Posted on Mar 27, 2019
Editorial note: In honor of Women’s History Month, we are asking ten questions to various leaders, authors, scholars and changemakers! Here, Layla Abdullah-Poulos spoke with Margari Aziza of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative! Check back throughout the month to meet some phenomenal Muslim women!
By Layla Abdullah-Poulos
There are very few safe spaces for African American (AA) Muslim women. They frequently face layers of racism, anti-Blackness and misogynoir inside and outside of American Muslim spaces. But despite pervasive discrimination and bias, AA Muslim women continue to be major leaders in community development, education and resistance.
Margari Aziza is the co-founder and program director of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC), non-profit educational organization with a primary objective to challenge white supremacy and systems of racism through the powerful influence of learning. Margari designs an array of curricula and workshops to expand knowledge about racism and Islamophobia in higher educational institutions and organizations.
With the steady rise of anti-Muslim hate outside of Muslim spaces and stagnant prejudice corrupting the inside, she forges ahead, ignoring a disturbing amount aggressive reactions she gets from her fellow Muslims. I spoke with Margari about the objectives of MuslimARC, who has been influential in her life and work, and the unique ways Black women are impacted by racism outside of and within Muslim communities.
1. Who are your mentors - women or men who pushed you, uplifted you, challenged you to dig deep and do the hard work to help facilitate change?
An important mentor is a Naima/Natalie Bayton, whom I met shortly after I graduated [with my undergraduate degree] while taking a summer Arabic intensive class at UC Berkeley. She embraced me as I was struggling with my faith - without judgment. When I took a year off, I was her research assistant studying food deserts in Oakland. She's the kind of elder who is so positive and rooted in faith that she gave me the courage to walk [into graduate school] without seeing the path [and go into] my year abroad with a one-way ticket, no money [while] embracing my faith.
My second mentor is Zack Hoover, the Executive Director of LA Voice. I was paired with him during the Bend the Arc's Community Organizing Residency. At the time I had so little guidance and support for how to build a social justice organization. I felt like this scrappy kid who knew how to street fight, but I didn't have any technique. He modeled the importance of the one-to-one meeting in community organizing.
He became my mentor and sent me to the Faith in Action National Leadership training, where I found my grounding. He challenged me to hold onto my faith and build this work person-by-person.
My third mentor figure is Deepa Iyer, who first interviewed me early on in my work with MuslimARC for her Book I Too Sing America (2016) and whom I have gotten to know when I joined the Solidarity Is Summit second cohort. She has advocated for me to be in spaces and to share my perspectives on national policy and advocacy. She is such a gracious and generous leader. I really look to her as a model for my work at MuslimARC, because she understands what it is like to build an organization from the ground up. After 10 years, SAALT is still going on without her. And, she's still doing amazing work and not getting caught up in the muck of it all.
2. What constitutes success in your line of work and/or activism? We all face numerous challenges along the way. How do we know when we're achieving success and making a difference?
Success is defined by whatever it is that I learned, whatever insights I have gained, and how they are transmitted to current and emerging leaders to do better. Success in anti-racism education means that there will be a mass awakening about how systems of oppression operate, that we can imagine how to be different and begin the continual struggle for personal and collective liberation.
As an educator, when I see somebody's face light up with new insight, when someone is able to use a framework I [taught] to make sense of what harmed them and why it is not okay, or a participant in a workshop comes back to me six months later and says, "Now I get it!" - I see success in [these] little bits of hope. When people who would not normally know each other gather in a unique learning space I created, and they let their guard down and talk openly and honestly - that is success.
Even though I rely upon the wins and deliverables that our funders ask for, I take a deeply philosophical approach to whether this is a success. I know that there were Sahabi (companions of the Prophet) who died long before the opening of Makkah. But, they were committed to their principles and to each other as an ummah. I am able to enjoy the fruits of their labors, of so many people who came and passed long before me. I think about my work with that type of hope - that even if we are not able to decolonize this land and right the wrongs this society perpetuates, I am here as a witness.
Maybe one day people some day will ask, "What did the Muslims do?" And somewhere there might be scraps of digital recordings, even printed materials showing that there were Muslim women who marched, who rolled on wheelchairs, who wrote books, articles and social media posts speaking against what was wrong. And, they might know that we cared deeply about making the world a better place.
3. What would you like young women to learn from your work?
I would like them to know that learning happens at all levels, from the first moment of consciousness in the womb until the time when we die. I want them to know that we are figuring it out together. I hope that they take time to engage with me and my work and take the invitation to learn along with me.
For years, I have looked for learning that could be applied. Having seen people amass a tremendous amount of book knowledge, I have seen that not translate to humility. With anti-racism, so much of it is embodying Prophetic principles - positive self-identity, appreciation for diversity, intercultural dialogue, allyship and supporting justice. We have to know that learning is not just thinking, but embodying it. You only get it by doing and practice and more practice.
4. Can you briefly describe the objectives of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative and what you do to help the organization achieve them?
Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative provides training and education resources. As one of the co-founders, I brought my background in education, historical research on racial formation in Muslim societies, and even background working for startups and small businesses where I often did both administrative work and technical writing. But over the past five years, I've attended so many trainings to develop my skills for MuslimARC. We are a constantly-learning organization. Some of my areas of work include strategy direction, program development, curriculum design and just dreaming. I develop curriculum utilizing backward design or Understanding by Design. That is no small feat, as I have not seen UbD done for adult learners.
So far, we have three standardized tracks: Race Identity Series, Anti-Racism Competency and Critical Anti-Islamophobia. I organize convenings and training retreats for attendees to connect and learn from each other.
I have learned to tweet at everybody I know to raise money for other causes and for MuslimARC. I fundraise through grant writing and creating fundraising campaigns. I also spend a lot of my time technical writing and trying to convey information in easier ways, from emails, reports, planning documents and presentations.
I mentor, I write, I coach, I fuss and fight with people I love to get this work done.
5. How prevalent is racism and anti-Blackness in American Muslim communities?
It is very prevalent. Just about everyday I encounter someone with a confessional about their experience. I have seen it internalized even amongst people who say they are pro-Black. And, then there are Black people who have internalized it. Racism is part of the social fabric, and anti-Blackness is global.
Thank you @VigilantLOVEla for having me facilitate today for your #BridgingCommunities fellowship on behalf of @MuslimARC. Our #CriticalAntiIslamophobia module decenters the Middle East w/ historical analysis on the Asianess of Global Islam and Blackness of American Islam. pic.twitter.com/vQwK69y1Ld— Margari Aziza (@Margari_Aziza) March 25, 2019
6. Are there any unique ways in which Black Muslim women are impacted by racism inside and outside of Muslim communities?
Yes, there is gendered racism. I've written about how Black women are silenced and dismissed by racial tropes. For example, somebody who I thought cared about me told me I was loud-mouthed and sassy. When we don't have education or middle-class achievement, we are labeled ignorant and ghetto. When we do become educators, we are disparaged as independent women who emasculate men. Some also think we are hyper-sexualized and looking to steal other people's husbands. [I have also encountered] women of other races [with] internalized superiority.
7. What are some of the challenges you face when talking about anti-racism in Muslim spaces?
Dear US Muslims, especially you Black ones who are not 3rd culture kids, a reminder to not research issues outside these boarders or else they’ll say you’re imposing your framework. And don’t focus on your own condition, they’ll say you’re provincial or American exceptionalist.— Margari Aziza (@Margari_Aziza) March 25, 2019
Some Muslims say we shouldn't air dirty laundry, so we get a lot of pushback. I also think that there is tone policing of Black women talking about racism. The other thing is that non-Black Muslims aren't as likely to take me as an authority on a subject and will prefer one of their own chastising them. My challenge is that people need to commit to the real, difficult and long-term work. I remember when someone who was Arab wrote an article [similar to something] I wrote, and it was shared at 10 times the rate mine was. I don't get as much traction in getting my voice out there.
8. Are Muslim organizations safer spaces for Black Muslims? Why or why not?
No, they are not. They need training in cultural competency and cultural sensitivity. I started this organization because I have been witness to and been subjected to racist statements, assumptions and outright hostility. Some people try to be snarky and reveal their racism. One time we invited some people over my house. Someone asked me about scholarships for graduate school, seeing that I had earned my masters degree. A non-Black woman interjected, "You have to be Black!" Mind you, this woman comes from an affluent family, and her financial situation was no impediment to her getting her education. My house became an unsafe space because some non-Black people who lacked basic training and decorum felt comfortable saying something so reductive.
9. How can Islamic scholars, leaders and organizations engaging in anti-racism education help stem the tide of racism in American Muslim communities?
I think that they need to be more committed to either getting training through MuslimARC, which would actually be a softer landing, or they can get training through Crossroads Anti-Racism or People's Institute of Survival. I am personally in favor of them investing with MuslimARC so that we can co-create together.
10. What are some of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative's future projects?
We are excited about planning our two-day SoCal Muslim Anti-Racism Training conference, we are strengthening our membership program, finishing up the rehab on our the ARChouse in Detroit, where we hope to be a hub for organizing. We are excited about bringing on new fellows and our trainers coming out to cities across the country.