Chasm Between African Americans and Immigrant Muslims
By Hasan Zillur Rahim
The rights of Muslims in America are being won to a significant extent by African American Muslims who continuously put their lives on the line, often paying the ultimate price. Immigrant Muslims can learn much from their rich, complex experiences but unfortunately, barriers of ethnicity and false pride have kept them from acquiring the dynamism that distinguish the goals and efforts of their indigenous brothers and sisters. They reap the benefits of their sacrifices, honor only the “successful” among them, the lawyers and the doctors and the teachers, but are indifferent toward those forced to wage grim battles everyday just to survive.
African American Muslims are cut off from immigrant Muslims by a barrier of ignorance and arrogance. As a result, immigrants often fail to appreciate the vital social role played historically by figures like Malcolm X or currently by Imam Abdul Am, an African American Muslim who arranged a truce between the L.A. Crips and the Bloods.
In the week following the riots in Los Angeles, I learned that the truce between the city’s most feared gangs—the Crips and the Bloods—had been arranged by one Imam Abdul Aziz. “This is like Jews and Arabs getting together—they’ve been killing each other since 1967-68,” one witness to the event said.
As a Muslim, the name Abdul Aziz intrigued me. Who was he and how did he achieve this improbable feat? With the help of a friend, I succeeded in contacting him. Abdul Rahman Abdul Aziz is a 42-year-old chiropractor in Inglewood. Born in Springfield, Illinois, he moved to Southern California in 1978. He is the Imam (leader) of the mosque there and also trains people for social work among troubled youth. The truce between Crips and Bloods, he told me, was the culmination of years of work. He added that there are Muslims doing similar work in East Los Angeles and Watts.
It struck me that Muslims in America who have had the greatest social impact—like Malcolm X—have been indigenous Muslims who have often put their lives on the line and sometimes paid the ultimate price to realize their goals. In successfully combating drug problems and gang violence in cities like New York, Detroit and Los Angeles, they have provided dramatic evidence of the contributions Muslims can make to America.
Immigrant Muslims like me, generally more well-to-do and educated, have by and large stayed away from such efforts. Is the barrier between indigenous Muslims and immigrant Muslims so huge that the social activism of one has no effect on the other? Abdul Aziz told me he was trying hard to recruit immigrant Muslims to join his group of social workers but it hasn’t happened yet.
Abdul Latif Taylor, a computer programmer in his 30s, converted to Islam about 12 years ago. “Do you see a lack of communication, a barrier between native and immigrant Muslims?” I asked. “Yes” he replied firmly. “Mostly it’s ... prejudice.”
He recounted one incident in particular when four African American converts made their declarations at his mosque but only a few members came over to shake their hands. “It was the most lackluster, depressing sight…No one seemed thrilled that Islam had gained four new adherents in a single day in that mosque.” The following week, a white American embraced Islam and the whole mosque erupted in joy. “Islam teaches that we are all equal in the sight of God. How can immigrants explain this? What Islam are they practicing?”
Zakiya Hyat, a nutrition consultant in San Jose and mother of six, says she is often asked by immigrant women what kind of Muslim she is—“I thought there was just one kind!”—and whether she can recite the Qu’ran and pray. When she goes to parties, she takes a book with her. “Otherwise I feel lost.” Are things improving? I ask. “Very slowly,” she replies. “But you must remember I have it easier than many. My husband is white.”
Tamir Qadree, in his late 20s, owns a cleaning service in San Jose and converted to Islam in his late teens. When I asked him about the barrier between immigrant and native born, it was as if a dam burst. “You immigrant Muslims don’t understand us and don’t want to,” he said. You think you are more educated, know more about Islam. The fact is, you were born in a Muslim country to Muslim parents, that’s all. We discovered Islam on our own. You are content with what you learned in the past and just sit on it. We try to find ways to apply Islamic teachings to our society in meaningful ways, in creative ways.”
Tamir believes relations will improve only with the next generation. “Your children will be far better than you because they are growing up in this country. They know America better than you and will know how to use Islam to better this society.”
The African American Muslims with whom I pray are, in fact, strangers to me. Yet it is African American Muslims who have shown us what true Islam is. I want to tell my fellow immigrant Muslims and myself: get off your pedestal! The only thing that distinguishes us from one another is piety and service to fellow humans.
Our African-American Muslim brothers and sisters do not need our sympathy; we immigrant Muslims are really the ones in need of it. It is time we put our Islamic sense of brotherhood collectively to the test, for if we cannot break barriers between ourselves, how are we to help, as Muslims, break the class barriers that exist in America today and that have already brought so much sorrow?
Editors note: This problem of racism/nationalism within our communities must be faced honestly, discussed, dealt with and solved if we are to become an Ummah. I have seen the indifference Br. Taylor talks about with my own eyes and cannot deny his observation - however I have also seen (and personally experienced) the fact that the “eruption of joy” at the conversion of a white American lasts only a few minutes - Mash ‘Allah, Takbir, hugs - and the next time they come to the mosque, puzzled looks as if to say ‘‘are you still here - why?” In an article called THEN AND NOW Mertze Dahlin (a European American from San Francisco) said: “At times, however, it was awkward being a white American Muslim. It made no difference whether I visited one of Elijah Muhammad’s black Muslim temples for a meeting or a traditional Muslim group in an area I wasn’t known: I was suspected of being a spy from the CIA. It is amazing how fear of the unknown bows ill both directions.”
Another European American who went “overseas” to find a safe Muslim environment for his children wrote back that he is coming home because: “This has been a disappointment. I was hoping to perhaps find a haven here for my children from the dangers and challenges they’ll meet as young Muslims in America. But a “foreigner” here can never truly be part of the society, whether a Muslim or non-Muslim. The foreign workers are here to provide a service and that’s it. They are an entirely expendable commodity to be bought at the cheapest possible price. If I learned nothing else, I learned that for me there is no escape from being an American. I may be a Muslim, but my point of view, concerns, fears and hopes are different from the believers here. I feel very defeated! I worry terribly about my children, but the religious movement here is from my point of view in the direction of an idealized past that I can never be part of. I have to live with the guilt that I can’t cope with life here, that the longer I stay here the more sad I become and my spirit is weakened I will have to return to the struggle, and struggle hard in the U.S. to save myself and those I love from a fire whose fuel is men and stones. And we Muslims in America need each other and we should never forget it. TAM helps and thanks you for sending it.”
Originally published in the Fall 1992 print edition of The American Muslim.