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Throughout my life, I have learned that before the topics of African American Islam and African American Muslims can be discussed, there has to be some agreement regarding the terminology and the parameters of Islamic inclusion and exclusion. Over the years, I have come to see that my definition of “Islam” and “Muslim” is much more inclusive than that of many people I have met.
Perhaps, because of my background as an African American and having family members with varying beliefs, I am very familiar with the Nation of Islam, the Nation of Gods and Earths, the Moorish Science Temple, etc. Because of this familiarity, I include, rather than immediately exclude, these Muslims in the fold of U.S. American Islam. As such, I opine that any discussion of African American Islam and/ or African American Muslims that omits these groups is guilty of erasure and ethnic, religious, cultural and historic annihilation. Perhaps my all-inclusive approach is oversimplified; however, I consider anyone a Muslim who considers themselves a Muslim regardless of whether their religious or spiritual philosophy encompasses physical actions of worship. I have my own litmus test: If there was a war on Islam and Muslims, and all Muslims were required to immediately report to their nearest internment camp, and I think I would see you there, then you are a Muslim.
I have had many discussions with African American Muslims since 9/11, and the stories have been as identical as one’s image in the mirror or as different as day and night. I have heard many African American Muslims (mainstream as well as periphery) discuss the idea of going to sleep as a black person on Sept. 10, and waking up Muslim on Sept. 11. In other words, most of our pre-9/11 external identity and treatment from others seemed to have been based on race and color. After 9/11, our external identity seemed to have shifted overnight to a primarily religious identity, especially for those who dress in a way that identifies them as Muslim. On the other hand, many African American Muslims experienced a shift in their internal identity as they more readily held on to their Islamic identity or chose to loosen their grip. Some men stopped wearing kufis (skull caps) and thaubs (long robes) while others began wearing them. Some women stopped wearing hijabs (hair cover) and abayas (loose robes) as others started wearing them. Some began going to the mosque more regularly while others stayed away. Some just kept doing what they had always done. Interestingly enough, while many African American Muslims were seen as foreigners and suspected of current or potential national infidelity, other African American Muslims were held closer to the chest by mainstream society as being the “lesser of two evil” Muslims for being “authentically” or “originally” American, part of “us” instead of “them.” So, while some were “otherized,” others were being humanized and naturalized. However, for many, the desired honeymoon phase was short-lived with the plethora of fear-mongering and rampant Islamophobia that came.
There were also other phenomena within Muslim African America. While some African American Muslims were intrigued by the idea that other ethnic groups would be seen as lower than black people (i.e., Arab and South Asian men), some others were hopeful that such a traumatic event and the subsequent discrimination and fear would bring the U.S. American Muslim community closer to Arab and South Asian Muslims, finding some sort of kinship and familiarity with African American Muslims because of the social justice struggle in African American history. Some were surprised that suddenly facing hatred and discrimination from mainstream society did not do more to reverse and deter the racist beliefs that many immigrant Muslims have about African Americans (Muslim and non-Muslim).
While I have attempted to careen through the different post-9/11 sentiments of many African American Muslims, I recognize that I am not an ambassador for Muslim African America nor do I pretend to be. I also recognize that Muslim African America is rich in its philosophical, religious, political and social diversity. Therefore, I will end with sharing my personal post-9/11 reflection, which is one that I share quite often during my speaking engagements: The often hostile social environment after 9/11 has made me even more thankful to have been born black in U.S. America and to have experienced all the overt and covert racism through the 1980s and ’90s living in a rural area of Southern California. All the racist micro-aggressions prepared me for the negative experiences that I have endured as a Muslim woman in the USA after 9/11. Thankfully, the great experiences outweigh the horrible ones. §
Jameelah X. Medinah is an educator, business owner and published author. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Claremont Graduate University, where her research focuses on social justice issues, including Muslim women’s experience with Islamophobia in higher education after 9/11. She has been listed in Oprah Magazine as one of 80 women leaders of the future.