In 2017, President Donald Trump made his first foreign trip as commander in chief of the United States to Saudi Arabia. That nation plays a critical role in US foreign policy, and is integral in the fight to combat violent extremism largely emanating from the Middle East. In his keynote address at the Arab-Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, Trump said, “I chose to make my first foreign visit a trip to the heart of the Muslim world,” to promote a unified position between the US and the Muslim world to stand against transnational extremism. As I watched the speech live on my flight as I was crossing the Atlantic Ocean from an international conference where I presented in Prague on how Western communities can remain resilient against violent extremism, I couldn’t help but think about some of the insights I presented from my presentation, new original research from my doctoral dissertation and particularly my own personal experience as a third-generation Black American Muslim.
Let’s be clear, though Islam began in the Arabian Peninsula, the Arab world is not where most of the world’s Muslim population resides. Recent texts, including Harvard’s, Ousmane Kane’s, Beyond Timbuktu and Boston Universities, Fallou Ngom’s, Muslims Beyond the Arab World, highlight the importance of Islamic thought and intellectual knowledge emanating outside the Arab World. Recent poling data, including the 2015 Pew Research Center report stressing on the current and projected size of Muslim religious groups globally, offer even more compelling insights. Most importantly, the report expresses that more Muslims live in India and Pakistan than in the Middle East North Africa region, and Muslims in Sub Saharan Africa have some of the fastest growing populations are in continental Europe and the America’s.
All this points to the reality of a global and shifting Muslim demographic, and more specifically the important role of the American Muslim population and specifically Black American Muslims, at-large. Despite, historically speaking, Black American Muslims having paid the way for mainstream Muslims organizations like CAIR, ISNA, ICNA, MSA, Muslim Public Affairs Council, Zaytuna College and several other current Islamic institutions, the current visibility of Black American Muslims seemed to have almost entirely been erased from the public discourse.
What has happened? Where have our communities gone? Even the notoriety and the institutional memory of celebrity Imams and leading Muslim activists have been seen in many mainstream circles as being super hyper vigilant on race issues only and the perceived “angry” black American Muslim meme often times is a perpetual stereotype regardless of our own respective ideological persuasion within Islam. Black American Muslims still represent the largest percentage of American Muslims in the US, and have been afforded the ability to be part of all aspects of American society including being doctors, lawyers, small business owners, and just ordinary Americans with a proud tradition of Islamic identity.
Our communities are evolving as we move toward the future. We now represent communities within communities after the legacy of our Black American Muslim forefathers and mothers established the framework for our existence. For at least the past 50 years, sub communities among Black American Muslims included the Ahamdiyya, Nation of Islam, Imam WD Mohammed affiliates, the Dar movement, Imam Jamil El-Amin associates and numerous other Salafi, Sufi, and Shia adherents.
Now, perhaps due to the realities of our communities being third, fourth and fifth Black American Muslims, we are seeing an unprecedented evolution. Conservative, secular, cultural and hybrid Muslim identities are developing at a rate which, perhaps because of globalization or societal evolution, is equally impacting our communities. New converts (reverts) of Black American heritage, some who are millennials and others who are new to the faith, are also aligning themselves with -Qaida and the so called Islamic State, challenging how our communities respond.
Our communities are no longer a monolith. And that isn’t a bad thing. How Black American Muslims seek to respond to this changing reality and reclaim its inheritance of leadership offers thoughtful reflection and opportunities for their co-religionists of white, south-Asian and Arab ethnic identities to name a few. Black American Muslims the largest indigenous Muslim community in any Western democracy, offer a voice of independence free of the sectarian pettiness and cultural baggage that has unfortunately permeated throughout those in the broader Islamic world and some in the diaspora as well.
By lending our voices, amplifying our theological and philosophical views rooted in our experiences in America, we can serve as a voice of balance and reason globally. Without Black American Muslim community members stepping up to this challenge, and providing real and meaningful solutions, the various prototypes of Black American Muslims who are diverse, eclectic and authentically Muslim won’t be heard. Our voices are needed more than ever.