(Editorial note: This article is part of a series by Professor Shareef Muhammad titled Demystifying the Akhi-Right. It examines an increasing trend in the Muslim community in America to betray the Black Muslim tradition to fight for justice.)
Dr.Abdullah bin Hamid Ali is a professor at Zaytuna College and the founder of the Lamppost Education Initiative. He is an African-American Muslim with expertise in classical Arabic and Islamic law. Yet, he has recently begun to leverage his popularity with his largely immigrant Muslim following to espouse hardline anti-black American conservative views. Predictably, this has included the denial of systemic institutional and structural racism. The problem with Ali’s arguments is that he has the same moral blindspots as mainstream black conservatives
Ali promulgates what Cornel West called in Race Matters a “Horatio-Alger in blackface.” He is what is called a conservative behaviorist. He discusses “black culture as if acknowledging one’s obvious victimization by white supremacist practices (compounded by sexism and class condition) is taboo.” Black people have never been simply victims wallowing in self-pity. They have worked the system, bought into and tried every formula for success that this country has dolled out, they have voted Republican and Democrat, and acquired formal education, elected public officials, even a president. He has an ahistorical concept of freewill. He preaches personal agency while asking us to ignore the concrete forces that act against that agency. The hedonistic cultural trends have originated in white America and have been picked up by whites across the political spectrum. Yet, pleasure-seeking indulgent behavior has not had an impact on them in the way that blacks are disproportionately affected. To understand this requires beginning with historical inequities manufactured by racist policy and practice.
The flaws in Abdullah’s critique of critical race theory is (1) the seismic problems in black America today have nothing to do with the past or present structures and systems and to merely suggest that they do will lead to an evasion of personal responsibility, (2) his insistence that racism exists only on the personal level and that it will not seek and find institutional ways to express itself, (3) the social vulnerability of African-Americans is due exclusively to their moral failings. Like the first flaw this downplays the role of past and present structures and systems. While pathologies in the black community may reinforce their vulnerability, those very same pathologies have their origin in policies and practices dating all the way back to 1607. Overcoming them requires being vigilant and actively opposed to what caused them and that means knowing where they came from. (4) He believes the answer to the excessive social liberalism of the establishment Left is the political conservatism of the Right which has always expressed itself in white nationalist, xenophobic, jingoistic, and negrophobic ways. In an article I wrote for Black Dawah Network ‘Zaytuna Professor Dr.Abdullah bin Hamid Ali Undermines Plight of Black America and Betrays Black Muslim Tradition’ I provide the empirical data showing why his “poor black spending habits and not slavery is responsible for black/white wealth gap argument” is bogus.
To Abdullah bin Hamid Ali none of the pathologies in black communities could have roots in historical oppression. To recognize the link between drug use, theft, and violence in the inner cities to over a century of post-abolition racial violence that destroyed budding black communities, penalized black success with lynching, legally sanctioned discrimination that explicitly blocked African-Americans from receiving home loans, admission to higher education, employment in decent wage earning and salaried jobs commensurate with their skill and expertise, redlining which relegated blacks to poverty-ridden neighborhoods, or any of the draconian state and national “tough on crime” laws that have caused the disproportionate sentencing of African-Americans at a greater degree than whites who have committed the same crimes and the legal cover used to criminalize African-Americans such as stop-and-frisk is shirking personal responsibility. It’s become trite to speak of individual agency as existing in a vacuum.
In his article that he wrote for Lamppost entitled “Immigrants”, Immigration And The State of Denial Hamid says:
“Keep in mind that the Oxford Dictionary defines racism as, “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”, rather than the novel critical race theory’s (CRT) finagled “race (viz. “whiteness”) coupled with the power to dominate,” whereby many exclude non-whites from the capacity to be racist, since only whites supposedly have power.”
First, race is a social phenomenon of enormous historical importance that has been shaping nations and empires over the past six hundred years. The subject has been grappled with by historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and policy-makers for centuries. To think that a single definition from the dictionary will tell us all we need to know about the history of racism and how it has worked and is working in the world is a self-serving trivialization of a subject with such gravitas. Secondly, racism in the form of whites exercising power over non-whites in officiously proscriptive ways is literally why the term was invented. The word did not exist before the 1500s because it came into being to describe the power relation between whites and their non-white conquered and enslaved subjects during the Age of Exploration. Carlos Linaeas, Johan Blumenbach, Francois Brenier, Joahan Hevenlock are who created the theoretical framework for understanding phenotypical differences in the human species erected and developed the categories Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid as a hierarchy to reinforce stratifications in European settler-colonies based on race. Defining race as more than a personal attitude is not some “finagled” definition created by critical race theorists; it is a crucial part of world history and the birth of modernity.
According to Hamid Ali calling out the role of systems and institutions in maintaining oppression will lead to the arresting effects of victimhood:
“However, Muslim adoption of the self-referential label of “people of color” reinforces the perennial specter of the “oppressive white man” and the permanent “victim/oppressed” status of all others. The only good white people, accordingly, are those who acknowledge the existence of “white privilege”, “white supremacy”, and the inherent foundational evilness of America and Europe. These are all racially-informed tropes. It is, further, much more affirming of white supremacy than anything that I or Jackson has said or done. That’s because as long as we are “the colored people” and they are the “white people”, the superiority and domination of “whites” and our presumed inferiority are reified. This is all a byproduct of the unwitting embrace of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which is nothing more than the Nation of Islam’s “white man is the devil” doctrine wrapped in candy-paper.”
First, the majority of Muslims worldwide and in the U.S. are “people of color.” In other words non-white. This is not simply a political identification as it is a social fact. If any of us were to, say, file a missing person’s report on a Pakistani, Yemeni, African, or African-American or file a police report in which we would need to describe a suspect the physical description of them is going to include their complexion before it includes their religion or nationality. It is funny how those proposing race-blindness when it comes to the issue of combating racism acknowledge race and even speak in generalizations when identifying what is wrong with black people. Secondly, “the perennial specter of the “oppressive white man”” that Hamid Ali mentions is not a conspiracy of the Left or the product of a defeatist mentality. “The white man” became the historical villain because he globalized genocide, inaugurated systemic exploitation through never before seen agrarian capitalism, exercised deracination, and erected a pigmentocracy at unprecedented magnanimous proportions. The “oppressive white man” is a rejection of “white savior.” It is not defeatism or victimhood but rather not allowing the narrative on the black experience to be hijacked by those pushing the myths of Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, and the White Man’s Burden.
Dr.Sherman Jackon’s Pragmatism
Dr.Abdullah Hamid Ali has vouched for the validity of Dr. Sherman Jackson’s thesis that white supremacy is shirk, or idolatry. Does Hamid Ali feel that Dr. Jackson is deviating from the so-called epistemological purity of Islam when he uses secular concepts to formulate his ideas. The anti-critical race theorists who praise Dr. Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection might be embarrassed to learn that he draws on progressive ideas including Critical Race Theory and pragmatism. In his lecture for Lamppost titled ‘White Supremacy: The Beginning of Modern Day Shirk?’ Dr.Jackson cites and relies upon Dr. Charles Mills for how white supremacy works which in ways that are exactly as Dr.Abdullah Hamid Ali denies. Mills describes racism thus:
“White supremacy organizes group power not only in explicitly white supremacist polities like the Confederate States of America, Nazi Germany, and apartheid South Africa, but also in polities that renounce white supremacist ideology but still protect distributions of wealth, office, education, and opportunity systemically biased in favor of whites.”
Mills is a pioneer in the field of critical race studies and is himself considered a critical race philosopher. He helped Jackson frame his own argument. Jackson just adds an Islamic angle by calling it shirk.
In my estimation, Hamid Ali is not familiar with the intellectual terrain he’s treading. This would be forgivable given that his background is not the social sciences or humanities. The problem is he is not aware of his own limitations. Being an expert in one area does not make one an expert in all others. If he were truly versed in secular progressivism as he seems to think he is then he would recognize its influence in Dr. Jackson’s work. Dr. Jackson is clearly influenced by pragmatism. This philosophical tradition started in the late nineteenth century with William James, John Dewey, and Sanders Pierce. Unlike Critical Race Theory, this is an epistemology. It asserts that scholarship and intellectualism should change society and not simply reflect what is already present. Like Dr. Cornel West who applied pragmatism to his Christianity “so too does Jackson’s “Blackamerican Islam” evince certain pragmatic sensibilities in its quest to do the same for Sunni Islam in the face of white and immigrant Muslim ideologies.” How is Critical Race Theory egregious and not pragmatism? Like Daniel Haqiqatjou’s relaxed position on postmodern philosophers who challenge the deification of science and rationalism, why is Critical Race Theory not acceptable for critically challenging the deification of whites?
Thirdly, Hamid’s argument that merely identifying inequities fostered by the white man will lead to “the permanent “victim/oppressed” status of all others” is a causal fallacy. It suggests that pessimism positively follows the understanding of a problem or properly placing blame where it belongs. This even fails as an a priori observation. The presumption that somehow defeatist attitudes in the black community are the result of a thorough historical and social analysis of how racism functions beyond the conventional wisdom that it has been impactful is contradicted by the numerous black leaders and activists who have had a thorough understanding of racism, recognized the victimization it’s caused and have responded by embracing faith, hope, and constructive remedies to the problem instead of despondency and despair. This is the same flaw in his following statement that as long as “we are “the colored people” and they are the “white people”, the superiority and domination of “whites”” is reified. So, here he tacitly acknowledges there is white domination but only to suggest that suspending its critical evaluation is the solution to making it go away.
The belief that racism exists because anti-racism is typical of black conservatives whether it be George Schuyler, J.C. Watts, Glenn Loury, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Shelby Steele, Stephen Carter, Stanley Crouch, Armstrong Williams or the latest incarnation–Candace Owens. They all want us to replace “blind” loyalty to the race with blind loyalty to the United States. Hamid Ali’s criticism of the contemporary Muslim community boils down to it being “out of step with present-day conservative America.” Adversarial stances to the system in matters of anti-black racism are never warranted because it is a fitan. If he is truly beguiled by the cultural conservatism espoused by the Right he should know that the best of black leadership has always upheld the heteronormative black family structure, preached abstinence from drugs, and encouraged religious commitment. The difference between theirs and Hamid Ali’s is his tapestry of white nationalism. He wants to counter vulgar forms of liberalism with vulgar forms of conservatism.
Lastly, is his statement that “This is all a byproduct of the unwitting embrace of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which is nothing more than the Nation of Islam’s “white man is the devil” doctrine wrapped in candy-paper.” This is astounding because in Dr. Sherman Jackson’s book, which Hamid Ali endorses, Jackson asserts that the social capital of the black Sunni Muslim was hurt by their lack of presence in fighting white supremacy. He argues that many black Sunni Muslims erroneously conflate critiques of white supremacy with the Nation Of Islam which is exactly what Hamid Ali is doing here. Aside from the obvious being that the issues addressed with critical race theory predate Critical Race Theory by hundreds of years he seems to misunderstand the Nation of Islam’s approach to racial injustice as well. The Nation of Islam embraces a racial eschatology in which the white race is said to rule the earth for six thousand years and at the end of their rule they will be destroyed and the black race will reign. Certainly, Hamid knows that the Nation essentializes the white race in their calling them devils. They are inherently evil and because they are incapable of good, good is not expected of them. Critical race theory is not based on biological determinism or any notion that whites are genetically predisposed to being devils.
The akhi-right suffer from white fragility. Their politics are centered on the anxieties, fears, and prejudices of White America, specifically the right-wing which causes them to act defensively when black people stridently criticize racism. They have no working criterion for measuring the Islamicity of theoretical critiques of social issues. Such invocations are just a charade intended to mask reactionary politics. Thus, their remonstrance against Critical Race Theory (which always seemed a weird thing to fixate on) has always been about something more. The frequent characterizations of Critical Race Theory as “Marxist,” “postmodern,” “critical theory,” “epistemologically impure,” “Liberal,” or “pro-lbgtq” is a discursive truncation. What this faction wants is to dislodge the American Muslim community from its perennial fight for justice. In doing so they must silence, marginalize, and even call into question the religious orthodoxy of African-American Muslims who continue pulling from their native Muslim tradition of opposing oppression. Fortunately, they do not have the power to do this and most within the Muslim community have rejected their positions as uneducated and inane. However, should they go uncontested it could do irreparable harm. Islam gained traction in the black community because it transformed black lives and was a sober and valiant critique of the white power structure. The Akhi-right’s bid for an American Muslim conservatism may cause Islam to loose ground in the black community where there is already a cynicism about religion and its role in historical oppressions. What America needs in a paradigm shift and the African-American Muslim can provide a morally sound and courageous response to the society’s ills that draws on their own heritage that includes Muhammad Ali as the voice of anti-U.S. imperialism, Malcolm X advocating for the human rights of the most vulnerable, and countless urban masajid who are an oasis in the barren areas of America. This can not happen with a bunch of Sean Hannity’s in a kufi.
Professor Shareef Muhammad has taught history at Georgia State University and Islamic studies at Spelman University. He has a masters in history at Kent State University with his thesis on The Cultural Jihad in the antelbellum South: How Muslim slaves preserved their religious/cultural identity during slavery. He is the Director of Research for Black Dawah Network.
 Houston, Sam. “Sherman A. Jackson and the Possibility of a “Blackamerican Muslim” Prophetic Pragmatism.” Journal of Africana Studies. (2013).