[This article is part of a six-person roundtable entitled “African American Muslims and the Black Freedom Struggle.” Click here for the introduction by Lindsey Stephenson and links to responses by Zareena Grewal, Abbas Barzegar, Mansa Bilal Mark King, Aminah B. McCloud, and Sohail Daulatzai. The initial question posed to the roundtable participants was: African American Muslims have been involved in the black freedom struggle for over a century, however their participation is often overlooked or generalized. How have they engaged with some of the important questions of the movement such as: the extent to which the black freedom struggle was a national or an international one; whether the struggle is ultimately about civil or human rights; and the means by which freedom was to be achieved? Is religion in fact a relevant cleavage within the black freedom struggle? Have African American Muslims represented a unified block? Finally, what African American Muslim experiences contribute to the ongoing debate about civil rights and human rights in the United States and abroad?]
African American Muslims have fallen quite heavily in the camp which sees the Black Freedom struggle as international. Certainly, Malcolm X/El-Hajj Malik Shabazz set the tone by acknowledging the similar experiences of oppression as well as connections of ancestry and faith that should unite African and Muslim freedom fighters with African American freedom fighters. That spirit was not specific to Malik Shabazz, nor did it die with him. It is well known that as COINTELPRO undermined activist groups like the Black Panther Party and SNCC, some members fled to African countries with revolutionary leadership. These included places like Guinea, Algeria, Uganda, Tanzania, and Ghana. At the time, these countries had leaders who shared this vision of the freedom struggles of Third World peoples being linked.
If you ask African American Muslims whether they want to be treated with fairness and justice by the laws of the land, nearly all would say yes (though they may offer some additional demands). This means that they support the basic goal of a civil rights agenda. Similarly, I think that if you ask African American Muslims whether they think it is important for all human beings on earth to be guaranteed certain basic rights, like self determination and freedom from oppression, nearly all would say yes. That means that they support the basic goal of a human rights agenda. So, I think most actually support both. It is just the baggage of politicized language, and some of the details that make people seem to be supporting one while rejecting the other.
And then there is the very prominent voice of African American Muslims who emphasize that the first connection between us all is the human connection. They really emphasize the “Bani Adam” idea, and in doing so they are making human rights fundamental. I want to say that most do, but we don’t have the survey data to make that kind of definitive statement.
Today, I hear a lot of emphasis being put on building and owning businesses, telling our own story, saving our families, educating our own children, and building Muslim communities in the physical and institutional sense, while participating in the political and economic life of the broader society. However, there are still those African American Muslims who dislike too much emphasis being put on race. Some emphasize being Muslim only, and they discuss the cure for all social issues in strictly religious language by strictly religious communities. For them, implementing the five pillars of Islam, a particular vision of shariah, and practicing aggressive da`wa is enough to cure all social ills, including racial inequality.
I think it deserves mentioning, though, that African American Muslims have been a group to historically emphasize that if one is subjected to undeserved violence, then one has the right to respond with violence in kind. That said, in recent years, I have heard a lot of emphasis being put on the merits of patient perseverance and forgiveness for your enemies, too.
Also, African American Muslims embrace a wide full range of options when it comes to choosing allies. Some African American Muslim groups may still create an atmosphere that almost guarantees Black exclusivity, though I do not know of any group leadership which officially requires this anymore. I would remind people, though, that in his last days El-Hajj Malik Shabazz/Malcolm X talked about this from a developmental perspective. He envisioned a day when Black people would be strong enough, and non-Black people purged of anti-Black racism enough, to build alliances on an equal footing. Today, a lot of young Muslims cross racial lines in alliance-building. However, I hear a lot of people noting that while African American Muslims have been willing to support causes in “Muslim Countries,” there has been insufficient willingness by other Muslims to support the Black Freedom Struggle.
Is Religion, In Fact, a Relevant Cleavage Within the Black Freedom Struggle?
Yes, there are religious divides in the Black Freedom Struggle. From what I can tell, though, the biggest problem is not between Black Christians and Black Muslims. These two groups now largely relate to one another like Protestant and Catholic Christians. They may view each other as theologically misguided to a degree, but the open warfare between them has largely subsided. The main cleavage that I see is between a segment of the Black Nationalist and Pan-Africanist wing of the movement and Black Muslims.
A segment of the Pan-Africanist, Black Nationalist, and African Folk Religion communities subscribe to Orientalist/Islamophobic views of Islam and Muslims. These three communities overlap to a large degree, though many in the former two groups are secular Marxists, Atheists, etc. But I find that I can rarely attend a gathering where these groups predominate without there being some verbal attack on the conflated imaginary that is “the Arab religion of Islam.” And, in my experience in these circles, there is often no differentiation between Muslims who are Arab, Persian, Desi, etc.
When you read (or listen to talks by) central voices in these circles, like Chancelor Williams and Dr. Ben Jochannon, you find a racializing of “the Arabs” as White enslavers, and of Islam as the religion used by “the Arabs” to enslave African people and colonize African lands. Or you find the implication that “the dark skinned Moors” are “the real Arabs” and that other Arabs are “fake.” Thus, some people in these circles want to either denounce African-descent Muslims as traitors, or save us from a largely imagined “White Arab” mind-control scheme. Alas, when it comes to Muslims in and around the Sahara, and what we crudely call salafi-wahhabi circles, they are not as wrong as I would like for them to be. Sherman Jackson discusses Black Orientalist scholars in his book Islam and the Blackamerican.
On the Muslim side, many African American Muslims will limit the emphasis on race in addressing social issues. As I said above, some insist on solving problems by invoking a mythically simple life of “just” following Qur’an and Sunnah. Others are a little more flexible, but would still deifying Blackness, Black people, or exclusively Black concerns when defining the struggle. Similarly, African Folk Religion communities would be seen by a lot of African American Muslims as idol-worshippers.
Despite all of this, African Americans still work together in the struggle. The Muslim professors based at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are a great example. Beyond our schools, Karima Al-Amin’s interview reveals that Maynard Jackson actually helped with the relocation of Imam Jamil Al-Amin to Atlanta in the 1970s.
Have African American Muslims Represented a Unified Block?
Not as far as I know. But there have been efforts to unify, and those continue.
What African American Muslim experiences contribute to the ongoing debate about civil rights and human rights in the US and abroad?
African American Muslims tend to be well aware of the ancestral links they share with people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. At the same time, African American Muslims tend to also be aware of the way Islam creates a connection with fellow Muslims anywhere. They go on Hajj and Umrah. When they see Western militaries and corporations involved in overseas adventures, they can ask their friends and children who have lived there if we did not live there ourselves. They can ask fellow Muslims who are from there. They can see the people on T.V. and in film as fully human. They can see their own story in those of others. So, when African American Muslims tell people what they think about the rights of people in a given African, Asian, Caribbean, or Latin American country, they are often coming from a different experience and perspective.
Also, the African American Muslim journey back to Islam, itself, produces a wide range of commentary. In some areas, they actually flip the entire discussion. For example, African American Muslims insist on a serious engagement with the evidence that African Muslims came to the Americas almost 200 years before Columbus, and that Africans in general came earlier. Acceptance of a pre-Columbian African presence in the Americas can have serious ramifications for political discourse on the indigenous people of America. Another example is polygyny. There is a widespread understanding of human rights that renders polygyny as inherently oppressive to women, and that taints the whole notion of polygamy itself. But many African American Muslims see polygyny as a valid part of the restoration of African American families to health. Race-based slavery, Jim/Jane Crow, and the prison-industrial complex destroyed our families. So, the right to practice polygamy becomes a legitimate strategy for achieving Black Freedom. But most African American Muslim women are not going to let this discussion happen without serious attention being paid to the proper pre-conditions for polygyny, and they will not be alone
Zarina Grewal notes that the artist, Chase-Riboud, has been challenged for choosing to focus on Malcolm/El-Hajj Malik instead of Martin Luther King, Jr. There is no question that seeking to draw attention to African Americans or Muslims, in their entirety rather than cherry picking what is comfortable for the power elite, tends to elicit push-back. It is often even the case among Muslims that, when you insist on expanding the conversation so that it takes Black folk into account in a substantive fashion, people are resistant. Similarly, in many African American circles one may feel less than welcome for insisting that the Muslims in the family, organization, or population be acknowledged in a meaningful way. One hope of mine is that, like Daulatzai’s, McCloud’s, and Grewal’s work, the After Malcolm project will play a key role in undercutting some of this. Paying due attention to African-American Muslim critiques of both America’s foreign and the domestic policies will only help the country come closer to living out its professed creed. Not pretending that you have “covered the Muslim World” in a talk that ignores Muslims of recent African ancestry can push Muslims, their allies, and even their antagonists to reconsider much of what they say. And African American Muslims are increasingly recognizing that they have continuity with the Muslims of Africa North, South, East, West and right in the middle of the Sahara. The story and contributions of African-America are deeply impoverished when the Muslims of the group are left out. This is well-documented through the 1960s, and we hope that the After Malcolm project will provide more resources for documenting it in the 1970s and beyond.
[This article is part of a six-person roundtable entitled “African American Muslims and the Black Freedom Struggle.” Click here for the introduction by Lindsey Stephenson and links to responses by Zareena Grewal,Abbas Barzegar, Mansa Bilal Mark King, Aminah B. McCloud, and Sohail Daulatzai.]