Being A Good Ally

by Margari Hill

The standard meaning of allies in English entails individuals or groups joining together for mutual support. The terms of those agreements may shift depending on the cause. Often, people will label themselves as allies or advocates, act in solidarity or build coalitions for a mutual cause. There are social justice activists, scholars, and bloggers who have critiqued the use of ally.

However, the reality is that all social justice projects entails some type of collaboration with various groups with differing and sometimes conflicting interests.

One of the greatest challenges to Muslims addressing Islamophobia is that we are divided as a community. Even some of the approaches to combat Islamophobia has marginalized Black American Muslims. This has led to a dangerous tendency to deflect blame or culpability on either the victim of anti-Black racism or assign it to the system of white supremacy. My hope is that we go beyond blame or complicity, by focusing on our own tradition which emphasizes responsibility.

As Muslims, we are each others’ allies, as Allah subhana wa ta’ala says:

The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those – Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.

Surah Al-Tawbah 9:71 Sahih International

The Arabic word used for wali here, “awliya” is plural for “wali.” Other translations say friends, but most tafasir (pl. for tafsir) would state that wali is much deeper than just friendship. Wali comes from the word al-Wilayah, meaning the willingness to take responsibility, manage, to be the authority, or administer something. While there are other words for ally in the Arabic language, the above verse reflects the corresponding Islamic concept of ally. It has profound meaning, both spiritually and sociologically.

It is profound spiritually, because it deals with our eternal state, our souls. The meaning of ally is profound sociologically because the concept of ally developed before the development of the state, when the only social support was either your patron or your kinship ties. Children and orphans, as individuals who are not in the position to advocate for themselves and defend themselves, need walis. Likewise, people from weaker clans depended upon the advocacy and protection of more powerful clans. People used their influence to help and advocate for others, such as a powerful patron of a newly freedman.

The Islamic concept of wali is more than an advocate. This relationship is a trust from Allah. This is the basis of our multi-ethnic alliances in MuslimARC, the basis of our work in challenging racism within the Muslim community. At the same time, drawing from the Islamic concept of wali, protecting friend and ally, we must consider our role as allies in anti-racism.

We must support the disenfranchised, and intervene and speak on behalf of those who need our support.

What type of behavior does a good ally engage in?

  • A good ally uses their influence, their time, and their means to help assist more marginalized members of their community. This may entail unpacking racism in the ally’s own community. A good ally responds to the needs of more marginalized members of their community.
  • A good ally recognizes his/her advantages in life. Asserting that you are not privileged is one sure way to inflict emotional harm to others who are more marginalized.  A protecting friend will avoid erasing the experiences of those who have been disenfranchised by leveling socio-economic differences, or denying advantages of access to cultural capital (language including Arabic) or support from social and ethnic networks.
  • A good ally recognizes power inequalities and privileges in his/her interactions and seeks to mitigate their effects. Privilege and power inequalities distorts our ability to empathize with those we see as less powerful, and this is especially the case when there is a clash of interests in a situation. Anti-racism work requires constant self evaluation. In our efforts to help others who are more marginalized, we have to guard ourselves against arrogance and self-righteousness. Good allies are careful to not put into place the same power dynamics of the institutions we criticize.
  • A good ally will not put an undue burden upon more marginalized members of their community. This means that they do not expect more marginalized groups to do the heavy lifting in tackling anti-racism. Being a good ally requires paying attention to whether marginalized groups are bending over backwards to accommodate fears of offending an influential ally.
  • A good ally recognizes when they are getting a seat at the table just for the sake of their identity alone. Lip service is not enough for good allies. Like everyone else who struggle against racism, allies need to get in the kitchen, help with meal prep, clear the table, and wash the dishes. Allies have to remember that they are not special guests, rather that we are all in the same house.
  • A good ally listens and changes his/her behavior in order to not inflict harm. When a less privileged member of your community makes an observation about your behavior you may respond emotionally or intellectually. At the core of our angry reactions is ego or If someone from a more marginalize group within the Muslim community says you are acting privilege chances are that you are.

Sincerity in allyship entails a lot of self evaluation, stumbling, and finding new approaches. As Muslims doing this anti-racism work, we must be careful to check our intentions and to not do this work in order to inflate our own self importance. We must be open to be humbled, ask for forgiveness, and give it readily. We must speak truth and be honest with ourselves. Anti-racism work is about putting knowledge into practice and transforming our lives so that we can reshape our world. So with that in mind, let us blend the wisdom of both Western social justice and anti-racism work and Islamic traditions so that our faith can be a positive force for change in our communities.


Sources:

  1. 10 tips for Being a Good Ally: http://www.reyes-chow.com/2014/01/10-tips-a-good-ally/
  2. Mia McKenzi 8 Ways to not be am ‘ally’: http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/06/20136178-ways-not-to-be-an-ally/
  3. Study: More Privilege Means Less Empathy: http://bigthink.com/Mind-Matters/study-more-privilege-means-less-empathy

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