Why Black American Muslims Don’t Stand for Justice - Part 4
by Abdur-Rahman Muhammad
With the inauguration of the 1990’s, the Muslim American community was in the firm grip of the immigrants, a result of being better educated, better organized, and awash in cash. They grew so dominant in both strength and numbers that the small, humble communities of Blackamerican Muslims could no longer compete, and over time completely lost their baring and focus. Perhaps not consciously, but by the sheer weight of immigrant dominance and its insular outlook, Blackamerican Muslims were influenced to turn a blind eye to the grievous conditions of their neighborhoods and communities. Some however did not require much pressure, but were themselves all too ready to assume an “alien identity” (Arab, Pakistani, or whatever) in order to facilitate an escape (at least in their own deluded mind) from the realities of being Black in America (more about that in the final installment).
During the late eighties and early nineties we saw wealthier groups of immigrants of every persuasion (Salafi, Sufi, Ikhwani, etc) establish a plethora of new organizations, such as 1.) CAIR, 2.) Holy Land Foundation, 3.) Qur’an and Sunnah Society, 4.) American Muslim Council, 5.) Muslim American Society, 6.) Islamic Assembly of North America, 7.) Muslim Public Affairs Council, 8.) American Muslim Alliance, 9.) Islamic Association of Palestine, 10.) Islamic Supreme Council of America, and others, in addition to the ones already existing, ISNA and ICNA. Their national conferences would grow in size and come to be run more professionally. And I have not even included in this discussion the many large suburban masjids, Islamic Schools, and Muslim businesses that broke ground all around the country; edifices that most Blackamerican Muslims - being inner-city dwellers - would find inaccessible through public transportation. Contrary to this picture, Blackamerican Muslims did not have a single national organization (other than those under Imam W. Deen Mohammed’s leadership) and were fighting an uphill battle to retain the little “storefront” masjids they did have. I vividly recall a number of these sincere, humble efforts to establish storefronts or “house” masjids during this period. To my recollection, none of them lasted more than two years, with most folding within a matter of months.
Meanwhile, something entirely different was happening on the larger scene. This same period (late 80’s early 90’s) witnessed the deterioration of inner cities (DC itself became a war zone), police corruption, drug dependency and outright racism. No one was responding to the cry of the people. The nightly news brought us ‘Tom Brokaw Special Reports”, which depressingly reminded us of the worsening conditions in the black community and how the black male - as if a beast - was declared an “endangered species” in the corridors of academia. The 1991 Rodney King Police beating finally provided the Black community the long awaited proof of a long history of police brutality by the L.A. police department. The 1992 acquittal of King’s Police attackers ignited a wave of rioting and was seen as emblematic of the systemic racism and injustice in society.
Rap and Hip Hop became a potent vehicle channeling the frustrations and growing commitment of the youth to Black consciousness and race pride. Artists such as Public Enemy, KRS-1, Boogie Down Productions, X-Clan, Ice Cube and an assortment of other talented voices were chanting slogans like “no sell out“, “Fight the Power”,”knowledge of self“, “by any means necessary“; even going so far as to invoke pseudo-Islamic mantras in their songs, speeches, posters, and album covers. Popular during this period which I remember well, were leather Africa medallions with the continent of Africa emblazoned on the front. Imbued with a sense of racial pride and self respect, people again were hoisting the red, black and green Pan-African flags. We even saw many whites, Asians and Latinos donning these items that seemed to be visible everywhere you turned.
Somehow or another this youthful demographic got the name “Generation X“, but I don’t think the originators of the term had any idea what the “X” really represented, at least to these impassioned Black youth. To them the “X” meant only one thing… Malcolm X. Malcolm had become a powerful symbol for this new resurgence in Black history and culture. Movie producer Spike Lee released a three hour bio-pic of the mythic figure and even the President of the United States sported a fashionable “X” baseball cap. Some cultural critics during this period wondered aloud whether the new “Malcolm X Revival” was genuine or merely the contrived hype normally attending movie releases. They argued it was a fad, a creation of Pop culture lacking any depth or substance. Admittedly there were some elements of superficiality to the phenomena, but that in no way diminished the strong sentiments of race consciousness which were then informing all aspects of Black life. One cannot forgot that during this period “Afrocentricity” experienced its peak in popularity, and after many spirited discussions and debates, Blackamericans settled upon the term “African-American” as the race’s new designation. No, the interest in Malcolm X was real and heartfelt, and his handsome visage became a powerful symbol and rallying point for these enthusiastic youth. Even the Black churches couldn’t resist the force of the Black Muslim’s influence, carefully working his name and community-empowerment message into their weekly sermons. After carefully reflecting on the events of those days, I have come to the undeniably painful conclusion that being unable to find a live Muslim leader to emulate and follow, the youth clung desperately to the image a dead one.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X was reprinted in hard cover and again became a huge best seller, along with all of his taped speeches. There was a “revolutionary” (in purely social terms) spirit amongst the 1990’s black youth - and that spirit was romantically vested in their martyred hero, Malcolm X. Additionally, these youth expressed contempt for any kind of “turn the other cheek” philosophy. They wanted the ‘revolutionary’ fervor represented by Malcolm. Talk on the street and Black universities concerned “the struggle” and making changes to the corrupt system. We began to see folks greet each other with as-salaam alaikum, sport kufis, and generally disparage “the system” as much as possible. The mood of hopelessness and despair that carried over from the 1980s, along with renewed interest in Malcolm X, provided a nutrient rich, fertile ground for the revival of Islam.
My purpose in attempting to relive the events and feelings of the 90’s was to help us understand, and fully appreciate, the magnificent power of Allah to aid and support His religion (May He be praised and glorified). Before preceding any further, it is necessary to first debunk the absolutely fallacious idea that the incredible growth of Islam in America in the 1990’s was the result of some superior “dawah” effort. It most certainly was not. Allah created the conditions and factors on the ground that primed the people to hear and receive His word, an act decreed fifty thousand years before the earth’s creation! Allah is the best of planners and He guides whom He pleases. It is this that explains why with so little effort, or no effort at all, we witnessed “people entering Allah’s religion in crowds”
I clearly remember this period when scores of young people entered the fold of Islam, many of them at my own hand (Al Humdulillah). It was truly astonishing to behold, and we could in all honesty claim that”Islam was the fastest growing religion in America”.
Unfortunately, here is where the story turns depressingly grim. Had those beautiful Black brothers and sisters - full of passion and zeal for their people and community - been left alone in their innocent “A. Yusef Ali Translation” kind of faith (simple and pure, no heavy “ilm”) they could have changed the community and Allah certainly knows best. But Masha Allah.
After they became Muslim the spirit of activism, community involvement, and social justice was immediately stamped out of them and declared to be of “no benefit” and even “blameworthy”. This act was perpetrated by some immigrant based groups like the Tablighi Jamaah (who, God forgive me, I’ve never understood nor particularly liked), but more importantly the Saudi trained imams who were returning to the states, carrying with them a heavy bundle of strange and alien ideas.
New Muslims who happened to fall under the spell of the Tablighi Jamaah were taught that activities like community involvement, civic responsibility, social activism, and (God forbid) politics, were, to use their language, “worldly” (seeking dunya). All one had to do is concern himself with “purification of the soul” to be a good Muslim. This teaching was of course seized upon by the less reputable brothers in the community and seen as a license for laziness, all the while cloaked in the garb of piety.
However, the Tablighi Jamaah’s influence on Blackamerican Muslims paled in the face of the Salafi Juggernaut which blazed out of the deserts of Arabia, with vast petro-dollars fueling them. Those Saudi trained imams relentlessly criticized and vehemently denounced community involvement! They also managed to convince these new Muslims to discard any notions of improving their societies, but rather, to adopt a posture of isolation and disengagement. This debilitating - indeed pernicious - philosophy would find its way into the Salafi literature and taped lectures, and easily spread throughout the country.
In any event, these 1990’s youth had stores of pent up energy and had to direct it somewhere. Their revolutionary fervor was most often aimed at other Muslims; shouting others down and demanding that all Muslims adhere to the strict literalism that they were being taught (or brainwashed). And what was totally incomprehensible to me - bordering on the retarded - was the way that many of these Salafi “Kool- Aid drinkers” slavishly defended the Saudi throne. Or as one brother put it on the boards: They had more allegiance to Saudi Arabia than their own neighborhoods. I had the “opportunity” to attend a few of their lectures and conferences where they openly mocked and belittled Muslims who believed in community activism, actually calling them unseemly names. They looked down their noses at senior Blackamerican Muslims and take them for ignorant old fools. In general, their complete lack of respect and extremely poor adab (etiquette) toward seniors - Muslim and non-Muslim alike - is disgraceful and shocking! Their teachers taught this etiquette (?) and quoted past scholars (out of context) that were appearing to justify their isolationist positions.
They developed a new industry of tapes and books, which these youth voraciously consumed, being very studious in their new religion while at the same time embracing this new Salafi movement in large numbers. In general, they tended to know more Arabic and appeared to know more about the religion, which could be intimidating at times to other Muslims. As I mentioned earlier, we can credit them for introducing a heightened awareness of aqeedah issues amongst the Muslims, but even this they take too far. For while at the same time that they display an appallingly morbid attachment to theological hairsplitting, they would also insist on absolute conformity in thought and personality.
It is my firm belief that the absence of any kind of indigenous Islamic movement remained the biggest single factor in the ascendancy of the Salafi Movement. By the time it appeared on the scene, all the movements that had preceded it were long since gone. There was nothing to offer these enthusiastic youth, so as a result many of them embraced the Salafi message. They actually fled the more established Blackamerican masjids in order to form their own “Salafi masjids”, or to be more accurate, take over existing ones. The more senior, largely self-taught imams were simply out of their league when compared to the Saudi trained brothers. Through dazzling displays of linguistic fluency and apparent erudition, they were able to bleed the more established masjids of their youthful blood.
If a Blackamerican new Muslim managed to avoid the Salafi movement‘s madness, they probably attended an immigrant dominated masjid where they would be treated to khutbahs about Palestine, Kashmir or some other conflict overseas, and never about what was going on in their own neighborhoods.
So instead of becoming agents for positive change in the community, these young Muslims were instructed to disengage from society, and by so doing be assured of having the correct aqeedah. Really, could anything be more ridiculous than that? What kind of cruel hoax got played on these romantic dreamers who embraced Islam with a passion to change the world, only to be morphed into extreme isolationists who saw no value in bettering the societies in which they live? “Gaining knowledge”(one of their buzz terms) became a goal in and of itself, as opposed to a means of improving our condition and practicing our religion. This is why you found brothers using the excuse of “seeking knowledge” as reasons to not take care of their families and responsibilities. I simply do not have the energy at the present moment (nor do I suspect I ever will) to reiterate the sophestry that poses as an argument for the self-evidently false doctrines of the Salafis. I’ll let the last remnant of their dead-enders do that for me (if anyone really cares to know). I just wondered how on earth we arrived at such a crossroads with our youth that so many of them could be so easily be persuaded to abandon community activism and making a difference. By the end of the 1990’s, thoughts of community involvement and activism had long since vanished from the hearts and minds of these Muslims. Further, because of the bizarre mix of immigrant dominated movements and their issues being pushed firmly to the forefront in that decade, we started to see identity issues in these same youth - who were getting older - in force by the turn of the century.
The attitude of the Muslims in general throughout the 1990’s left us open to a rift between the Muslims and the Black community. Whereas this relationship was strong in the past, these groups had successfully, religiously convinced the Blackamerican Muslims to distance themselves from the communities they grew up in. The Blackamerican Muslims had taken a back seat to the immigrants and were carrying their water and Islam was ceasing to be a force in the Black Community. But as I suggested earlier, I suspect that the main reason Blackamerican Muslims don’t stand for justice is because its easier to simply not be Black at all.
Visit Abdur-Rahman Muhammad’s site “A Singular Voice” at http://singularvoice.wordpress.com/