That there needs to be a conduit between America and the Muslim world for better communication is an understatement given the tensions between the two cultures. The American Muslim community is composed of two distinct groups – indigenous Americans and their children, and immigrants and their children.
There is a feeling among the indigenous Muslims that they have been mostly overlooked, omitted and ignored in the role of building such a bridge. On one side, immigrant Muslims and their children refuse to recognise the existence of American Muslims as representatives of American Islam, just as Americans refuse to recognise their presence as Muslims. However, as the largest single ethnic group of indigenous Muslims, African-American Muslims, seem the best-equipped and well-placed to bridge the widening gap between America and the Muslim world.
African-American Muslims have roots in America that are centuries old and, more importantly, a history of social and political participation in the 20th and 21st centuries through their families and the general black community. They have participated in and sometimes even led organisations and movements during the Civil Rights Era, such as voter registration drives, Feed the Children campaigns and inner city programmes for the poor. Some of the current elected and appointed officials across the nation come from African-American Muslim families.
Though the American government has rarely considered African-Americans worthy of having a say on foreign policy, when appointed, they have proven to be up to the task. The arena of African-American work has largely been on the domestic scene, with normal cycles of success and failure.
African-Americans as a whole, and African-American Muslims in particular, have made much of the immigrant Muslim comfort possible. Beginning in the late 1950s, African-American Muslims began making name changes, introducing Arabic names to the general community. They also started demanding that federal prison officials provide halal (permissible according to Islamic law) meals, and permit daily prayers and Friday services – in effect, putting Islamic practices on the federal landscape.
By the 1970s, African-American Muslim women were settling lawsuits about the right to wear the headscarf in professional positions such as medicine, nursing and pharmacy. Many had been involved in making communities aware of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which provided visas for immigrant Muslims.
Simultaneously, African-American Muslims have been living in and visiting the Muslim world for half a century. Some have extensive familiarity as former students in the Middle East while others have chosen to act as ambassadors to introduce the Muslim world to American Muslims and vice versa. Still others have built African-American communities abroad where children spend summers in the United States and the school year in the Muslim world. Many African-American Muslims speak some Arabic, and some are fluent in both language and culture.
Yet, racism and a prioritisation of the immigrant voice over that of the indigenous has thus far prevented their notice as prime candidates for intercultural communication or advisors on Muslim cultures.
African-American Muslims are invested in both their country and their religion and have proven as much on numerous occasions, especially since September 11, 2001. Their families are not just Christian; they have Jews, Buddhists, and practitioners of various African traditional religions in their families. Their family religious adherence could be through inter-marriage or ancestry, producing an ongoing and organic inter-religious dialogue. Their intimate knowledge of religions and cultures outside of their own definitely makes many candidates for building bridges.
What is patently clear is that a conduit between America and the Muslim world is a necessity and needs facilitators who are conversant with both cultures. Critical in this endeavour is the recognition by Americans that African-American Muslims are legitimately both American and Muslim. They are bound in many ways to the ethos in which they were born, and are determined to be Muslims that respect their religion and their country.
They have much to offer that does not compromise either their American or Islamic heritage, and seek the best of both.
This potential needs recognition to be actualised. In fact, African-American Muslims have been pushing for that recognition at every opportunity. On radio stations their voices are heard navigating the political waters with sensitivity and acumen. On blogs their voices are also heard negotiating highly sensitive issues, like Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, the situation in Darfur, and increasing US-Iran tensions.
They are there, and their willingness has been demonstrated. Let’s not waste a unique and ready-made resource.
(Photo: Diana Lemieux via flickr under a Creative Commons license)
Aminah Beverly McCloud is the director of the Islamic World Studies Program at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. This article is part of a series on African American Muslims written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.