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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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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.
All of which makes it hard for African American Muslims to tell their brethren overseas that the United States does not hate their faith. Nationwide, polls show that black Americans are more critical than whites of the U.S. war on terror, and in certain circles suspicion runs high that the government is using Sept. 11 as an excuse to wage war on Islam.
"We know, as only people who have lived subserviently among Caucasians can, that the white men who run the country ... are lying," says McCloud's husband, Frederick Thaufeer al-Deen, formerly an imam with the federal prison system.
This so-called war on terror is just the government's latest attempt to justify unjust foreign policy decisions ranging from the support of Palestinian oppression to the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, he says. "We're trying to do something over there that is wrong."
In this worldview, Osama bin Laden is more scapegoat than villain. The always controversial Louis Farrakhan made waves recently with his demand for the United States to produce evidence of bin Laden's guilt--a call echoed more quietly by many in the black community.
Ghayth Nur Kashif, imam of the Masjidush-Shura in Southeast Washington, does not say explicitly whether he believes bin Laden to be innocent, but compares the U.S. hunt for the Saudi exile to "the Klan-type activities" of the 1930s and 1940s.
"Whenever something happened to a white girl or white woman," he recalls, "people would grab the first black man who was about the right height and age." Now he and others insist that bin Laden is being similarly targeted.
"When [Bush] said he wanted [bin Laden] dead or alive," a local pastor told The Washington Post, "he was calling out the posse, and black people know the posse. They come by and get you in the middle of the night and kill you without due process." Some go even further. "For the record, I love Osama bin Laden," says al-Deen. "I don't excuse any tactic he had to use by being a guerrilla-warfare fighter, but I understand."
One voice notably absent from the public arena has been W. Deen Mohammed, son of the late Elijah Mohammed and head of the Muslim American Society, the nation's largest organization of African American Muslims. In 1975 it was W. Deen who rejected the racialist ideology of the Nation of Islam and led the group's members into orthodox Sunnism (opening a schism with black-power advocates like Farrakhan that has only begun to heal in the past year or so).
W. Deen is arguably the most authoritative voice for black Muslims. But since issuing a brief condemnation of the Sept. 11 attacks and a plea for Muslims to "stay calm and remain in our good sense," the imam has remained largely silent, leaving a chorus of others to fill the void. Which is a pity. Because if African Americans don't reject the loud voices spewing hate-filled messages, Imam Abdul Malik Mohammed (a devotee of W. Deen) warned the folks at Masjid Muhammad, the radicals will taint the entire community.
But if many African American Muslims reject the role of American ambassadors to their co-religionists, they also face obstacles in serving as interpreters of Islam for a U.S. audience. "When folks want to know about Islam, they have always gone to the immigrant community," gripes McCloud. It's telling, she says, that after Sept. 11, "who came to the White House to represent Islam? The immigrant community. The African American community felt very dismayed."
Even Oprah Winfrey has been accused of bias: Kashif's wife, Hafeeza, says she was dismayed one afternoon to see "all these Muslims on--and not one was African American."
In part, this is because when most Americans think of American Muslims, they think of immigrants. But it's also because the immigrant community itself at times treats African Americans as second-class Muslims. "I used to be around a lot of Eastern Muslims," says Muhammad Abdul Rahman, a member of Masjidush-Shura. "They would come over here and treat us like we were babes in Islam. They thought they should be our leaders just because they could speak Arabic. They would come into [our] masjids and try to be our teachers." Sept. 11, he says, "is bringing all this stuff back up."
The divide is partly cultural and economic. McCloud notes, "We have in the African American community a host of imams who are men who work full-time jobs.... They don't have the luxury of being paid to be just an imam."
Al-Deen, expressing the views of many he counseled over the years, puts it more bluntly: "They have the money and we don't. It's a sour-grapes kind of thing." And, he says, Muslim immigrants have traditionally failed to reach out to African Americans: "They come over with their money and their degrees and with an insular view of Islam.... They hide in their jobs and their little communities."
For a people long considered second-class citizens within their own country, being treated like second-class citizens within their own religion is a sore point--particularly now, when Islam's role in America is a topic of unprecedented public debate.
"Our role in America is critical," says Imam Kashif. "Immigrant Muslims to a great extent don't know the terrain. They don't understand the European mind--the American authorities' mind. We do."
It's a nice thought. Until you realize that what many in Kashif's community "understand" about the American mind is that it insists on viewing Osama bin Laden as guilty, when in truth he's just another innocent victim. Read more on politics, the arts and cyberspace at The New Republic Online