By the 1980’s “The Dar” and the Islamic Party had completely run out of steam, leaving in their wake a gaping void in the Blackamerican Muslim scene. While there remained some committed brothers (and sisters) who carried the work forward – brothers like Imam Khalid Griggs of Winston-Salem, N.C. (former DC Islamic Party) – there were no Islamic initiatives forthcoming which could project a national vision. At the same time, immigrant Muslims were streaming into the country in larger and larger numbers, and the masjids they (and their movements) established began to take on a new ethnic flavor. The immigrants were not interested in things like community involvement, and generally speaking, were of a much more insular frame of mind. They affected an air of being the “real Muslims“, had more money and education, and began to take the leading role in the American Islamic movement.
By the late 1970’s, many of the brothers from the old movements began to join immigrant led groups such as Tablighi Jama’ah and the Jamaatul Fuqarah, and tended to shift their focus to the politics of the Muslim world, which in turn resulted in a kind of benign neglect of their own communities. This was particularly true after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in which hundreds of brothers were recruited, given a plane ticket, and flown over to fight against the Soviets.
Blackamerican Muslims were also dragged into the geo-political battles (existing for centuries) between Saudi Arabia and Iran, particularly in the aftermath of the”Iranian Revolution”. Blackamerican Muslims had to endure an onslaught of propaganda from agents of both sides in an affair they knew little or nothing about. Additionally, immigrant based movements such as the Tablighi Jamaah – which taught isolation from the community at large – were beginning to gain a foothold as well. As the power and influence of the immigrant Muslims began to grow, and their hegemonic control of the Islamic agenda solidified, community activism slowly ceased to be viewed as an authentic expression of Islam in America.
Meanwhile, this period (the 1980’s) witnessed the introduction of Crack cocaine into the Blackamerican community, with all the havoc and devastation that it wrought. Homelessness, gang violence, and Black on Black crime grew exponentially and many became trapped in a suffocating cycle of poverty and despair that drove many people to seek relief in drug use. This increased drug use (crack addition) would feed the devastating drug wars across Black America during the 1980’s. Many law abiding Blackamericans lived in terror, trapped in their own homes, as their communities became increasingly lawless and/or under the control of drug warlords. On the moral front, the out of wedlock birth rate in the Blackamerican community began to skyrocket, and would lead to many households being led by single women. Black manhood was taking a crushing blow. [As a note: because many Muslim children born in the 1970’s were growing up under these conditions, it would have behooved the Blackamerican Muslims to take a national interest in these problems]
Furthermore, the Reagan Administration – then in power – slashed the social safety nets ( including the closing of mental health facilities) that made such a huge difference in the lives of people living on the margins – which incidentally included many in the Blackamerican community. Poor people were stigmatized as lazy or even criminal as “Reaganomics” made it possible for businesses to lower wages and provide less benefits to workers. “Reaganomics” hit Blackamericans the hardest, which explains why Ronald Reagan remains today a widely reviled figure in this community.
In response, different groups in the Blackamerican community started to express grave concern about the multiple epidemics facing their people. Jesse Jackson even launched a Presidential campaign in 1984 (the first of two) and solidly positioned himself as a national leader for Blackamericans. Louis Farrakhan, and his newly reconstituted NOI, was also a highly visible figure at this time, and spoke often on issues affecting the Black community. Gang summits and other national forums were organized in response to these problems. The Black (Sunni) Muslim Community at this time was at a loss, and had no such national figure. While efforts were being organized on the local level – such as neighborhood patrols – it remained that Muslims had no national figure or national movement, and for that matter, appeared to have no answers to the grim realities confronting Blackamericans. The truly unforgivable aspect to this apparent silence is the disquieting truth that most Muslims no longer saw these critical issues as “Islamic” issues.
In 1987, I was at Howard University in a dorm room with some Pakistani friends of mine who were listening to a tape of a man who sounded to me like Farrakhan. At first I couldn’t understand why these Pakistani brothers were listening to Farrakhan. But as it happened, it was Imam Siraj Wahhaj of Brooklyn, N.Y. I had never heard of him until now, and they told me about the brave battle he was then waging to rid the neighborhood around the masjid of crack houses. I was also impressed by his use of the Arabic language because to that point, I did not feel that it was necessary to learn Arabic.
I was excited because I thought, “Here is a man who delivers his speeches in the same oratorical style and tradition of Malcolm X”. I really believed that he could be just the right national leader to address the aforementioned ills, essentially becoming our national spokesman. It was my thought at the time that I would help the Imam built something like a “Sunni” NOI, which is to say, a well organized, disciplined, nationwide movement based upon theQuran and Sunnah (and not Fard and the motherplane).
I was so enthusiastic that I suggested to some of the brothers that we invite the Imam to the campus to teach an Islamic Studies class, which is exactly what we did, once a week for an entire semester. This is when the Imam’s star was still on the rise in Muslim circles.
It would not be long after that before I learned that the Imam had other ideas about the direction the movement would take. Masha Allah. I didn’t expect for him to follow anyone else’s agenda, but there still remained a terrible void in the Blackamerican Muslim community. Most importantly though, the African American community needed to hear from the Muslims. They needed to hear Islam’s solutions to the problems we were facing.
Imam Siraj Wahhaj (for reasons known only to him) instead chose the career of a keynote speaker and fund-raiser, appearing most often at the immigrant hotel conferences and dinners. The immigrants positively love this oratorical style, being a uniquely American innovation by a people brought to these shores as slaves.
So gifted was the Imam in this role – raising literally millions of dollars – that he ushered in an entirely new industry, the “Imam as fund raiser industry”. It wasn’t long before other personalities (more or less capable) following the Imam’s lead, got into the act. One such personality went so far as to produce slick VHS tapes to market his fundraising services to large immigrant communities.
Anyone who knows Imam Siraj Wahhaj knows that he is a good and decent person, and that he has made a substantial contribution to the growth of Islam in America, but in trying to answer the question of “why Blackamerican Muslims don’t stand for justice”,we have to closely examine the undue influence of immigrant Muslims on Blackamerican leadership, and highlight the devastating effects it has had on our own development. This fact can no longer be denied. Their ability to offer our African American leaders a national platform, with all the fame, prestige, and adulation that comes along with it, essentially decapitated the Blackamerican Muslim body. Also the immigrants had the money to offer support to these speakers’ masjids. Blackamerican Muslims just did not have the money to be a self contained unit and prevent this from happening.
Many African American Muslims like myself, who were struggling away in their own little corner of the world, trying to make a difference without the benefit of a national leader, grew resentful of the way these Imams seemed to give most of their time to the immigrants Muslims. Many of us marveled, and were indeed perplexed, at how these men could raise millions of dollars to help build white elephant masjids in the suburbs, yet could not, or would not, leverage their immense fame and reputation to benefit ours.
No one reading this post should for one second imagine that I am trying to broadside Imam Siraj or anyone else. Many of the things I have just written I’ve shared with the Imam personally. These particular thoughts flow from a deep sense of pain and frustration that many of us feel. There are many folks today, Muslim and non-Muslim, who are hurting because we as a community didn’t do what we should have done decades ago. What is so painful and truly appalling, is that when our dear Muslim brother, Ahmado Diallo, was fired upon 41 times by racists dogs on the N.Y. police department, EVEN THEN WE COULDN’T, OR WOULDN’T, TAKE A NATIONAL STAND AGAINST THE ATROCITY, NOR THE RACIST SYSTEM THAT TARGETS OUR PEOPLE!! Just think over that for a second. Even when one of our own is the victim, Christian leaders like Al Sharpton become the public face of justice. It is a shame. Brothers and sisters we have the Quran and the Sunnah. What will be our excuse on the day of judgement?
Yes, attempts were made in the past to address the crisis and formulate a plan of action, but nothing came of any of them. All these false starts only served to fuel more cynicism and despondency in the hearts of the people. Al humdulillah, maybe now, after the MANA conference in Philadelphia last month, we are finally ready to meet this challenge.
The failure to build a viable program and infrastructure during the 1980’s would have other unintended consequences as well. By the early 1990’s there would be an explosion of youth embracing Islam who found a lack of infrastructure awaiting them. This would open the door for some of the Saudi trained Imams – who were returning from their studies – to spread the fledgling salafi movement with vigor amongst these new Muslims. Unbelievably, they openly preached against standing for justice and completely ignored social conditions. This stance took on the status of dogma, a doctrine much too difficult for those less knowledgeable to refute.