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. I’m probably going to get some negative feedback for talking about this. ( I already have) but given the choice of being complacently compliant, or controversial truthful, I choose the latter. So I’m going to say it anyway.
A couple of years ago, I said that this would likely happen, and it has.
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, White and Latino American Muslim converts to Islam are breaking out of the cultural molds that they were herded into in the name of islam. They are revolting against what many of them view as racism, racial injustice, and subtle anti-convert bigotry in many of our nation’s masaajid (mosques). 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 slurs, indifference, slights, being left out, put down, ignored and looked down upon by immigrant Muslims. People are recounting their experiences of having to give up their families, their American culture (nearly all of it) and their identity in the name of being a good Muslim. People have been finding out that the requirements of Islam, and the requirements placed upon them by Muslims are two different things.
The vitriol expressed by converts to Islam detailing their unwelcoming experiences in culture based masaajid, the insults to their intelligence in being discouraged from thinking, and the pressure upon them to assimilate a foreign culture in the name of being Muslim, rival those of the staunchest anti-Muslim purveyors of hate, and it’s bound to get worse before it gets better. Interestingly enough, many Muslim immigrants themselves are voicing dismay as what they see as racial division amongst Muslims living in the United States.
The good news is that more and more American Muslim immigrant communities are starting to address these issues incrementally, masjid boards and imams across the country are slowly beginning to make purposeful and courageous strides at recognition, inclusion and honest dialogue. However, this conversation is complex, scary, and revealing, and many Muslims are just too afraid to have it. It is a controversial, and sometimes incendiary conversation that evokes a lot of emotion and is not always easy to unpack.
Racism, and issues relating to race in Muslim relationships in the United States, is a tough, touchy topic. 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.
Publicly bringing up the topic of race in Muslim America can get you ostracized. When African American Muslim leaders talk about it in mixed public setting, people’s faces turn red with the; “how dare you!” look. Even Arab, Pakistani, Indian, and other Muslims of conscience who attempt to deal with the issue of race, or the treatment of Black Americans get plenty of pushback. Imams have been relieved from their positions for pushing the race issue to the forefront. Muslim leaders and organizations have been reluctant to take a direct stab against racism in Muslim America, or to even openly suggest that racist, or anti-Black sentiment exists at all in Muslim America. Some exceptions are ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America), ICNA (Islamic Circle of North America) who are trying to stick their toe in the water and organizations like the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (Muslim ARC), the Muslim Empowerment Institute (MEI), and the recently formed organization, Mosque Without Borders, who are wading in deeper. However, it is becoming clearer and clearer that converts and convert communities need to chart their on course.
I don’t relish being one who brings this up or writes about this because it comes at a high cost. 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 clear 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 Muslims have been recounting for a long time except that now, they re-tell 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 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 of the older generation 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, but they still have open slave markets in the 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 entertain racial bigotry in Muslim in America if you’re not aware. People cannot simply erase their mental image of Black people when it has been instilled in their culture for centuries that blacks are an inferior slave race with some exceptions to the rule. Even ibn Khaldoun in all of his genius concluded that the black race were little more than a dumb animals.
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.
What converts to Islam (of all races) experience is a deep sense of disappointment, a spiritual let down, and a sense of loneliness as well as embarrassment for themselves and for the ummah. 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. There is hardly anything more embarrassing than bringing 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. However, such a view is not true. Many immigrant Muslims and communities are looking for ways to deal with the racial problem we have as Muslim Americans and to their credit, it is not a problem that can be solved overnight.
What many converts are forcefully asserting 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 the immigrant Muslim community. Yet, there is still an overwhelming sense of hope, and wishful, prayerful thinking, that we will somehow get a grip on racial relations in Muslim America, and somehow turn the page of understanding. I don’t endorse the contempt, and I certainly don’t endorse reverse racism. We have to understand recent history of the Muslim world and see that there are many factors the contributed to the bigoted mentality that many bring with them from the Muslim world.
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, law enforcement, and 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 and marginalization inside of the arctic of islam. 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. Our domestic portrayal of a singular image of Muslim Americans that does not include African American, Latino, and White American Muslims is likely to continue, and if it does, the criticism will get louder and eventually 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. fortunately, we as American Muslims, are a moral community and many Muslims of all backgrounds are rising to the occasion although there is a lot of works that needs to be done.
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 goal is that eventually moral minds will prevail and American Muslims of different races and cultures will embark upon 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. In the meantime, American Muslim converts need to realize, that across the board, they essentially are on their own.
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.