Muslims in America – What Comes After Resistance?

The American Muslim community is currently embroiled in a struggle against the injustices being perpetrated by the Trump administration. As to whether these actions are truly injust or simply a matter of selective outrage, fueled by a model minority narrative, remains to be seen. But one question which hovers over American Muslims is what is their fate, post-resistance?

In reading Daniel L. Fountain’s Slavery, Civil War and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity 1830-1870, one is inspired to, drawing upon the religious history of black folks in America, ask the question: will American Muslims adopt the world-views, mores, and religion[s] of their “masters”? By this I mean to compare the history of African Americans and their conversion to Christianity to American Muslims and their future conversion to liberalism, secularism, and scientific atheism. In order to make this inquiry clear we must look at why and how Africans and their progeny converted to Christianity.

Anecdotal historical accounts of African religious life in antebellum America feeds us a narrative in which African slaves and their progeny converted to Christianity during their tenure as slaves. From this perspective we are left with the assumption that Christianity played a major role in the lives of slaves. However, recent scholarship gives a more convincing insight into the reality that Christianity did not come to play a significant role in the majority of African American lives until after emancipation. According to Fountain (amongst others),

“more than 60 percent of the slaves surveyed indicated that they were not Christians while enslaved (emphasis mine)1.”

My point being here is to challenge the notion that Christianity was a form of slave resistance. Instead, I argue that, since Christianity did not gain significant ground amongst African Americans until post-emancipation, it was more a means of assimilation than resistance. Fountain quotes nineteenth century physician and all around social agitator, Thomas Low Nichol, as saying,

“[t]he Southern people are eminently religious, and their negroes follow their example (emphasis mine)2.”

Whereas in the nineteenth century, the religion of America — and those who stood in position to impart “freedom” to slaves — was Christianity, the religions of America today are increasingly liberalism, secularism, and scientific atheism, and thus, my concern is, will American Muslims embrace the religions of those who stand ready yet again to impart “freedom” to American Muslims? While some have balked at the heavy-handed tone in a recent article penned to American Muslim activists, I am equally concerned about the temptation for American Muslims to go down the same road as their previous American brethren did. In fact, as Fountain argues, it was,

“the expectation and delivery of freedom [being] the leading factor for African American conversion to Christianity3.”

The question remains: have the descendants of African slaves gained freedom and have their expectations been met? Many would argue that true freedom, the ability for self-determination, has not arrived yet. And likewise, in light of liberalism, secularism, and scientific atheism (what I will term here as scientism), can these philosophies fulfill their promises to American Muslims4? For it is precisely the same gambit, the same offer, and the same temptation, I see American Muslims engaged in both in terms of embracing liberalism and the like, but also in an articulation of Islam that is pitched as resistance, and nothing more. If, quoting Fountain again, “under slavery, Christianity … did not meet most slaves’ needs … most did not convert”5 then what of an Islam that does not meet Muslims needs, particularly as Americans? It is here I believe most of the hard work needs to be done and thus should be the primary focus of scholars, for it is also the reason why so many Muslims, particularly the youth, look for truth-claims (even false ones) elsewhere6.

Resources 

1. Fountain, Daniel L. Slavery, Civil War and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity 1830-1870. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. Pg. ix.

2. Ibid., 7.

3. Ibid., 5.

4. Jay Tolson, in the Fall 2016 edition of The Hedgehog Review, writes, “scientists began to wonder uneasily about whether scientific progress was compatible with scientific truth”. Tolson, Jay. “From the Editor”. The Hedgehog Review. http://iasc-culture.org/THR/index.php.

5. Fountain, 5.

6. Manley, Marc. “Between Political Theories and Truth-Claims: American Muslims and Liberalism”. Marc Manley – Imam At Large. www.marcmanley.com, 21 Jan. 2017.

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.