Black, Muslim, American: Interview with Dr. Jamillah Karim

The Islamic Monthly: What shapes or has shaped the African American Muslim female experience the most in your opinion?

Jamillah Karim: African American Muslim women’s experiences are vast and diverse. At the same time, we share a history of racism in this country that has real economic consequences for our communities. This legacy has also affected our family structures in complex ways and our identities as women—as wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters. We share a common religion that we feel blessed to have inherited, especially given sometimes hard life circumstances, but our approaches to Islam are also varied, as are our experiences within different Muslim communities. Our individual narratives as African American women in the larger society, although heterogeneous, do allow us to bring a unique understanding and appreciation of Islam that often distinguish us from Muslim women of other ethnic or cultural experiences.

TIM:  Has racism and disparity in economic opportunity created differences in identity formation between African American and immigrant Muslims creating different ideas of place and purpose in American society?

JK: Many African Americans converted to Islam because they saw the faith as overcoming racism.  They read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and believed in his description of Islamic brotherhood and his testimony that Islam would remove the race problem in America. Others witnessed the Nation of Islam giving African Americans cultural and economic dignity.  Even in the fold of global Sunni Islam, they envision Islam as a means to building stronger families and communities for the people with whom they most identify, African Americans.  This notion of empowering African Americans through faith in God certainly informs African Americans’ sense of purpose and place in American society. This Islamic ethic of standing up and establishing justice, immigrant Muslims also hold, and it shapes their identity and purpose in America. However, they differ in how they carry out this Islamic ideal.  When immigrant Muslims think about injustice, they tend to think about U.S. foreign policy and the perpetual effects of European colonialism abroad. They relate to the struggles of poverty and war in their native lands; however, living in affluent white neighborhoods in the U.S., many immigrant Muslims have very little connection to communities of poor in America, particularly black and Latino communities.  Because immigrant Muslims are so removed from America’s underprivileged, some African American Muslims criticize them, accusing them of failing to live up to their Islamic duties in the U.S.  African American Muslims say that in order for Muslims to emerge as a model faith community in America, Muslims need to actively stand for justice in America.  They need to truly care about domestic poverty.  They need to fight U.S. racism.  They need to form alliances with other Americans to do the work of justice. 9/11 backlash has made immigrants more concerned and vocal about racism and injustices in America. But unlike the case for African Americans, economic disparities do not significantly inform their struggle for inclusion and place in American society. Rather anti-immigrant prejudices, exacerbated by 9/11, more directly influence how they assert their identities as American Muslims.

TIM: Have Muslim Americans on a whole become too concerned with the notion of a unified Ummah (Muslim community) that transcends race and ethnicity to the point that they overlook real racial and class divides that are perhaps alienating and marginalizing African American Muslims?

JK: My first response is that American Muslims are not concerned enough about the ummah ideal. The ummah ideal seeks to create brotherhood and sisterhood among Muslims. This would entail coming to know and respect the concerns, issues, and struggles of different ethnic groups in the ummah. If we truly sought to embody this ideal, immigrants would work especially hard not to alienate and marginalize African American Muslims. They would genuinely attempt to understand how a legacy of racism deeply affects their communities and families and go to great lengths to make sure that racism is not perpetuated in Muslim communities. My second response, however, is that I do think we sometimes romanticize the concept of a united ummah to the point that we imagine or pretend that racism does not exist in American Muslim communities. We can see this played out in the dialogue between an African American Muslim woman and two immigrant Muslim women in my article “To Be Black, Female, and Muslim.” When the African American woman tries to express how she feels discriminated in an immigrant mosque, the other two immediately discount her observations and accuse her of overemphasizing race. In other words, they dismiss her as being too race conscious. When she explains that she now prefers to attend an African American mosque because of the racism in the immigrant mosque, they accuse her of violating the ummah ideal, of self-segregating. The two immigrant women refused to acknowledge that the ummah ideal just doesn’t exist in most of our communities. We can’t pretend that racism doesn’t exist just because Islam prohibits it.

TIM: Almost all visible African American Muslim leaders today are male. Why are Muslim women leaders not more visible in the larger Muslim American community and African American Muslim communities?

JK: I think we need to reassess how we define leadership. From the outside, it might appear that men represent the overwhelming majority of leadership because they are the ones in the public as prominent spokespeople. Within African American Muslim communities, however, women are very visible as leaders, as principles and directors of schools, as editors of newspapers and magazines, as advisors to youth groups, as members of mosque and school boards, as founders of social service organizations, among others. If others do not see the strength of women in our communities, it is because they have an outside view. However, I would agree that in all of our communities, we don’t give women enough opportunities to speak to and advise the community on a public level, but this does not mean that they are not leaders.

TIM: While Muslim Americans have become more assertive in the public sphere, whether it is political or social, have Muslim advocacy groups spearheading this greater assertiveness done enough to leverage their growing influence to articulate the African American community’s concerns and experiences to members of the immigrant Muslim community in America and American society at-large?

JK: Ideally, Muslims should stand against all injustices. Pragmatically, however, Muslim advocacy groups do not have the time and resources to take on every cause. It is quite understandable that issues and concerns relevant to Muslims would be their priority. The problem is that we often define “Muslim issues” as the issues affecting primarily Arab and South Asian immigrants. Muslim advocacy groups tend not to define systemic disparities in the areas of education, employment, and housing as “Muslim issues” even though they affect African American Muslims and poor or refugee immigrant Muslims. But, to be fair, there is an abundance of advocacy groups that are dealing with issues affecting poor and marginalized Americans, so perhaps we can say that Muslim groups are addressing the concerns of Muslims that have been neglected by other advocacy groups, and this is important. However, I think that Muslim advocacy groups should demonstrate their support and concern, even if symbolically, for the welfare of other groups in the larger society. Just as they make public statements against terrorism or profiling of Muslims at airports, they should make statements against hate speech targeting African Americans and Latinos. We should, however, encourage and support Muslim advocacy groups entirely dedicated to serving a spectrum of American communities.

TIM: Do you think racism has become over time subtly ingrained within American Muslim organizations to the point of being institutionalized?

JK: We live in a society where racism has been institutionalized in almost every dimension of social life, from churches to schools to residential neighborhoods. Where there are organizations and institutions free of racism, it is because there has been a deliberate effort to confront attitudes and policies that have been passed down over generations. Why should we expect that the American ummah would be protected from this deeply rooted social problem if we have made no real efforts to consciously acknowledge and address the ways that members of our communities are shaped by racial attitudes in the larger society? Muslims in America are affected by the same race and class boundaries that divide our neighborhoods and schools.

TIM:  You write in your paper “To Be Black, Female, and Muslim: A Candid Conversation about Race in the American Ummah that “immigrant Muslims enjoy a level of privilege and power over African American Muslims.” Can you explain what you mean by this?

JK: Muslim immigrants are socialized to respond to African Americans in ways that most immigrants to the United States are, that is, distancing themselves from African Americans, especially their neighborhoods, as part of assimilating into the dominant white culture. In the process, they become complicit in anti-black racism.  Even though they don’t enjoy white privilege as whites do, they do acquire some benefits as they seek to claim whiteness.  This is the major way that I see immigrant privilege.  Also, immigrant Muslims come from multi-generation Muslim families and cultures, and, therefore, tend to imagine themselves as better Muslims over African Americans, who are largely a community of converts and their Muslim-born children.  When African Americans have had negative experiences with immigrants, they tend to ascribe this bad behavior to all immigrants even though it does not represent them all.

TIM: Those promoting and talking about Islam in America at the beginning to the middle of the 20th century were Blackamericans who created political, social and cultural institutions and a visible presence in many large cities. What happened to these individuals and organizations? Were they marginalized, perhaps purposefully, as immigrant Muslims came to the US and built their communities?

JK: There were multiple and competing African American Muslim groups that emerged between the 1920s and 1970s. Many of these groups did not survive because they presented false Islamic ideologies that were bound to lose their effect and grip on sincere followers. Others disappeared because of corruption or because they were too dependent on charismatic leaders who eventually loss hold on their followers for various reasons. The group that had arguably the most visible presence in large cities was the Nation of Islam. Indeed, we still see the positive legacy of this movement today as it has produced leaders and communities that continue to make substantial contributions to American Muslim life. In particular, the community in association with Imam W.D. Mohammed has mosques and schools across the country. Other African American Muslims, who were never a part of the Nation, have also made their mark in important ways. Of course, none of us have reached our goals in terms of creating sustained social, political, and cultural institutions. But I think that this is more a function of a lack of economic resources and strategy characteristic of the larger African American population and less so a function of immigrant Muslim domination. Certainly immigrant Muslims have affected our communities to some degree. But many of our communities have always functioned separate and independent of immigrant Muslims. Where we have fallen short of our vision, it is because of challenges specific to African American struggle.

TIM: What role have African American Muslim women played in the development of a uniquely American Muslim identity and scholarly tradition?

JK: African American Muslim women have played a significant role in developing multiple dimensions of American Muslim identity. In the Warith Deen Mohammed community, Clara Muhammad Schools demonstrate the amazing legacy of the mother of Imam W.D. Mohammed. She boldly resisted law enforcement when police came knocking at her door to return her children to public school. Because of her determination to educate her children in her home before the practice was legalized, she has been described as a pioneer of home schooling. Since then, women have always been at the forefront of shaping private Muslim education in African American communities. African American Muslim women have also contributed in the area of Muslim media, particularly newspaper, magazine, and cable television. They have founded and run countless social service organizations, establishing women’s shelters, family counseling, and victim advocacy groups. In honor of their cultural heritage, they have creatively interwoven African American and African aesthetics and style into the fabric of Islam, creating distinctively American Muslim dress, art, and performance. They have been among the first American Muslims to pursue doctorates in Islamic Studies or to produce scholarship about the American Muslim experience. On an everyday basis, as they work out what it means to live as Muslims in America—working outside the home, raising Muslim children, keeping their marriages intact, struggling through divorce, fulfilling Islamic duties like the hajj—, they have brought new questions given their unique set of circumstances as African American women, and subsequently offered profound responses as part of our common pursuit to establish American Muslim communities that embody the Prophetic model of obedience to God, mercy, beauty, and wisdom.

TIM: Who are undervalued or overlooked African American Muslim women leaders or scholars? How are these women contributing to the development of an American Muslim scholarly tradition and institution building?

JK: There are countless African American Muslim women leaders and emerging scholars. Sure to leave out some, I would commit an injustice to try to name them all. They are making contributions in the ways that I have described above.

TIM: Mosques in the Muslim American experience have gone beyond being only a place of worship to also being a place of cultural expression. How have African American Muslims fared, particularly women, in the creation and maintaining of mosques, as they relate to addressing their specific community needs, and the creation of the social norms that govern them?

JK: African American Muslim women in some communities have fared particularly well. They have had a major influence in the layout of mosque space to make sure that women are accommodated. They are active participants, and look forward to coming to the mosque as both a worship and social space. But even in these more ideal mosque communities, women have come across some difficulties with the dominant male leadership in terms of programming on certain social issues. This has led women to establish their own organizations outside the mosque, although they continue to work with the mosque community. Other African American mosque communities, however, have marginalized women.

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