Dawud Walid, religious leader and executive director of CAIR-MI (Council on American Islamic Relations), shares with us a bit about his life, his work, and how we can all get involved in making the world a better place. See his blog here and his twitter @dawudwalid to continue to stay up to date with his work and his mission.
Could you tell us a bit about your background? Where did you grow up, where were you born and raised? What’s your class, cultural, and familial background?
I was born in Detroit, Michigan but was raised in Central Virginia in suburbia after my parents divorce when I was the age of 6. My parents met in undergrad, my father being from Detroit and my mother being from York County, Virginia. They were raised very differently as my father grew up in the inner city and was exposed to the Nation of Islam and Black Nationalist leaders such as H. Rap Brown aka Imam Jamil Al-Amin whereas my mother grew up a Baptist in a socio-politically conservative family. Though my primary custodianship was with my mother, my father’s worldview influenced me more politically which began for me as I consciously remember his taking me abroad as a youth where I had the opportunity to meet African anti-Apartheid activists.
You’re known as a racial and religious activist? -Are those appropriate titles? When did you get involved in this work?
I am known as both an imam and a racial justice activist depending on who is asked based upon their exposure and interactions with me. I don’t have a specific title that I assign myself. Regarding preaching and writing about Islam, I’ve been a structured student of knowledge since the late 90’s in subjects including Arabic grammar and morphology, Islamic history during the first three generations of Muslims, Sciences of Qur’anic Exegesis and Basis of Islamic Jurisprudence. Regarding racial justice, I’ve been involved in this work for the past decade as Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI).
You often are called upon to speak against Islamophobia, can you tell us what you believe Islamophobia to be and why this has been your focus?
Islamophobia is a post-modern term that has ancient expression. Pharaoh and the occupying Romans, for instance, were Islamophobes during the times of Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them) in that they were hostile to Divine paths and their representatives. The soil which makes Islamophobia fertile in the West is definitely white supremacy as Islam has been racialized as non-white within the framework of structural racism. Given that Islamophobia is a branch on the tree of American structural racism, I have a dual incentive as a black man and a Muslim with children to work with others at chopping down this evil racist tree.
Being both black and Muslim do you ever feel a conflict in your work against Islamophobia and racism? What is more pressing in our times and what do you find yourself more concerned with?
Working against Islamophobia and racism to me is a matter of faith not necessarily being involved in “the movement.” Given that I believe that white supremacy is at the root of the tree that has Islamophobia as a branch and that the antithesis of American whiteness is blackness, black liberation is an essential component for eroding Islamophobia in America for black and non-black Muslims alike. It has been a tactical error that many activist have made in post-911 America to treat Islamophobia as an exceptional form of discrimination outside of the framework of white supremacy.
Can you tell us about your upcoming book on African figures in the Islamic tradition? Why was this book important for you to compile and what do you hope its impact will be?
The upcoming book “Centering Black Narrative: Early Muslim Nobles Among the Early Pious Muslims” by Sidi Ahmad Mubarak and myself will hopefully serve three purposes. First, it is important that Muslims who are black see themselves in the early Islamic narrative besides the tokenization of Bilal bin Rabah (may God be pleased with him). Black Americans seeing ourselves in the early narrative of Islam, in particular for us as a people who have been cut off from history that centers human excellence from those who resemble us, is important for building self-esteem and confidence. Second, many non-Black Muslims need to be made aware of Islamic history that is unknown or buried regarding Muslims who would today be seen as black; this is especially needed as a tool among other tools in countering anti-black racism which exists among Muslims. Lastly, the book will present an answer to “Black Orientalists” as Dr. Sherman Jackson dubs them who paint a false picture of Arab and black exclusivity which leads to problematic conclusions relating to history of Muslims.
“Mystic Motherland” conference at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor was organized by Professor Rudolph Bilal Ware, who teaches the history of West Africa and Sufism. The conference brought together classically trained Islamic scholars with Western trained academics to present papers and have discussions from an interdisciplinary perspective of discussing history, sociology and Islamic spirituality in one convening. I presented on the topic “Deconstructing the Myth of Arab and Black Exclusivity,” which gave semantic and historical examples of Arabness and blackness being indistinguishable in Arabia during the era and the generation following Prophet Muhammad (prayers and peace be upon him and his family).
Regarding racial justice work, everyone can start by working on their own spiritual refinement then translating that into behaviors and socialization with their families and discussions with their own circles of influence. Since racism is sinful like other social ailments, none of us are immune just as none are immune from other sins. Even with good intentions, our speech and behaviors have been informed by implicit bias based upon the world informed by white supremacy through Hollywood to politics. Addressing racism means also addressing the impact that it has on people not just intentions. Introspection and education on racism, especially implicit bias, is an endeavor which all should be involved in. Muslims cannot challenge Islamophobia more effectively until we deal more robustly with intra-Muslim racism.