Can African American and Arab heritage Muslims ever form a united ummah?

A fascinating issue at the centre of American Islam is whether Muslims of African American heritage can ever meaningfully unite with Muslims from an Arab/Middle Eastern background. Looking through several academic papers and articles, here are some of the key challenges:

  • African American Muslims have traditionally been more interested in the concept of asabiya or nation building whereas Arab Muslims see themselves as part of a global ummah or community of the faithful. Can both parties move beyond this to create an American Muslim ummah?
  • African American Muslims have a far longer history in north America going back to the slave trade of the 16th century when Muslim slaves were brought over from West Africa
  • Looking at a city like Detroit with a large Muslim population, it was African American Muslims who first got political and organised in 1930 by forming the Nation of Islam. From the outset, this group emphasised the special position of black people in the eyes of Allah. Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad went as far as to claim he was a new messenger with a message specifically for African Americans – a notion that would be anathema to most Muslims
  • In the post-war period, most Arab Muslims viewed the Nation of Islam as an African American identity issue and nothing to do with mainstream Islam. However, the Nation of Islam moved away from its racial definition of Islam in recent decades and quietly dropped Elijah Muhammad’s claim to prophethood
  • Continuing to look at Detroit, the picture on the Arab Muslim side is interesting because of the strong presence of Shia Islam. This means that not only is there a division between Arab heritage and African American Muslims in the city but also a fracture between Shia and Sunni Arab Muslims. However, research seems to indicate that Shia and Sunni in Detroit want to work closer together
  • In Detroit, Arab Muslims have tended to migrate to the suburbs alongside white Americans while African American Muslims carried on living in crumbling inner-city areas. Arab Muslims have also, until recently, been classified as ‘white’
  • It has been argued that race has often trumped faith with ‘white’ Muslims discriminating against African American Muslims. Some claim that Anglo converts are received with more enthusiasm by Arab Muslims than those from African American backgrounds
  • Some commentators have been accused of regarding immigrant Arabs as the first legitimate Muslims in the United States, de-legitimising the African American experience. It’s insinuated that African American Islam is not genuine while Arab Islam is the real thing
  • Immigrant Muslims tend to enjoy a significant wealth gap with African American Muslims – earning ten times more according to one survey. It also irks African American Muslims to find newer Arab arrivals regarding themselves as the de facto leaders of the ummah in the United States. One reason is the command of Arabic, the language of the Prophet, and their roots in the Middle East
  • African American Muslims do not tend to segregate women to anywhere near the same extent as Arab Muslims. In fact, women have often played leading roles in African American Islam

This is a subject to which this blog will return to frequently.

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Why are there so many Muslims in US prisons?

A report released in 2012 by the Pew Research Center estimated that about 9% of the US prison population was Muslim. What made this statistic particularly shocking was that Muslims made up less than 1% of the population in the United States. This huge over-representation continues today – so what is the reason?

muslim_inmates1Conversion to Islam behind bars plays a big role in bumping up the statistics. Research has shown that 80% of all conversions in US prisons are to Islam. Converts include Hispanics, African-Americans and whites. Approximately 35,000 prisoners convert each year totally about 420,000 new Muslims introduced to the faith behind bars since 9/11.

The question being debated among prison experts in both Europe and the US is whether adopting Islam contributes to the rehabilitation of prisoners or their radicalisation. Some in the system claim the former but examples of radicalised prisoners are not difficult to find. Back in 2005, Kevin James was sentenced to 16 years in prison for plotting to attack Jewish and military facilities. He had formed his terrorist group, Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh, while behind bars.

In 2014, Alton Nolen beheaded a work colleague just after being suspended from his job. It transpired that he had been converted to Islam during a previous jail term in Oklahoma. His conversion seemed to result in improved behaviour and Nolen was released early. The attack he then went on to commit came at a time when Daesh was beheading hostages on film and releasing the footage on social media. Nolen’s Facebook page had a beheading image as well as a photo of Osama bin Laden.

There is a long tradition of conversion to Islam in US prisons, for example Malcom X and Eldridge Cleaver who came to national prominence in the 1960s as radical African-American political activists. The question is whether those converting today are subscribing to Islam as understood by most of the world’s Muslims or instead to a violent Islamist/salafi-jihadi ideology. It also has to be established who is doing the radicalising. More often than not, it’s assumed to be cellmates but we will investigate in future blog posts whether some chaplains play a role.

Anger at a list of alleged “most dangerous anti-Muslim extremists”

On October 27, 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center published what it claimed was a “field guide” to the fifteen “most dangerous anti-Muslim extremists”. A post on the SPLC website website explained:

Ever since the Al Qaeda massacre of Sept. 11, 2001, American Muslims have been under attack. They have been vilified as murderers, accused of conspiring to take over the United States and impose Shariah religious law, described as enemies of women, and subjected to hundreds of violent hate crime attacks.

It went on to allege that a network of anti-Muslim extremists and their “enablers” had been demonising the entire Islamic faith, characterising Muslims as terrorists and determined to undermine the US constitution. The SPLC got together with three other organisations – Media Matters for America, the Center for New Community and ReThink Media – to compile this field guide primarily aimed at journalists.

A stated aim of the guide was to encourage newsrooms not to use these voices as they would spread falsehoods about Islam and encourage hate based violence. The fifteen names included anti-immigrant voices like Ann Corcoran as well as high profile blogger Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, both of whom have attempted to forge links to Europe’s Far Right and have been banned from entering the UK. But more contentiously, the field guide listed Majid Nawaaz, a former Hizb ut-Tahrir member who has campaigned in the UK against the Islamist ideology he once adhered to.

Nawaaz works at the Quilliam Foundation, a group that takes a strong position against both Islamist ideology and the salafi-jihadism of Daesh and Al-Qaeda. Its anti-Islamism and support for the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy has earned Quilliam the ire of Islamist-inclined groups who reacted very favourably to the field guide and bated Nawaaz with his inclusion in the list of anti-Muslim extremists.

The problem with the field guide is that while Geller and Spencer are undeniably hostile to Islam as a faith, Nawaaz is a practising Muslim. He opposes Islamism as a regressive ideology within Islam as opposed to denigrating his own faith. He wants Islam to be reconciled with liberalism and western values, a far cry from the implied allegation that he seeks to provoke hate crime against his fellow Muslims.

So what was the evidence against Nawaaz from the SPLC?

  • Nawaaz reportedly claimed: “The ideology of non-violent Islamists is broadly the same as that of violent Islamists; they disagree only on tactics”. This is an argument about the tactics employed by Islamists but makes no general statement about Muslims as a whole.
  • He called for the niqab to be removed in “identity sensitive” areas like airports and banks. Many feminist Muslims would take issue with this intrusion into women’s rights and in light of events in France, where niqab bans have been championed by the Far Right, one hopes Nawaaz would drop this suggestion in future
  • He tweeted the infamous Jesus and Mo cartoon, leading to death threats against himself. Here, the SPLC falls into the Islamist trap of defining Islamophobia beyond attacks on Muslims and their property to calling for blasphemy laws, the like of which were scrapped a hundred years ago in Europe and have been viewed as undemocratic and unconstitutional in the United States
  • The SPLC mentions his trip to a strip club, reported in April 2015. What relevance this has to being an alleged “anti-Muslim extremist” is anybody’s guess.