Black, Muslim, American: Interview with Rep. Keith Ellison

Interviewed by Arsalan Iftikhar, TIM’s Senior Editor


The Islamic Monthly: Professor Sherman Jackson (University of Michigan) says in a recent book that thus far, no one has given a convincing answer as to why Islam has been able to spread so prevalently amongst Black America, as opposed to Hispanic America or White America. Please give me your thoughts on this assessment and the following statement: “The assumption has been that there has been an African connection to this phenomenon, but in fact, Professor Jackson shows that none of the distinctive features of African Islam appear in the proto-Islamic Black Nationalist movements of the early 20th century.” What are your thoughts, Keith?

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN): I think there is an element of African retention, but I also think that African-Americans need today a spiritual/ideological framework to break out of the strictures of a religion which taught you to be servile. Not that Christianity, as properly presented, is about servitude. But if you talked to the African slave, it was about servitude. A lot of African-American theologians have remade Christianity to enhance human dignity. But you cannot deny that for a very long time it was a tool used to keep people in their place.

TIM: Interesting…

KE: One of my favorite books is “Jesus and the Disinherited”. It shows that Christianity and any faith is about human dignity and unity and is not about teaching people to accept being less; you know? How do you enhance your own humanity without hating people who you believe deprive you of it?

TIM: That makes sense. Professor Jackson also states that American Islam owes its momentum to “the distinctively American phenomenon of ‘Black Religion’, a God-centered holy protest against anti-Black racism that emerged out of the experience of American slavery.” Basically, how do you define ‘Black Religion’, Keith?

KE: ‘Black Religion’ is the idea that everything has forsaken you, but the Divine has not. It’s all gone, it has all been stripped; but there is still God and that’s all there is. You know, people struggling during slavery, man, who were they calling out to in those fields? Who were they crying for? Nobody could protect you; if you were a woman, your husband couldn’t protect you from your slave master. So, it’s the idea that the Lord will sustain you and is the only one that can get you through what you’re going through. In this light, the Islamic shahadah (“There is no God but God…”) makes perfect sense.

TIM: At the end of the day, we rely on God and God alone….

KE: That’s it.

TIM: Now, for many people, Islam in Black America began as part of a religiously-oriented communal search for tools with which to combat racism and re-define American blackness. The 1965 repeal of the National Origins Quota System, however, led to a massive influx of foreign-born Muslims or the ‘Immigrant Muslim’ population, who soon came to outnumber Black Americans who were practicing an indigenous form of Islam. Growing up, did you feel any sense of that dichotomy between being an African-American Muslim and those Muslims who may have immigrated to this country or their next generations?

KE: You know what, I associated with them as soon as I met them. I never sensed any tension. I have heard people talk about it, but I never sensed it. I’ve never gone through it. There’s a Christian idea of being ‘born again’. If you’re born in a Muslim family, you have to re-discover it for it to work. If all it is you is daily tradition, then I don’t know how you understand it. I think that everyone has to re-discover that Divine connection no matter what your age or background.

TIM: Detroit, Michigan. Your birthplace. Home of the Nation of Islam. W.D. Fard. Elijah Muhammad…

KE: Yeah, all that.

TIM: How central to the identity of modern black social identity would you say the NOI has been in the last century of its existence?

KE: Well, before Elijah Muhammad was saying, “You’re black,” people used to refer to themselves as ‘colored’ or ‘negro’. I mean, he was the first one to say “You’re black, be happy to be black. That’s how God made you, so be grateful for that.” I also think that Malcolm X inspired people to fight back and not to ‘take it anymore’.

The Northern Black experience was quite distinct from the Southern Black experience. Everybody who grew up in the North is only one or two generations removed from the South. For example, my mother is from Louisiana and my father is from Georgia (both Southern states), right? At the time, the Southern thing was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who had incorporated this philosophy of non-violent social change inspired by Gandhian principles. It was very bold and very courageous. But also, it taught a lot of self-control and there is nothing weak about it.

But Malcolm X had another way of doing it. He said that we’re not going to conform to your way of thinking. We’re bodacious, we’re strong, we’re unapologetic and we’re not going to take any crap. That had traction amongst many young black boys, who had been called ‘boy’ one too many times in the Civil Rights era. It was like, “Well, I need someone who isn’t going to make me feel weak, like a punk, a coward.” He kind of provided that boldness.

TIM: How would you say that Malcolm X evolved Black Muslim identity in the heart of the Civil Rights era?

KE: Elijah Muhammad was still very much like Booker T. Washington and insular. Malcolm X was fundamentally a ‘propagandist’. He was going to spread it. He didn’t come up with the message, but he was going to spread it. No matter what religion you were, you heard this guy up there talking and were like, “Man, this brother is talking strong. I know that the white folks don’t like that.”

Malcolm X spoke to a Northern reality. It inspired so much. After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was the first to set Black Muslims on true mainstream Islamic principles.

Because when Malcolm embraced Sunni Islam, he was saying that anyone who says that Elijah Muhammad is the ‘messenger’ is not talking about Islam to me. You are talking about something else. Good, that is your theology and you feel free to believe what you want, but that is not Islam.

The last Prophet and Messenger of Islam is Muhammad ibn Abdullah and not somebody else. And so, there you go.

Historically, Malcolm also inspired other young black nationalists like the Black Panthers out in California and also provided inspiration for SNCC (Student National Coordinating Committee), who were also an organization initially inspired by Dr. King.

Before that, Elijah Muhammad was the chief architect of African-American nationalistic race-centered philosophy with some elements of Islam. But, Malcolm X was the first to speak of this nationalism in terms of Sunni Islam.

TIM: What do you see as the next generation of Black Islam in America?

KE: You know, I will say that I think that Black Islam in America needs to see itself as part of the Ummah (global Muslim community). Also, it needs to have a special role in helping to interpret Islam to other Americans. I think there is a big role to play. Because, here’s the interesting thing, there is no religious controversy in the black community.

TIM: How are Black Muslims viewed by the greater Black community?

KE: Never a problem. We ain’t never had a problem (laughs). Think of The Million Man March.  We didn’t care. Even if they didn’t like him [Minister Louis Farrakhan], it was a unifying message. That’s an important thing to understand.

I think that African-American Muslims have to see themselves as part of the worldwide body of Muslims and also as Americans at the same time. We also see ourselves within the context of American society and might be able to help bridge America and the present situation we find ourselves in, vis-à-vis the Muslim world. Not that only African-Americans can do this, but I think there is an important role to be played and we need to step up more in that regard.

Here’s one observation I have about the American Muslim community, both African-American and um, I don’t want to call it the Immigrant community, because you’re not an immigrant. My wife’s of an immigrant background (Dominican Republic). No immigrant comes to America to do bad things. Immigrants come to this country to work hard and make some money. For example, we’re not seeing the average Pakistani on the American street; we’re seeing the cream of the crop. The most highly motivated and well-educated people that Pakistan has to offer, that’s what is here. Even though something like 60% of Pakistanis are illiterate; all the Pakistani-Americans that I meet are doctors and neuro-scientists. That’s because immigrants don’t come to a new country to do bad, you know what I mean? As a matter of fact, most people would just rather stay there.

So when immigrant Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, Turks and the rest, when they came here, a lot of them came here and were like, “Look, we don’t do politics. We do businesses…we don’t do politics.” (We both laugh)

And historically, African-American Muslims were inescapably part of that Nation of Islam milieu, which was “Politics was bad, leave them alone.” Therefore, there is some cultural baggage that comes along.

So you have two communities joined into one American Muslim community and neither that fired up about politics.

TIM: Is that trend changing at all?

KE: Completely. Very much so.
TIM: Do you feel that African-American Muslims and other Muslims should have the same political agendas or do you think that people’s politics should be based on their ethnic and demographic breakdowns?

KE: Because Islam is so universal and basically, I believe that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) came to obliterate tribalism and racism. So you can be whatever your tribe, we’re not telling you not to be that. Unfortunately, our communities have a lot of tribalism and all Muslims have to understand that in order to truly practice our faith, we have to promote brotherhood and sisterhood and both sides can help each other.

The African-American community has proficiency with civil rights and dealing with problems here. The ‘immigrant’ Muslim community can help with their higher levels of education and greater financial resources.

TIM: People like yourself, Barack Obama and Deval Patrick (first African-American governor of Massachusetts) are seen as the next generation of young African-American political leaders in this country. How do you see yourself in terms of following the legacies of the Al Sharpton’s and Jesse Jackson’s of our nation?

KE: I admire them. I think they’re great. I think we owe them a tremendous debt. I have nothing but love and respect for them. But that’s not the end of the story.

The second part is that if you stand on the shoulders of a giant; is it good enough to simply see what the giant saw?

You’re standing on the shoulders of a giant, so you have to see further than them.

As a Muslim, I love all colors. Secondly, the challenge today is about how we can pull people together, across racial, cultural and religious lines. How can we bring people to the point where there is no ‘black air’ or ‘white water’?

These are barriers to human solidarity. We need to eliminate these color lines for the greater mutual benefit.

I think the predecessor generation sees more barriers and I am trying to break them all down.

This generation has its own challenges to overcome. Global warming, seemingly perpetual war, middle class prosperity, health care, all this stuff. There has to be multiculturalism and religious plurality.

We have to oppose terrorism and oppose religious totalitarianism as well.

The people who would say that you’re not a real Muslim unless you have a beard; these are silly people. The person who shot down and killed [former Israeli PM Yitzhak] Rabin because he wanted to make peace with the Palestinians, these are not the people who are standing up for Judaism. Then, Christian types like Reverend Pat Robertson who says that [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez has to be killed, these people are religiously intolerant and only see one way to be human and that has to be their way.

And then there’s the rest of us who believe in God’s infinite and vast wisdom that maybe ‘I don’t have all the answers’. So if someone has a different way than I do, than that’s okay.

My mother told me that three plus one equals four. Your mother may have told you that one plus three equals four. Maybe they both add up to four.

TIM: Some final thoughts on what you see as Islam’s role in Black America and Black America’s role within the framework of Islam.

KE: Black America’s role within Islam is to help interpret American culture to our other members of the Muslim Ummah. I think that Black Muslims role in African-American community is to hopefully say that there’s more than one way to seek the Divine. You can seek it through Jesus or through Muhammad, peace and blessings upon them both

Then of course, African-American Muslims’ role in American society, generally, is to help our fellow country men and women interpret our post-9/11 world.

For example, is the best way to promote safety and security to harass every Muslim who goes to the airport? Or do we try to make friends and welcome our Muslim-American population to help defend us all.

You know, there were Muslims who worked and died in the World Trade Center on 9/11.

What [Osama] bin Laden is talking about to us is what the Ku Klux Clan is talking about to a Christian. But most people don’t know that.

Here’s another thing. One of the easiest things to do when you have been offended is to offend the person who has offended you. But that’s not what Islam teaches us to do.

You cannot overcome evil with evil; you must overcome evil with good.

Because, think about it, man. Every surah (chapter) of the Quran opens up with ‘In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.”

How come Allah, who opens up every chapter with beneficence and mercy, but we don’t have any. They’re like, “I don’t have any mercy for them. I’m gonna get them. I don’t have mercy, I have revenge…”

And they say this is Islam…

Historically, in the black community, our women sustained us and kept us in shape. When black men were being locked up, thrown in jail, murdered and lynched, black women held families down and still do today. My wife, she’s holding it down in Minneapolis.

Muslim women have always played an integral role Muslim society. So when the Prophet’s wife was one of the leading caravan merchants of her time; today, we have women who can’t drive their cars in some places. That is madness; it is simply tribalism.

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