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.