The Wilson Quarterly article America's Other Muslims by Peter Skerry is an interesting piece which hits on a lot of the core issues behind Third Resurrection. It deals with the ministry of W.D. Mohammed and the relations among Blackamerican Muslims, Immigrant Muslim, the Nation of Islam and the larger society. I'll post an abridged version but urge folks to click on the above link and read the entire article as they have time. I should say that the excerpts will over-emphasize the comparisons and contrasts between different groups and won't give a a representative picture of the amount of unity which exists in reality.
Tensions over religion clearly poison political relations between African-American and immigrant Muslims. As Abdul Karim Hasan, imam at the Bilal Islamic Center, told The Los Angeles Times, “We share the faith with immigrant Muslims, but not much else. . . . They think we don’t know as much about religion as they do.” The low point was reached during the closing weeks of the 2000 presidential campaign, when immigrant Muslim organizations, claiming to speak for all Muslim Americans, endorsed George W. Bush—without acknowledging African-American Muslim objections to that endorsement. Things did not improve much after 9/11, when immigrant Muslims experienced what to them was Bush’s betrayal, and many of their African-American brothers and sisters could not resist saying, “We told you so.”
There are African-American Muslims who express fewer complaints about immigrant Muslims. Scattered among the 44 percent of predominantly African-American mosques not affiliated with W. D. Mohammed’s organization, they encompass many different sectarian tendencies and do not constitute a cohesive group. But they do share a longstanding orientation, going back to the 1930s and 1940s, toward Sunni Islam. They have therefore been designated “historically Sunni African-American Muslims” HSAAM, for short—by Professor Bagby. As African Americans, these particular Muslims tend to make Islam the basis of a reformulated critique—even a condemnation—of the American mainstream. One of the most visible leaders in this disparate group is Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, the former H. Rap Brown. Al-Amin, whose Atlanta-based organization is called the National Community, converted to Islam while in jail during the 1970s.
Imam Al-Amin and other HSAAM Muslims do not necessarily call for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Rather, they seek to withdraw from what they regard as a corrupt, immoral society and build separate institutions and communities as defenses against it. For such Muslims, whether African-American or not, this goal has meant a rejection of involvement in American politics—a position that has found support among the Saudis. In the words of Steven Barboza, an American journalist who has written about his own conversion to Islam, “While H. Rap Brown would have enjoined listeners to bear and tear down, Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin says discipline yourselves through prayer, fasting, charity, and steadfastness, so that you will be organized and prepared when Allah tears the system down.”
Despite (some would say because of) his radical views and relatively small following, Imam Al-Amin has been recognized, even championed, by immigrant Muslim leaders and organizations. His perspective is broadly typical of HSAAM Muslims, whose views in some respects resemble those of immigrant Muslims more than they do those of W. D. Mohammed and his followers. This can be stated with some confidence, thanks again to Professor Bagby’s Mosque Study Project 2000. His data indicate that three-fourths of all predominantly African-American mosques have been founded since 1970; their number continues to increase, though not so fast as the number of immigrant mosques. And at least since the 1980s, the number of HSAAM mosques has increased faster than the number of W. D. Mohammed mosques.
HSAAM mosques are also much stricter and more literal than W. D. Mohammed affiliates in interpreting the Qur’an. This is signaled by the mosques’ treatment of women. Bagby’s data indicate that somewhat greater numbers of women are involved in W. D. Mohammed mosques than in HSAAM or immigrant mosques. Only 16 percent of W. D. Mohammed mosques make women pray behind a curtain or in another room, while 45 percent of HSAAM mosques—and 81 percent of immigrant mosques—do. (That fashion show at the Chicago convention would definitely not go over well with these other Muslims.) Finally, there is the question of whether Muslim women can serve on a mosque’s governing board. Ninety-three percent of W. D. Mohammed affiliates allow women on their boards, as compared with only 60 percent of HSAAM mosques and 66 percent of immigrant mosques.
As for the ever-present pull of group pride and race consciousness, the differences between these two groups are notable. Asked how well they try to preserve their ethnic or national heritage, 29 percent of W. D. Mohammed affiliates said “very well,” while only six percent of HSAAM mosques did. This is to be expected, since HSAAM mosques are oriented more toward traditional Islam, which de-emphasizes racial and ethnic differences in favor of the umma—the worldwide community of all Muslims.
From the perspective of the non-Muslim majority, perhaps the most striking divergence between these two groups of African-American Muslims concerns how open they are to American society. Bagby’s data indicate that HSAAM Muslims are much more critical of America than are the followers of W. D. Mohammed. Ninety-three percent of his affiliates strongly agree that Muslims should be involved in American society, while only 49 percent of HSAAM mosques do. Even more striking is the divergence of views about involvement in American politics: 90 percent of W. D. Mohammed mosques—but only 37 percent of HSAAM mosques—strongly agree that Muslims should participate in the political process. And while 33 percent of W. D. Mohammed mosques believe that America is hostile to Islam, fully 74 percent of HSAAM mosques do. Finally, and most compellingly, the data indicate that only 18 percent of W. D. Mohammed affiliates and 24 percent of immigrant mosques strongly agree that “America is an immoral, corrupt society.” The figure for HSAAM mosques is 66 percent.
The irony is that W. D. Mohammed and his followers are more open to American society but also more intent on holding on to their African-American heritage than their HSAAM brothers and sisters. As Bagby reminds us, the pull of black culture and group identity is a fact of life for most African Americans. Their culture and group identity are, in fact, constitutive of their identity as Americans. A leader such as Imam Mohammed is not likely to ignore this, but neither will a rival such as Farrakhan let him forget it.
Peter Skerry, a former Wilson Center fellow, teaches political science at Boston College and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is at work on a book titled Joining the Fray: The Political Future of Muslims in America. Devin Fernandes assisted in the research and preparation of this article.