MIA, Black Lives Matter, and Identity Politics

Yesterday, MIA irked many Twitteratis by sharing some unpopular opinions about Black Lives Matter and the limitation of dissent in the United States. In an interview with London’s Evening Standard magazine, she said:

It’s interesting that in America the problem you’re allowed to talk about is Black Lives Matter. It’s not a new thing to me — it’s what Lauryn Hill was saying in the 1990s, or Public Enemy in the 1980s. Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters? That’s a more interesting question. And you cannot ask it on a song that’s on Apple, you cannot ask it on an American TV programme, you cannot create that tag on Twitter, Michelle Obama is not going to hump you back.

Interpreted generously, MIA is merely asking why Black Lives Matter has been widely accepted, at least insofar as the mainstream media has seen fit to embrace the term and even profit off of it, while the Muslim victims of the United States seem to be allowed no such privileges.

One can argue with whether anyone has been “allowed” to talk about Black Lives Matter, given the violent repression the movement has faced since its inception. One may also point to the acceptance of Black Lives Matter in some corners of the media as the modest achievement of a long struggle for black people to be given some modicum of human dignity. All of that, however, would only demonstrate how wrong MIA is. The more interesting question, as she might say, is why she feels Muslims are marginalized by the Black Lives Matter movement, rather than inspired and energized by it.

The sentiment is all too common unfortunately, a testament to how fractious organizing in the left has become. Ironically enough, those who have seen fit to criticize MIA for her comments have refused to look deeper into the conditions which produced those comments. Doing so, after all, would incriminate them as well.

It is not just MIA who feels that Black Lives Matter has been accepted in a way other struggles have not been. Some may remember the remarks of comedian Aziz Ansari’s character Dev in Master of None: “People don’t get that fired up about racist Asian or Indian stuff. I feel like you only risk starting a brouhaha if you say something bad about Black people or gay people.”

Some Muslim activists have felt their own struggles against the War on Terror and Islamophobia bereft of solidarity from people they most expected to stand with them.

An article in VICE last year documented the disappointment Muslim students felt after confronted by the anti-immigrant views of some black activists. As one Muslim student activist put it: “We saw the violence against the black community as something we should all fight against, that our parents should understand, something that affects all of us…. We expected the black women activists would feel the same in the fight against Islamophobia, but I’m not sure yet that they do.”

On the occasions when activists against Islamophobia have expressed solidarity with Black Lives Matter the responses have been less than ideal. As #MuslimLivesMatter proliferated across social media in response to the racist murders of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, some Black Lives Matter activists felt their own message was being diluted. In the words of Opal Tometi, “Not to say their lives don’t matter … but we’ve been in a society that continues to marginalize black faces, and so we don’t want to see this kind of reappropriation and co-optation of #BlackLivesMatter as a hashtag.”

Comments like these are not mere rhetoric; they reflect the attitudes with which many activists approach politics. Gone are the days when our struggles for liberation were seen as intertwined. When victory for one was a victory for all. Now, each group is seen to be fighting its own disparate battle with the aid of “allies” who are required to observe the proper decorum. It is in this context that #MuslimLivesMatter is seen as appropriation rather than solidarity; a violation of copyright rather than an embrace of the struggle for black lives. It is in this context that someone like MIA can think the struggle for black lives is somehow distinct from the struggle against a class-based racist and imperialist system.

It is easy enough to criticize MIA; even easier to mock and be outraged by her comments. It is far more productive to engage with the terrain of identity politics that forces all of us into compartmentalized factions and regard the struggle of others as other struggles rather than the common struggle of all. That, however, would require acknowledging our own complicity in this sad affair.