Who speaks for African-American Muslims?

Louis Farrakhan's bitter voice may get the most media play, but he represents only a sliver of black Islam -- and after Sept. 11, the more orthodox mainstream wants to be heard.


Eric Boehlert
October 23, 2001 12:00PM (UTC)

Tuning in to CNN last Wednesday night, Mustafa El-Amin caught a brief report crawling across the bottom of the screen that the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan had challenged the United States' bombing campaign in Afghanistan.

El-Amin, an African-American who converted to Islam 30 years ago when he joined a temple in Newark, N.J., quickly went online to find more details. There, he learned that a skeptical Farrakhan had urged President Bush to lay out the evidence against accused terrorist Osama bin Laden and not to "hide behind national security." In a speech marking the sixth anniversary of Farrakhan's successful Million Man March, the minister warned his followers that their government had "lied before, and there's no guarantee they are not lying now."

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El-Amin was crushed: "It really hurt. Because what he tried to represent publicly, nationally and internationally, was the African-American Muslim position on the war."

The problem is, El-Amin argues, most African-American Muslims -- the majority of whom are not affiliated with the Nation of Islam -- disagree with Farrakhan's assessment, and resent being tarred by his rhetorical brush. Like many, El-Amin left the Nation of Islam in the '70s to embrace orthodox Islam.

"The first thing that should be said [about Sept. 11] is that this is a great tragedy. That those who committed this act ought to be punished to the fullest extent of the law, and if they're calling themselves Muslims, they're not. They've hurt us so much," says El-Amin, a public school teacher who works not far from Newark's Malcolm X Shabazz High School, named after the assassinated Nation of Islam leader from the '60s.

More importantly, says El-Amin, African-American Muslims "love America and we'll fight for this country. Yet we've been getting an indirect backlash. You can feel it, it's in the air. People think, 'Y'all hate America.' So when Farrakhan comes out with statement like that, he plays right into that and he puts us all in jeopardy."

Since Sept. 11, perhaps no other American religious and ethnic group has been put in so unusual a position as have African-American Muslims. On the one hand they're being overshadowed by Farrakhan's brand of fiery defiance, and on the other they're being eclipsed by immigrant Arab Muslims who have moved to the forefront, thanks largely to the press, as the public picture of Islam in America.

Lost in that mix has been the silent majority, the nearly 2 million orthodox African-American Muslims who have no ties to either group.

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"African-American Muslims are more invisible than ever," complains Aminah Beverly McCloud, associate professor of Islamic studies at DePaul University and author of "African American Islam."

Even before the terrorist attack catapulted Islam into the headlines, there was some discernible tension between the three distinct domestic Muslim groups in America. For instance, some orthodox African-American Muslims have resented what they see as the often separatist agenda embraced by the immigrant, and largely Arab, community. The two groups rarely interact socially or at mosques, and a sizable economic divide often separates them.

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Last fall a serious rift was created when a coalition of prominent Arab and Muslim groups endorsed Republican George Bush for president.

"The Bush endorsement enraged African-American Muslims," James Jones, associate professor of world religion and African-American studies at Manhattanville College. "People are trying to figure out how to bridge that gap."

At the same time, some African-American Muslims have serious questions not only about the racist rhetoric on which the Nation of Islam was founded (i.e. white people are "blond blue-eyed devils," created in a genetic experiment 6,000 years ago), but also about the type of faith being preached. Although Farrakhan has worked hard in recent years to bring his teachings more in line with the Sunni orthodoxy, the Nation of Islam still insists, for instance, that its former leader Elijah Muhammad was a messenger, or prophet, sent by Allah, and that in 1930 Allah appeared in the person of Nation of Islam founder W. Fard Muhammad, a messiah on earth. Both tenets, and particularly the second, are considered blasphemy among mainstream Muslims.

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Meanwhile, though Arab immigrants may shake their heads when it comes to the Nation of Islam's odd brand of religion, they embrace Farrakhan's rhetoric, perhaps privately, when he's out front condemning both Israel and American foreign policy.

Since Sept. 11, some African-American Muslims have felt increasingly uneasy toward the Nation of Islam, as Farrakhan unleashes more fervent condemnations, and also toward immigrant Muslims, whose international conflict appears to be the root of the terrorist attack.

Thirty years ago there were only 500,000 American Muslims. Today, with nearly 20,000 Americans converting each year, as well as a steady stream of immigrants arriving from the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa, Islam is the fastest growing religion in America. Its roughly 7 million members make it bigger than American Jewry, and twice the size of the U.S. Episcopalian church. The largest single group of American Muslims is made up of native-born, or indigenous, members. From 80 to 90 percent of those are black.

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Most of them are not members of the Nation of Islam, yet Americans rarely make the distinction. In fact the opposite is often perpetuated by the media; on Sunday the Washington Times reported Farrakhan is "the leader of the nation's largest Muslim group."

That's not true. Farrakhan actually speaks for very few African-American Muslims. (How many others sympathize with some of his many controversial views is another question.) The Nation of Islam today claims approximately 25,000 active members, down from roughly 100,000 a decade ago. Those 25,000 make up just a fraction of the roughly 2 million African-American Muslims in this country.

Nevertheless, "Most people see Farrakhan as the Muslim leader for African-Americans. People don't realize what he says is not how most African-Americans feel," complains El-Amin, author of "The Religion of Islam and the Nation of Islam: What is the Difference?"

"Traditional African-American Muslims outnumber Nation of Islam 9-to-1, but Louis Farrakhan gets the headlines," says Vibert White, a former high-ranking advisor with the Nation of Islam.

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The truth is that most African-American Muslims are members of the Muslim American Society, headed by Imam W. Deen Muhammad. Born Wallace Muhammad, he's the son of Elijah Muhammad. When Elijah Muhammad died in 1975, the son took over the Nation of Islam and began steering it away from strident nationalistic rhetoric and more toward the orthodox. Faced with an internal challenge by Farrakhan, Muhammad founded the Muslim American Society, and took most Nation of Islam members with him to the mainstream Sunni faith.

"Up to 15 years ago most traditional African-American Muslims had a connection to the Nation of Islam," says White, author of a recent book critical of Farrakhan, "Inside the Nation of Islam." "Today, less than 20 percent of traditional Muslims have any connection with the Nation of Islam." (The Nation of Islam does maintain a strong presence inside the nation's prison system.)

Perhaps in response to the falling off, Farrakhan over the last few years has tried to move the Nation of Islam closer to the orthodox, inviting a Sunni Muslim scholar to teach at the Nation of Islam's headquarters in Chicago, and in general embracing the orthodox traditions.

"For all practical purposes, ritually, it's become Sunni Islam," says Richard Turner, author of "Islam in the African-American Experience," who notes Farrakhan's increasing close relations with Sunni leaders in recent years.

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To much fanfare, on Feb. 27, 2000, Farrakhan joined with W. Deen Muhammad to announce that the Nation of Islam and the Muslim American Society would "work together for the causes of Islam." Claiming his life had been saved by Allah, Farrakhan announced he was going to pursue a more orthodox version of Islam. The two groups have since remained in close contact, sending representatives to each others' functions.

Professor McCloud suggests there are no real differences today between Sunni Muslims and Nation of Islam members: "They pray five times a day. Fast during Ramadan. They do what every other Muslim does."

But El-Amin in Newark is not so sure: "Farrakhan goes back and forth in his theology. He still has not really connected himself in a religious sense with the African-American community." He notes that on the back page of the Nation of Islam's newspaper, the Final Call, under the heading, "What The Muslims Believe," No. 12 in the list remains that "God appeared in the person of W. Fard Muhammad." Many argue that until that principle is dropped, the Nation of Islam cannot be part of the orthodox.

"We did have hope that, because of his eloquence and charisma, Farrakhan would come around to true Islam, and that he could have been a great asset," says El-Amin. "But Farrakhan has flip-flopped so much. Like his first statement [about the terrorist attack], that was great."

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Less than one week after the terrorists hit, Farrakhan stunned some observers when he condemned the "vicious and atrocious attack," as well as commended the heroic efforts of local policemen, firefighters and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. But one month later, he ratcheted up the rhetoric and took aim at American foreign policy.

That's not something W. Deen Muhammad or the Muslim American Society would ever do. The leader of 2 million orthodox African-American Muslims is fiercely patriotic. For the last 10 years, in a move that has enraged Farrakhan, the American flag has appeared on the upper left hand corner of the Muslim Journal, the official newspaper of the Muslim America Society.

Unlike Farrakhan, W. Deen Muhammad is almost aggressively low-key in his public pronouncements. In reaction to Sept. 11, Muhammad, who sees himself as a religious rather than political leader, did release a strong statement condemning the terrorist attacks, insisting, "People who do terrorist acts are not in their good Muslim behavior."

In the six weeks since the attack, though, the leader of African-American Muslims has remained virtually silent. The result is a "leadership vacuum within the black community," says White.

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That vacuum was apparent last fall when Arab-American groups were preparing to make their first-ever presidential endorsement. With little or no input from African-Americans, the coalition endorsed Republican Bush. (African-Americans voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the election, and even African-American Muslims, who are slightly more conservative than the general black population, supported Al Gore in huge numbers.)

The move highlighted what many already knew was a racial and economic divide between the two Muslim groups. "Many African-American Muslims are striving poor, trying to make it in America," says El-Amin. "In that sense our mission may be different. In our mission, we see Islam as an answer to bring dignity and honor."

The political agenda for those Muslims often revolves around education, affordable housing and a decent standard of living. By contrast, Arab immigrants, and particularly those among the leadership, "are upwardly mobile Americans who tend to be doctors and engineers, and the Republican policy platform was more amenable to them," says professor Jones. (The Arab letter endorsing Bush was based largely on foreign policy concerns.) According to census data, Arab-American immigrants enjoy much higher than average levels of education and income.

Anger over the endorsement still lingers today, although amends are being made. "We learned a lot," concedes Sayid Muhammad Syeed, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America. "We learned we need to have more interaction" between indigenous and immigrant Muslims.

Today the groups remain largely segregated. "Intermingling is not what you would think, sadly," reports former Nation of Islam minister White. African-American Muslims report being snubbed by immigrants who open businesses in cities but build their mosques in the suburbs.

And they're turned off by the reluctance of many Arab immigrants to enter America's melting pot. "Immigrants want benefit from our society but don't mix with it," complains McCloud. "They refuse to become Americans. They don't run soup kitchens, or do breast cancer walks, or give blood."

The notion of now having their religion being associated with terrorists has only added to the tension some African-American Muslims feel toward those coming from Arab states.

"Even before Sept. 11, I don't think enough had been done by immigrant Muslims to condemn terrorist attacks outright, before the justifications," says El-Amin. "They need to condemn terrorists based on the Quran and common sense."

The frustration among African-American Muslims is that after decades of gradually winning respect and acceptance from the general American population, those gains could be wiped out.

"I've heard this very much," says professor Jones. "That we need to tell people about true Islam and we're not like those people. People are saying all the work we've done is being destroyed by the [terrorist] action. It's definitely adding to the tension."

Getting their message out has proven difficult in recent weeks, however, with the media focusing nearly exclusively on America's immigrant Muslim population and how the terrorist attack has affected them.

"When the press looked for spokespeople for American Islam it went to immigrants. It's as if we don't exist," complains McCloud. "If you do a story on Islam in India, would you interview a Sudanese who'd recently immigrated there, or would you ask an Indian Muslim? There are African-American scholars in Islamic studies who are extremely well-traveled, and none of them have been called on. The long view [of the press] when it comes to Islam is, ask an Arab. If you can't find an Arab, ask a Southeast Asian. And if you can't find a Southeast Asian, don't ask."

While author Richard Turner insists American Muslims "are not in competition with one another for press coverage," he says the danger from the press's current fascination with Islam at home is that it produces a skewed vision. "It's important not to give a lopsided, stereotypical picture of Muslims in the United States. I haven't seen a lot of African-American Muslims on camera recently."


Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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