Bit Parts

 

The recent ABC exposé on Islam in America has enraged many Blackamerican Muslims. Their anger is rooted in their legacy as American Muslims yet their story and participation in the community of American Muslims was categorically denied by the program and its participants. The blame, as I have observed in arenas such as Facebook and via private e-mail, seems to fall on either the media outlet, with claims of racial bias on the part of ABC, to the participating Muslim organization, CAIR, the Counsel on American Islamic Relations. As was expressed to me, much of the anger towards CAIR was rooted in a sense of betrayal. Several Blackamerican Muslims wrote comments relating to the program:

The immigrant leaders believe they own Islam in America and we the “African Americans” are just the poor of the religion.

We have to tell our own story and do our own documentaries. No one cares about us or our story and contributions to America and Islam, if we don’t. I am always disappointed at programs like that, but never surprised.

African Americans need 2 tell they own story we need 2 stop depending on these people 2 tell our story…we must do our own reports…documentaries..

Bottomline, you cannot do a documentary on Islam in American without interviewing the African American.

The the question need be asked what would the reaction be if we told the Story of America and omitted Christopher Columbus, George Washington or Thomas Jefferson??? It’s not about whining it’s about telling the truth and presenting it accurately. If ABC came to CAIR then CAIR had a responsibility to make sure they aired a fair an accurate depiction.

The majority of the world does not even know that we have been here…

So none of those “so-called” scholars said to to the ABC execs you must include African American Muslims in order to have a complete picture of Islam in America?

They (the Muslim consultants and don’t believe for one second there weren’t do…zens) didn’t see how by not doing so it perpetuates another falsehood about Muslims in America being immigrants or the children of immigrants?

Wasn’t the program’s intent to dispel falsehoods about Muslims in America? It’s frankly insulting!!!!!

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and all the rest should absolutely refuse to do these exposes on Islam when they delete African American Muslims the way ABC did! Shame on them & ABC.

As can be seen here, the anger and frustration runs the gamut. The question remains: how will CAIR address this issue and how will Blackamerican Muslims seek to engage, and if possible, reprimand CAIR for their systematic dismissal on the public stage?

But perhaps more important than all of this is the lesson to be learned here: it has been high time for Blackamerican Muslims to take their rightful place in leadership of Islam in America. I do not believe this to be the case out of some misguided sense of racial pride or nationalism, but in actuality, rooted in a form of pragmatism: Blackamericans are one of only two possible racial categories in the United States that are seen as unassailably American. And being that Blackamericans comprise the only racial/ethnic group in America that have embraced Islam in significant numbers, it only makes sense to help foster and develop Blackamerican Muslim leadership. To do otherwise or to work towards the opposite goal [which in many ways is precisely what CAIR helped to do in the program], resulting in a dereliction of duty and jeopardizing the future of indigenizing Islam in American.

Part of this maturation process will involve Blackamerican Muslims seeing themselves as key players, actors, and inheritors of God’s religion. Not unlike their Blackamerican Christian counterparts, Blackamerican Muslims are in desperate need to reevaluate precisely what Islam it is that they have been given, what Islam they are perpetuating and determining if its core trajectory is in line with what is most socially and religiously responsible. To make my point a bit clearer, let me quote the great history and religious scholar, Vincent Harding:

Every [sic] since the children of Africa were brought to this country and came in touch with the Christian religion, we had to figure out some way to come to terms with what white Christians were teaching about religion and what they were doing in their social, economic, and political lives. It was clear to many African Americans at the very outset that the Christianity they were being taught could not be accepted on the terms that slave owners were presenting it because slavery itself was a contradiction to Jesus’ call to love each other as we love ourselves.

The above quote, taken from an interview Harding gave earlier this year, Harding illustrates the need that Antebellum and post-Antebellum Blacks had when analyzing the brand of Christianity that the dominant power structure was preaching; its core values and preconceived notions ran contradictory to the existential realities of Blacks and their quest for a God-given, dignified existence. Similarly, Harding also spoke of historical romanticism, in his famous 1967 article, Black Power and the American Christ:

As is so often the case with reminiscences, the nostalgia may grow more out of a sense of frustration and powerlessness than out of any true appreciation of the meaning of the past.

Harding’s point here rings home with the plight of modern Blackamerican Muslims, who in my opinion, suffer from a case of historical and cultural romanticism: by proxy of Muslims who hailed from the historical Muslims world, Blackamerican Muslims uncritically accepted, and indeed perpetuated, the brand of Islam that foreign-born Muslims brought with them to America. And in this process, Blackamerican Muslims have romanticized the entire narrative of foreign-born Muslims as being quintessentially “good” [even if they happen to accidentally be “bad”]; romanticizing of both culture and temporality [the use of the term “Islamic” to describe anything and everything Muslims “over there” do; the past is presumed to be wholly better than the present, therefore all one can hope to achieve is a pantomiming of the past]. This modality of thinking has resulted in Blackamerican Muslims largely being cast in bit parts in the broader act that is Islam in America. And not unlike Black actors in Hollywood, Blackamerican Muslims have had little say over the kinds of parts they will play. Further, any rhetoric that is deemed “too black”, will be ridiculed, its critique dressed in religious garb, and passed off as religiously authentic. In this fashion, Blackamerican Muslims can only expect to continue to play bit parts in others plays so long as they continue to relinquish their creative rights – the rights to writing, publishing, and determination – as bona fide Muslims. I leave you with one final quote from Harding:

But as the reminiscences continue a veil seems to descend between then and now. The tellers of the old tales label the veil Black Power, and pronounce ritual curses on Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick and their followers.

The trouble with these meetings is that they are indeed becoming ritual, cultic acts of memory that blind us to creative possibilities. Because that “veil” may be a wall, not primarily for separating but for writing on – both sides of it. Or it may be a great sheet “let down from heaven”; or a curtain before the next act can begin. Most of us appear totally incapable of realizing that there may be more light in blackness than we have yet begun to glimpse.

And God knows best.

Further reading

  • The Black Power Revolt – A Collection of Essays. Ed. Floyd B. Barbour.
  • 20/20 – What Is Islam? Questions and Answers.
  • Overcoming Historical Romanticism.
  • Black Power and the American Christ, by Vincent Harding.

13 Comments Bit Parts

  1. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    Wa ‘alaykum salaam, akhi. Why is it when we want to have a talk about real issues in our community, especially when it’s from a Blackamerican perspective, we’re labeled as causing fitnah [which in this cause, we’re {BAM’s} more on the receiving end fitnah than on the starting end]? Secondly, by the technical definition, I do not see where this is causing a fitnah. We have to stop taking these words and making them repositories for what we personally deem unattractive and dislike. When we do so, we are actually endangering our understanding of the religion, which really is a fitnah.

  2. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    Wa ‘alaykum salaam, “Some Guy” – man, I wish folk’s would just use their real names so I feel like I’m speaking to a person and not a blank screen.

    Thanks for the remarks. Your words made me wish to clarify a point: I am not anti-immigrant Muslim. I simply see the shoring up of the status of Blackamerican Muslims as an integral step in making Islam seem like it belongs here.

    Let me also continue by saying that if my words appear harsh, it’s because I’m talking to my family, my Ummah. In many ways, I see the relationship between BAM’s/immigrant Muslims as that between siblings that did not grow up with one another, yet they share the same family, parents, and heritage. My own brother is an example of this: we did not grow up together, our lives being separated by twelve years. So our initial attempts to get to know one another were hampered by the fact we didn’t know one another very well; we had different histories, likes, dislikes, etc. Over time, I, being the younger brother, had to assert myself a bit, and make myself known by my own standards. And while our relationship isn’t perfect, it’s better than it used to be. Similarly, BAM’s and immigrant Muslims will have to have those “tough dialogs”, where in the process, some toes may get stepped on, feelings may get bruised, but all in all, we’re in it to win it together.

    As for CAIR, I believe the negative reaction by some BAM’s is due to CAIR’s less-than-illustrious track record with BAM’s. I pray dialogs such as this are not conflated beyond their borders, but rather seen as an effort to force a dialog that, God willing, can bring us closer together.

  3. niqabman@gmail.com'Abdul Qadeer

    Salamon Ulaikum Dear Akhi,

    Why are you trying to cause fitna with this article? Immigrant and Black Muslims are all equal in Islam and we should not make divsions, inshallah.

    Abdul

  4. sacbutteredtoast@yahoo.com'SomeMuslimGuy

    I agree, I’m a child of immigrant Muslims, but how is this starting Fitnah? This is a completely valid point. It does injustice to the actual history of Muslims in America.

    “But perhaps more important than all of this is the lesson to be learned here: it has been high time for Blackamerican Muslims to take their rightful place in leadership of Islam in America. I do not believe this to be the case out of some misguided sense of racial pride or nationalism, but in actuality, rooted in a form of pragmatism: Blackamericans are one of only two possible racial categories in the United States that are seen as unassailably American. And being that Blackamericans comprise the only racial/ethnic group in America that have embraced Islam in significant numbers, it only makes sense to help foster and develop Blackamerican Muslim leadership. To do otherwise or to work towards the opposite goal [which in many ways is precisely what CAIR helped to do in the program], resulting in a dereliction of duty and jeopardizing the future of indigenizing Islam in American.”

    I agree about the need for leadership, 100%, but what do you make of CAIR’s role in the situation? Was it a conscious decision to slight them or did they feel that there was some benefit in the program even if it didn’t provide a complete picture?

  5. margari.hill@gmail.com'Margari Aziza

    Salaam alaikum,
    We have a two part problem here: 1) a desire to show Islam as something foreign and not American and 2) a refusal to see Black Americans as authentically Muslim. My good friend Jamilah also pointed out that the program did not include anybody from diverse and long-standing community of African Muslims who migrated to America. The exclusion of Africans in discussions about Islam goes back to Orientalism. African Islam was not seen as legitimate Islam, and still to this day people hold this view. When we consider the exclusion of Africans, we can move beyond the dichotomy of immigrant versus Black Americans.

    I have heard that ABC interviewed some Black Americans. Those segments ended up on the cutting floor. I think that we have to hold our national organizations accountable. At the same time, we Black Americans need to bring something to the table so that our influence can be felt. We are treated like the poor of the religion because so many of us have an impoverished mentality plagued with defeatism or slavish following. If we aren’t agents for change, more specifically our own personal and community transformation, then we’ll never get respect we are demanding.

  6. niqabman@gmail.com'Abdul Qadeer

    Wa Alaikum Salam,

    My dear Akhi, please don’t misunderstand me. You raise valid points. I am only saying that this is a two way road. Both immigrant and blackamerican muslims do not make a point of getting to know each other. I am an immigrant muslim and I have been to many blackamerican muslims, but I don’t feel welcome in those Masjids. The blackamerican muslims made fun of my accent and called me a “FOB.”

    Both communities need to interact more with each other. My concern is that you article is placing the blame only on the immigrant muslims. you remove the responsibility from the blackamerican muslims.

    Abdul

  7. abeeimran@yahoo.com'AbuImran

    Assalam Alaikum,
    I just saw the program online yesterday. I did notice the lack of African representation. I’m not sure if this is a mess that we should seek to be apart of. This may sound a bit divisive, but the greater problem with the negative perception of Islam in the west started with the immigrant community, particularly with our Arab and Indo-Pakistan brothers. years ago, they made a point to separate themselves from the indigenous community at that time. They did not have any desire to integrate with the American Muslim community, and just wanted to be left alone. Their primary focus was on helping communities overseas, and seem for the most part to care little about the state of Islam in the US, and did not care about establishing Dawah amongst the people in the West. It wasn’t until after Sept 11th did they decide that, “We need to work together and make sure that the American people understand the true Islam.” It wasn’t about “Us” in the past, so why now? Much of the negativity that non Muslims perceive about Muslims in the West may be unfortunately justified. I think that people have a very poor perception of immigrant Muslims, because they don’t know much about them. I do realize that we are collectively blamed for the environment that they have fostered, but I think its up to them to make a greater effort to fix the mess that made. We need to continue making dawah to the communities we live in and care less about Diane Sawyer and not being included in her Special Reports.

  8. abu.luqmaan@gmail.com'Joe

    Salam Alaikum

    There is another issue here that many do not want to speak of, and that it that if African American leadership is to be represented on the national stage, they will have to be the ones to push for it. Stop waiting for other organizations to give you representation, take it.
    A write-in campaign should be organized in the name of an org with AA Muslim interests in mind, and demand representation. Sad but true, as indigenous Americans AA Muslim have largely been self-segregating and separatist in their approach to media exposure, and much less engaging with think-tanks and policy makers. Not to say AAs haven’t, but AA Muslims in particular have not. Agai to reiterate, we have a lot of AA Muslims involved wearing one hat (of ethnicity) and we need them to start wearing the other (of faith).

  9. theblog@manrilla.net'Marc

    @Abdul Qadeer – yes, of course it is a two-way street, though I would contend there has been heavier traffic in one lane versus the other. And as I said before, I wrote this to bring to attention the need for us to try and come together; doing so will require some difficult talking and negotiating and both parties telling the other how they feel.

    @AbuImran – I would caution against throwing in the towel just yet. It is frustrating for many Blackamerican Muslims to try and feel a sense of religious solidarity with their immigrant brothers and sisters on the one hand and yet seeing how they have been systematically denied by them on the other. There is no doubt about this, but, as other’s [and myself as well] have written, the blame lies with BAM’s themselves as well. I think both issues must be dealt with simultaneously, yet both issues have specific symptoms and will require different medicines. My fear is that these complex issues will try to be dealt with, as one brother wrote, “pure and simple”. I replied, with a bit of humor, only Allah is pure and nothing else is simple. While I was jesting with him, I am serious that these issues are complicated and will need in-depth, dedicated, and on-going solutions.

    @Joe – you raise an important issue: leadership. On the one hand, as someone recently wrote about, leadership in the Blackamerican community is sorely lacking. I would have to sadly concur, though to be fair, there are some qualified leaders amongst the BAM’s, and in order to judge accurately, we must also come to the uncomfortable conclusion that BAM’s themselves – rank and file Blackamerican Muslims – are equally to blame. In my own observations here in Philadelphia, BAM’s seem to lack both a sense of urgency about their Islam as well as a coherent direction of which they are trying to live and operate their daily lives as Muslims. What is good for the goose, is good for the gander, and if we want to have a serious conversation about leadership them that must include those who would be led.

    @Naeem – what I wanted to show here was less about how CAIR was specifically involved in the editing/cutting process [though we would like to know the extent of their involvement] but perhaps more importantly, to show how CAIR and other acronyms are viewed by BAM’s. In other words, as you saw from the quotations, many BAM’s hold CAIR and the link in a suspicious light. Many do not feel that CAIR and its sister organizations dutifully include BAM’s in their mission as well as within their ranks. They feel these organizations have consistently turned a blind eye to the reality of BAM’s and the role they have played in the development and story of Islam in America. And while I have made no personal claims to the facts quite yet, I am curious if CAIR is listening and if they are, what will they do to address this [within CAIR and how the group works to include BAM’s], and if they’re not listening, why?

  10. brnaeem@yahoo.com'Naeem

    AA- Marc,

    Just saw the online series and yeah, the absence of Blackamerican Muslims is quite glaring. But I don’t get your beef with CAIR. They also seemed to have a tiny ‘bit part’ in the 20/20 report. Did I miss something in the video clips?

    In fact, I have a bigger (but not unexpected) issue with ABC’s choice for Muslim representation, what with Manji, Hirsi Ali, and Eboo Patel propped up as expert Muslims. Not only did they overlook BAMs, but also slighted the mainstream orgs like ISNA, MANA, MAS and mainstream leaders like Imam Johari, Sh. Hamza Yusuf, and so many others.

    Overall poorly produced program with too many screw-ups to count…

  11. HajjiAbdul@gmail.com'Hajji Abdul

    As Salaamu ‘Alaikum Marc,
    Allow me to weigh in on this issue from another perspective. First of all I fully appreciate all of the perspectives being shared on this forum; however there is one definition that is missing from this discussion. As one who has worked in major national and international news outlets, I have discovered that there is an entrenched mindset among management that does NOT view the African American Muslim community as an authentic expression of Al-Islam in this society. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to butt heads with producers and editors about the lack of intellectual inclusion of the indigenous voice that, in my humble opinion, represents the best authentic expression of Al-Islam by dint of our historic contribution in establishing a home grown, organic application of the Muslim life in cities across America. We speak with an indigenous expression of Islam that America can relate to historically . And I am satisfied with the perception that it is BECAUSE of this home grown experience in this country that makes “white” America uncomfortable with viewing us as authentic. Let me use this analogy:
    If one has had children that he/she has abused and tortured physically, emotionally and psychologically; and then said children later grew up and through the Divine Grace and Mercy of Allah liberated themselves FROM that abuse as well REJECTS the application of that rearing as a means of establishing its true humanity, the parents guilt from what it KNOWS DEEP DOWN WITHIN THEIR CONSCIOUSNESS WAS WRONG prevents itself from reconciliation with this new paradigm. They then resort to false constructs (you’re just a convert) and revisionist history to shield themselves from uncomfortable truths.
    That has been my experience from over 30 years working in these news outlets trying to readjust the narrative of the indigenous Muslim presence in America. Believe me when I tell you it’s a steep uphill climb.

  12. sacbutteredtoast@yahoo.com'Waleed

    “Let me also continue by saying that if my words appear harsh, it’s because I’m talking to my family, my Ummah. In many ways, I see the relationship between BAM’s/immigrant Muslims as that between siblings that did not grow up with one another, yet they share the same family, parents, and heritage. My own brother is an example of this: we did not grow up together, our lives being separated by twelve years. So our initial attempts to get to know one another were hampered by the fact we didn’t know one another very well; we had different histories, likes, dislikes, etc. Over time, I, being the younger brother, had to assert myself a bit, and make myself known by my own standards. And while our relationship isn’t perfect, it’s better than it used to be. Similarly, BAM’s and immigrant Muslims will have to have those “tough dialogs”, where in the process, some toes may get stepped on, feelings may get bruised, but all in all, we’re in it to win it together.”

    Mashallah, a beautiful analogy. And point taken about the name issue. In some ways, it reminds of how the Prophet SAWS made an effort to bond the ties of brotherhood between the Meccans and the Ansar in Medina. Part of the issue here is that Islam is seen as something foreign from “abroad.” If the average American can identify the African American Muslim population as one of the community’s largest, it can really help to strip away the type of things you’ll hear at demonstrations (i.e. ‘Go back to your country”, which hardly makes sense if BAMs are made synonymous with American Islam, alongside the other groups in the US. And in terms of relationships, I would say, that at least from my experience and observation, the children of immigrants and youth in general (Native-born/converts) are generally doing a better job of connecting in Muslim institutions and programs, whether you’re talking about MSAs, domestic Islamic educational institutions, youth-driven volunteering, etc. There seems to be a greater emphasis on a general Islamic identity than with any particular culture.

    As far as leadership goes, what should that entail? Is it referring to religious, civic, or political engagement by BAMs (Imam Zaid, Imam Siraj Wahaj, Keith Ellison, etc.)? Or are we referring to leaders who are specifically tackling the issues that affect African American Muslims and working toward their continued progress in the community?

    @ Naeem
    Really? Manji and Ali? Typical, the ones they find to represent the religion are some of its most vehement bashers.

  13. Pingback: All-American Muslim – Thoughts and Response | Marc Manley Dot Com

Leave a Reply