How the response to Delta airline’s Islamophobia normalizes anti-Black violence in Muslim spaces.

By Isra Amin Ibrahim

Last week, an Arab-American Muslim, Adam Saleh, was speaking Arabic on a Delta airline plane. Allegedly, this frightened and angered the white passengers, and Delta had him removed from the flight.

A recurring reaction from many non-Black Muslims to the viral video Saleh posted in response is a swift defense of Saleh, but the nonchalant attitude towards his “discovered” history of anti-Blackness. The most cited example of this history is his use of the word “Abeed,” the Arabic slur for “slave,” to refer to Black people.

Unlike many, my fury with this situation is not Saleh being kicked off the plane or even that his story was possibly a hoax. I am angered that this is yet another indication of the pervasive normalization of anti-black sentiment within the American Muslim Arab community.

It is important to recognize that Caucasians oppressing non-Black Arabs is akin to “white-on-white” crime to the global Black person who recognizes both groups as anti-Black oppressors. How whiteness manifests its violence is important to understand, however. If the white Muslim or Arab, like Adam Saleh, can be evicted for speaking Arabic, I can only imagine the reaction my 15 year old, 5’8” Black brother, Mohamed, would warrant. Would the white passengers have read him as a Muslim boy or just a Black man? Would non-Black Muslims even consider him a legitimate target of Islamophobia given his Blackness? Or are these questions simply an indication of the very real erasure of Black Muslims in Muslim spaces and conversations around Islamophobia?

I can empathize with injustice wherever it occurs, but it is necessary I am mindful and strategic about where I place my Black labor. My Muslim white Arab brothers and sisters are complicit in anti-Blackness that is just as egregious, if not even more so, than Caucasian racism. The people who would have me convinced that we are “brothers and sisters in Islam” because we share the same language have participated in the most violent ways of normalizing anti-Black ideas.

Black Muslims and Arabs are constantly questioned on the legitimacy of their Islam and demanded to put up labor while learning to tiptoe around the violent gaze of their whiter counterparts. The irony of casual anti-white humor that implicates them also is lost on the Arab Muslims who partake in it. Statements from my “well-meaning” non-Black Muslim sisters like, “my family really likes you, but they wouldn’t want you a part of it [because you are Black]” are not lost on me.

It seems while Ahmed and Fatima can see Becky and John’s anti-Blackness, they become completely dismissive of their own complicity. How dare you call me your sister, claim my work as only “Muslim” and participate in the intimate violence of my existence? Black Muslims cannot exist for the service of the Muslim community only as Malcolm X quotes or evidence that “Muslims have been here since slavery, too!”

The position of the Black Muslim or Arab is a paradoxical one. How does she reconcile with the question of “solidarity” while both the Arab and Caucasian communities still continue to oppress and violate Blackness in every way? Simply put, we don’t. The Black Yemenis are called “Al-Akhdam,” the servants. They are the “untouchables” at the bottom of the social ladder. The Black Iraqis are delegated to the most menial jobs and do not participate in public life. The Black Afro-Palestinian is called “Kushi” by Israelis, a derogatory term, but also “Abeed” by white Palestinians, and Black people are still referred to as “Abeed” all over the Arab world. The white Arab here functions just like the white Caucasian. Their anti-Blackness is what they have in common.

I am required to fight against Islamophobia not because I should have my labor at the service of non-black Arabs, but because I understand that, exactly like any other white supremacist project, it is the Blackest of the Black who will suffer the most. If the United States of America should launch another war in its “War on Terror” expansion, then we should recognize it is the disposable Black Muslim or Arab in these white supremacist Arab societies who will be exploited as proxy war soldiers, caretakers, and protectors of their Arab counterparts.

It is only through the constant and conscious recentering of Blackness in culture and religion, through the understanding that Blackness is constantly under threat, that all people can find liberation. Blackness cannot marginalize as it is all-protecting. Saleh is simply but one person, and as is often the case with non-Black people, he is centered way too often in important conversations and spaces. I will not allow his anti-Black history to be dismissed as simply “problematic,” or as having nothing to do with what allows the Islamophobic violence he experienced but affects Black people the most to continue in the first place. For me and many other Black Muslims or Arabs, he represents the entirety of our violent erasure. And he is not my ally.

Isra Amin IbrahimIsra Amin Ibrahim is a Sudanese-American and a junior on a pre-medical track at FIU. An active participant in the FIU community, she works to create interfaith events at FIU. She co-founded FIU’s first Muslim Chaplain Office of Multi-Faith and serves as a council member for Students for Justice in Palestine at FIU. Ibrahim aims to foster in her peers a greater awareness of the diversity of Muslim people and an understanding of how intersectionality is pivotal in promoting social change. She is also a member the Quantifying Biology in the Classroom (QBIC) program.

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  1. Mercy!

    This essay captures so many complexities that it makes the head spin. This is pure genius.

  2. thank you for sharing this insight – I wonder what you mean by your use of Caucasian? are you referring to people from the Caucasus region?

  3. I posted this comment somewhere else but I also wanted to post it here. .

    There is a lot to unpack here. These are my thoughts. I do not feel that this is a particularly nuanced or strong piece on the topic but I do see it as a necessary starting point. Anti-Blackness needs to be addressed, discussed, and eradicated in non-Black Arab and Muslim circles.

    Ibrahim breaks down Arab society into a Black/white dichotomy. Arab is a very broad term used for a very wide variety of people. Some of which whom are most definitely Black/dark skinned. Although many don’t identify themselves as a part of the racial Black concept that Black-Americans do. The possible reasons for this should be addressed. Race in Arab society is a large discussion. So I’ll make a few brief points. There are many Arab that would not identify as either white or Black. This article presents no complexity on that topic. Does Adam Saleh consider himself white? Should we consider all Arab white because the US census does? Are Arab socially perceived as white? Or for other reasons? There are many questions to be asked about this.

    The author asserts that what Arab suffered under was “white on white crime”. I find this idea extremely questionable and unsupported by my understanding of the history of European colonization in the Arab world.

    She also says Arab anti-Blackness is equal to or worse than European (she uses the word Caucasian) anti-Black racism. I don’t know if this is the way most Black people feel or if there is any sort of consensus on the topic in the Black community. I hesitate to agree with this statement but I’m also not sure what her basis for saying this is. It could be a reference to Arab slavery. Or the language she refers to that Arab use toward Blacks. I’m not sure but to me the statement lacks complexity or an easily identifiable basis.

    She also asserts that Black Arabs would be expended in another war on terror by Arab countries. I wouldn’t hesitate to accept this as a feasible possibility considering the way Arab states work. I don’t know if it’s based on previous actions or a theory based on Arab anti-Black racism. I will do research into military enrollment of Arab countries but often there is no statistical data that distinguishes Black Arab from non-Black Arab in Arab countries.

    These are points I will have to think about long and hard for myself because they are uncomfortable. I for my own sake have to think critically about her comments and their implications. Nonetheless this is a KEY topic. Anti-Blackness needs to be addressed and discussed and eradicated in non-Black Arab and Muslim circles.

    • I concur with Aneesas remarks. I find the article very caterogical and strangely aggressive for someone who works with interfaith (and intrafaith) issues. Islam is not a race, by the way, nor is Caucasian. No doubt there is racism from Arabs towards blacks, just as Persians (muslims, more often than not) look down on Arabs. Do not forget also that the Middle East was ruled by the Turks (another race??) for – what, five centuries? The world is not simple.
      To add to the fun, whites also look down on whites. And Asians on Asians (Japanese vs Koreans, or Japanese vs whites). No-one is innocent in this game. But I don´t think carving up the world in even more categories is very helpful.

  4. While commenting on Aneesa´s comment, I was reminded of the history of slavery in Africa. Slavery precedes the white conquest. To some extent, the white slave traders exploited existing mechanisms (and exacerbated them). African tribes enslaved each other as part of warfare. The Arab slave trade, from the West coast of Africa, across the Sahara, also predates European slave trade and was responsible for the oppression of millions of individuals (the European slave trade, by the way, moved a larger number of people to South America than to North America; and Brazil has major issues with race to this day). This is not intended as an apology for any form of slavery.
    I suppose one could argue that humankind has progressed, despite everything.

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