On Anger & Activism: Being Understood as Muslims by Our Allies
This is going to be crunchy.
I have been reading a lot of articles about anger in activist communities and, on the one hand, I feel like there is clearly valid resistance within those communities to the racialized or gendered stereotypes of angry activists because it delegitimizes real feelings and dehumanizes people to paint everyone the same way. On the other hand, there is a repetitive declaration that people are going to be angry and people just need to deal with it which is also fair. The point is that people want their anger understood for what is at its roots, rather than seeing it as an essentialized manifestation of who they are. And that distinction is important. At the same time, it can and often does imply a dismissal of people who don’t appear angry enough, especially when those people are white, as a sign of their privilege or lack of ability to understand.
While I won’t ever dismiss the understandable and justified anger that runs through many different activist communities (because I believe it is rooted in love for humanity and outrage at injustice), an important thing to note for allies of Muslims and people working with Muslim activists is this: we are taught that anger is a natural response to injustice and can even motivate people to take appropriate action, but it has to be recognized that, first and foremost, we are guided by the Qur’an and the sunnah of prophet Muhammad sallahu alayhi wa salam to swallow our anger wherever possible. Not all Muslims follow this or follow it well, but the guidance is there.
As Muslims, we are taught to be patient, kind, and to offer excuses when we are treated poorly, even by people who are consciously Islamophobic and calling for our annihilation. We are called on to have respect for their humanity, even if they do not have respect for ours and even when forced to defend ourselves. This is not about dismissing or permitting their actions. It is the example and way of the best of teachers from our tradition: Prophet Muhammad sallahu alayhi wa salam – the one who would smile in the face of opposition, offer kindness while others pushed for hatred, and who was forgiving where it seemed impossible for others to forgive.
We are taught to not be continuously suspicious of others and to offer the benefit of the doubt and excuses for them when someone harms us, even intentionally, as long as it does violate the laws of Allah, which then calls for the enactment of justice. Even then, we can act with mercy. We are taught that when someone tarnishes the character of another in front of us (even if in the name of critical engagement or the correcting of behaviour), that we defend them and offer a multitude of reasons and examples for why that attitude about them is unacceptable. We are taught to guide them with patience and understanding. Yes, we are taught to do the unpaid, emotional labour that many activist groups reject.
We are taught that we must never suffer from a deficiency of trust in Allah. That He has brought the greatest of tyrants down and the greatest of oppressors to our Deen and way of life. He will protect us, in sha Allah, so we must hold steadfast our practice and not give up our piety in the face of how others seek justice for themselves. This is our pious, God-conscious, love-based activism. Muslim activists must be understood on these terms. Our calls for justice will not and should not ever run contrary to the teachings of Allah and the way of Muhammad sallahu alayhi wa salam.
If you are working with Muslims and they just don’t seem angry enough for you, know that this is a religio-cultural difference between us that requires translation, understanding and respect. It should also be noted that this desire to understand and give the benefit of the doubt has to be applied to all Muslims whether they are Italian converts like me or born Muslims of colour. We are Muslim before all else. Even when you say we are not.
It does not mean you cannot come to us when you are angry – in fact, please do. Jarir ibn Abdullah relates that the Prophet Muhammad sallahu alayhi wa salam said: “Allah has no mercy for him who has no mercy for his fellows.” In our tradition, compassion and kindness should never be withheld for any reason. Caring for someone in their time of need never infringes on our right to receive compassion in turn. Another’s oppression does not take away from our own. We can all always be there for one another. This is the sunnah (way) of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.
It also does not mean we are not outraged or are not working for y/our justice. It just means that we are doing so the best ways we know how, according to our traditions and our teachers. We are taught to express and channel these feelings, even push them aside, in a manner than secular activist groups are not accustomed to, who can demand or posit anger as the social justice norm. Thinkpieces about being angry are fine but they are only one opinion or even just a few opinions.
Resisting our way of life as being too forgiving and too soft without seeking to understand where it comes from perpetuates the ignorance that we are all fighting together. Dismissing how we do things represents a dismissal of our right to exist, persist and resist according to Islam.
These accusations affect white Muslims and Muslims of colour differently. The former group can be perceived as privileged or playing into white supremacy by not being hard or rigid enough. The latter group, most detrimentally because of intersectionality and the heightened probability of being victims of lateral violence, can be seen as not yet awoken (and therefore useless and disposable) because of how they choose to treat their oppressors. Both of these are unacceptable and just because we are framed this way, does not mean that is who we are. It also must be understood that while Muslims learn from the communities we serve, we are not ultimately accountable to them. That ultimate accountability is reserved for Allah, Alone.
Finally, when someone says they are fighting for your justice and you see them doing so in the best ways they know how, it is the way of the Prophet sallahu alayhi wa salam to believe them. (And you don’t have to be Muslim to accept that.)
And Allah knows best.
On the authority of Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him): “A man said to the Prophet, ‘Give me advice.’ The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, ‘Do not get angry.’ The man asked repeatedly and the Prophet answered each time, ‘Do not get angry.’”
قَالَ رَسُولُ اللٌّه يَا عَلِيُّ أُوصِيكَ بِوَصِيَّةِ فَاحْفَظْهَا فَلاَ تَزَالُ بِخَيْرٍ مَا حَفِظْتَ وَصِيَّتِـي. يَا عَلِيُّ مَنْ كَظُمَ غَيْظاً وَ هُوَ يَقْدِرُ عَلى إِمْضَائِهِ أَعْقَبَهُ اللٌّهُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ أَمْناً وَإِيْمَاناً يَجِدُ طَعْمَهُ.
The Messenger of Allah (S) has said, “O’ ‘Ali! I advise you (in regards to something) with a piece of advice, so then safe-guard this as you shall never be devoid of goodness as long as you have safe-guarded my recommendation. O’ ‘Ali! Allah will grant the one who swallows his anger – while he is able to act out his rage – with protection and faith on the Day of Judgment whose pleasure the person will taste.”
One of the most famous narrations reported by Anas, may Allah be pleased with him, who said: “I was walking with the Messenger of Allah (saws), and he was wearing a Najraanee cloak with a rough collar. A Bedouin came and seized him roughly by the edge of his cloak, and I saw the marks left on his neck by the collar. Then the Bedouin ordered him to give him some of the wealth of Allaah that he had. The Prophet (PBUH) turned to him and smiled, then ordered that he should be given something”.
وَسَارِعُوا إِلَىٰ مَغْفِرَةٍ مِّن رَّبِّكُمْ وَجَنَّةٍ عَرْضُهَا السَّمَاوَاتُ وَالْأَرْضُ أُعِدَّتْ لِلْمُتَّقِينَ الَّذِينَ يُنفِقُونَ فِي السَّرَّاءِ وَالضَّرَّاءِ وَالْكَاظِمِينَ الْغَيْظَ وَالْعَافِينَ عَنِ النَّاسِ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ وَالَّذِينَ إِذَا فَعَلُوا فَاحِشَةً أَوْ ظَلَمُوا أَنفُسَهُمْ ذَكَرُوا اللَّهَ فَاسْتَغْفَرُوا لِذُنُوبِهِمْ وَمَن يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ إِلَّا اللَّهُ وَلَمْ يُصِرُّوا عَلَىٰ مَا فَعَلُوا وَهُمْ يَعْلَمُونَ.
And hasten to forgiveness from your Lord and a garden as wide as the heavens and earth, prepared for the righteous. Who spend [in the cause of Allah ] during ease and hardship and who restrain anger and who pardon the people – and Allah loves the doers of good; And those who, when they commit an immorality or wrong themselves [by transgression], remember Allah and seek forgiveness for their sins – and who can forgive sins except Allah ? – and [who] do not persist in what they have done while they know. (Qur’an 3:133-135)
Nakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta and sits on the advisory committee for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life. Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.