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.

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.



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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.



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