Beliefnet

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You didn't need to go trick-or-treating on Halloween to get a good scare. All you had to do was flip on C-SPAN2 any time between 7 and 11 o'clock and watch the "New Black Panther Party and Muslims for Truth and Justice Town Hall Meeting" at the National Press Club in Washington.

Moderated by Panther Amir Muhammad, the event featured a parade of exceedingly angry imams, activists, and audience members melding black-power salutes and Koranic quotations with loud denunciations of the United States as "the Great Satan." Beefy Panthers in military-style garb formed a menacing backdrop for prayer leaders peddling conspiracy theories--in particular, the U.S. government and media's cover up of Israel's role in every terrorist episode from the 1998 American Embassy bombings to the September 11 hijackings. Uncle Sam, charged Amir Muhammad, "is the number-one oppressor in the history of the planet Earth, the number-one murderer on the planet Earth, and the number-one spreader of terror on the planet Earth."

Flash forward two days to Friday services at Masjid Muhammad in Northwest D.C. Inside the prayer hall, some 150 worshipers sit beneath whirring fans, listening to visiting Imam Abdul Malik Mohammed denounce the C-SPAN event.

"Do you want me to believe that the environment that guarantees me protection to pray five times a day and that ordains itself, its credibility, under God's trust--you want me to suspect it? To feel bad about it?" he bellows. "Go to hell!"

The imam not only defends the United States, he suggests it is the Middle East where something has gone badly wrong with Islam. "[W]hile the Muslim World has had the Koran and they have recited the Koran and the Koran has dwelled in their hearts ... I contend that, in view of circumstances that we have witnessed for many years, Mohammed the Prophet is not known to them."

Chiding listeners to stop deferring to foreign-born Muslims just because "they step before you and they're wearing robes and turbans and it makes you think they're back there with Mohammed the Prophet," he argues that Old World Muslims have been mere "warm-up speakers" for African Americans. "God is correcting [misconceptions of] Islam in the world," he says, "and he is not correcting it in the East! He is correcting it in the West!"

In fact, during these troubled times, African American Muslims should be well positioned to do much "correcting" of American misperceptions about Islam, not to mention Muslim misperceptions of the United States. African American Muslims are, after all, living proof that Islam has deep roots on these shores. That it need not speak with a foreign accent. That it is no more alien, or hostile, than the streets of Harlem, Chicago, or East St. Louis, where it thrives.

But then, that is precisely the problem. The people who might best speak to the Muslim world about the United States are themselves often deeply conflicted Americans. For every imam like Abdul Malik Mohammed, who promotes a distinctly American Islam, free from the hatreds of the Middle East, there is an Amir Muhammed, whose Islam represents a direct rejection of American culture, a righteous banner under which African Americans must rally against their historical oppressors.

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But if it's difficult for black Muslims to speak to the Islamic world as proud Americans, it's often just as difficult for them to speak to Americans about Islam. For most Americans, Muslim means Arab. And black leaders complain that, for too long, immigrant Muslims have set themselves up as the sole gatekeepers of the faith. As a result, instead of now serving as ambassadors for their religion or for their country, many African American Muslims feel trapped in the center of a storm, unable to make themselves heard, and unsure, perhaps, of even what they want to say.

It's no secret that "the black community has its own beef with the white community," notes Aminah McCloud, an associate professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University in Chicago.

Indeed, the very roots of Islam among African Americans are tangled up in the fight against white racism. Though Islam first arrived here in the hull of slave ships, it didn't catch fire until the 1950s and 1960s, with the rise of the Nation of Islam under the late Elijah Mohammed and Malcolm X. Initially bearing little resemblance to orthodox Islam, the Nation peddled a black nationalist ideology that was more about toppling white power than serving Allah. Today, though most African American Muslims practice traditional Islam, traces of racial struggle remain, both in sermons and in the way congregants interpret Islam's message.

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