Meet the Somali Woman Revolutionizing Our Social Justice Conversations

Asha Noor is a racial justice and human rights activist, peace building and conflict resolution specialist, educator and writer. She serves as the Advocacy and Civic Engagement Specialist for the national TAKE ON HATE program. Noor has worked both domestically and abroad in conflict zones with marginalized communities, including women, afro-indigenous groups, refugees, religious minorities and trauma victims.

Muslim Girl: What goal did you want to achieve with the “TAKE ON HATE” Program?

Asha Noor: I wanted to address Islamophobia and racism both from individual actors and the way that it is embedded in our structural system through education, organizing, and political action to change people’s minds and try to get them more involved.

What specifically were you doing to combat racism? 

I’ve done workshops with people from an array of ages; from high schoolers to retirement age, and everything in between. There is also a wide range of institutions I have connected with by hosting events and programming online campaigns.

Does your work aim to be proactive or are you dealing with people who have already become victims of racism? 

I think the work I do is proactive and reactive. We try to do long-term programming that addresses these issues before any backlash does does occur. Our long term program is very proactive, but we do also have a rapid response source were if something does happen, we equip the community with the ability to respond, organize, and resist. An example of a proactive approach that I was involved in was when I collaborated with “Take On Hate” and “MuslimARC.” I worked closely with Margari Hill and Namira Islam to bring anti-racism education to the city of Dearborn.

For me to grow up here and realize why my home country was facing the hardships that it was, helped me understand imperialism, colonialism, and white supremacy for what it was. This made me fixate on exploitation and injustice around the world.

We hosted a six month race and identity series, where we tried to enrich the community on how to address implicit bias and explain how structural racism works. A more reactive approach that took recently happened after the Muslim ban took effect. I partnered up with mentors like Khaled Beydoun and Abed Ayoub and spearheaded a town hall meeting that got 2,000 people in attendance in a short amount of time. We were looking to get the community organized and mobilized to know what to do if they get affected by the ban.

What inspired you to want to speak up for people who could not for themselves? 

I am Somali American and my family fled the war in 1991 when I was nine months old. Having the experience of being uprooted from a country because of conflict and having to start over coming here, really instilled in me the values of justice, freedom, and liberation. For me to grow up here and realize why my home country was facing the hardships that it was, helped me understand imperialism, colonialism, and white supremacy for what it was. This made me fixate on exploitation and injustice around the world. I realized at a very early age that are two sides to every story, and you won’t ever get the favorable one for people who are of color.

I read Malcolm X’s autobiography in high school, and then studied Political Science in my undergraduate studies. I also organized Muslims in Black communities, which helped bring me to what I studied in grad school: conflict analysis and resolution. So I think all these things, the history of my family and what we went through and these experiences, led me to do what I do.

Were there struggles you encountered in your work as you were aspiring to achieve a certain goal? 

Yes, all the time. My parents raised me to have humility. So if you were doing something good for the community, you were not to speak of it. But I’ve noticed that in this industry, if you are a Black Muslim woman, you can not afford to not speak about it. Why? Because the people in your ummah who are supposed to be supporting you, are the very ones who are erasing your contribution. Sometimes, it’s intentional and sometimes, it’s unintentional.  They do it to make themselves look better and to take ownership of your work. So now, I have to unlearn something that I was raised to do, to be able to take credit for something that I worked hard for and get recognition for it. If I am not fighting for my own contributions, it is for my Black Muslim brothers and sisters, though.

Would you say there is a conflict of acceptance of Black Muslims in the ummah? 

Yes, absolutely! Even if we are African diaspora immigrants, we’re positioned in this racial caste. Black people are casted as the lowest and that is reflected in our ummah. I don’t think we have escaped that just because we’re Muslim. In my community, I was fortunate enough to have other Somali Americans grow up with me, but we still felt this other-ization.

Always remember that [Black] contributions are great, expansive, and invaluable to the Muslim experience and to the history of this world.

My family was very prideful of our culture, our heritage, and our knowledge of Islam, so I do think there was a dissonance for me because I heard things at the masjid that centered Arab contributions but not so much African contributions.

What advice would you give to a Black voice being silenced?

Always remember that our contributions are great, expansive, and invaluable to the Muslim experience and to the history of this world. Have knowledge of yourself and speak true to power. For non-Black Muslims, you should honor, respect, and highlight Black contributions instead of just taking up space within a movement that is meant for all of our liberations.

When arguing the significance of Black Muslims, do you think Bilal (RA) is a good companion to refer to and explain his first contributions to Islam? 

I would use Islamic history, but I would not limit myself to just discussing Bilal (RA).  I think he is too often tokenized within the Muslim experience as the Black Muslim, but there were so many.  There’s a really good book called “Centering The Black Narrative; Black Muslim Nobles Among The Early Pious Muslims” by Dawud Walid and Ahmad Mubarak.” This book re-centers many Black Muslim companions, followers, and scholars that were really instrumental in preserving the history. So you can go all the way back to that time, even though I don’t think we should have to, but even as Black Muslims, we need to know this knowledge because it is our history.

Do you think Black Muslims are doing enough to represent in the movement? 

Black Muslims are the movement! We are at the forefront. You go to any protest in D.C., and you will see brothers in the nation and sisters in the nation. There are also African Diaspora that are forming a forefront for refugee and immigrant rights. We’ve been here. We are doing more than enough. We are being erased and we are being ignored. We are also being written out of our movement.

Have you ever wanted to give up? 

Sometimes, I do want to give up organizing Muslim spaces. But I will never give up organizing, that is a part of my identity – passion. Sometimes, I have to retreat and organize within non-Muslim spaces. But I have come to a point in my life where I have created this sisterhood and brotherhood of Black Muslim scholars, thinkers, and academics, that I feel accepted. Also, when we celebrate our accomplishments and each other, it empowers me and my desire to never give up.

Have you been in a situation were you were the only Black Muslim in the room? 

All the time, and I will acknowledge it too. I’m somewhat seen as a renegade in the Muslim community. I am honestly just tired of this intentional erasure and marginalization, that I call stuff out. I’ve been in meetings where I was the only Black person in the room and I would call out the organizer. I would say, “Hey, good job making the room reflective of the ummah, because you failed.”

When you question people, you really get to a deeper level of why they believe what they believe to be is true. Once you get to the core, you can dismantle and deconstruct lack of understanding or flawed assertion.

During your toughest days, what ayahs in the Quran help you get through it? 

In Surah al-Ankabut it says “Do the people think they will be left to say we believe, and they will not be tried?” Also, it says, “Do people think they will be left alone because they say they believe and not be tested,” which is also recorded as an authentic hadith. I think of those often when I am having a difficult time or difficult day. It makes me think that we are all on this Earth to be tested, and just because I am a believer doesn’t mean that my life will be without hardship.

How do you counter-argue a opposing viewpoint? 

I would try and meet people where they’re at. My best tactic is to question why they view things that way. When you question people, you really get to a deeper level of why they believe what they believe to be is true. Once you get to the core, you can dismantle and deconstruct lack of understanding or flawed assertion.

Have you ever turned someone over on their views? 

Yes! Random people who have come to my programs throughout the years have said, “Wow, you really changed my mind and I see things in a different way.” Sometimes we lose patience because it’s frustrating that Black women have to educate you on your ignorance and teach you the errors of your ways. But on the other hand, it is a beautiful sight to see that you have transformed people’s ignorance into liberation and understanding.

What goal would you like to achieve for 2017? 

I am transitioning into being a program director, directing safe spaces for an outreach program. I think this will be a larger platform for me to impact more people in the Muslim community and a broader community around these issues. I intend to continue to address the issues of racism in the community and systemic racism in institutions.

What is the last message you would like to give and let people know about? 

Honor, cherish, and respect Black Muslim women. I have learned so much from them in recent years and when I was younger. I think their continuous erasure and oversight is not an isolated situation, it is systemic and a trend that needs to stop. I would love to see some of the sisters that influenced me like Margari Hill and other Black Muslim women leading the movement intellectually and in every which way possible. I look to all Muslim women who are movers and shakers, but I have a soft spot for the women who pave the way for their sisters and contribute beyond measure.

I think they are often overlooked and their contributions are immeasurable. Also, a lot of Black activists would not be where they are at today without Black women, like sister Betty Shabazz and Sister Clara Muhammad. I don’t think many of these activists and public figures would be anywhere in sight without Black Muslim giants like Malcolm X or Muhammad Ali.

Lastly, I would just like to say, spend a lot of time learning and spend a lot of time listening and reflecting on yourself and the implicit biases that you might hold. Also, when in doubt, follow the lead of a Black woman!