African-American Muslims: Left Out of the National Conversation on Islam
FEATURE STEPHON JOHNSON & OROBOSA IGBINEDIO, NEW AMERICA MEDIA | Sep 6, 2010 | 12:03 PM
“We have to be able to decode what’s happening and realize that this is religious intolerance on one hand, and it’s [also] good ol’ red-blooded American racial and ethnic bias on the other hand,” said Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid, sitting in his office at the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood Inc. in Harlem.
A controversial nationwide conversation has sparked following the proposal of a Muslim-themed community center two blocks away from Ground Zero. Those in opposition harbor the national pain of the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 nine years ago and feel it is insulting and insensitive to the memory of the near 3,000 people who lost their lives. On the other hand, religious freedom is decreed in the Constitution, therefore, developers of the center at Park 51 have a legal status to build wherever they please.
This conversation has brought protestors from both sides to the street to express their views. It has brought about political lobbying and campaign strategies in order to stir the emotions of those both in opposition and in favor.
Meanwhile, a Time magazine poll published August 19 shows that 25 percent of people in the United States believe that President Barack Obama is a Muslim and only 26 percent of people are in support of the construction of this Muslim community center.
Many in the mainstream media have failed to acknowledge that the proposed building will not simply serve as a mosque but as a fully equipped community center with a swimming pool, culinary school, art studios and other features.
Furthermore, another mosque, the Manhattan Mosque, stands only five blocks northeast from the site of Ground Zero; Muslims have been worshipping at this location since a year prior to the World Trade Center’s construction.
In the Pentagon, which was also subject to a terrorist attack on Sept. 11, there is a non-denominational center where Muslims are able to pray throughout the week and hold services on Fridays.
But despite the protests and the vitriol directed at the proposed mosque (and Islam in general), Abdur-Rashid sees something missing when it comes to the national conversation: African-American Muslims.
“The first thing we need to do is decode some of the language,” said Abdur-Rashid. “The first language that has to be decoded is “Americans.” That really means “white Americans.” That’s who’s uptight about this. It’s opposition that’s occurring in different parts of the country in reaction to the construction of mosques. It’s not just Park 51 in Lower Manhattan. It’s in Milwaukee. It’s in California. It’s in different parts of the country.”
But Abdur-Rashid also detects something more than a religious angle to the protests. “The opposition that is coming from certain segments of the White American community is not just tied to the building of mosques. There’s a race angle, an ethnicity angle as well as a religious angle,” he said. “Ethnicity wise, it’s not just Arabs. It’s Arabs and southern Asians. Southern Asian immigrants, according to all of the studies done over the past 15 to 20 years, are the largest group of Muslims in the United States. Then African-Americans are second and Arabs are third.
According to a study done by the Pew Research Center in 2009, concerning the population of Muslims in different countries, there are just over 2.45 million Muslims in America (0.8 percent of the population). When broken down to ethnicity, a Pew study conducted in 2007 states that 35 percent of all American Muslims were born here. Of that 35 percent, 20 percent are African-American. So why aren’t African-Americans included in the national conversation on Islam? The answer, according to Abdur-Rashid, is two-fold.
“The way that this whole issue is playing out is the result of what I call a failed strategy on the part of Arab and southern Asian Muslims to be accepted into American society or assimilated into American society and a successful strategy on the part of the status quo [and] ruling class on the other hand.” Abdur-Rashid believes that the failed strategy of Arab and southern Asian Muslims was in not promoting a dialogue with African-American Muslims once they arrived in America, especially after the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Immigration Act of 1965.
“An important part of their assimilation strategy has been to put an immigrant face on Islam in America,” said Abdur-Rashid. “Many of the immigrants who have come here have been financially well off. This has enabled them to found influential national organizations as they pursue a strategy of empowerment. All immigrants want to be empowered; all immigrants want to be part of American society. They’ve worked to put an immigrant face on Islam in America.
“As these immigrants have come here, two things have happened. One is that their goal has been to assimilate into White America, since we all know there are two Americas. And the America that these southern Asian and Arab immigrants have strived to assimilate to is not the America you and I are sitting in right now,” said Abdur-Rashid. “In doing this, the fact is that they came to this country and, for the most part, ignored the presence of African-American Muslims. [They] made no attempt to link with us, work with us, dialogue with us.
“Up until the past couple of decades, when you said Islam and Muslims in America, people have always thought about African-Americans. All of the famous Muslims in America up until this decade have been African-Americans who have had a tremendous impact on American society. Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. The list goes on.
“It’s failed not because these same Muslims had ill intent towards African-Americans; it was because they didn’t know the territory,” Abdur-Rashid continued. “They underestimated the underbelly of American society and the role that racism toward people of color has always played in American society. After Sept. 11, their artificial white privilege was revoked and they just became another kind of nigger in America. And the status quo started treating them like that.”
The vitriol aimed at Muslims in the United States unearths the height of “Islamophobia” and ignorance of a nation that prides itself on being cosmopolitan. So far, government officials such as New York State Gov. David Paterson have explained that there have not been any discussions about relocating the center to state-owned land as a compromise, as that would impinge on religious freedom and the legal rights of the developers. Relocating would indeed encourage further controversy and promote the very ideals that America aims to abort.
And according to Russell Simmons, that would also be cowardly.
“I’m disappointed in everyone, Harry Reid and the rest of the Democrats,” said Simmons. “I’m shocked at the media. There’s ignorance on all sides. Twenty-three percent of this world’s population is Muslim. They’re a peace-loving people. What we’re doing is creating more tension.”
Simmons, a hip-hop and business entrepreneur who’s also the chairman of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, spoke to the AmNews and stated the need for those who have been victims of intolerance to stand up and defend the community center’s construction—unless they side with the opposition as well.
“I think the Blacks, the Jews and others who don’t stand up who have had similar experiences…shame on them,” said Simmons. “And to let someone have this misguided anger? We wouldn’t let people act that way unless it was in our hearts as well.”
“Muslims did not attack the World Trade [Center],” said Simmons. “I’m sorry that there are so many in America who feel the way they do.”