Multiple Narratives and Contestations Over the Righteous Struggle

According to census data and information provided by mosques and community centers, Muslims in America make up .5% of the total population in America. Keeping it conservative, that equals just under 2 million. Some estimates go as far to say that there are 5 million Muslims in America. I tend to stay on the conservative side because I don’t believe that boasting in numbers serves any cause.

Still, 2 million is a lot of people. And there have been multiple and contradictory narratives about American Islam. Who has the right to speak for American Muslims? Who are the real Muslims? Who will define the agenda for American Muslims? Last year, a huge debate exposing the immigrant Black American divide rocked the Muslim American community and we’re still reeling to recover from it. And when I speak of community, I talk about it in the broadest sense. I am not making any claims that Muslim Americans are a monolithic group. I’m not trying to be a downer, but the reality is that Muslim Americans do not vote in a unified way, have various political and economic interests that often conflict with their co-religionists, nor is there a central authoritative religious head that guides us all. Rather, this diverse group of people from various socio-economic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds with different political and social orientations comprises a community because we believe that There is no God but the one True God and that Muhammad is his prophet. Therefore, we share daily patterns of worship, rituals of birth, marriage, and death, etc. Mosques are also diverse, which contributes to a greater sense of community. And there are some national organizations that do work to defend Muslims’ civil liberties, foster community development, and create a forum for interfaith understanding.

I’ve written in the past and have been interviewed about the silencing of Black American Muslim voices in the past decade. Some national Muslim organizations have been critiqued for their failure to include issues of interest to Black American and other indigenous (I sort of cringe to use that word because I do have Native American relatives who might take umbrage with its use) Muslims such as white American and Latino/Hispanic Muslims. However, in many ways I don’t like how the public conversation has developed in the past year. I am troubled when some Black American Muslims use the same rhetoric and language that Islamophobes use to critique mainstream Muslim organizations dominated by first and second generation immigrants or those organizations that have an internationalist outlook. I am also bothered when I read or hear immigrant or second generation Muslims dismiss the tremendous sense of marginalization that some of us Black American Muslims have experienced in their communities.

I know that some of my Arab and South Asian friends are bothered when they are called privileged. This is not an easy pill to swallow because in American identity politics the only privileged people are supposed to be White Americans. However, there are many different types of privileges and some groups are more privileged than others. And in one community, one group can be dominant and marginalize or economically exploit another. The reality is that in America, there is fierce competition over resources. This competition has led to some voices getting silenced in deciding the agenda for American Muslims.

CAIR reports that the ethnicities of mosque participants can be broken down to 33% South Asian, 30% Black American and 25% Arab, 3.4% sub-Saharan African, 2.1 European (Bosnia, Tatar, etc.) 1.6% White American, 1.3% South-East Asian, 1.2% Caribbean, 1.1% Turkish, .7% Iranian, and .6% Latino/Hispanic.

Within mainstream media, the Muslim American experience is about the immigration and assimilation experience. I don’t see much press coverage or interest on converts or the multi-generational Black American Muslim families. You have some sunni communities dating back to the 60s. I don’t want to dismiss the struggles of Asian American, white American, and Latino/Hispanic American Muslims struggles. White American Muslim converts seem to be the darlings of the community, Latino/Hispanic Muslims exotic curiosities, and East Asian or Pacific Islander Muslims occupy some weird zone and most people can barely even believe they are Muslim.

If we Muslims in America believe in democracy and enjoy the privileges of democracy, then we need institutions that allow for more open participation in decision making. At the same time, democracy entails protecting the rights of minorities. I think before we start a discussion about exclusion or inclusion, we need to start to ground our understanding sociological, historical, and political data. I am not claiming I’m doing that in this article. Rather, I used a few statistics to make a point. In the past decade, there has been increasing integration between Black American Muslims and immigrant Muslims. But that integration has led to in some ways to that silencing that I’m talking about. And this had led to a divide in mentalities between Muslims. It is not so much ethnic anymore, but rather, Muslims in America whose primary political interests are foreign policy issues and those Muslims in America who want to focus on domestic issues and establishing Muslim communities in America. I personally don’t see them as exclusive categories. But it is jarring for converts to all of a sudden be forced to adopt some psuedo-marxist third world liberation ideology the minute they take Shahada.

This brings me back to the convert issue. According to the CAIR report, nearly 30 percent of mosque participants are converts. I think it is important to discuss the three major categories of American Muslims: 1. American converts, 2. immigrants, and 3. the children of converts and immigrants. There is a need to develop programs in order to meet the needs of these three categories. The challenging thing for us converts is that when we do convert, we often sever ties with traditional means of networking that assists in social mobility: the church, fraternities and sororities, masonic lodges, networking events and happy hours, etc. The conversion process can alienate converts from different avenues and so they do look to their co-religionists in hope of reconstituting and reconfiguring new networks of social support. Immigrant and second generation Muslims often have their ethnic networks in tact. They just have to navigate the treacherous terrain of assimilating without losing their Islamic identity. Converts, on the other hand, are challenged with becoming Muslim without losing their American identity. At the same time, the way they experience fellowship is through service in the Muslim community. But at the end of the day, they find that few of their “brothers” support them when times are bad.

A lot of converts burn out and become disillusioned after they become Muslim because they have the expectation of full membership in the Ummah. They are not making unfair expectations. These are universal ideals that are in Islamic texts. Plus, you won’t have to search too long in any Islamic bookstore to find a pamphlet on brotherhood in Islam, making promises of charity, trust, mutual respect, and support. And immigrant Muslims have also been inspired by the civil rights and black nationalism, which has some intellectual linkages with Third World liberation. Part of the anger and backlash you see from some American Muslims is that they feel like some of their co-religionists have fell short on their promises. Black American Muslims who were struggling to put themselves through school or raise a family using no riba became distraught when their immigrant co-religionists happily circulate money in their family and ethnic networks, but refuse to build economic ties with converts, let alone consider intermarriage. Immigrant Muslims are now distraught that Black American Muslims have started to say they’d rather vote for a Zionist who will promote universal healthcare rather than march in the streets and divest from Israel. Honestly, I think if you surveyed most Black American Muslims, you will find that they still sympathize with Muslims overseas, but they have developed a political pragmatism. I think Barack Obama’s election and the reaction to it is testament to shifting attitudes about politics. Even for upwardly mobile Black Americans and Black American Muslims, we are deeply aware of our historic legacy and our responsibility to make a positive contribution to our families and neighbors.

I am not trying to force my own narrative down anyone’s throat. Nor am I arguing that we should have just one narrative. Rather, I am saying that we have different interests and each Muslim in America has an obligation to follow his/her calling. If you are moved to join the Peace Corps in the Moroccan Rif, by all means, do your thing. If you want to start an interfaith dialog in your local community, do your thing. Or if your big struggle is putting yourself through school so you can take care of your momma, grandma, and be a positive example for your family, do your thing. For once, American Muslims who see their fates tied to the future of America are beginning to talk. I think we can come together and find common ground, but that takes real dialog. Some have been hurting over the past 5, 10, 15, 30 years as they existed on the margins. And yes, when you have been hurting that long, you are going to have some words that are going to sting. It may even get nasty. But if we are going to deal with the divide, I think we need to listen to how we have hurt each other and work to rectify the pain we have caused each other so that we can move on to the next challenge.

Islam 101

The Mosque in America: A National Portrait

7 thoughts on “Multiple Narratives and Contestations Over the Righteous Struggle

  1. This is an awesome post!

    I’m sure many of us can see ourselves in it (I’ll be the first to point the finger at myself—thank you for putting it out there). I had no idea that the convert numbers were so high (then again it makes sense since most of the civil rights era black Muslims would be considered converts—- wonder how that study defines the term).

    At any rate, while I think I agree that we need to have dialogue about the historical/sociological factors that make up the Muslim community, but I think that’s not something that we can wait and do in a step by step fashion. It needs to happen in-tandem with efforts to gel the whole community. Otherwise, there will be no real Muslim political voice/group/voting block etc.

    Every other group/voting bloc has its varieties with competing interests, yet many of them manage to come together for a common cause (blacks for Obama and Latinos on the immigration issue I guess would be examples). Why can’t Muslims do the same without moving past the grievances first?

    It wouldn’t hurt the organizations that represent Muslims to put together an agenda that is concerned with Israel-Palestine and Police-brutality in a meaningful way. Discussion and dialogue is important but as my piano teacher used to say “The train is moving on, and you still at the station!” and if that happens, if Muslims are still at the station, then their political relevance becomes defunct. (At least the idea of it is still strong, even if it is attached to a particular stereotype of who a Muslim is)

    I don’t know, maybe all this is to say that the inclusion-exclusion paradigm is at the very heart of the issue. And so, it has to be the springboard for any dialogue.



    I am BLACK MUSLIM, one of many who share a deep love for all Muslims. It is the Arabinizing of Islam that gets under my skin. If you do not walk , talk and dress like an Arab you are not practicing TRUE ISLAM. I was once told by an Arab ‘that if I did not speak Arabic ALLAH would not hear my prayers’. I kindly replied that if the god he is referring is so dumb, shallow and uncaring he is a god I do not want or need!

    What about all these REAL MUSLIMS, who sell pork and liquor to the non believing community? They would not do this in the land of their fathers. What about the lack of respect shown to Black People?

    As of yet I have not heard anyone of these people offer a word of condolences for the participation and profit that their fore parent reaped on the mind,body and soul of Black Folks.

    Yes we are in a uneasy truce. The Muslims natural born of this country do not owe the immigrant Muslim community anything but AS SALAAM ALAIKUM.


  3. Assalaamu alaikum,

    Speaking of narratives, these were my thoughts after attending the MANA conference in philly last weekend. I posted it at the muslimmatters blog, but it’s relevant to your post as well. You raise important issues, alhamdulillah.

    My opinions/observations on MANA’s role, the black Muslim movement, and the comments above:

    One must bear in mind the baggage various Muslim subgroups have.

    Most immigrant Muslims to the US/Canada have an attitude of overt condescension, subtle patronization, or a tendency to co-opt the egalitarian spirit of Islamic brotherhood/sisterhood, while maintaining a “not with my daughter/son” attitude in their hearts and lives.

    I think racism and the ummah has been so blogged to death by Muslims, that we no longer have the attention span for hearing more.

    A brother at the MANA convention mentioned how almost 50% (or more?) of America’s Muslims (whether you go with the 2 million, or 6 million figure, Allah knows best) ARE of African-American origin. This really should not surprise anyone – given the history of the civil rights and black political movements in the 20th century alone. Philadelphia has generations of Muslim families. “As-silsila al-qawm aswad,” if you will (forgive my bad Arabic).

    Now, lest anyone ask, “but were they really Muslim?” one should inquire how a Muslim is defined to begin with – given current sociopolitical contexts. Were families at the time of the Mihnah where Imam Ghazali and Imam Juwayni al-Haramayn were on the run, where Hanafis and Shafis were fighting till blood spilled, questioning the Islamic authenticity of their neighbors and fellow townsmen? Were those who opposed Imam Ahmad for upholding that Qur’an is created, “not really Muslim enough?”

    If history is a sheikh, then we have much to learn from him.

    MANA is run by Imam Siraj Wahaj, someone who has tirelessly dedicated himself to the upliftment of Muslims. Now he may not attend those gatherings where people complain about the high fundraiser surcharge, or whether the Biryani is cooked to perfection. And that’s ok alhamdulillah – because Muslims NEED people who are eager for khidma (servanthood). Too many people chase positions of leadership and fame, and do NOTHING when they sit in those chairs.

    So for non-black Muslims to sit and pontificate whether the aqidah of those ‘kallus’ is sound enough for the ahlussunnah position as outlined on their SunniPath link, while they munch on the last plate of baklava at 2am in the morning, somehow strikes me as pathetic and out of touch with reality.

    Sh Hamza Yusuf was once interviewed about the Rihlas and Zaytuna’s future (disclaimer: I am no supporter of either, nor am I publicizing with intent to appraise either). He basically said, any organization will rise and remain as long as the people within it are committed to the cause – and that one should not dependent on personality cults or charismatic leadership alone, to carry the torch.

    This has been a real problem, in my view, with many Black political movements in the US – Islamic or otherwise. Many await the next Martin, Malcolm, Marcus, Malik, or whomever. It’s in clear view whenever you take a look at the pews and the chorus in many Black churches, stirred to a frenzy by a firebrand preacher. Then everyone goes home, the spirit fizzles, and it’s back to mindless sinning and distraction again.

    This ALSO remains a problem with the current Muslim dynamic of MANA/ISNA/RIS conferences. It is not much different from the financially robust evangelical preachers, who are popular with contemporary Christians.

    The fundamental vacuum is that of genuine Islamic leadership. Until the day when it arises, the ummah may remain scattered, divided and leaderless. Allah strengthen us, and may we pray that Qur’anic du’a – O our Lord! Make our spouses and children the comfort of our eyes, and make us leaders of the God-conscious!


  4. Salaam alaikum Ghazelle Du Saahra,
    I think you make some important points. But I think that most Muslim leaders are in consensus and solidarity with Palestinians. I also think they are against racial profiling and police brutality. But what they haven’t developed is a systematic approach to dealing with social inequality and political violence domestic and international. Not to compare with Catholics, but the Jesuits were against the Iraq war on principle that there was no just war. In many ways, this is the type of principled engagement with politics we need to have. We can’t on one hand use Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch reports to criticize Israel, but then turn around and dismiss reports coming from the same organizations in Sudan. At the same time, we should be concerned about the well being of human beings in general, which means we should be paying attention to what’s going on in the Congo and Zaire, as we do in Palestine and Iraq. When we understand how many of these conflicts have been feuled by resource extraction by Western companies and and that our economic policies have also led to economic disasters in many developed countries. International and a number of American companies finance private armies that commit atrocities, destroy the environment, fund and militarily back autocrats and dictators who rob their countries blind, perhaps we can see that we need to reconsider America’s foreign policy as a whole, not just on issues related to the Middle East. I am interested in this issues for humanitarian reasons, not just political or ideological.

    Salaam alaikum Abu Darr,

    You are so on point. When I get time to breath, I want to write a piece on new models of community leadership. I have talked to a number of Muslims, bloggers and non-bloggers a like, who have problems with the cult of personality. Muslims are trying to model community development along the lines of the evangelical church, minus the effective programs and influential lobby. We need real community leaders who are servants. I’m so not down for the lecture circuit imams, nor am I into hitting up lectures and talks as entertainment.

    There is a vacuum of leadership, and folks are waiting for the Mahdi before getting it together. What I’m saying is that we need to think about new models of leadership. We need to start asking different things from our imams. We need to focus on real human interaction and leaders who are teachers and spiritual guides. They need to be in touch with their members. I think the rock star imam is doing us a disservice.

    But don’t think that people’s tolerance for hearing about racism and exploring possible solutions has been diminished by the blogosphere. In fact, most Muslims who refuse to listen don’t read blogs much. I think that having honest exchange requires change. And that is what people are resisting. Also, very few people want to admit that they are complicit in something or benefit from a system of inequality. I’m not as much trying to force my perspective on anyone else. But I do think it is important for us to understand the implications that these patterns have for ourselves, as well as our children, and therefore the future of the Muslim American community.

    I’m definitely interested in your take on MANA. I was abroad last year and clearly stuck on the West Coast this year. But I know a few insiders who are also point out the shortcomings of the big conference events. Perhaps we’ll see some changes. We can only pray that Allah purifies our intentions and guides us on the right path.


  5. Wa alaikum Margari,

    Ok, I understand what you meant more clearly now and I agree with you on that. You are certainly right that the Muslim community needs to be concerned about issues that affect humans period. And the blind eye to Muslim on Muslim atrocities is not cool either.

    My point was, though, that everyone is against innocent women and children being killed anywhere. It is sad and unfortunate and you would have to be a pretty awful individual not to think so.

    But it does come down to action. There is a difference between being against something in principle and taking a forceful stand against it. I am talking about something like a Muslim organization sponsored protest against what happened to John Bell or against Darfur or as you said any of the abuses in the Muslim world (for immigrants) not a pocket of them but an institutionalized effort, this I think is what can usher in real change.

    And the same in reverse for Black Muslim orgs/communities maybe it’s the ones that I know, but I don’t notice too many chocolate brown faces at anti-Israel rallies.

    This, (I think) comes back to the inclusion/exclusion discourse 

    Snap, snap to you and Abu-Dharr on the personality leadership tip. It could definitely be a problem. I would condemn those “preachers”/speakers and not just those who follow them. With leadership comes responsibility so if you are going to bask in the attention, you should work for that community, particularly is you are a religious or pseudo religious figure.


  6. Subhallah, how on point you are sis! All I know is that I’m tired of singing the “one Ummah” song. As both myself and sister Aaminah Hernandez discussed, I am not with the unity cries when unity means conformity. Unfortunately, so many times when Muslims speak about unity it means we all must submit to someone else’s cultural, religious and personal paradigm (whether it’s Arabs, Pakistanis or some other immigrant group.)

    I’m meeting more and more BAMs who have stopped going to the masajid, conferences and other community events because they’re tired of the b.s. I’m one of them. I’m actually getting involved in the non-Muslim organizations that cater to my community.


  7. Pingback: Multiple Narratives and Contestations Over the Righteous Struggle at Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

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