Wednesday, August 20, 2008

the tension between black americans and somalis

From Tariq Nelson:

Ebony magazine recently had an article (not online) about the tensions between Somalis and black Americans in Columbus, Ohio. Charles and Jamerican Muslimah (part one and part two) have both commented on the situation since they live in Columbus, OH and Minneapolis (respectively) which are home to the two largest populations of Somalis in the US.

I have a few comments of my own below:

My personal experience with Somalis has been positive from the time the first group of refugees came to the US. (This isn’t to dismiss the experiences of others) I have met a ton of very good Somalis that are very caring. I can’t remember having said “salaam” to one and not having it returned. However, I am not naive enough to think that this is the case with all Somalis. Had most Somalis been like the ones I’ve met, it would be a very peaceful place, and Allah knows best.

I find this Ebony story to be a case study of the change in direction and perception of Islam and Muslims in America. Traditionally, Islam was seen as something that was fully a part of the black American (BA) community and even an expression of being “conscious” or a “deep thinker”. There were several positive portrayals of Muslims in pop culture in the early 1990s that reflected the image of a “Muslim” in the black community. There are many BAs with names like Jamal and Rasheed and refraining from pork was seen as something “conscious” and authentically “black”.

Nowadays, Islam and Muslims (even in the BA community) are associated with being foreign or alien - and this is not all the media’s fault. In many places outside the Northeast like the Twin Cities, Columbus, Houston, and Dallas, to be Muslim is to be Somali, Pakistani or Arab (depending on the dominating ethnic group of the city) and to be Somali, Pakistani or Arab is to be Muslim. In other words, when one says “Arab” or “Somali”, they mean “Muslim” and when they say “Muslim”, they mean “Arab” or “Somali”. So when a non-Muslim spends years in the Twin Cities and every Muslim they have met has been Somali, why should we get angry when they associate Muslim with being Somali when that person has seen nothing different? This is why they will ask an American Muslim upon seeing them (especially a woman) if they need a translator or speak very slowly assuming they don’t speak English very well. They just don’t associate Islam with being American and don’t mean anything by it. There is no need to have a chip on our shoulders about being mistaken for foreign (I have been mistaken for Somali myself even by other Somalis who walk up to me speaking the Somali language) when they dominate the “Islam” in a particular city.

For this reason, a black, white, Latino and other converts living in places like that are increasingly seen as somehow enthralled with another culture - essentially no different than a Samari enthusiast for example. With that in mind, Islam is certainly not seen as an option since (in their minds) becoming Muslim means adopting a new culture. It is like saying “becoming Chinese” or “becoming Russian”. I knew that things were changing a few years ago when I met a BA teenager in Memphis that thought that Islam was a place and Muslims were an ethnic group. Islam/Muslim has essentially become a race that is a catch all for Desi, Arab or Somali. So to become Muslim in the Twin Cities is to essentially “become Somali”. I just wonder if Islam in the US is forever to be alien now.

Finally, the greatest tragedy of this BA vs Somali issue is that because of the positive image of Islam in the early 1990s, many BAs were prepared to embrace their African brothers and sisters (the Somalis) and probably feel a rejected. Had most BAs been treated like I was, there would be a very different story today.

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