By Imam Luqman Ahmad
In his book “Race and Slavery in the Middle East (1990)”, Bernard Lewis suggests that the topic of race in Islam is so “highly sensitive” that it would be “professionally hazardous” for young scholars to embark on it.
There is a quiet, but momentous revolution going on in the heart of Muslim America that will potentially change the moral trajectory of Muslims and Islam in the United States. This revolution is not a violent, armed insurgency. There is no name for the movement. There are no flags, no slogans and no particular leader. There are no planned attacks against anyone, no public demonstrations or protests, and to date, no calls for boycotts. But it is a revolution nonetheless. However, this is a different kind of revolt.
There are no street marches, no sit-ins or sit-downs, or picket signs hoisted over the shoulders of converts as they circle the local mega mosque. No one is talking about boycotting anything and there are no specific demands anymore. It is as organic a revolution as there ever was. This is a low decibel revolution that doesn’t really seem like a revolution at all in the conventional sense. Nevertheless, there is a revolution going on in Muslim America; it is growing, and before it is over, it will likely reverberate into every corner of every mosque in the United States.
Black and White American Muslim converts to Islam are revolting against Arab and South East Asian Muslims in a non-stop fusillade of verbal indignations, recriminations and resentment appearing all over social media. People are recounting in vivid and often granular detail, their personal experiences of marginalization, racial bigotry, indifference, slights, being left out, insulted, ignored and looked down upon by immigrant Muslims. The vitriol expressed by converts to Islam detailing their unwelcoming experiences inside of many of the nation’s multi-million-dollar mosques, rival those of the staunchest anti-Muslim purveyors of hate, and it’s bound to get worse before it gets better. I guess you can call it the 21st century ex-slave revolt.
Racism, and race relations in Muslim practice, is a tough, sensitive topic. So touchy that not too many people are willing to bring it up publicly. In June 2015, journalist Zeba Khan wrote a very good article in Aljazeera about the problem entitled; “American Muslims have a race problem”, and in June 2002, almost 15 years ago to the day, I wrote an article entitled “Racial Politics in Muslim America”. The responses in my inbox were overwhelming. It was like I discovered something. However, it wasn’t that I discovered anything new; it was that I dared to speak publicly about race relations in Muslim America. Many convert and born Muslims from different nationalities applauded the piece and thought it was an honest depiction of reality. Others, nearly accused me of treason for bringing the subject up in a public forum, especially as it was within a year of 9/11.
Talking publicly about race and racism in Muslim America will get you ostracized. When Muslim leaders talk about it in mixed public setting, people’s faces turn red, and Imams have been relieved from their posts for pushing the race issue to the forefront. Few Muslim organizations have been willing to tackle the issue of racism in Muslim America with any zeal or serious effort except for anecdotes, or historical mentions about the Black Muslim presence.
Some notable exceptions are the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (Muslim ARC), the Muslim Empowerment Institute (MEI), and the recently formed organization that I founded, Mosque Without Borders. Failure to call this monster out is what it partially fueling the anger, the moral indignation and the revolt by Black American, as well as White American and Latino American converts to Islam. Born Muslims of Arab, East Asian, and African decent are revolting as well.
Many American Muslim converts, despite experiencing what they perceived to be racist tendencies from immigrant Muslims, used to brush it off as simple misunderstanding, a mistaken inference, a cultural glitch, or the unintended consequences of migration to an unfamiliar environment. Maybe he didn’t hear my salaams although I’m standing two feet away from him. Maybe they didn’t think it was patronizing to ask me if I know how to make wudu, or if I heard the Bilal story, or if they asked me am I fasting and it’s the middle of Ramadan, or if I am a Muslim and I’m sitting in the masjid wearing a thobe with a kufi on my head. These are the types of stories African American Muslims have been recounting for a long time except that now, they relive their experiences on social media and other platforms where it gains traction. People are feeling empowered to speak out about what they consider a moral catastrophe.
Just a decade and a half ago, it was virtually unheard of for an African American Muslim to speak openly about racism or racial disparagement in the American Muslim community aimed at Blacks, even though it is no secret that African American Muslims have always been treated as a sort of a second class, inferior Muslim. For a long time now, there has been two distinctly different Muslim Americas. People talk of disappointment, pity, and disbelief that we have come as far as we have regarding race relations in the United States, only having to revisit it, in what seems like a Jim Crow era of Muslim America.
Many people who emigrated to the United States were born during the time where the enslavement of Blacks was still practiced in their born countries. This is not to disparage any particular nationality they still have open slave markets in south Libyan city of Sabha, so if you just got here from Libya, it’s not too difficult to look at a Black American and see “slave” or ‘abd’. I’m not justifying it of course but I’m pointing out how easy it is to be a racist Muslim in America if you’re not aware. A person cannot simply erase their mental image of Black people when it has been instilled in their culture for centuries that Blacks are inferior slave race with some exceptions to the rule. Even ibn Khaldoun in all of his genius concluded that the Black race was little more than a dumb animal.
African American and White converts Muslims are largely invisible in most of the national television coverage about American Muslims, and for 30% of the population, that’s a pretty significant omission. Whenever there is mention of American Muslims in the media, the reference is made to immigrant Muslim communities, indigenous American Muslims are almost completely ignored. More often than not, the people and organizational leadership, who claim to speak on behalf of all American Muslims, who determine domestic Muslim priorities and who define which issues are deemed most important, are political leaders, and board members of national Muslim political and advocacy organizations who are almost always immigrant Muslims.
Arab, and east Asian Muslims do not control the local convert economy. They do not employ new Muslims in any appreciable numbers, they don’t control education, criminal justice, the courts or the housing market. Immigrant Muslims do not govern the socio-economic factors that affect the lifestyle, access to services, or standard of living for converts. If that was the case, it would be a different kind of revolution going on. What immigrant Muslims control are the nation’s larger masaajid, the nation’s influential Islamic organizations and major advocacy groups, where Blacks are summarily excluded from power, position, from policy making, from influence and from messaging.
What Black and White converts to Islam experience, as well as many Muslim immigrants, is a deep sense of disappointment, spiritual let down, and embarrassment. It’s become more and more difficult to sell an Islam that is egalitarian in theory, but racialized as practiced on the ground. Imagine growing up in America knowing that many White Christians and Jews marched on Washington, and stood side by side with Blacks in their fight against racial bigotry and then enter Islam and you can hardly get a salaam from your own co-religionists. Where you are invisible. There is hardly nothing more embarrassing than to try to bring your friend to the mosque that you attend, knowing that he’ll be treated with indifference but if you were Christian and took him to a church, they would embrace him. Convert Muslims are not asking for or demanding respect anymore. It seems to have gotten past that. Many are starting to look at the Muslim immigrant community as incapable of change, incapable of enlightenment.
There were such demands at one time but now, it has gone way beyond that. What many converts are saying now is that they need to have their own masaajid, their own schools, their own communities and forge their own futures as Muslim Americans. They are saying that they need to deal with their own issues, tend to their own culture, develop their own islamic scholarship. In fact, it’s gone beyond even that. Converts Muslims, White, Black and Latino are expressing open abhorrence and contempt towards Arab and south-east Asian Muslims. They’re speaking of resentment, disdain, aversion. Just look at the threads on social media.
Race is the single most divisive issue in our nation, the growing perception amongst converts is that the immigrant Muslim community is taking the religion backwards at a time when we need to be moving forward. A sort of civilizational suicide. They control the majority of the nation’s mosques and Muslim communities where racial disparity and discrimination is most felt. Yet, they are afraid to look at themselves in the mirror. Everything is someone else’s fault. This is becoming the consensus.
African American Muslims have come to expect racism from society, from White people (although the situation has improved), from our government, from many of our institutions. They expect that when they are pulled over for a traffic stop that they were targeted and will be treated differently than a White person. They expect they will have problems moving into some neighborhoods, that expect that they will pay more for auto insurance, that their schools will be less funded, and inferior in quality than schools in White neighborhoods. African American Muslims have come to expect that. However, what they did not expect was to find racism inside of the brand new million dollars plus mosque. They didn’t expect to be treated with indifference, and disrespect by Muslims coming from abroad. They didn’t expect that. However, by and large, that’s what they got, and now they are revolting.
Marginalizing the convert community does not seem to be anywhere near it’s ending; we’ve got quite a way to go. Future attempts by immigrant led organizations to portray a singular image of Muslim Americans that does not include African American, Latino, and White American Muslims will probably continue, but won’t go without commentary and criticism and the criticism will get louder and eventually will make its way to the mainstream media and then, it’s going to be messy. That’s just my own prognosis.
Americans of conscious have come too far, and have sacrificed too much to settle for a racist Muslim America. No one owns Islam, it is the religion of Allah, and He has declared that we are all equal except by taqwa and we are morally obligated, all of us, to strive for these ideals.
It’s not about Black power either; overblown Black pride is just as insidious as overblown White pride or overblown Arab pride. African American Muslims who believe that they are entitled to some spiritual preference because of their skin color, are just as deluded as White, Arab, African or Asian Muslims who believe that their skin color or ethnicity makes them better. The religion of Islam is championed by people of all colors, ethnicities, and lineages, and the best of them are the ones who have the most taqwa.
The hope is that eventually moral minds will prevail and American Muslims of different races and cultures will launch candid, intrepid conversations that will lead to greater understanding. Understanding will hopefully lead to collaboration and collaboration will give us a richer vocabulary of options to address some of the problems facing Muslim America, and for that we may need to see this revolution through to the end.
[Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad, a Philadelphia native, is a graduate of Omdurman Islamic University, and the son of converts to Islam. He is a writer, a researcher and Imam of the Islamic Society of Folsom, in Northern California. He is a former executive committee member of the North America Imams Federation (NAIF), and the CEO of ‘Mosque Without Borders’, an organization that address Muslim sectarianism. He is also and the author of the new book, “Double Edged Slavery “, a critical and authoritative look at the condition of African American and convert Muslims in the United States, and the book: “The Devil’s Deception of the Modern Day Salafi Sect “, a look at the ideological underpinning of modern Salafist extremism. He blogs at imamluqman.wordpress.com, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]