Race as Weapon and Ideology in America
by Amad Shakur
“The last part of this ummah will not be rectified except by that which has rectified the first ummah”.
Malik Ibn Anas
“ Ideology is a western concept hardly translatable into Arabic or Persian. Once Islam itself is interpreted, not as an all embracing religion or al-din, but as an ideology that serves a particular movement or regime as its ideological prop in the modern sense, then the failure of that movement or regime reflects upon Islam itself. In that case, either people loose their faith or begin to scrutinize the actual nature of the forces that have presented themselves as Islamic”.
Seyyid Hossein Nasr
“I do not imagine that the white and black races will ever live in any country upon an equal footing. But I believe the difficulty to be still greater in the United States than elsewhere…but as long as the American democracy remains at the head of affairs…it may be foreseen that the freer the white population of the United States becomes, the more isolated it will remain”.
Alexis De Tocqueville
Democracy in America (1835-40)
Before the West considered itself a civilization, or the world recognized the threats from the European expansionist enterprise, occurrences identifying the powerful in tribes and local societies forced leadership to assume its position. During the formation of early communities, groups took advantage of their diverse skill sets to form alliances with divergent tribes and their competencies. Liaisons of this nature satisfied the needs of daily life and commercially encouraged the shaping of early civilizations. Leadership, with its negotiating talents and vision of creative optimism recognized group inadequacies and frailties as being the causes of restricted access to natural resources for one community and the opportunity it presented to another. Communal survival dictated that people bargaining from weaker positions rely upon the empathy of leadership to accentuate the risks and ensure the benefits of an alliance with those from the outside posing dangers or with access to essential resources. From these interactions privileges were born and from creating market access leadership grew to unquestioned power, which envisioned the purpose and created the language of the state. Privileges became the birth right of powerful classes or the goal of individuals rising through the social hierarchy. However ascension to the exclusive social ranks that addend rights to its tribal or religious members has been a challenge since early times.
It was the character of the state mission and how executive power was sustained which determined its stability and longevity. How state actions were received and interpreted depended upon the sagaciousness of the elite and the nature of the translation to their polar opposite, the subordinated. Instituting and sustaining the role of power was the goal of the politically astute, religious authorities, and military dictators, which managed to define and seize the moment, and in many cases evolved into dynasties. European philosopher Edmund Burke once wrote, “I know of nothing sublime that is not some modification of power”. Burke was profound as he including in his scope of defining power the subjective, invisible, and the mystified as bearers of influence. In the defining years of early civilizations the central role of leadership helped to moderate group fears of the weak, which possessed limited access to resources for human survival. Through relationships that involved protecting vulnerable people from outsiders and lessening the field of competition for the goods needed for human life, frail and marginalized peoples traded their freedom of movement for the security of settlement and autonomy. To take advantage of the opportunity to accommodate and exploit mass anxieties, ruling powers rose to secured positions by coercion or physical domination, which was more likely to ensure longevity. The ability to control tribes was made certain by the safety afforded from the powerful status quo bequeathed to the powerless.
Because polities experienced untenable problems of cooperation leadership guaranteed the means and alternatives for communal survival.
Gradually leadership classified opposing groups based upon sets of identifying factors such as the geographic location of tribes, language, the natural resources available to them, the fashion by which deities are worshipped, or unique and distinguishing physical characteristics.
Civilizations have mastered the tools to build power bases by strategically constructing meaning behind group differences, through their cultural traits and racial features. Group distinctions were exposed by communicating through symbols, codes and systems, an understanding, a belief about the world, whether the objects of belief are real or imagined. Empires have created and shaped illusions about the universe, and people, which allow controlling structures to remain in power and exploit opportunities for the accumulation of political capital and economic dexterity. From the texts of world mythologies linked to ancient empires we are provided a peculiar philological value, and insight into the depths of cultural and political persuasion, the racial dimensions of human engagement, philosophy, and the interpretation of religion as a weapon to control.
Race, as symbolic myth, has served as an ideological weapon shaping and defending sanctioned religious positions and imperialistic strategies. Racial definitions have protected the position of the economically privileged and actualized resulting social morals. Heterogeneous capitalist societies have primarily but not exclusively flourished with the retention of class ranking through false characterizations and scientifically inspired notions that race is biologically deterministic and exclusive; that social behavior, intelligence and cultural expressions are derivatives of race; both ideas have become fundamentally essential to the foundations of Western racial segregation and class hierarchy. The contentions of racial classification have been masterfully employed by many nations to justify the importation of certain people for labor. As early Western civilizations grew and gradually flourished, industries were driven and built on the dependence and inadequacy of some people and the economic and racial motives of others.
Pseudo- scientific racial theories and historical myths used to justify racial classification were reduced to cultural narratives and eventually made sacred by academic canons. The logic for racial subordination and the classification of humanity was also found in the will of God expressing his approval for servitude by creating the anatomical suitability and mental temperament of subordinated people needed by the master race for labor. To ideologically demarcate those that used enslavement as a business from those that were designated for the profitability of the master race were not only the biblical declarations justifying racial theories but the acute social observations of a society in need of laborers. The conclusions were that because dark people exclusively practiced their own forms of social, religious and cultural peculiarities distinct from the European aesthetic, targeting race as an indication of inferiority proved invaluable economically and made ethical sense. Ethnic biases in essence stated that people and what they believed, how they looked, spoke, and behaved constituted a reason for fear; inevitably this group proved an ideal source to exploit. Biased views excluded the status of pre and post- colonial American indentured whites however with the same stroke racial concepts reduced Africans to the category of those born to be slaves.
Elliott P. Skinner in his essay, The Dialectic: Diasporas and Homelands offers this comment, “The white Christian enslavers of the Africans developed biological, cultural, and biblical theories rationalizing their deed. Asserting the biological and cultural superiority of white over black and invoking and misinterpreting the biblical story of the son’s of Noah, white Christians insisted that the Africans- the sons of Ham- were ordained to be servants to the whites, the sons of Japhet”.
African slaves were defined as a threat to all areas of civilized society except that of menial labor.
Distorted ideas of race and ethnicity exaggerated and maximized the gulf of future human incompatibility Race in America became the most extreme form of delineating and ultimately segregating one group from another. While race, even more than religion was used to display the disparate aspects of American society, fear created the violence for which its victims had little recourse.
By the late fifteenth century the West was beginning to engineer an impenetrably arrogant attitude to accommodate the import and more importantly the permanent ownership of slaves. Eventually stereotyping and coding of people based upon their rituals, beliefs, and idiosyncrasies resulted in race classification as civil law; and the spiritual justification for wholesale class servitude, economic and physical exploitation came from the authority of the Christian Church. Homi K. Bhabha, from The Location of Culture explains the importance of civil authority, “The civil state is the ultimate expression of the innate ethical and rational bent of the human mind; the social instinct is the progressive destiny of human nature, the necessary transition from Nature to Culture. The direct access from individual interest to social authority is objectified in the representative structure of a General Will- Law or Culture-where Psyche and Society mirror each other, transparently translating their difference, without loss to a historical totality”.
Collective ideological reflections are apparent in the civil nature of society and codes of conduct considered law emanating from its social positioning.
The enterprise of slavery flourished long before the idea of racism. Slavery has been a part of the galvanizing forces of economies and one of the black eyes of many cultures. Racism, supported by the scientific and religious communities followed later as a rationalization for slavery. Economic incentives shaped this enterprise, the dogma of racial and cultural superiority later enforced it and in the process Europeans caught and subdued people from Africa to perform the daily operations of potentially prosperous agricultural societies.
In Africa tribes familiar with raising cotton, tobacco, trained in metallurgy or animal husbandry demanded the attention of slave capturers hired by slave traders. There is no coincidence most Africans were able to acclimate themselves to the agricultural challenges of producing and harvesting crops with which they were familiar. With the growth and production potential associated with this side of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, slaves became international human currency of prime importance to class and empire. Since the inception of the slave economy, race has become integral criteria for servitude as well as instrumental in restricting and preventing access to privilege and the distribution of wealth, of which its inheritors continue to enjoy.
Bigotry, an essential aspect of the western belief system manufactured myths that demonized one group while rationalizations formed by the dominant class ensured social attitudes, if not legal segregation would sustain them. Domination was maintained by trepidation, enforced by bigotry and accepted by all, which afforded the privileged the power to institutionally exclude dissimilar races. Cultural and religious bias contributed to the devaluation of others, which supported the racism systemic in American institutional structures. Canonized racial views became the arbitrator to the distancing of the two Americas; the resulting isolation emanating from the invisible machine of racial exclusion haunting the consciousness of the majority community and marginalizing the disenfranchised. To be effective racist power required either the amenable moral position of society, the aggressive armed means, or the financial resources translatable into exclusionary power. To illustrate the definition of exclusionary power within the context of contemporary American labor, few individuals of the majority class operate the power machine enabling actions of a racially exclusionary fashion. When considering human capital for employment, the hiring community within corporate America poses a threat to minorities because of the capability to exclude based upon ethnicity; and though it is illegal, racial and gender discrimination is an undeniable adjunct to corporate America; conversely many of the elite class may be passed the mantle of power to enjoy the rewards of discriminatory practices.
Theodore Cross from his exhaustive study of the African American community, The Black Power Imperative, gives an appropriate example, “In economic terms, for example, the restrictions on black opportunities is about the same whether people openly display their prejudice or covertly decide not to hire black clerks, artisans or business managers. Thus, if any members of a majority group, acting without plan or premeditation, happen upon a collective decision to exclude blacks from certain public schools, the constraint is just as great as it would be, if open, violent, and virulent race prejudice were at work. When, as used to be the case, the majority of people quietly acts in concert to reject or boycott Negro labor, a severe economic force is brought to bear on blacks, even though none of what we think of as the traditional instruments of force, terror, or violence has been employed”.
From the American cultural perspective, race issues have generally become benign topics about minorities, however the contemporary term seemingly always implies a connection to Black Americans. However difficult it may be for Americans to grasp, the truth about the despicable marriage with Black people is ultimately its destiny is linked to facing and admitting past racial crimes. In the past Americans have managed to fashion a politics of avoidance when confronting social issues sensitive to race, class, and pontifical about foreign religions and cultures. The politics of avoidance clearly circumvents serious discussions and placates interventions that offer solutions and criticisms about how the topics of justice and equality pertain to minorities.
America has always considered race a topic about minorities; it appears America’s dominant ethnicity is beyond “race talk” and excluded from accounting for past immoral economic gains and summarily dismisses criticism for past social atrocities. The discourse of race is a composite of an aimless exercise about the uncontrollable frustrations and emotions of minorities. In denial America becomes defensive about the reasons for oppressed and stricken groups in America; nor does it admit its connection to the seminal beginnings of social impediments like racism and slavery. The focus and cause of the race discourse have only been intended to temper the behavior, monitor the movements, and control the environments of African Americans and now Hispanics. Within this paradigm America adamantly points to the stereotypical behavior of minorities. America seizes every opportune moment to privately disparage those of other races because of collective self- inflicted and retentive destructive patterns of social behavior; actions that confuse middle and upper class Americans.
In his introduction to The Color of Politics, Michael Goldfield mentions the place of the race discourse in America, “For all these views, race and racial discrimination are secondary issues in American political history. At most they are merely regional problems of the South, historically the most backward and supposedly the least important section of the country”. The relationship between the majority and minority communities established over one hundred years ago is a permanent partnership with historical roots but a contemporary bent now relying upon input from the growing but minority Islamic community.
Allowing expressions of culture, or broad brushed accusations about race to become the sole indicators of group worth and potential is the foundation of racial bias and the separation of people based upon mythology. The centrality of race as a weapon of ideology hinges upon the existence and thus success of social and cultural hegemony. To ensure continued class domination, racial myths are reborn, and re-scripted for modernity; they are re-directed and secured to guarantee the effectiveness and stability of racial superiority. Judging this society on the exactness of its class divisions, with which America seems comfortable, is indicative of a society structurally and morally flawed however dependant upon the existence of inequality.
Two decades ago Steinberg made a clear distinction between racism and ethnocentrism in North America. Since the unprecedented migratory wave to America around the turn of the last century, European immigrants became objects of discrimination for a time. To distinguish between the treatments received by Europeans and other ethnicities Steinberg demonstrated how European immigrant minorities of the late twentieth century were disparaged for their peculiar cultural expressions in clothing, food, music, and language. However what was suggested to European immigrants was contrary to the message sent to racial minorities. Embedded in the voice of a developing industrial nation was the message that cultural dissimilarities between Americans and Europeans are transmissible and forgivable. What was conveyed to those of other cultural and religious persuasions was ethnic and behavioral differences are not transmissible and will emphatically and forever keep Americans and others apart. Race was primarily the distinguishing factor for Steinberg. The distinctive indication of behavior was race and the perception of the object’s cognitive mechanism became indicative of his status and potential in America.
Compared to other heterogeneous societies, the disparity in treatment afforded to people of color in America was not only significant to the early development of this political economy, but also elemental to the growth of its nationalistic and imperialistic identity. The historical image of America is a country that exercised initiative to bring about national and global independence; and continues to reward acumen for individual accomplishment within a meritocracy; the recognition as the leading liberal component for world peace and freedom has for generations created international attention and unprecedented material worth. However American contributions to world culture reflect its treatment of minorities and the levels to which America reached to realize its prominence. Although speaking about the seminal awakenings of racial isolation on a regional basis in the United States, Levine suggests that, “Racism provided the glue that kept white Southern society from falling apart. Through the Civil War and even beyond, wealthy southern land- owners were able to convince poor whites that the division between white and black meant more than that between rich and poor. Thus white supremacy and racial slavery were developed, not primarily for cultural or psychological purposes, because of previously existing racial prejudice, but because they advanced the most powerful economic interests…”
The moral architecture of an ideal and model Islamic society is designed with the higher objectives of Islamic law to oversee the undertaking. The life of the Prophet Mohammad provides copious examples by which Muslims construct individual and collectives relations. Muslims have a glimpse into the foundations of compassionate race relations by reading of the fondness the Prophet Mohammad showed for, and the proximity of, Bilal and Zaid Ibn Thabit. This example shows how “extended family” can be diverse and multi-racial. In essence, the first ummah criticized racism, cultural superiority and reduced pre-Islamic ideological waste at that time commanding a prominent position in Arab society. Eliminating inequality was the exercise that rectified the first ummah and will be the vision by which the last ummah will be rectified.
W.E.B. Dubois, co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples, and a social critic of great renown predicted in the early nineteen hundreds that “The greatest problem for America in the twentieth century will be that of the color line. The history of the world is the history, not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations, but of races, and he who ignores or seeks to override the race idea in human history ignores and overrides the central thought of all history”. Dubois’ analysis resonates concerns plaguing the American Muslim ummah today. The color line, becoming distinct and pronounced, runs between cultures as well as through classes. Although the idea of race cannot be overridden, the color line has no place in Islam. This essay is not addressing the position of Islam, as that has been made emphatically clear by illustrations in the life of Prophet Mohammad. The personal convictions and beliefs of Muslims is the concern of this essay.
Pejorative perceptions of people of the African Diaspora manufactured in America and operating as ideology are not excluded from or diminished in the world of the Muslim. The position of many Muslims of color is one of uneasy optimism about immigrants migrating from colonial worlds unable to control and minimize the residual affects of colonialism and protest the tragedy of the West clashing with race. Nevertheless conspicuously absent from the national Muslim discourse is the level and significance to which immigrants coming from culturally and racially homogeneous nations with little experience incorporating and managing racial integration will confront and bring informed meaning to the conversation about the most heinous crime in American history, racism and the color line. For Muslims, America’s extended history of failure in race relations has produced an opportunity. It has set the stage for the Muslim community to produce solutions that broach this social sarcoma.
African Americans and Africans comprise the nether status in the national and international communities where these two groups are viewed as Islamically challenged, devoid of a culture historically affected by the spread of Islam, misinformed, illiterate of and distanced from the language and meaning of the Quran, products of either African American Christianity or African tribal animism. These attitudes are not unique and did not originate in the Muslim community. Since the Oriental invasion by European intellectuals in the late nineteenth century these racial views have increased in academic currency. They have become pervasive and painful to the degree that addressing the concern, curiously nonetheless, requires justification.
J. Spencer Trimingham is clearly historically trained and his writing influenced by the Orientalist tradition. In The Influence of Islam Upon Africa he refers to the virility of indigenous African religious expressions and how adamantly they withstood the onslaught of an at times intolerant Islam. In pre-colonial Africa the required Islamic institutions were established however Trimingham suggests the cadence and depth of religious conversion was glacial and token, establishing a dualistic structure remaining within African societies. The book traces the pre-colonial spread and development of Islam in Africa and with the same broad extraction echoes feelings from the Muslim world about African and African American Muslims. He notes that exposure to Islam was gradual because of the endurance of native beliefs as well as insufficient intellectual capital. Trimingham believes that progress was synergistic and conducted at the expense of traditional Islam. “In practical life theology is not an important factor. The important thing was the performance of the rites and the adoption of such customs that differentiate the believer from others, for this means that the beliefs are accepted even though they are totally unknown. Theology, therefore, is not taught because it is an unnecessary abstraction. Intellectual heresy, and curiosity too, is virtually unknown. In the Islam of Africa as in African religion, whilst religion and practice are fixed, the content and meaning of the ritual remains vague…Therefore although little theology is actually taught, a certain amount of doctrinal lore is absorbed in so far as it is fused in everyday thought and language. Many spheres of Islamic culture had little or no influence upon Negro Africa—the penetration of Sufism in the tariqas and saint cult was retarded or incomplete, while Arabic literary culture, theology, and philosophy, sciences and arts such as architecture, painting and calligraphy and the practical arts, were either completely absent or very marginal”.
The corner of the world by which African Americans and African Muslims are viewed and judged by other Muslim ethnicities is mainly uninformed, not progressive or influenced by the Islamic historical continuum dating from the ninth century in North and West Africa. Unfortunately the European versions of the Islamic continuum were not of significance to the colonial historian and thus were considered of minor import by western academia. Because of the continuum, some historians recently have considered the mass conversion to Islam by African Americans as a re-conversion. Their reasoning is that African American Muslims preserved the Islamic continuum through spirit and belief regardless of the passage of time, space or the subsiding of the religion. The continuum includes the history of religious and personal survival juxtaposed against Christian intolerance and codified barriers that discouraged and outlawed any religiously transplanted “foreign practice”. Certainly the nucleus of any displaced religion is vividly affected, but in spite of this dislodging, post- modern African American Muslims relit a smoldering but not extinguished Islamic torch on this side of the Atlantic. Collective memory and some recently discovered manuscripts by ex-slaves provide us with the understanding that the slave trade not only transported and unloaded African Muslims but traces of Islam onto the shores of the southeastern United States where the legacy barely survived under the racist suppression of ecclesiastical intolerance.
In the mid eighteen hundreds, Edward Blyden, the accomplished Pan-African scholar and historian known as the father of African cultural nationalism wrote in his classic work Islam, Christianity and The Negro Race of the unique character of the Muslim contrasted against experiences with his Christian brethren. As a Christian, educated in the United States and Great Britain, Blyden wrote extensively on cultural and religious life in West Africa. Having been a professor on the university level in Liberia and Sierra Leone Blyden not only taught descendents of African American slaves, he was dramatically affected by Muslim life, its semblance of cohesion and respect for tradition. Describing communal village atmospheres as productive and peaceful his work was visibly inspired by observing religious schools, the presence of trade with neighboring polities of dissimilar persuasions, and a government using what Blyden summarized as “Mohammedan traditions”. The obvious assimilation of the rites and rituals of daily Islamic life overwhelmed his writing to the extent that he never witnessed this “religious sophistication among any tribe or religion in West Africa”. Muslims are described in his writings as having character, and reflecting an ethical position and moral fiber in African society “not found in the African interpretation of Christianity”.
On American slave plantations, a few of these captured African Muslim slaves utilized religious education procured in Africa to cryptically document their thoughts. By covertly preserving belief in Islam as religion the mere process of documentation served as a symbol of resistance to slavery.
Sultana Afroz, a West Indian historian, in her work Islam & Slavery Through The Ages: Slave Sultans & Slave Mujahids provides insight into Muslim resistance to slavery: “The presence of Muslim families in Georgia, Maryland and Missisippi who are descedents of African Muslim slaves underscores the remarkable determination of the African mu’minun (Muslim believers) to preserve a distinctive lifestyle built on Islamic faith and culture. Many Muslim slaves, as soon as they set their feet onto the Americas, fought unceasingly for their freedom. Jihad / resistance in various forms became common features on the plantation of the new world. A common resistance to the slave system was the hijra / flight from servitude to establish their own ummah / communities based upon consensual leadership (shura) and Islamic tradition and culture in inhospitable and inaccessible areas throughout the Americas”. The human will to survive and manage destiny and the African experience of life indelibly carved itself into the souls of Black folk; this impression lived in the devote relationship Muslims have with, and the gratitude derived from, the omnipresence of the Creator.
Ellen Barry notes in Owning Omar,“...On Sapelo Island, in Georgia, a devout Muslim slave by the name of Bilali, who had been purchased in the West Indies, gave Muslim names to his 19 children and was buried with a Quran and prayer rug. Omar ibn Said left 13 manuscripts that still exist, including the newly rediscovered Life of Omar ibn Said”.
In Servants of Allah: Muslims Enslaved in The Americas, Sylviane A. Diouf says, “ The example of Omar Ibn Said of North Carolina is revealing. He was first presented as a practicing Muslim who ‘deemed a copy of the Koran… his richest treasure’…his autobiography written in 1831, opens with these words: ‘in the name of God, the merciful, the gracious,-God grant his blessing upon Muhammad”.
Diouf and others have documented the writings of another African Muslim slave, Ibrahima Abdur-Rahman. Abdur-Rahman, a slave for forty years in Natchez, Mississippi, “…appreciated by his masters and was well liked by the white population of Natchez, he remained faithful to Islam”.
Others have attested to the literary continuum initiated by West Africans however preserved by Africans in the Americas. It is easier to understand today and explain how teachers, imams, and even amirs encountered slave capturers and fell prey to the European’s brutal snare. A small percentage of traumatized slaves brought to the new world were literate teachers in Arabic; they were captured and enslaved while en-route to other village schools or mosques. To make sense of this incomparable entrapment, the role of patriarchy explains why African families naturally selected men to travel through unprotected crossroads to teach or increase the family’s opportunities for survival. The geographic challenges of forests, rivers and hills as a backdrop afforded foreigners the opportunity to subdue travelers and fulfill their contracts for human labor.
Sultana Afroz writes about the status of entrapped Africans: “A large proportion of the deported Muslims came from the intellectual elite who were educated in Arabic, Islamic jurisprudence and who could write with such beauty and exactness the Arabic alphabet and passages from the Holy Quran. They studied at centers of learning such as Jenne, Timbuktu, Kano and Bouna. West Indian histiography authenticates the literate and well-disciplined background of the Muslim slaves. The biographical notes of the slaves, many of them coming from mulay (princely) or noble families such as the Sherufa clan in Western Sudan which claims descent from Prophet Mohammad (saw)”.
In the early sixteenth century, The European Christian Church relied upon moral appeasement to justify and allow the legalization of the capture, confinement and exploitation of African people as a labor pool. Because of the amiable character of the native and no proclivity to universalizing his religious or cultural beliefs he was successful at establishing peace with bordering states in most parts of Western Africa; when coupled with his specific agricultural proclivities, the Western / Atlantic regions of the continent were made attractive to slave capturers. Although it was access to vulnerable and peaceful people, not necessarily Muslims that attracted slave capturers, conservative estimates suggest that Muslim slaves turned out to be as high as eleven percent.
The Church realized the solution needed involved classifying people of color as subhuman. By using race as a weapon of ideology, African slaves were classified for permanent slave status and exclusion from the portrait of humanity and the fruits of nationhood.
In North America Native American Indians were initially tested for slavery by working side by side with Africans and indentured whites. American Natives proved incapable of slave conditions based upon their lack of resistance to European disease and their acute knowledge of the local terrain as a means of escaping confinement. White servitude lasted for many years in the colonies. Treatment afforded to this class of European outcasts demonstrated the original relationship between slavery and economics.
Cedric J. Robinson from Race and Class. “ ‘White servitude’ soon necessitated by the destruction of native peoples, had been visited with degradations similar to those which later were associated with African labor. European workers were procured in Britain and the continent through prisons, illegal kidnappings, and the impressment of prisoners of religious and political wars… upon their arrival they were introduced to the whip, near- chattle conditions of labor, and a racial contempt for their class”.
Conventional wisdom placed every African into the sub-human category; as animals, not entitled to, nor capable of appreciating the treatment appropriated to humanity, slavery flourished as part of the American culture. Western ideological hegemony, of which its violence and segregation are umbilical cords, engineered a unique distortion and displacement of Western history to underplay and write out the African contribution to the growth and spread of Islam by pre-modern tribal Africans. This campaign misrepresents and misperceives the tribulations of former Muslim slaves and their alacrity for Islam as well as not recognizing the baton being passed by the Islamic continuum in modern times. Whether interrupted by the trans-Atlantic slave era, or the domination and subjection of colonial rule in Africa, African Americans and Africans have demonstrated the formidable accomplishment of maintaining the status of soldiers of faith and believers in the universal principals of Islam and freedom.
Sylvia Diouf confirms rebellion and defiance to slavery as synonymous with the rejection of Christianity as an equally oppressive and foreign religion. “On the African’s part, it is worth noting that, as was, and still is, -the case in Africa, the peoples that followed traditional religions were more willing than the Muslims to convert. This does not mean that they renounced their previous faith; rather, they incorporated whatever seemed useful in the new religion into their original beliefs… for that reason they did not exhibit the defiance of the Muslim, whose creed could not accommodate Christianity… Many had been deported to America because they had been fighting for or defending Islam in Africa. Warriors of the faith were certainly not ready to reject a religion for which they had risked their lives for freedom. Because of their origins and the circumstances in which they were captured, the Muslims were particularly unfit potential recruits for priests who were trying to make America a Christian land”.
The struggle for freedom in America, primarily envisioned and led by suppressed minorities of color, in many cases freedom meant the courage and space to practice Islam, is directly connected to the opulence Muslim immigrants enjoy today. Postmodern struggles for human and civil rights created an atmosphere whereby Muslim immigrants today benefit from a desegregated society, higher education, entrée to the job market, access to public institutions and the ability to marry outside of ethnicities. These rewards are made possible because African Americans in the plantation south began a struggle, endured suffering and collective memory preserved the feelings of freedom.
Dinesh D’Souza pays tribute to the struggle for freedom in The End of Racism, “In the United States I am no stranger to xenophobia, prejudice and discrimination. I also feel a particular debt to the civil rights movement, whose campaign on behalf of black equality helped to expand rights and opportunities for all citizens”.
Esteemed scholar and one of the preeminent intellectual voices in America, Cornel West, outlined the saga of the struggle for freedom in America however contributes another dimension to D’Souza’s comment. “Two hundred and forty four years of slavery and nearly one hundred years of institutionalized terrorism in the form of segregation, lynching, and second class citizenship in America were aimed at precisely this devaluation of Black people. This white supremacists venture was, in the end, a relative failure- thanks to the courage and creativity of millions of Black people and hundreds of exceptional white folk…”
What should bond Muslims in this national ummah are the commonalities of struggle firmly rooted in the historicity connecting human rights and freedom here and the independence movements of Muslims internationally. There should exist an affinity in place of the existing gulf, based upon the international attempt to destroy Muslim self-identity as well as a shared history of adversity and determination to define religious freedom. Years prior to World War One colonial invaders made joint and coordinated decisions to target for study and conquest the Near and Middle East Orient generally and the Islamic world specifically. Their decisions included utilizing influential Islamic cultural resources as political ammunition to explore and subjugate the racial Orient. Eventually the colonial powers, through political navigation and military determination parried for a debilitated Muslim shell and entered the region with the same fervor the forces of Anglophonia and Francophonia invaded and colonized Africa. As a result one time dynamic and vibrant Islamic regions of the Middle East and Africa looked to the world for help after its impending implosion coalesced to European irruptions.
Problematic is the disconcerting lack of Islamic affinity and interest in the disconnection of Muslim communities based and dependant upon cultural attachments. This is indicative of the direction likely to be traversed by the national American Muslim community over the next few decades. Racial and cultural gaps have fostered troubling anxieties that are debilitating and cannot be afforded or overlooked. Crucial local discourse about the location of culture and race in the ummah is disregarded, the consultation of local leadership is generally uninformed and thus becoming neutralized, and intellectual stagnation increases the desperation of the national discourse.
In the initial stages of building a national Islamic community, the cultural encampments within the local and national ummahs must understand the traditional American relationship of minorities to the American majority. The relationship can be summarized by the history of failed assimilation; a study in misunderstandings, misconceptions and myths enforced with strokes of violent interactions resulting in social distancing. The American character and nature has been formed from this aggressive imposition of power by bias, supported by the theories of racial and religious superiority.
However, the new face of America, will be influenced by the connection America has to racial, cultural and religious inclusions; models of social coexistence represented by the face of the ideal and diverse Islamic community. Americans will not be able to deny the weight and girth of the sacrosanct in Islamic heterogeneity and the presence it commands in the faith community.
The abyss between Middle Eastern, Eastern European, African and indigenous Muslim groups in America is symptomatic of the myopia of cultural isolation divisive to the national community. Typically what accompanies new surroundings for immigrants is fear of social rejection, a threatening racial environment, improper usage of language, unfamiliarity with customs as well as fear of cultural others. Some have suggested that because the gorges within the Muslim community are cultural and deeply dependent upon the location of language and the comfort customs provide for first generation Muslims, time will minimize the abyss. Cursory analysis might support the proposition that barriers of this nature are natural and in time will be organically reduced or alleviated. These fragile and often impotent explanations have not consoled those dismayed by the lack of progress in human relations inside the ummah relegating some groups to others. For this and succeeding Muslim generations to succumb to Western cultural biases and social beliefs that have strained and stalled racial relations in America since the mid nineteen sixties, is to compromise the basic Islamic epistemological understanding of communal equality. Muslims adhering to new political and racial identities of the dominant class enabling the appreciation of cultural assimilation into American society may unconsciously become racially compliant, simultaneously compromising Islamic values of equality.
The foundational structures of model Islamic societies, envisioned by the Prophet Mohammad are distinguished from the nefarious and hypocritical racial segregation maintained in America. It would be of the utmost imprudence that Muslims reflect the docility demonstrated by Americans accepting or by indifference condoning the malignancy of segregation and the fatality of racism tied to the crisis in America.
Under the compulsion of American identity politics, cultural and racial devotions acquire different modes, textures and as they unfold the contours left are variegated. American identity politics will demand, from second and third generation offspring of European and Middle Eastern ancestry, choices as to which side of the divide their political and cultural loyalties are engaged; and to emphatically replicate standard racial sensibilities. The meanings of postmodern Islamic identities verses contemporary Western cultural and political assimilative identities will clash and become of psychological concern.
Because Muslims borrow and rely so heavily on an enormous volume of western intellectual capital, the prowess of American identity politics of the past forty years has forced ambitious immigrants to re-prioritize their thinking; and over-value the cultural models of America, as they have enticed and compelled personal achievement and the accumulation of wealth at the expense of Islamic identity. The prevalence of western norms, modes of behavior, and moral conduct surge Muslims of the international community towards American democratization, progressive education, the western theories of knowledge, and the habits of western social interactions. Because these propositions are draining into the Islamic world, also accepting and complying with the Western hypothesis of race undoubtedly comes into question.
The power of American cultural identities was designed to negate and systematically punish those not of the dominant racial class. By way of material reward it strongly encourages newcomers to abandon any identity that poses a threat to the majority community. As Muslims are asked to demonstrate their disapproval of terrorism, the servitude of women, the primitiveness of Islamic cultures, the response from Muslims will determine in what mode and manner future political power bases are formed. The power of American cultural identity politics is the power of domination.
In an essay, “Giving Whiteness a Black Eye”, Michel Eric Dyson gives domination a historical context, “From the very beginning of our nation’s existence, the discursive defense and political logic of American democracy has spawned white dominance as the foundational myth of American society—a myth whose ideological strength was made all the more powerful because it was rendered invisible. After all its defenders did not have to be conscious of how white dominance and later white supremacy shaped their world views, since there was little to challenge their beliefs. Their beliefs defined the intellectual and cultural status quo. In that sense the white race—, its cultural habits, political practices, religious beliefs, and intellectual affinities—was socially constructed as the foundation of American democracy”.
The idea of a united, classless and race-less ummah initially attracted most African Americans to accept Islam. However as reality surfaces, sober is the state most people of color realize after being exposed to and contemplating derogatory racial comments and cultural condescension from Muslims. Cultural and racial inclusiveness, communal harmony and collective freedom are Islamic models of civilization and traditions Muslims have the luxury of introducing to Americans. It will require however the presence and voice of a determined Muslim community. The Islamic model of social interaction fosters an undertaking diametrically opposed to racial and cultural exclusion, which in the West has functioned as a weapon of ideology for institutional racism and societal segregation.
With the unprecedented and immeasurable growth in the national immigrant community, racial and cultural predicaments are growing exponentially. To critique the Muslim cultural and racial paradigm might reveal a reflection of America’s racial melancholy.
The new Islamic model of social inclusion initiated through diverse leadership deals with an Islamisized intellectual framework focused on addressing the widening racial and cultural gap.
Within the Muslim community the Islamization undertaking, pivotal to restoring and refurbishing Islamic values, begins with the violent de-colonization and exorcism of Western biases that mask the potential behind Islamic themes and its insight on social integration. The appeal is to bring two worlds to rediscover the thresholds of confluence and embrace the issues emanating from the current crisis. This exorcism has the hope of sending a message to the Muslim constituency and to the American people that the Islamic position on racial and cultural inclusion is proactive and must be uncompromising.
In an informative essay Modernizing vs Westernizing, Rafik Habib, although commenting on the Arab world, is passionate about the de-colonization process, “A new dynamic outlook is needed and serious attempts at change have to be made, some of which may fail while some may succeed, until the Arab world attains the alternative that gives genuine expression to its aspirations. The stages of such a process can be visualized as a set of radical mental operations which lead to an acceptable and appropriate solution. This stage is marked by outgrowing the present state of scientific and intellectual adolescence and cultural fanaticism. All previous attempts have failed because the Arab world could not see a better way than the imported one…”
The de-colonization process is not a broad sweeping cavalier attitude portraying the West as satanic or a militant dismissal of all successes and contributions moving the West forward. The violent de-colonization of the Western bias is stated to dramatize the urgency and importance of restoring Islamic dignity. It is a methodology to re-appropriate, refashion and reinvigorate the Muslim. Islamic humanity needs to reclaim and reconstruct its original principals as many exhausted religious groups through history were redefined and recreated from within. The answers are to be found in investing in the new face of America and challenging the existing obstacles ahead. The existence of a Muslim society within North America is dependent upon the ability of future Muslim generations to adopt identities that express affinity for the freedoms of American life without dissipating their alacrity for Islam or diminishing their current potential value as a civic model in the new millennium. New post-modern Islamic identities must confront the issue of race relations and develop the sensibilities to improve what could potentially become the beginning of a spiraling down- fall for the Islamic community.
The carefully plotted and precipitous fall of the Ottoman Empire relied upon the decline of Islamic values and principals; they were systematically arrested by secular authorities, tried, convicted, and replaced by western mores. Islamic values traditionally cherished by Muslims were threatened and eventually discarded by the progress of the West. To coalesce with the wave of secularism considered progress, this empire subordinated values considered by the West to be out-dated, as modernity had destroyed their useful application. The lessons from the Ottoman Empire are immense, with broad appeal to any developing Islamic community within Western society.
In an informative and courageous analysis of the current Muslim predicament, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi in Islamic Awakening summarizes what he considers to be a “preoccupation with side issues”; it is apparent that a lethargic and haughty intellectual atmosphere contributed to the plummeting of the Ottoman Empire and currently distracts Muslims from demanding matters, “Intellectual shallowness and lack of religious insight also manifest themselves in an intense interest in marginal issues at the expense of central ones—- those which could affect the existence, identity, and destiny of the whole ummah. There is excessive and unnecessary talk about growing a beard, wearing robes below the ankle, moving the finger while reciting tashahhud in prayer, acquisition of photographs and so on. Unfortunately such time wasting debates persist and occupy our thinking at a time when we are being confronted by the unrelenting hostility and infiltration of secularism…”
The focus and work for the Muslim intellectual of this era is broad. His work is to make sense, and further explain to a diverse immigrant community the cavernous complexities of the social and racial historicity segregating and thus crippling this nation. In the process the discipline required of the Muslim intellectual and leadership necessitates indicating a definitive awareness of American cultural complexities; an awareness that appreciates the current crisis and is empowered to fashion clinical perspectives unique to four areas.
The first subject is to highlight the history, causes and contemporary ramifications of racism in the West generally, and feature with concrete specificity the affects of systematic discrimination as it pertains to three very powerful systems: how wealth is distributed, access to education, and employment.
The second area is the discussion around the lingering consequences of racial stereotyping, social dehumanization and how they form the imperceptible prowess behind the shaping of the dominant culture.
The next area of crucial importance is to demonstrate the cooperation and intent of the Muslim community to provide new perspectives to the discussion about the cultural and social positioning of the advantaged in relation to the disembodied of America.
The final theme must articulate the methodology needed to demystify, then purge, both dominate and subordinate groups of the stigmas causing ineffective dialogue about the place of culture and race in America and the faith communities.