Obama and the Discourse on Race in the Muslim Community

This post is a collection of ideas that developed elsewhere on blogs and in email exchanges.

Those who have mixed feelings about Barack Obama’s election are often focused on foreign policy issues, specifically Palestine. This victory has more to do with an internal change in American society, foreign policy issues. But it has everything to do with the place Black Americans have in American society. And for Black American Muslims, this also profoundly changes the defined roles we have in American society. The most famous and recognizable Black man is an intellectual and Head of State (considering the last presidency, I think it is important to point out both). The reality is, that the public image of Black Americans, and let us not forget Africans on the continent and in Diaspora, defines our role in the American Muslim community. How so? Our public image shapes the ways in which our fellow co-religionists see us. Barack Obama’s presidency inverts a number of stereotypes that many in the Muslim community in the US and abroad have about Black Americans. In much of Muslim world outside of sub-Saharan Africa, people associate Blackness with slavery and inferiority. I recognize that this might not change the fact that when I go to the masjid in America, some immigrant Muslims will assume I am uneducated, broke, and not as valuable of an asset to the Ummah as a white convert.

While his presidency might not change all their negative associations, most people never imagined that so many white Americans would vote for a Black man as head of state. It signals that we are part of the American fabric, not just waiting for the some outside force to raise us up from our undignified and destitute state. Muslim organizations that cater to immigrant communities may begin to see that it is politically expedient to align themselves with the Black community. Elected officials have to address the Black interest groups and political and community service organizations. We have two Black American Muslim congressmen, which I think is telling in light of the fact that associating with Muslims is still a political liability. Only recently have some Muslim organizations saw the importance of working to build coalitions with the Black political establishment, like the Black Caucus, and organizations that have addressed the needs and interests of Black Americans as well as other ethnic groups.

This reminds me of an event I sent to organized by ING, where I realized how Black American Muslims were rendered invisible in the discourse on Islam which was dominated by mainstream national Muslim organizations and the media. On that day I went to an ING event where the theme was the faces of American Muslim women. Although there are so many Black Muslim professional, student, and volunteer women, not one had been invited to speak. There were Arab women, white women, South Asian women, even East Asian women, but not one Black woman. Given that we are 40% of the Muslim population, I found that extremely odd and in fact insulting. They were saying, “We are just like you, Americans!” A number of organizations have marginalized Black voices in their attempts to portray Islam as an American religion. They have highlighted and celebrated white converts over Black converts, seeing the conversion of white Americans as a symbol that Islam was accepted by a mainstream American. I believe that Obama’s presidency will help show that our more backwards thinking brothers and sisters do the Muslim community a great disservice by trying to ignore the historical contributions of Blacks in America, and Black American Muslims in the Muslim American community.

Right now, the real tensions in the American Muslim community will be between those who wish to create their ethnic enclaves in order to insulate their children from becoming American and developing new hybrid cultural identities. The real tension is between those whose interests are geared more towards issues abroad and those who are concerned with transforming America into a more egalitarian society and thereby changing our policies abroad. People are already voicing expectation of disappointment even before he has been sworn in. Yes, he made a lot of problems, some will not be able to come to fruition in light of the political machine that he is operating in. This is not the same thing, or just a Black face on political power.

Obama’s victory is what can happen if we believe we can do it and work towards our goals. This is about how WE need to change things. American Muslims should be motivated to mobilize and be part of the political process in order for us to be a force to be reckoned with. For the most part we’ve taken ourselves out of the game. So how are we going to hold anyone accountable, let alone a president? The thing about democracy is that accountability is seen in the election process. Elected officials have to appease their main constituencies, as well as the interest groups that support their campaigns. The big constituencies and most powerful interests groups win out. That may not be right, but it’s pragmatic and that’s what politics is about. What lobby group do we have? Have we created any effective civil society institutions to help counteract the abuses of government? And for those few that exist, do we have a plan to support them? How many of us are trained to be on any advisory counsel or even qualified to be tapped as major advisor for policy making?

Two things seemed like a far off dream when I was a little girl: Mandela becoming president of South Africa and a Black man becoming president. Both happened in my lifetime. That leads me to imagine what types of changes can happen in the American Muslims community and the ultimate influence we can have in this society and eventually in the world scene (and not just Middle East).We need to move from ideals to move towards real action. This is our opportunity as Muslims to own this. American Muslims are largely affluent, have global ties in family and ethnic networks, a wide range of skill sets, and a country that affords us the opportunity to make the most of our material, spiritual, and intellectual assets. In light of what we do have in this country, what should Muslim Americans be doing 1 month from now? 6 months? 1 Year? 4 Years? What about in 20 years?

9 thoughts on “Obama and the Discourse on Race in the Muslim Community

  1. As salaam alaikum,

    I’ve been thinking along the same lines, about the big social implications Obama’s presidency more than even the political change. I’m slowly learning to hope again. Insha’Allah it will mean good thing for black people in this country, how we are perceived and how we perceive ourselves, and especially for black Muslims in our communities here. I recognize, though, as Obama put it in his acceptance speech, that his being elected is not the actual change, but the opportunity. He’s going to be doing big things in the White House iA politically and socially, but this is our opportunity, as in us on the ground. I am not going to take these next four years sitting down…well, I’ll be standing in the wards during Q4 for thirty hour shifts, hehe, but no…insha’Allah I’ll find some way to do my part to affect positive change in this country, in terms of eradicating some of these myths about social race, about raising the self esteem of my people, about building and further developing preexisting Muslim communities that are inclusive such that I can live my Islam as I always imagined…learning from people who are different than me in many ways, all they have to offer, joining all together in the mutual teaching of truth…

    …haha, sorry for this comment vomit, I’m just really excited. Alhamdulillah! Always praying for my President…

    ws, ~Chinyere


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  3. This is such a far reaching affair, the issue of Black Muslims in America. It is complicated by immigrants ‘having’ and disseminating the deen, along with them also possessing very ingrained prejudice regarding race. One Blacks need, the other man we could do without.

    I only wish Black Muslims (and this is beginning to happen) would begin and regulate their dawa to persons of middle class, and upper class status. This is not a religion of poverty, but AA have gotten themselves in a deadly loop of “poverty is piety.” This certainly was not the way of our Prophet. When AA get smart and begin enjoining those in power – without the nationalistic and “Black Pride” baggage which is outside of Islam, we will see that it does not matter that Barack is in office. That is no reflection upon Muslims. Rather, we will begin to gather and “have” the deen for ourselves – thus establishing an American Islamic identity unique and outside of all other immigrant groups.

    Until AA stop trying to be everything else other than black and muslim and american (and altogether and that’s enough) we will continue to be overlooked. It saddens me to see AA sisters in Pakistani, or ‘African’, or Iraqi styled clothing. To see them give up their traditional dishes in opt for learning how to make curry or biryani or stewed fish. It doesn’t strengthen their islam, it only further confuses the issue of what is from the deen and what is from one’s culture.

    We have to continue to encourage scholarship from amongst ourselves. It used to be that a community would pool all their resources just to send one person to learn the deen and come back to teach it. This is a foreign idea. Either people want to make hijra and never come back, or they come back and get so overwhelmed by the lack of knowledge that they are unreachable. Everybody needs them. Islam creates specialties. Not every can know everything and those that study are prompted to become proficient in an area of the deen. It is troubling to see that as long as Islam has been here, there are no scholars which permanently reside here, or are indigenous to the US.

    You witnessing the lack of AA muslim women is just a visible sign of such a greater problem.

    Its ok to be me. Ya dig. (This maybe a smidgen off topic 🙂 )


  4. Salaam alaikum,
    I appreciate your viewpoint. It brings up food for thought. I think some of your assertions are problematic. For example, you claim that there are no scholars who reside here.
    There is, for example, Quba Insitute:
    I am sure there are many hidden gems like Sheikh Anwar Muhaimin and his brother Imam Anas Muhaimin throughout the country. There are currently students all over studying with an intention of coming back and sharing the knowledge. Just because we don’t see things in our daily life, doesn’t mean that people aren’t trying.

    Also, you wrote:

    It saddens me to see AA sisters in Pakistani, or ‘African’, or Iraqi styled clothing.

    See, this is a pet peeve of mine. Why is everything so political about what Muslim women wear? Is an Egyptian woman selling out because she’s wearing a jean skirt? I think only narrow minded people would make that claim. I have a long blog coming about the politics of how Muslim women dress, especially all the judgment that she faces when she wears hijab, how she wears hijab and whatnot. I find it a bit disturbing that you would make a judgment about your sisters, especially if you don’t know their intentions. You find it problematic if they even rock a head wrap or some West African gear? I also think this comes from a very narrow conception of what it means to be Black. The reality is is that since there has been written record, human beings have prized cloth and items from far away places. There is a certain prestige to it, an ability to express one’s individuality by using something symbolic in imbuing that with new meanings. There are sisters whose Black identities may be sounder than yours, whose commitment to the Black American Muslim community may be deeper than yours, who decides to rock on abaya cause it just feels right that day. This is why we need to check our intentions when we are judging folks for some superficial things, in the end only Allah knows what’s in our hearts.
    BTW, I grew up on curry. I also need to learn how to make salf fish and patties. Some of us have West Indian roots and ties and that is as much part of the formation of a Black American identity as Black American Muslim.


  5. As salaamu aliki wa rahmatuallah
    My post was not a judgment of African American Muslims and it is unfortunate that you have viewed it as such.
    Take care,


  6. Hmmm,you both point to some interesting ideas.

    this issue is definitely complicated than assimilating into/appreciating other cultures.

    As one of those sisters who loves rocking a cute Salwar, a nice biryani, or lassi and trys to know the dish on the latest Bollywood film or Arab song, appropriation of aspects of other people’s cultures is not the problem.

    I am BLACK and I never forget that and I don’t think that the majority of sisters are trying to forget that by appropriating something from others.

    The problem with African-American scholars/scholars of African descent is not there dearth, but how do they gain more notoriety? especially in the Western context.

    Why don’t people learn that people like Sherman Jackson or Amina Wadud exist until college? Why aren’t they on news and radio etc. as much as the Hamza Yusef’s (although I guess he is an indegenous American) and Imam Qazwini?

    I think this points to the international/ethnic enclave focus vs. more diverse/national focus framework that Margari stated.

    That’s what I think Muslims need to be working on for the foreseeable future: reconciling these two paths. I don’t see why both can’t be done.


  7. This is a very interesting perspective. As a non-American, it seems to me that Obama’s election is tremendously important for America the country. Sadly, for America the empire, I don’t think much will change. His appointment od Rahm Emanuel, and the ‘threat’ to appoint Clinton, and his pre-election statements on Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Pakistan give me no grounds for optimism. There’s a post on my blog called A Plague on Both their Houses about this.

    I’m reading Obama’s “Dreams from my Father” at the moment. It’s rally very very intelligent. However, the empire is bigger than the man at the top.


  8. Pingback: A Cup of Tea » Blog Archive » Muslim Commentary on President-Elect Obama

  9. salam alayku; I have noticed that it is now fashionable by both scholars and the general people to call for political involvement in society by Muslims. Strangely, they have limited that involvement to ‘voting’. What about political activism at the social and community levels?
    Lastly, how can we benefit from any type of political involvement without a unified community (as jamaah)and one leader (Amir), or a council of all leaders of communities with a rotating leader etc?
    I don’t see how there can be any gain for a minority as we are to benefit if we are not unified, and speaking with one voice and with one head? Allahu ‘alam!


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