Black Mus­lims seek unity in chal­leng­ing times

Iden­tity is­sues a mix of religion, race, eth­nic­ity


DEARBORN, Mich. - In her job as a refugee case man­ager, Fa­timah Fa­rooq would come to work in a hi­jab and speak with her clients in Ara­bic. Nonethe­less, she found her­self be­ing asked whether she was Mus­lim.

It’s not easy, Fa­rooq says, nav­i­gat­ing her dual iden­ti­ties as black and Mus­lim.

“I’m con­stantly try­ing to prove that I be­long,” said Fa­rooq, who now works in pub­lic health. “It’s re­ally hard not to be an out­sider in a com­mu­nity — es­pe­cially to­day, in the cur­rent times.”

Many Mus­lims are reel­ing from a U.S. pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tion that’s cracked down on im­mi­grants, in­clud­ing a travel ban that sus­pends new visas for peo­ple from six Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries and is now tied up in court. But black Amer­i­can-born Mus­lims say they have been pushed to the edges of the con­ver­sa­tions — even by those who share the same religion.

They say they often feel dis­crim­i­na­tion on mul­ti­ple fronts: for be­ing black, for be­ing Mus­lim and for be­ing black and Mus­lim among a pop­u­la­tion of im­mi­grant Mus­lims. Fa­rooq, whose Su­danese par­ents came to the U.S. be­fore she was born, said her own fam­ily used to at­tend a largely African-Amer­i­can mosque but then moved to a pre­dom­i­nantly Arab one — yet in both cases still felt like “out­siders.”

The iden­tity is­sues have rip­pled into so­cial media with Twit­ter’s #Be­ingBlack­AndMus­lim and @BlkMus­limWis­dom formed in re­cent weeks to am­plify sto­ries of black Mus­lims, whether it’s to praise Ma­her­shala Ali, who is black and be­came the first Mus­lim ac­tor to win an Os­car, or to ex­press con­cern over the lack of black speak­ers at a re­cent Is­lamic con­fer­ence.

Ac­tivists say they’re seiz­ing the op­por­tu­nity to unite Mus­lims of all back­grounds.

Kashif Syed, who lives in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C., area, grew up in a fam­ily of South Asian Mus­lim im­mi­grants around Detroit that was in­su­lated from black Mus­lims. Now that he’s part of a young pro­fes­sional Mus­lim com­mu­nity, he’s try­ing to honor the ex­pe­ri­ences of oth­ers.

“We’re see­ing in­creas­ingly vis­i­ble threats to Mus­lims across the coun­try now — it’s an im­por­tant re­minder of what black com­mu­ni­ties have en­dured for gen­er­a­tions in this coun­try,” said Syed, who vol­un­teers at Town­hall Dia­logue, a non­profit fos­ter­ing dis­cus­sions about U.S. Mus­lim iden­tity.

Shamar Hem­phill, a black Chicago na­tive who works for the In­ner-City Mus­lim Ac­tion Net­work, said Repub­li­can Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­ders such as the travel ban have made or­ga­niz­ers “quadru­ple” ef­forts to form al­liances, in­clud­ing re­cent calls for Mus­lim groups to at­tend and or­ga­nize around Martin Luther King Jr. Day events.

“We’re go­ing to come to­gether and pro­tect each other,” he said. “It’s also a great op­por­tu­nity be­cause it brings us out of our si­los.”

Other at­tempts at unity have been made over the years. Imam Zaid Shakir at the Cal­i­for­nia-based Zay­tuna Col­lege, a lib­eral arts Mus­lim col­lege, has de­liv­ered lec­tures about sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the Prophet Muham­mad’s farewell ser­mon and King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” The Coun­cil on Amer­i­can-Is­lamic Re­la­tions holds events around the birth­day of Mal­colm X, a Na­tion of Is­lam mem­ber who came into main­stream Is­lam. And IMAN in Chicago has cel­e­brated hip hop, fea­tur­ing Mus­lim rap­pers like Grammy-win­ner Rhymefest.

Asha Noor, whose fam­ily fled So­ma­lia’s civil war when she was a baby, helped or­ga­nize a town hall in Fe­bru­ary af­ter Trump an­nounced his first travel ban, which blocked trav­el­ers from seven pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim coun­tries and put the U.S. refugee pro­gram on hold. That ban has since been re­placed with a newer ver­sion.

Noor said she feels there’s less at­ten­tion paid to the plight of refugees from her na­tive So­ma­lia and Su­dan, the two African coun­tries in Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der. She sees it as part of a “con­tin­u­ous era­sure of the black Mus­lim ex­pe­ri­ence.”

“Black Mus­lims often face a twofront chal­lenge, both within the com­mu­nity and the larger Amer­i­can so­ci­ety,” said Noor, who worked for Take on Hate, a cam­paign chal­leng­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion against Arabs and Mus­lims. “You can never be too sure if as­saults or mi­cro-ag­gres­sions are com­ing be­cause you’re black, Mus­lim, or both.”

Cen­tral to the is­sue, ex­perts say, is that Is­lam is largely por­trayed as some­thing for­eign. That’s a mis­con­cep­tion Univer­sity of San Fran­cisco pro­fes­sor Aysha Hi­day­at­ul­lah en­coun­ters when teach­ing an “Is­lam in Amer­ica” class where she looks at Is­lam’s pres­ence in Amer­ica from the slave trade to civil rights — some­thing that is a sur­prise to many of her stu­dents.

“It’s a class that is fo­cused mainly on re­cov­er­ing the black mem­ory of Is­lam in this coun­try,” she said. “That’s the el­e­ment that’s for­got­ten.”

Com­pared with the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, U.S. Mus­lims are more racially di­verse with a larger per­cent­age born abroad. There’s dis­agree­ment on how many mil­lions re­side in the U.S., but it’s com­monly ac­cepted that Amer­i­can blacks rep­re­sent about one-third of Mus­lims in this coun­try.

Ab­dul Rahim Habib, an Amer­i­can­born col­lege stu­dent, said even his close friends as­sumed he con­verted to Is­lam be­cause they didn’t as­so­ci­ate be­ing black with be­ing Mus­lim. That’s even though the 21-year-old’s Nige­rian fa­ther and grand­par­ents are Mus­lim. While grow­ing up in Chicago, he could re­mem­ber mo­ments when Arab Mus­lims re­fused to greet him with “As-SalaamAlaikum,” a wish of peace cus­tom­ary among all Mus­lims.

“A lot of our Arab broth­ers and sis­ters didn’t re­ally care about be­ing broth­ers and sis­ters un­til this point when they started hav­ing prob­lems,” he said.


Fa­timah Fa­rooq, who coun­sels refugees from places like Iraq and Syria, tries to nav­i­gate be­ing black, Mus­lim and the Amer­i­can-born daugh­ter of im­mi­grants from Africa’s Su­dan.

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