When Unity is Long Overdue

Arab and South Asian Muslims in the U.S. are discovering a slighted brother in their fight for civil rights: Black Muslims.

BY: Omar Sacirbey


Many African-American Muslims can trace their Islamic heritage to slaves who were brought to North America in the 17th century, some 10 percent to 30 percent of whom were estimated to be Muslim. They call themselves, as a matter of pride, "indigenous Muslims."

Together, black Muslims account for about a quarter of the country's estimated 5 million to 8 million Muslims, compared to the estimated 50 percent of U.S. Muslims who are from South Asian and Arab countries.

Despite their historic role within American Islam, many African-Americans complain that Arab and South Asian Muslims who have immigrated since the 1960s have never taken them seriously as partners in the faith, show little interest in cooperation and have marginalized their role in U.S. Islamic institutions.

But that may be changing as South Asian and Arab Muslims who dominate leadership positions in mosques and advocacy groups feel their civil rights at risk after Sept. 11, 2001. Increasingly, they are turning to African-American Muslims for their civil rights experience.

Cooperation between the two groups should come naturally, leaders say, especially after Sept. 11, when many Muslims say they find themselves enduring what black Americans--Muslim and non-Muslim--had endured for years: job discrimination, profiling, hate crimes, violence and murder.

“There are an awful lot of places where our issues and interests converge and on which we find ourselves working together," said Hilary Shelton, federal and legislative affairs director for the NAACP, the venerable black civil rights group.

Since Sept. 11, the NAACP has stepped up its cooperation with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim American Society and similar groups, opposing provisions of the Patriot Act that they say infringe on their civil liberties. The NAACP also condemned a secret program of warrantless domestic surveillance that many believe has unfairly targeted American Muslims.

Black Americans "went through the struggles of the civil rights era, and the struggles before that," said Ahmad Al-Akhras, a native Palestinian who leads the Ohio chapter of CAIR. "And we learned from leaders like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King. They paved the way for people after them." Last December, Al-Akhras was appointed to the executive committee of the Ohio chapter of the NAACP.

Although slavery had nearly wiped out Islamic practices among blacks, several black nationalists a century ago tied their movements to Islam. The most prominent was Elijah Muhammad, whose Nation of Islam movement espoused black redemption through Islam and black racial superiority. When Muhammad died in 1975, his son, Warith Deen Mohammed, took over the Nation of Islam, disavowed racist theology and moved his followers to a more mainstream practice of Islam.

"It took a while for the immigrant community to understand that our community had actually evolved and moved on to Islam as it's practiced around the world. And it took five to 10 years of W.D. Mohammed's leadership to demonstrate that we were, quote unquote, legitimate Muslims," said Ayesha Mustafaa, editor of Muslim Journal, a weekly newspaper affiliated with Mohammed that has about 40,000 subscribers.

Based in Chicago, Mohammed's ministry is known today as The Mosque Cares and claims about 250,000 followers. Another 10,000 to 20,000 black Muslims belong to the Nation of Islam, now led by Louis Farrakhan.

Most of the remaining 1 million to 2 million African-American Muslims are not affiliated with either group, but they often complain about being overshadowed by or mistaken for the more visible followers of Mohammed and Farrakhan.

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