African American Muslims have a role to play when it comes to the widespread Islamophobia (an irrational fear of Islam) that is prevalent in the West. The unfortunate fact is that some Americans see Muslims as a disease to be rooted out. However, as is the case with immunisation, the “disease” can sometimes also be the source of a cure.
African Americans have faced derisive stereotyping before – including public name calling and a complete exclusion from basic human rights. Such behaviour created a marginalised cultural category and position in a pathological culture. And African Americans have struggled for generations to overcome this categorisation.
So, when some in the United States negatively and aggressively stereotype Muslims as many people once did African-Americans, it provokes a latent hostility in the United States, conjured up by certain talk show hosts and others who use such labelling to garner support with their audiences, and reinforces an ethos of opposition or aggression.
Shortly after September 11, 2001, a woman wearing Muslim clothing while grocery shopping in San Gabriel was attacked by a Caucasian woman yelling, “America is only for white people!” This was reminiscent of the treatment of African Americans at “Whites Only” lunch counters during the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. Such incidents demonstrate the extent to which Muslims have become the new ostracised minority in our nation, how they are being “Other-ised” in the present atmosphere.
The solution? Nothing less than a cultural revolution.
Cultures are born out of the problems faced by groups of people and the solutions they seize upon. The schema for cultural development follows this pattern:
First, a group of people faces a special problem, such as racial or religious marginalisation or misunderstanding. Second, those who possess the requisite instincts follow their natural impulses and propose a solution; for example, to demonstrate for basic human rights. Third, successful results of implementing the solution, such as the introduction of new civil rights legislation, lead to the fourth step, the formulation of an articulated ideology – the Civil Rights movement. Fifth, that ideology takes shape as an institution, and finally, a culture reinforcing that ideology is born.
All human beings live within a culture, whether by choice or by default. One culture can only be replaced by another culture, either through migration or transformation. While some would say that the West is becoming increasingly Islamophobic, it is understandable that Western culture is afraid of losing its current identity and having it replaced – as it is sometimes perceived – by Arab, Asian or African cultures identified as Muslim.
As an American – who happens to also be Muslim – I can certainly understand. In America, all Muslims are free by law to practice Islam unimpeded, regardless of whether they are Sunni, Shi’a or a member of any other Muslim sect. Unfortunately, the growth of Islamophobia undermines that freedom.
Ironically, the solution to Islamophobia in the United States could very well come from African American Muslims – those who converted to Islam beginning in the Civil Rights Era, rejected the character traits and cultural mores that American culture had imposed upon the “ex-slave”, and are playing a significant role in American society.
What role can African American Muslims play?
First, in order to mine this group for the cure, there must be more interaction overall in order that we may get to know one another – as Americans and as Muslims.
Second, the key is to gain insight into the world-view that governs the African American Muslim disposition and actions. Namely, the fact that true African American Muslims hold sacred the absolute equality of all human beings and embrace the timeless, universal values of the Qur’an – values which disapprove of jealousy, vengeance and prejudice.
Highlighting the unique African American Muslim experience should lead the western world to ask, “If this is what Islam can produce, even from a people whose culture was so utterly decimated, then what in Islam do we really have to fear?”
The rights and entitlements afforded African American Muslims are unparalleled anywhere in the Muslim world today. African American Muslims, at one time arguably the most dehumanised population in history, are productive and patriotic American citizens who play a role, through their social and political participation, in shaping American society.
African American Muslims are therefore in a unique position to embrace such American symbols as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States while still striving to defeat Islamophobia.
African American Muslims are a sign of how Islam can take a vanquished people and turn them into productive and active participants who help to shape their political and social environment. They are a people that have faced discrimination and fear before and are equipped to play a significant role in pushing back against a new incarnation of cultural discrimination and misunderstanding – Islamophobia.
Faheem Shuaibe is a national leader in the African American Muslim community, resident Imam of Masjidul Waritheen in Oakland, California and director of the Mohammed Schools of Oakland. This article is part of a series on African American Muslims written for the Common Ground News Service.