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.

Socially Irrelevant [?] – American Muslims & Race

The continued floundering state of American Muslims’ stance towards race is at once unsettling, disappointing and personally frustrating. To complicate matters, both immigrant and indigenous Muslims seem to be equally guilty of what Professor Sherman Jackson calls, “racial agnosia”. Much to my dismay, I continue to hear the mantra, “Islam does not do race” from the mouths of American Muslims. And while Islam may not, “do race”, in that it does not support a hierarchy of racial preference, it most certainly does “do reality”. Without a doubt, regardless of whether certain individuals perceive race-based thinking to be right or not, race is an integral part of the social landscape of America. By Muslims choosing to not recognize and come to grips with the historical and social forces that have shaped race in America, they will have little chance of abolishing the system they claim to oppose. For indigenous Muslims [and here I am placing more emphasis on Blackamerican Muslim, though not to the exclusion of other groups], they will only further ostracize themselves from their social counterparts, giving the impression that Islam is disinterested in social justice.

In one of Professor Jackson’s recent talks, he underlined a crucial element to the system of racism, specifically its white supremacist manifestation. This value system, at its core, is akin to what Muslim theology calls shirk, or the association of power and authority [not only partnership] with God. Jackson lays bare the role and function a value system such as white supremacy has at its apex; said values have been elevated in to quasi-ahistorical rankings. In other words, the values and proclivities, the likes and dislikes of whites [American or European] are no longer held to be those of a specific people from a specific time and place, but rather have been foisted “beyond history”, attempting to compete with the same place, as traditional theology sees it, Revelation comes from. In this manner of understanding, racism in general and white supremacy in specific represent a real challenge to Islamic theology, which is vehemently opposed to any form of idolatry, be it wood, stone, or man-made.

As I mentioned above, this ideology is not only peddled by foreign-born or foreign-imagined Muslims—who either refuse or claim to be incapable of seeing race [a short visit to the Middle East and South East Asia will reveal this to be overwhelmingly false]—but has been imbibed by a great many Blackamerican Muslims, who, in their desire to escape the “problem of Blackness”, have abandoned social stances that make them strangers within their own ranks. In conversations with other Blackamerican Christians, many view Blackamerican Muslims to be either out of touch with the social plight of today’s African-Americans, or even hostile towards any rhetoric that seeks to address racism. Where once upon a time—such notable Muslims as Malcolm X come to mind—Black Muslims were synonymous with the social and emotional struggles of other Blackamericans. Today’s Blackamerican Muslims, particularly those in urban settings, no longer seem to use Islam as a vehicle to lift themselves out of their social quagmires, instead being content to adopt Islam as a nouveau identité, whereby one can aspire to alternatives modes of validation and self aggrandizement, vis-a-vis, a new name, a new mode of dress, and especially any time spent “overseas”. The stances of these indigenous Muslims are bolstered from foreign-born voices, imbued with religious authority based on no other grounds than their proximity to so-called “Muslim lands”, who claim Islam is a religion that is free of race, that it simply, “does not do race”. What these two parties fail to realize is how crucial race is to the American story, the American narrative, and the collective psyche.

In a recent interview at The Immanent Frame, Nathan Schneider interviewed Muslim pundit, Reza Aslan. In it, Aslan articulates something crucial to the American social project: social narratives. Aslan says,

“Why is it that the vast majority of Americans are so pro-Israel? It’s because they have fully absorbed the Jewish narrative in a way that they haven’t when it comes to the Palestinian narrative. The story of Israel is a good story. It’s a compelling story. And it’s one that Americans get. But they haven’t had an opportunity to hear, let alone absorb, the Palestinian narrative.”

Narrative is everything in America. Without it, no one knows who you are; no one cares who you are. And in fact, without a narrative, the dominant culture will turn on the offending group as white blood cells do on an infection, treating the invasion as something that must be expelled. While American Jews are not completely safe from racist attacks [a la Mel Gibson], they have mastered the art of narration. American Muslims could learn a great deal from their religious counterparts. Given that Blackamericans are an intricate part of the American narrative, to cast aside this narrative in favor of an abstractionist approach to race is akin to committing social suicide.

Above all, American Muslims’ agnosia of the racial climate will only continue to beleaguer Muslims’ attempts at endearing themselves to the rest of American society, to say anything of contributing to it. This task should not be seen as something for “Black Muslims to deal with”, while immigrant Muslims continue to reap the benefits of a racially biased system: why else do Muslims that hail from the Middle East and South-East Asia, despite their swarthy skin tones, claim “white” on that little check box? How else would one explain the racist tendencies amongst immigrant Muslims towards Blacks if indeed their religion “did not do race”? In parting, consider this small factoid, provided by NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous, when interviewed on Roland S. Martin’s, Washington Watch:

“White people are 65% of the crack [cocaine] users in this country. Black people are 85% of people busted for using crack.”

If Muslims, immigrant or indigenous, are to remain relevant to America, they are going to have to have their eyes examined and their heads checked. They must confront the myth that whiteness is omni-benevolent, omni-wholesome, and omni-pure or risk becoming a marginalized, hostile foreign entity that must be treated like an invasive disease, to be expelled at all costs.

Extra Links

  • White Supremacy—The Beginning of Modern Shirk?: an audio lecture by Professor Sherman Jackson.
  • More Thoughts On the Exclucivity of Whiteness: how did the Founding Fathers conceive of whiteness?
  • Religion Gone Global — an interview with Reza Aslan at The Immanent Frame.

Journey Into Islam – A Converts Tale Part I

The Ka'abah - Photographed by Marc Manley 2008

 One of the questions that is most often asked of me, both by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is how did I come to Islam. Often this query is framed around a supposed single instance, a distinct and defining event that overwhelmed my being and thus causing me to embrace Islam, as I have often heard it described by others. I have heard this very same rhetoric espoused by so-called Muslim converts (such as myself) who often characterize their own accounts of coming to Islam in the very same singular fashion. I am always stuck by the simplicity by which these voices engage such a diverse and often elusive subject, to speak nothing of how converts (or reverts, as some prefer) short change themselves in their abridged assessments of their own journey to Islam.

During a speaking event, in which I was asked to give an autobiographic account of my own experience as an American Muslim, one questioner in the audience asked, “what was it about Islam that made you want to become a Muslim?” Apparently I had delivered such an intriguing talk, that upon being asked this bold question, the crowd fell into a hush, awaiting a thunderclap. I believe I duly disappointed them when I replied, “perhaps the more important question is not why I became Muslim, but why I choose to remain Muslim.” The disappointment and confusion that befell their faces was apparent. I attempted to recover by telling them that it was everything; everything in the nineteen years proceeding my choice to become a Muslim had an effect, be it profound or not. It was a mixture of my parenting, my childhood experiences, encounters with people—good and bad—and of course, those innate aspects of my personality that the Muslim tradition calls “fitra”. While I had answered his question, I left that day with the feeling that most of the attendees were not satisfied with the answer I had given them. It is mainly my belief because the experience is much more epic than it is dynamic, evolutionary versus epiphany. It is still my hunch that for those converts/reverts who assert that they did have any epiphany, there’s still quite a bit of back story that’s not being told. And in cutting out all of that back story, they do a disservice to the story that is unfolding before them at this very moment.

Detroit race riots of 1967 I was born in was Detroit, Michigan, in 1973, seven years after the 1967 Race Riots. Though in reality the decline of Detroit proceeded the race riots by as much as ten years, my family, a working-class family of five, was thoroughly effectd by the repercussions of a city poisoned by the disease of racism (we were forced to abandon our home). In fact, I have often contemplated the Qur’ānic verse, by which God compensated me through the trial of living in desolate Detroit:

ونريد أن نمن على الذين استضعفوا في الأرض ونجعلهم أئمة ونجعلهم الورثين

“We desired to show kindness to those who were oppressed in the land and to make them leaders and make them inheritors.” [Qur’ān 28: 5]

In time, the ravages of drugs and crime had certainly come to oppress my family. The neighborhood had become so unsafe that our father would sit on the porch with a loaded gun so we could play in the yard. Ultimately, after having our house shot at and fire bombed, we were forced to abandon ship and move to the suburbs.  The economic impact on our family was devastating.  Our time in Detroit would play such a defining role that its specter still haunts some of my family members to this day.

Despite the urban hostilities, there remained one single hindrance that would go on to define my family and my youth: race. Race more than anything else dogged my family’s footsteps—maternal and paternal sides alike. This dilemma was due to the remnants of Jim Crow America and the psychological deficiency that many of my family members struggled with. My family had most certainly imbibed the value system of white supremacy and its byproduct of self-loathing. In one conversation with another Blackamerican friend of mine, he asked if my family had tried to “pass”. I pondered this question at length. “No”, I replied. “Our experience was more akin that that of Anne Frank: we hid in the attic of white suburban America and prayed no one would discover we were black.” So powerful was the ghost of Jim Crowism that my family didn’t even attempt to pass; white values and aesthetics were admired, but from afar. So deep had the inferiority complex of white supremacy penetrated the psyche of my family that to go all the way and “pass” was still viewed as off limits. Instead, my family shrank into a more insidious despair by attempting to deny any trace of blackness entirely. The consequences of this were devastating, both internally and externally for family dynamics, for we had now ostracized ourselves from the rest of the extended family. The rest of my childhood and early adult years would bear witness to the humiliating and heartbreaking effects that self-loathing had on my family members and myself, as it corrupted us from the inside.

You are reading Part I of this post. Stay tuned for the second installment. The banner image above was photographed by yours truly at the Haram in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, in 2008, while on ‘Umrah with the Medinah Institute.

If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem

There has been, in my mind, a growing trend in Black America for the last 40-odd years: the rise in secularism amongst Blackamericans. By this I refer to the increasing tendency for Blackamericans to make religion, be it Islam or Christianity, irrelevant to their daily lives, public or private (I say private as well because of the private malfeasance that Blackamericans commit have public ramifications). In times past, traditional religious institutions in Black America provided the moral framework which would govern the moral and ethical codes of Blackamericans. One recent study showed that in the mid-Sixties, roughly 84% of black families were two-parent households. That number has dwindled to the mid- to low-thirties. To say that these figures are alarming would be a gross understatement. What is worthy of consideration here is not simply the numbers, but the story behind the numbers.

I say that the trend of secularism in Black America cannot, and should not be treated as coincidence, in coming in at the end of the Civil Rights victories of the 1960’s. In its inception, the Civil Rights Movement began, as University of Michigan professor Sherman Jackson dubbed it, a “holy protest against white supremacy”. Yet, it would seem that after the supposed defeat of white-authored violence and discrimination against blacks, the “holy” was taken out of the protest, and all that was left was and has been, hot wind. In my opinion, there have been real social, economic, and developmental consequences to removing God from the daily and public lives of Blackamericans (indeed, for all Americans but for the purposes of this article, I am addressing Black America). The resulting consequences have ranged from lack of direction, an increasing lapse in morals, and an overall heedlessness. Further, these consequences have produced the single-mothers and fatherless children, the broken homes and families, and the general breakdown and dereliction of black culture. The broader American (and dare I say, white) cultural engine has proffered up to blacks the hope of a free civil society in which God no longer needs to play any role, let alone a central one. From what looks to have been a successful campaign, many Blackamericans have taken the bait: black families are plagued with divorce, incarceration rates are at astronomical numbers, economic and educational disparities go unchecked, and public as well as private morality is at an all-time low. I write this both as a concerned Blackamerican, but even more specifically as a concerned Blackamerican Muslim. The practice of thinking themselves immune to the broader ills of Black America, or even America as a whole, has been a strain of thought that still finds a welcome home amongst Blackamerican Muslims. It is my concern that if these tendencies are not addressed and countered, Blackamerican Muslims will find that their Islam is indeed no inoculation against the tide of secularism that is plaguing their non-Muslim counterparts. In fact, the early warning signs are already here.

My wife wrote an article recently where she spoke of the many troubling observations she has witnessed in her one year in Philadelphia. I have been here for five years, and can safely estimate that my observations are five-times as troubling. I have been privy to teen pregnancy amongst Muslims, and more specifically, amongst Blackamerican Muslim teens. Mothers having ‘aqiqahs for fatherless children. The engaging in illicit sexual activities amongst these teens has been on a quiet rise, with little to no dialog or action from the community. This, coupled with an ever-increasing recalcitrance amongst Muslim youth, are just two of a number of growing social issues facing Blackamerican Muslims. The biggest problem for me is not communities having issues; I do not know a community that is free of them. Rather, it is that Blackamerican Muslims make little to no use of their Islam in recognizing, battling, and countering these maladies. Indeed, it seems at times that there are hardly any distinguishing characteristics between Blackamerican Muslims and their black, non-Muslim counterparts, save dress code and dietary restrictions. I must admit, as one who stands on the minbar on a weekly basis, I find myself both deeply troubled as well as disheartened. I have spoken with a number of imams, scholars, and concerned congregationalists, about this very same topic only to be met with heavy sighs, concerned stares, and stalwart encouragement to “keep fighting the good fight”. And while I have been appreciative all of those (especially the latter), I continue to brood over how Muslim leadership can re-connect (for I do believe the connection has been severed) with Muslim men, women, mothers, father,s and especially, Muslim youth. What steps can be taken to show and demonstrate that no only is there a place for God and Prophetic morality in the daily lives of Muslims, public and private, but that we must return to these principles if we have any hope of not annihilating ourselves.

It is to the above I would like to comment a bit further: returning to the Qur’an and Sunnah. In this case, I am referring to morals and conduct. Yet, for many of our youth (though not exclusively) this is not so much of a return as it is embarking on a new journey, for one cannot return to what one has never been at in the first place. To be more specific, the moral languish we see in Black America is a generational issue. For many Blackamericans, they never knew a strong moral foundation. And if the principle holds true that one cannot return to where one has never been, it must also hold true that the approach to re-moralizing Blackamerican Muslims, especially the youth, will need to take a different approach. We cannot simply backtrack our steps. We have to walk this sojourn from the beginning of the path.

Another aspect of secularism that requires examination is its liberal tendency and history. Many of those who call for toeing a secular line do not come from backgrounds that are suffering the most from its degenerative effects. Many liberals are also unaware of the ways in which they are able to cope with its effects to a much greater efficacy than Blackamericans can. To be more specific, I will name a few examples: economics, education, and lack of social stigma. I refer to these defensive mechanisms as the social insulation that many liberals possess. Many liberals may possess the financial means to absorb a fatherless child, whereas the burden placed on a black single-mother may prove debilitating to any socio-economic mobility. Access to education, which ties into economic self-sufficiency, is another tool at the disposal of liberals. And finally, many liberals, and here I am talking Whiteamericans, lack the social stigma in the broader American context when it comes to marital infidelity and any love children produced from it. Sarah Palin’s daughter comes to mind as an excellent example. For the latter, I find it ironic that a social stigma should be created for blacks outside of Black America, but not inside it. In other words, Black America has lost its own social stigma for illicit sexual activities, where this might have served a useful purpose, and instead has served to only resurrect or re-animate the specter of pre-Civil Rights racist attitudes towards blacks in the public sphere.

It is my hope that we, as a community, can come together and embark on this journey towards public and private morality, towards embracing and embodying the Prophetic actions, characteristics, and wont of God’s Messenger, such that we can please both God as well as offer solutions to a world that is in deep moral and spiritual trouble.

Joe Henderson’s If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem, with George Cables, Lenny White, Woody Shaw, Tony Waters. Recorded live at the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, California, 1970.