A Call for African-American Empathy towards Muslims

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Originally published in Patheos

Americans have become more worried about terrorism in the face of recent terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and, more recently, Istanbul. In recent conversations with relatives and friends in my African-American community, this fear is palpable and real. Hijab wearing African-American Muslim sisters recount how routine visits to a local grocery store has resulted in suspicious looks, verbal harassment and sometimes refusal of service. The perception that Muslims are unstable and that we all somehow belong to “sleeper cells” waiting to wake up and do some heinous evil is becoming widespread.

Americans in general and African-Americans, in particular, should resist the urge to rush to judgment under the influence of today’s media cycle. For African-Americans especially, they should recognize that the same narratives that are today being used to defame Muslims are the same narratives that say that African-Americans are violent, dangerous and unstable. These same myopic media cycle stories have been used to paint our youth as shiftless, criminal-minded and violent. Such stereotypes now lead to the perception that black people commit the most crimes in America, and nearly 1 million African-Americans languish in prisons and jails directly as a result of these narratives. The recent police shootings of unarmed black children and adults by police across the US is an outgrowth of this demonizing perception.

In the political and international climate of today, the fact that there exists a sense of fear is not in and of itself a surprise. ISIS is on the rise in Syria and Iraq and is attempting to export its philosophy and activities. US presidential hopeful Donald Trump is spewing anti-Islamic rhetoric on the campaign trail. Terrorist attacks continue to take innocent life and spread fear. We are nations at war and in times of war, fear is justifiable.

What is revealing, however, is that the perception of Muslims in the African-American community is shifting. As a community, we have been victims of fear in America for a long time. Even in this climate, we have never fallen into the illusion that “some other group” should be stereotyped or that the actions of a few within a group somehow represented the beliefs of the entire group.

The prevailing beliefs about Muslims in our community at least before these recent attacks have been that Muslims are peaceful and disciplined as well as family and community-oriented. The personal empowerment and social justice vision of Al Hajj Malik El Shabbaz or Malcolm X served to endear Islam to urban youth and to the popular imagination of African-Americans. The work of the Nation of Islam in cities and black communities, as well as prisons, also serve to offer an alternative voice to the “Muslim as terrorist narrative”.

Due to our shared historical experiences, African-Americans form a large part of the Islamic community in the US today. About 25% of the American Muslim population is black.  In the 1920′s the first Ahmadiyya Muslim missionary propagated the Islamic faith to African-Americans through Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Mufti Muhammad Sadiq’s Muslim Sunrise an Islamic magazine that he founded and that still exists today, is America’s longest running Muslim periodical. In the second issue, Sadiq penned a commentary on “The Only Solution of Color Prejudice”. In Sadiq’s time, thousands of Americans of all races joined the Islamic faith.

This closeness to Islam among African-Americans allows for ongoing engagement and relationship building. Of all the different sub-groups of Americans, African-Americans know Muslims on a very intimate level. Each of us typically has friends or family members who are Muslims. This relationship of affinity is truer for us than other sub-groups of Americans. African-Americans should, therefore, avoid falling prey to the same stereotypes that have been used to dehumanize and demonize our people and community. Muslim citizens have the same protected rights of citizenship as other Americans.  We are all innocent until proven guilty.

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