language. For us that means that a white person is only white because someone has been made black and that these are presented as opposites within the Western social-racial discourse. If this were not true then race in America, specifically, does not make sense. Whiteness is not defined by culture. European ethnicities are. Blackness which was created in response to the racism of Social Darwinism is not defined by culture the way African ethnicities are it is defined by the existential struggle against Western civilization’s anti-black racism. So, Critical Race Theory does take from post-modernism the idea that accepted truths in a given society are indicative of the power that organizes the institutions of that society but where they depart from one another is the idea that there is no objective  truth. Derrick Bell and today’s Critical Race Theorists like Tommy Curry are Christian and certainly maintain that there is a higher-absolute truth. The premise of Critical Race Theory that white supremacy is evil explicitly contradicts moral relativism.

Critical Race Theory finds useful “deconstruction’s” questioning the assumptions of Western culture and how doing so opens up possibilities for new alternatives. For Muslims, the solution has always been Islam. The association fallacy of the critics is that because Critical Race Theorists use the model of deconstruction they must be moral relativists who reject the notion of an objective truth. Most have a moral absolutism.

Ironically, the premise that race is a construct was drawn from Critical Theory. Yet, the opponents to Critical Race Theory who cite this fact are naïve about its irrelevancy. Traffic laws are a construct. They were arbitrarily decided by the group of people who hold power in the society. The fact that Green means Go and Red means Stop are not natural laws. The same people who point out that race is a construct in order to convince us not to dedicate too much attention to its existence stop at red lights. Why do they not ignore this construct? It is because running a red light while the driver of the vehicle travelling on the intersecting street recognizes and affirms these traffic laws could result in an accident that may even be fatal. Knowing that race is a construct would not have saved the lives of a single lynched victim, it did not secure the emancipation of a single slave, nor did it ever prevent extrajudicial executions of black people by police officers. Race is a social reality and ignoring it for the sake of some ideal make-believe color-blind society can have perilous consequences just like running a red light.

The association fallacy that runs through all the critiques of Critical Race Theory blinds them to the fault lines. Black Nationalist, pan-Africanists, Islamicists, liberal Muslims, unwitting conservative Muslims, Marxists, neo-liberals, feminists, LBGT activists, environmentalists, etcetera, etcetera do not all agree with each other’s core beliefs just because they use Critical Theory.

Bell’s Interest Convergence and Muslims 

Let us return to Bell’s interest-convergence theory as a lens to view Muslim politics across ethnic and racial lines in the West. Before September 11, 2011 the majority of Muslim immigrants voted Republican in contrast the African-American Muslims who maintained the political orientation of the rest of black America which was politically-economically liberal while socially conservative. Since 9-11 there has been a shift with largely the younger generation of both communities. Many immigrants began to identify with the progressive positions of the Democratic Party while many African-American millennials started to abandon the social conservativism and embrace ultraliberalism. As a reaction some in the Muslim community have decided to hang their kufi on the supposed moral conservativism that they perceive to be Far Right. Like the sexual politics of the liberals the anti-black, institutional racism denial is part of the conservative package. This has opened up a new problem: Islam in America which began as a justice movement with the epistemology that Jihad is a redemptive struggle that sanctifies resistance to institutional oppression is being thwarted by a new brand of fully American conservative Muslims who are trying to uproot Islam from where it has always been and relocate it to the Far Right of the political spectrum.

There is undoubtedly overlap between Muslims in the West and African-Americans that should result in a consensus-politics that reinforces the invulnerability of each. The existential threat to both communities has led many African-Americans to embrace Islam as a spiritual armor and weapon against the ontological violence and oppression while Muslim immigrants have repeatedly drawn on the Civil Rights legislation and language of the black legal tradition to fight institutionalized Islamophobia. Thus, the Muslims (of all races and ethnicities) would benefit from taking what is useful from Critical Race Theory and the marketed successes of its utilization in public policy-making. Oppression has taken many forms and so have the means to understanding it and fighting back. Let us apply the operational logic proposed by the ulema to take what is good and useful and leave what is bad. The future will thank us.


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