It has been quite gratifying for me to see that over the past few months, the long over due discussion surrounding the unequal and unhealthy relationship existing between Blackamerican Muslims and the immigrant Muslim community has begun. It was observed that over the course of time Blackamerican Muslims, for reasons that I have attempted to identify in other writings, were relegated to a second class status in the Muslim community of their own country. I would like to examine in this hopefully short series what I believe to be the most crucial factor explaining this lop-sided relationship, and what must be done to rectify it.
It has become increasingly clear to me that in many respects, the problem lies in the confused thinking of Blackamerican Muslims themselves, or what I have termed the “I’m just a Muslim” mentality. This self-defeating thought process has slowly evolved into a well codified philosophy, one which postulates the notion that Blackamerican Muslims (and only them) must divest themselves of any racial, ethnic, or cultural content. Most insidious of all about this philosophy is that it does not preclude, and indeed almost always facilitates, African American Muslims assuming the cultural and ethnic identity of other peoples in a sad and mistaken belief that this alone confers upon them Islamic “authenticity”.
Having once imbibed this perverse outlook, an incredibly pathetic, self-abasing image is projected to the world so much like the picture of a Muslim Stepin Fetchit. However, if they are ever so bold as to assert (or God forbid celebrate) their own cultural and ethnic personality and make-up, they must answer shrill charges of Black nationalism. That is the destructive legacy of the “I’m just a Muslim” dogma, one we hope to speedily dispatch to the dust bin of history. In order to accomplish this though we must first acquire a thorough understanding of its origin.
To be clear, let me state unequivocally that I am not a black nationalist. I do not believe in the superiority of one race over another and I abhor such teachings. However, I do not believe that there is anything wrong with maintaining one’s culture as long as it does not contravene Islamic principles. I reject the notion that one must become a pseudo-Pakisani or Arab in order to be a “complete” Muslim. This is the basic theme of this blog and many of my writings. I do not believe that there is anything wrong with working to rectify problems amongst one’s people. Just as there is nothing wrong with helping Palestinians, Kashmiris, Pakistanis or what have you, I likewise believe that there is nothing wrong with helping people in this country. That is the thesis of this piece, namely, to refute the argument that working or volunteering in the Blackamerican community is somehow nationalism.
The expression “I’m just a Muslim” was first voiced in response to the media blitz and heightened notoriety the NOI was enjoying in the late 1950’s. After toiling for thirty years in obscurity, the NOI began to receive national attention in 1959 after a series of televised newscasts entitled, The Hate That Hate Produced, were aired in New York City. Hosted by a young Mike Wallace of future Sixty Minutes fame, the program showed menacing footage of an NOI convention along with riveting interviews of the bald-headed Malcolm X. The country had never seen such a shocking spectacle and went into a frenzy of fear. Malcolm X, as a result of those broadcasts, emerged a huge media personality, and his visage graced the covers of seemingly every magazine in America. Suddenly, everywhere, people were talking about “the Muslims”.
By 1961, a young college professor working on his PhD thesis at Clarke University, Atlanta, C. Eric Lincoln, published a detailed study of this strange new “Negro hate group”. Appearing in book form, the study attempted to explain the inner workings of the NOI, which it did fairly accurately. However its significance in history lies not in its contents, but rather, its title. Lincoln called his study The Black Muslims in America, and his decision to do so would have a profound and lasting impact on the thinking of Blackamerican Islam for at least a generation, and marked the beginning of the Black vs. Islam dichotomy so deeply implanted in the minds of many of today’s Muslims.
For at least a century preceding the book’s appearance, African Americans referred to themselves as “Negro” or “colored”, terms that they had grown quite comfortable with in fact. The reality is that the four hundred years of white-supremacist thought in this country had so stigmatized the word “Black” that even African Americans viewed it pejoratively, and to be called “Black” by anyone was considered a vicious insult.
If this is true ,then why didn’t Lincoln label his book the”Negro” or “colored” Muslims in America? The simple answer is that the NOI itself promoted the term “Black”, both in its theology and bizarre racial theories. Or to be more precise, they didn’t so much promote it but rather positively championed it. Most people by now probably have at least some familiarity with the truly fantastical teachings of the NOI, so I won’t delve too much into them here (nor have I any real desire to do so). It is enough to say that in the NOI theory of race, all non-whites (or Europeans) are considered “Black”, and that African Americans ought not to be ashamed of this description . Indeed, if there was to be any shame at all it would be in calling oneself a “Negro”, a term they taught carried the connotation of death. There was no such thing as a “Negro”, as their fiery preachment’s so fervently emphasized, only a “so-called Negro”.
After studying this period closely, eminent historians have rightly concluded that the NOI’s incessant condemnation of the word “Negro” is what finally did it in, making way for what would ultimately become the Black Consciousness movement. This is a fact that some Muslims are uneasy to admit, but its true. Every time Malcolm lamented the condition of the “so-called Negro” in speeches and appearances, and eloquently proclaimed the “rise of the Black Man“, the term further diminished in the vocabulary of the masses. Taking on a completely negative stigma, it gradually fell out of usage, with “Black” becoming all the vogue . For the reasons stated above then, the NOI henceforth became known in the public mind as the Black Muslims. The moniker also turned out to be great for selling books and periodicals, for apart from being quite sensational, it suggested a kind of militancy and radicalism which appealed to a sense of the exotic.
The NOI projected an image of disciplined, clean, and brave Black men in the community, one the urban populous could take enormous pride in. Below are just two examples. Although contemporary to the period, these images of strong “Black manhood” continue to endure in the imagination of the African American community. And sadly, it’s an image the “Black Sunnis” (for lack of a better term) were never able to match.
Suddenly, the “Black Muslims” became a full-blown media sensation and a popular topic of discussion, much to the chagrin and consternation of the Black Sunni Muslims. The NOI represented just the right kind of racially incendiary, over-the-top subject matter that the press never quite gets enough of. Malcolm became the second most requested speaker on the college campuses after Republican Senator, Barry Goldwater.
Unable, or unwilling, to recognize the very stark and real distinctions between the NOI’s religio-nationalist message and the creed of the “Black Sunnis”, a fascinated – if ignorant – American public started lumping all the groups together under the heading “Black Muslims”. It was only then that we began to hear the “I’m just a Muslim” language being used.
In the same way that a brand name like “Xerox” acquires a generic usage to connote “all copy machines of any brand”, so too the term “Black Muslim” came to mean any African American who claimed Islam as his religion. Muslims were of course appalled and offended by the NOI’s teachings, and bitterly resented being associated with a group they viewed as deviant and evil. Moreover, these pioneering believers were fiercely protective of their religion and displayed tremendous zeal in safeguarding its aqeedah (binding doctrinal beliefs) from corruption.
So an encounter with the unacquainted would usually run something like this:
“Oh, so your one of those “Black Muslims ?”. At which time the brother (sister) would viscerally respond “NO, I AM NOT ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE”! “Oh I’m sorry. Well, what are you then?” I’M JUST A MUSLIM”. This was their instinctive way of distancing Islam and the Muslims from the racially separatist – indeed pagan – message of the NOI’s false prophet.
Initially voiced to express disavowal of the NOI’s racist, pagan creed, the seemingly innocuous phrase ” I’m Just A Muslim”, within a very short period of time, acquired an aberrant meaning not sanctioned by religion . No longer did it simply suggest disavowal from a group known as “Black Muslims”, so much as it meant disavowal from “BLACK” itself, anything Black, including the “Blackness” of oneself! This is what one astute observer called an “intriguing paradox”, for to the extent that the NOI had anything to do with the burgeoning Black Consciousness movement (an enormous influence for sure) of the late 60’s and early to mid 70’s, the Black Sunni Muslims were suspicious of it.
Fearful of lapsing into “Black Nationalism” and hateful beliefs of the NOI, the Black Sunnis advanced a novel formulation of “I’m Just a Muslim”, one centered in a perverse type of racial denial, and cleverly couched in terms of “theological purity“. At the very moment that (the general) Black American public was embracing ideas of self-respect, Blackamerican Muslims were moving in a completely opposite direction. They failed to fully appreciate the subtle lines of demarcation existing between natural feelings of racial, ethic, and cultural belonging (nationality) on the one hand, and the deplorable racial chauvinism, pride, and exclusivism (nationalism) on the other. They developed such an unbalanced view of Islam’s universal precepts and dogmas – “there’s no racism in Islam”, “all Muslims are brothers”, “we’re all children of Adam”, etc, – that Blackamerican Islam wholly divested itself of any racial, ethnic, or cultural content, with devastating consequences. The phrase was now understood to mean “I’m Not Black, I’m Not African American, I’M JUST A MUSLIM”! In other words, “my ONLY identity is that of a Muslim, nothing more”. Any mention of what was called “that Black stuff”, i.e., culturally affirming pursuits or community involvement, was condemned as nationalism.
By the late 1960’s, the “Black Power” culture had begun to take root and by the 1970s it reached full steam. The NOI set the tone for this very early on.
With Malcolm’s assassination came a brief period of “Black Power”, which was primarily (although certainly not exclusively) a militant political movement (ruthlessly cut down by the government), and culminated in the black is beautiful euphoria of the early 1970’s. African Americans were learning once more to love themselves and the beautiful forms in which Allah created them; their dark skin, broad noses, full lips, and “kinky” hair. Rejecting the contemptible “bleaching creams” and “hair straighteners” that were once the implements of a psychically damaged, self-hating people, they sought – albeit with some extremes – to eradicate feelings of inferiority that centuries of malicious, hostile propaganda against the race had produced.
However to the extent that the Muslims were distrustful of this cultural awakening, and were apparently unable to de-couple it from their revulsion of the NOI, they essentially opted out of it. But weren’t Blackamerican Muslims part of the Black community as well? And if that be so, were they somehow immune from the awful effects of slavery? With only a fictitious, “Im’ just a Muslim” identity remaining in their hollowed out Islam, a cultural vaccum was created which was impossible to sustain, and could only be filled by slavish imitation of other Muslim peoples, thus facilitating a pitiful flight into delusion (or in its extreme form, Islamic Passing ). The truth is that the mentality behind the “I’m Just a Muslim” dogma is so unnatural, so counter to any innate sense of dignity, self-respect, or true manhood, that something had to be wrong for it to develop in the first place.
When one claims to be “just a Muslim”, he doesn’t care who controls the affairs as long as it is not him or anyone of his ethnicity. It will be the person who knows who and what he is, and is firmly rooted in his racial, cultural, and ethnic (and not just religious) identity! This explains why Blackamerican Muslims ended up at the back of the “Islamic Bus” in America” (some say camel). They weren’t so much relegated to that spot as much as they went there VOLUNTARILY.
Dr. Carter G Woodson summarized it as follows:
If you can control a man’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about his actions. If you can determine what a man thinks you do not have worry about what he will do. If you can make a man believe that he is inferior, you don’t have to compel him to seek an inferior status, he will do so without being told and if you can make a man believe that he is justly an outcast, you don’t have to order him to the back door, he will go to the back door on his own and if there is no back door, the very nature of the man will demand that you build one
This mentality gets carried over into Islam. This is the major point that I am vigorously attempting to convey
In drawing this admittedly lengthy post to a close, I must briefly touch upon two very important factors which solidified the Black vs. Islam dichotomy and which led to the “I’m Just a Muslim” non-sense:
1. The role of Malcolm X
2. Wanton acts of violence.
In his last desperate year, Malcolm X advanced an evolving notion of what he called “Black Nationalism”, which in its final formulation amounted to nothing more than community involvement and responsibility. If we study his last speeches carefully (which maybe I’ll do in coming posts), we’ll find that there was nothing intrinsically un-Islamic in what he was calling for. It really boiled down to Blacks controlling the politics and economics of their own community. What can be Islamically wrong with that? The answer is nothing. But by Malcolm vesting that program in “Black Nationalism”, and advocating the keeping of “religion in the closet”, he essentially relegated Islam to a personal matter consisting merely of beliefs and acts of worship.
He took Islam out of the affairs of social justice and activism. If we examine the thirteen surviving speeches he delivered at the Audubon Ballroom, we find that there is virtually no mention of Islam! This further solidified the completely false notion that engagment in the Black community is one thing, and the deen of Al Islam is another. This explains why after his passing both groups, Muslims and Black Nationalists (and the socialists, but that’s another story) claimed him as their own.
Equally important in the examination of this question is the role that violence played in the hardening of this false dichotomy. As we have already seen, relations between the NOI and Black Sunni Muslims were already tense stemming from the purely doctrinal differences they had. Once Malcolm parted company with the organization and embraced Al Islam, he became aligned with his former Muslim critics, and it was hoped that he would be a strong advocate for the religion. His assassination at the hands of the NOI enraged the Muslims and only widened the ideological gap that existed between the two camps. In this way, the religio-nationalist doctrine of the NOI grew even more repugnant to the Muslims, driving them further into their “racially neutral” notions of theological purity.
This same violence was repeated, and the ideological confusion exacerbated, in1973, when the NOI cold-bloodily massacured the family of Hamas Abdul-Khalis in Washington, D.C. This horrific, truly savage act, was the worst crime in American history, and stands as one of darkest stains on the NOI’s violent legacy.
I shall continue this in Part Two …