Racial Politics In Muslim America
by Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad
With all that is going on regarding post September 11th alarms and false alarms, mass detention of Muslim immigrants, new policies in immigration and islamaphobia, is it now an appropriate time to address the race issue amongst Muslims in America? Some would say no, that it is an issue better shelved until a later time. On the other hand, ignoring the problem or denying its existence may only exacerbate the current immigration dilemma.
Many immigrant Muslims find themselves caught between two forces of east and west. While desperately wanting to become whole Americans, to be an accepted part of the melting pot in the tradition of the Italian, the Irish, the Polish, the Jews, and others, many of them have found that newly gained citizenship or a shiny new green card, does not guarantee acceptance. Those who unwittingly thought themselves immune from wholesale discrimination and targeting were stunned in the aftermath of September 11th. The fact that most immigrant Muslims were just as appalled, as everybody else and the fact that hundreds of Muslims were among the victims in that terrible act did not stem the hemorrhage of hate that was immediately directed towards them.
With almost daily new calls for anything from mass deportation, fingerprinting and denial of basic rights, to Nazi style registration, the situation looks like it may deteriorate before it gets any better. We should keep mind that Japanese Americans were not interned in concentration camps until eighteen months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The separatist nature of the immigrant Muslim community does not help their case. Although there are exceptions, for the most part in American cities, immigrant Muslim communities are conspicuously separate from their indigenous American Muslim counter parts.
Sure, immigrant Muslims have made a hearty college try at becoming anchored to American community life. The problem is they opted to be anchored to the mainstream white American community, a course that has a few drawbacks. One is that, America, with all her amber waves of grain, is a distinctly western, mostly white and non-Islamic community that will never accept Middle Eastern Muslims or former Muslims unless they totally repudiate their prior beliefs and become full-fledged Christians, especially now, given the current political climate. “And the Jews and Christians will never be satisfied with you until you follow their way”. Two, is that the two cultures are fundamentally different, and Muslims from the Middle East and the Indian sub continent do poor imitations of good old boy Americans. In my opinion, this strategy will ultimately backfire on the immigrant Muslims because as the moods of the country changes, deep-seated hostilities against Muslims will be unleashed upon them.
Although African American Muslims constitute only 23% of the Muslims in America, one thing can be said about them; they understand the political terrain, they have battled racism on this continent for 400 years, and they have learned how to flex their power. African American Muslims not only understand America, we practically built the place!! We could have told the immigrants that a few invitations to white house dinners do not equal policy changes. We could have told them that political organizing, unless you have a whole lot of money to spend, is done from the bottom up, not from the top down.
American Muslims are able to give da’wah and build communities of Muslims without the threat of deportation. And since we did not come here for our piece of the American pie and only recently have had access to it, we aren’t threatened by losing it. Thus, a more prudent direction for the immigrant community would be to have aligned themselves with their American Muslim brothers. Perhaps, had they done so, they wouldn’t feel so alienated now, especially during these times.
As for the so-called Muslims who come to America and abandon Islam, American Muslims have very little in common with them and would prefer that they turn around and go back where they came from. They shame our religion and deter our invitation to Islam. The immigrant Muslims who run the party and liquor stores in inner cities do a poor job at representing what Islam is all about, even if, they have placards hanging in the store with Allah’s or the Prophet’s name on them.
The image of the Muslim woman adorned in Islamic headgear behind the liquor store counter, gleefully accepting money for an Olde English 800, or rolling off lottery tickets, is not exactly the image that we as Muslims in American are trying to portray. As an American, why would I want someone to come here simply to contribute to alcoholism, gambling and unreasonably high grocery prices? And as African Americans, we deal with enough racism as it is. Why should we promote or agree with importing more of it?
Americans in general are still pretty uninformed about the racial demographics of Islam. Although public discussion of the subject is still relatively taboo, many American Muslims will tell you story after story about the ill and condescending treatment they receive from immigrant Muslims. If the extent of racial prejudice and racial-ethnic separation amongst American Muslims were known by the masses, it would add fuel to the anti-immigrant sentiment.
Although racism is still practiced in America, blatant racism in no longer status quo. Even rednecks are prone to take umbrage at blatant racism when they are not the ones doing it. This is why the allegations of slavery in the Sudan and Mauritania were taken so seriously by the mainstream, even though we still practice slavery in our own prison systems in the form of free labor. Americans still practice racism against blacks but they don’t want any non-white people doing it. It like they are saying; “these are our niggers, and if anyone is going to discriminate against them, it will be us”.
Many immigrant Muslims have found great degrees of acceptance in mainstream American society. In many cases, acceptance is not without a cost; the cost of almost totally abandoning their religious culture. After all, for an immigrant Muslim, to become a “real” American, he has to not only pass the rigors of INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services), he has to celebrate Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, drink Budweiser, and wave the flag. Many Arabs, Pakistanis and other Muslim immigrants have done just that. Is it enough? For some perhaps, for others apparently not.
The failure to amalgamate the Muslim community into a non-nationalist, colorblind community has aggravated the problems currently facing Muslim immigrants. Since they are separate from the majority of the American Muslims, particularly their most suitable allies, African American Muslims, the latter has become ambivalent at best and totally oblivious at worse to their plight. If fact, outside of Islam, indigenous American Muslims have little in common with people from the middle east. The food, the music, the dress, the sports, the way we think, they are all different. If we cannot demonstrate to the non-Muslim community that we have settled the racial problem in Islam, we lose the claim to moral legitimacy.
So how do we go forward? First we need to build a Muslim community based upon Islam and not race or nationality. Secondly, we have to address the issue of post-colonial programming. Thirdly we have to realize that before being American, Arab, black or white, we are Muslims first. Furthermore, we are obligated as Muslims to be united by Islam; it is considered fard (incumbent). Allah clearly says: “And hold ye fast to the rope of Allah together and do not separate”.
Racism is prohibited in Islam, and both immigrant and indigenous Muslims living in America need to realize that. Besides, indigenous and immigrant Muslims both have something to offer to the collective. They can help us assimilate the Islamic religion, knowledge and culture. We can help them learn how to live in the United States without making a fool of yourself or your faith.
Imam Ahmed is Imam of Masjid Ibrahim Islamic Center in Sacramento, California
Visit Imam Ahmed’s site The Lotus Tree Blog at http://imamluqman.wordpress.com/