Am I Just a Muslim?

While my heart is at home, some things right now seem more real to me than some of the things that are preoccupying my friends and loved ones.   I am not saying that I’m not interested in this historic moment. There is something amazing about a Black man making it this far in a presidential election.  But, the lack of nuance in media representations of race and gender in the presidential election is not as real to me as making sense of being a Black woman in the Middle East. I know everyone is a buzz in the US. But being in a predominately Muslim society puts a lot of Muslim issues to the forefront. I am constantly wondering if there is a spot for me in this imagined community of ours, as a Black American Muslim woman.

There are times when I felt like there wasn’t room for me and that my experiences were dismissed. Two recent pieces have reminded me of the pressures I experienced as an early Muslim. But at the time of the articles, the country’s internet was either down or I was in transition. Since these pieces were published, I have had some time to reflect on how a Black American Muslim identity causes a lot of dissonance in an Arab Muslim society. Abdur Rahman wrote a very insightful and historically grounded piece called, I’m Just A Muslim Muslim Tariq Nelson also contributed to the discussion with his take on, Just A Muslim. He wrote:

It is this understanding of being “just a Muslim” that I reject. You must – like the brother in the meat store – become a pseudo-foreigner of some type and adopt a hodge-podge of immigrant cultures rather than adopting Islamic values. Being “just a Muslim” has essentially come to mean running away from one’s family, and history in some attempt to “pass” into “non-blackness”. In addition they adopt a parochial and reactionary attitude and a paralyzing suspicion of all things American or Western.

Years ago,  a young Arab American woman was pretty upset with me. She was mad because of the paper I wrote in a sociology class on inequality and social stratification. The paper was about multiple identities. Much to my suprise, the title upset her.  I had felt it was a pretty inocuous title. I don’t even think she really read too far into my paper. Besides at that time, I was still pretty new to the religion. I was naive and wet behind the ears. So, my paper definitely didn’t have the sharp critique you might find in my writing today. But still, the following bothered this young woman enough for her to tell me how much I sucked:

“My Multiple Identities as an African American Muslim Woman”

It got under her skin. To her, it showed where my loyalties were. “You didn’t put Muslim FIRST!” She said in a distressed and judgmental voice “The Most IMPORTANT thing is that we are MUSLIM!” This kind of bothered me. Because at the time, of almost all the Muslims in this little circle, I was the most identifiably Muslim Muslim. I wore hijab at the time. I participated in the Muslim Student Association, as well as the Black Student Association. Despite my efforts, my loyalty as a Muslim was constantly called into question by my Arab and Desi peers.

Someone called me a nationalist because I still participated in the Black Graduate Student Union. When I used to point out that they go to ethnic picnics, Lebanese iftar, Egyptian Day, Libyan picnic in the park, Bangladeshi dinner, Pakistani gathering, not to mention the ethnic after-eid-after parties. These were places I was never invited to. I pointed out that they all these ethnic functions. The argument someone made was that the people in their closed ethnic gatherings were all Muslim. For them, their ethnicity was intrinsicly tied to being Muslim. They were preserving their culture and language because one day, they hoped to go back home. Their functions or fundraisers could be completely secular and or for some nationalistic. But they were helping other Muslims.

Me, on the other hand, I was encouraged to divorce myself from the Black community. At the same time, I was told to give dawah. In fact, I was encouraged to give dawah. But dawah basically meant repesenting some Muslim issue overseas in some campus event. I’m not saying that no immigrant Muslims cared about African Americans. There was one who took an active interest in supporting the cause of a young Black man who happened to be Student Body president was arrested for showing up to a Senate meeting on campus.Many of the people who put those pressures have since changed their views. In many ways they too had utopian visions of what the Ummah looked like. Their own cultural practices were illegible to them, because for them they operated within an Islamic cultural matrix.

While some Muslims were mad because I didn’t claim I was just a Muslim-Muslim. I was never really allowed to be just a muslim-muslim. I was constantly referred to as “The Black” sister in a community that was diverse, but Black American were underrepresented. I was sort of relegated to Black things, like marrying ex-cons and being broke all the time. I was even told that I wasn’t just a Muslim indirectly in some not so nice ways.

Perhaps I felt pressures more intensely because of the relative isolation. But the pressure I experienced raised some important questions. Does participation in a community entail that you give up who you are? Should we end our participation in other communities, our ties with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, associates, sorority or fraternity brothers and sisters. Do we give up affiliations, inclinations, cultural tastes and affinities and adopt others? How do we talk about who we are? What are we? Can I be just a Muslim, while holding on to those descriptors that make me unique? I think my stance on some of these questions is quite clear. I also believe that these broad communities and categories do not make a human. But they are a part of who we are and our being in this world. At times I feel like a composite of many different things and experiences. Some of them intersect and and reinforce what I feel is the true person inside. At times my experiences and things conflict. But never once have I felt like a Muslim divorced from my cultural context as a Western woman of African descent who became Muslim as an adult. Once I become Just a Muslim, I lose my voice and am lost to some authoritarian dogma.

Moving on: Race, Islam, and Privilege

I’m a few hours into 2008, on the eve before New Year’s eve, I ran across Umm Zaid’s blog. She has a lot to say, and like all of us, her viewpoint on issues is shaped by her background and experiences.** I always find it interesting to hear what Muslims who are not Black American have to say about race and privilege in the Muslim community. This particular blog entry highlighted major events and trends in 2007. She wrote:

In addition, sore points finally rose to the surface: the divide between immigrant Muslims and indigenous Muslims, especially Blackamericans. It’s always been there, but this seemed to be the year when everyone started talking about it. A lot of issues have been raised, and a lot of feelings have been hurt. Again, it’s a question of whether or not we’re going to move forward or if we’re going to hash and rehash every wrong, every slight, every issue of alienation between us. We have work to do.

While I agree with the overall sentiment–we can’t just be hung up on bitching and moaning–I am more than ambivalent with this message. Yes there is work to do. And many of us who are exploring the ways race, class, and gender intersect in the Muslim world are community activists. We are thinking, we are talking, we are writing, and we are doing work.

First, as Umm Zaid stated Muslims have finally began to really talk about the racial divide in the American Muslim community? How are you going to tell folks to move on from a topic when they’ve only just begun to explore it. I’ve been Muslim 14 years and only recently have a few writers and thinkers finally gave voice to what I have experienced and observed. When I began to observe patterns of discrimination in my immigrant dominated community, a lot of Muslims were in denial. Some even went so far as to claim that I was paranoid or making things up. Maybe it is convenient to want to dismiss the grievances I had. Then as I met more and more people, we began to discover that we were struggling. I was very happy to see a number of issues that are endemic to the Black American Muslim community addressed at the 2007 MANA conference. These conversations are beneficial because 1. they help individuals realize they are not crazy and 2. recognizing our realities we can begin to come up with some solutions. But if we follow this injunction we might be in trouble and lose another generation.

There is a need for a deeper exploration of the racial perceptions that immigrant Muslim bring to the American community, as well as American Muslim perceptions of immigrants. We need to examine the patterns of discrimination that perpetuate inequality in the American Muslim community. Without proper understanding of the issues we face, we will never be able to bridge the rifts that are dividing us. While there are scholars studying various religious and ethnic communities in America, American Musilms have been under-studied. That means there is little knowledge about our social, cultural, and political patterns. We don’t even have solid statistics of our marriage and divorce rates. We can’t even produce numbers on the patterns of intermarriage between communities. But because of the internet, through forums and blogs, a long silenced voices are beginning to speak of the realities that are in stark contrast with the ideals that we believe in. While these stories are anecdotes, we can glean that there are some broader patterns.

Secondly, the thing that makes this statement troubling is that reflects a general sentiment in America.The popular notion that we are living in a color blind society and that Muslims are especially color blind has been used to silence the people who are the most discriminated against. I’m not saying that Black Americans have been really deft at broaching this issue. I think there are ways that we can better engage the broader Muslim community with the issue that affect us. In addition, I find is troubling is that Black American Muslims and White American Muslims seem to be living that great divide. Even for us professional, educated and Middle Class Black American Muslims that divide exists. Few thinkers or scholars have deeply explored why.

The ambivalence that I have towards this sentiment also reflects my frustration with the broader trend in America. I have long suspected that this sentiment was shared by a number of people, especially immigrants because they may be perpetuating discrimination. But I guess I was a little surprised to see them articulated by white American Muslims. It just cut too close to rhetoric and attitudes that are outlined in
Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. A review of the book states:

These scholars are putting forward a fresh analysis of racial injustice that sets aside overt prejudice and individual acts of discrimination, which they say have little actual impact in today�s world. Instead they pull back the covers on social practices and policies sewn into the fabric of work, school and the medical system that privilege whites. Even the most well-intentioned white person, they say, benefits from a legacy of accumulated preferential treatment.

We are all influenced by certain ideologies and American myths. Some of the myths we are taught as Americans actually perpetuate inequality. Perhaps the myth of the color blind ummah also blinds us from seeing how racism and classism play out in our communities.

I’m not trying to bash the sister. Not at all. I think that people who want Black American Musilms to just move on and stop talking about discrimination and inequality are well meaning. But I wonder if at this stage of the discussion should people like Umm Zaid enter in the dialog, especially when they are insisting that we just pack up and move on. Or maybe she isn’t part of the dialog, but making an outsider commentary. At this stage, many of us in the Black American Muslim community are trying to put our cards on the table. It makes me wonder if these dialogs should be closed in order to avoid the dissonance. At the same time, I am reminded that Civil Rights leaders going back from Reconstruction times to the civil rights movement were constantly told to not make waves, that they were trouble makers–basically they were told to stay in their place. Without meaning to attack anyone, I just wanted to remind folks that silencing this discussion will not help advance our cause. It actually makes me keenly aware of how unaffected some of us are and how in their privilege they can afford to just be Muslim. Meanwhile, I have to make sense of the opportunities and limitations that are afforded to me as a Muslim who happens to be Black and who happens to a woman in America. Not everyone is directly affected by racism. You may not be subject to anti-Black discrimination or you may not be a person perpetuating anti-Black discrimination. These issues may be illegible an insignificant in your life. And you have every right to remain uninterested. And if you are an uninterested party, you don’t have to weigh in. But then again, weighing in implies you have some interest in the dialog going a certain way. But by you insisting which direction it should go, isn’t that asserting some kind of privilege?

**This is a correction where I stated that Umm Zaid was white after I was informed that Umm Zaid was not White America but white skinned.

History and Memory: Black Muslims in America

Abdur Rahman Muhammad has written a five part series under the controversial title, “Why Blackamerican Muslims Don’t stand for justice?”  I find this series significant for its historical value,  especially since there are very few works outside of Aminah Beverly McCloud’s book African American Islam that have taken a critical look at the intellectual trends of African American Muslims and their relationship to the immigrant community.  

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four 

Part Five

 What I like about the series is that it is a solid attempt at explaining the causes for the lack of civic engagement of many African American Muslims since the 90s. Abdur Rahman has a good understanding of the complicated trends. I find his nuanced understanding expecially important in light of some disturbing simplistic generalizaitons, ahistorical explanations, and false assumptions recent bloggers have made. Recently, some Muslims have written me asking if their views are representative of the Black American Muslim community. I do not think so. But with that in mind, I think it is extremely important that scholars begin to study sociological, cultural, and historical processes in the American Muslim community. Many of us discuss trends based off of anecdotal evidence. We don’t know marriage statistics and with so many informal marriages we don’t know. I know as a student organizer, many of us failed to keep a record of our activities. We should have libraries preserving our impressions, thoughts, ideas, and plans. We should have qualified scholars that can analyze speeches and texts. Now more than ever we need a historical approaches to understanding Islamic movements, especially in America.I became Muslim in the early 90s, with little understanding of what had been established and the major shifts in leadership that were underway. If you don’t know where you’ve been, how do you know how you got where to where you’re at? I think there are many lessons that we can learn from history. It is just as important to understand the history of Islam in America as a whole, and that will require many studies and various approaches. I personally think   we can discover important insights to understand Muslim communities  in  multi-cultural societies and global Muslim networks by looking at the history of Islam in America. 

‘Prince Among Slaves’ Documentary Premiere

Tariq Nelson announced the exciting documentary premiere of “Prince Among Slaves.” The documentary details the amazing life of Abdur Rahman Ibrahim Sori. I suggest anyone in the DC area check it out.

…in Washington, DC at the Cramton Auditorium at Howard University on December 1st at 2:00PM.

This documentary was filmed by the Unity Publications Foundation here in the DC area and will be shown on PBS in February. It tells the true story of a little known African American hero, an African prince who was sold into slavery in the American South in 1788. His name was Abdul Rahman Ibrahima Sori, and he remained enslaved for forty years, before ultimately regaining his freedom and returning to Africa. (read about the documentary here)

Several Muslim Organizations in the DC Area are already co-sponsoring this event

If anyone wanting tickets to the premiere or sponsorship information can contact me

A Good Way of Promoting Extremism: Shut down Islamic Schools

This one really worries me that when the simple Arabic word for school, “madrasa,” has been so demonized.
Federal Agency Recommends Closing Saudi Supported School

Members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom today urged the U.S. State Department to shut down a Saudi-supported Islamic school in Northern Virginia, until the school can ensure the U.S. government that it is not teaching an extremist ideology.

Panel members recently visited Saudi Arabia in an effort to determine the status of religious freedom in that country and the promotion of religious extremism in Saudi schools but did not visit the Islamic Saudi Academy.


The commission charges that the academy purports to be a private school but that its properties are owned or leased by the Embassy of Saudi Arabia.On numerous occasions, the commission charges, Saudi Embassy officials have spoken to the press on the school’s behalf, a violation of the law governing diplomatic activity.

Associated Press has a more balanced and detailed report:

The commission, a creation of Congress, has no power to implement policy on its own. Instead, it makes recommendations to other agencies.

The commission does not offer specific criticism of the academy’s teachings beyond its concerns that it too closely mimics a typical Saudi education.

The report recommends that the State Department prevail on the Saudi government to shut the school down until the school’s textbooks can be reviewed and procedures are put in place to ensure the school’s independence form the Saudi Embassy.

“There is nothing in our curriculum against any religion,” Al-Shabnan said.

He also said he is willing to show the school’s curriculum and textbooks to anybody who wants to see them, and he expressed disappointment that the commission did not request materials directly from the school.

“We have an open policy,” he said.

He also pointed out that many of the school’s teachers are Christian and Jewish.

The commission based its findings in part on a the work of a delegation that traveled to Saudi Arabia this year. The commission asked embassy officials to review the textbooks used in Saudi schools generally and at the Islamic Saudi Academy specifically but did not receive a response.

Commission spokeswoman Judith Ingram said the commission did not request to speak to academy officials because that went beyond the commission’s mandate.

So, I guess my questions for the commission are:
1. If your major contentions is that the privately owned school has links with the Saudi Embassy, why go to the Saudi Embassy to ask for the text books?
2. If speaking to school officials is beyond the commission’s mandate, why is it in your mandate to make such far reaching recommendations about the school?

One way to further alienate young Muslims and promote the notion that there is a clash of civilizaitons is to shut down an Islamic school. Why don’t these people set up a meeting with school officials and interview parents and students? I’m not all that familiar with the curriculum, but I seriously doubt that Saudi Arabia has a hate filled curriculum enciting young Muslims to jihad against all infidels–especially their allies. So, I’m going to watch this one.

Here’s a few blog entries that I found interesting:
Below the Beltway
Okay, I’m waiting for more reputable sources to report on this….