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?