Much Effort is Needed to Make African Americans Part of the American Fabric
By Luke Peterson
The African American experience in the U.S. has been connected to the practice of Islam, particularly Sunni Islam, since before the country’s foundations. It is known, for example, that between the years 1701 and 1800, millions of Africans were brought to what became the U.S, through the inhumane commercial exchange known as the Triangular Trade — the three-legged British-Africa-America route that made up the Atlantic slave trade — which saw trafficked and abused Africans in bondage traded as property to wealthy elites throughout the American colonies.
Through kidnap, rape, and pillage committed by the European slavers, this widespread and shameful practice (which was not, as is sometimes suggested, limited to plantation owners in the ante-bellum American South) brought thousands of observant Muslims to the Americas against their will. In all, some suggest that as many as 3 million African Muslims were kidnapped and deposited across the Americas, and the Caribbean throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries (Sylviane A Diouf, “Muslims in America: A forgotten history, Feb. 10, 2021).
As many as 30% of Africans trafficked in chattel slavery during this period were Muslims, many of whom documented their experiences in writing. Historians and chroniclers like Ayuba Suleiman Diallo and Bilali Mohammad recorded their experiences as slaves in America, leaving behind both words and deeds instructing subsequent generations about slavery, black identity and, critically, early American Islam. Other records show Arabic served as a clandestine lingua franca for maintaining Islamic traditions while also eluding abusive slave owners, who classified literacy as a criminal activity.
Others still, some freed and many still enslaved, fought under the banner of the U.S. during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and during the Civil War to decide, once and for all, their freedom and their future within this country. Traditional Arabic and Islamic names are documented across military muster rolls from those bloody conflicts as testimony to their presence in this country’s earliest armies.
A view into 21st-century’s America’s cultural and political milieu, however, would see the denial of Islam’s long presence here, as it would seek to treat African American Muslims as something exotic or other within the national religious and cultural fabric. And though it may be true that the vast majority of African Americans have traditionally identified as Christian (79% of the community, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center study), Islam has remained both a visible and stable presence within the African American community throughout the 20th century.
Indeed, some African American leaders identified Islam as their people’s natural religion, leading to the foundation of its most famous offshoot, the Nation of Islam, founded in Detroit during the 1930s. While many regard its teachings as heretical, the Nation’s influence in the black American community grew during the 1950s and 1960s under the charismatic leadership of Malcolm X, — who many consider charismatic” — among other prominent Civil Rights figures. After returning from hajj, though, Malcolm X renounced the Nation’s teachings and encouraged his followers to convert to traditional Sunni Islam. He also changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, sought to end internal strife among the various camps working toward equality for African Americans and attempted to create a unified movement across disparate civic and social movements.
This message of unity, and the threat he continued to pose to the conservative, white establishment, may well have sealed his fate as a conspiracy of operatives assassinated the visionary leader at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on February 21, 1965. Three members of the Nation were convicted, but long-standing evidence suggests that they were not the sole perpetrators of the crime. And in June 2022, two of those convicted for the murder, Muhammad Abdul Aziz and Khalil Islam, were exonerated and subsequently awarded a large cash settlement by the state and city of New York.
Things Begin to Change
This reversal of fortune coincided with a sea change in political representation for the Black Muslim community. Specifically, midterm elections in November 2022 saw electoral victories by more Muslim representatives and more Black Muslim representatives at the federal, state and local levels than any other time in American history. These elections boosted the visibility of African American Muslim leaders like Zaynab Muhammad (D-Minn.), Munira Abdullahi (D-Ohio), Ismail Mohamed (D-Ohio), Mana Abdi (D-Maine) and Deqa Dhalac (D-Maine).
Their successes mirror the wins garnered on the federal level by prominent African American Muslim congressional representatives Ilhan Omar (D) and Keith Ellison (D), both from Minnesota. For his part, Ellison has held offices within the Democratic Party at both the state and federal levels — and continues to do so in his current position as Minnesota’s state attorney general. From 2022 onward then, an argument can be mounted attesting to new levels of representation, prominence and political influence for Muslims, and specifically for African American Muslims.
And the Most Prominent Individual Targets Are …
Perhaps predictably though, this newfound national prominence prompted an ugly, nativist backlash from the conservative, white and nominally Christian establishment. During Ellison’s 2022 campaign for Minnesota’s attorney general, for example, his opponent Jim Schulz (R) coordinated with Minnesota for Freedom, a right-wing advocacy group funded by the Republican Attorneys General Association. Schulz’s campaign relied upon blatantly racist and Islamophobic tropes within campaign ads that dramatized cities on fire and prison inmates rallying to support Ellison. In an open letter signed by 67 Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders from Faith in Minnesota, an interfaith activist group based in Ellison’s home state, this ad campaign was denounced as a form of hate speech.
Ellison has also been the target of hate speech and white nationalist vitriol both online and in print — even in foreign countries. In his “Burn This Book: What Keith Ellison Doesn’t Want You to Know: A Radical Marxist-Islamist, His Associations and Agenda” (CreateSpace: 2018), Trevor Loudon accuses Ellison of being a “radical Marxist-Islamist,” a by-now common, right-wing epithet linking oxymoronic scare words together to generate nativist and white supremacist fears of the specter of the other.
Ellison’s battle with endemic racism and Islamophobia perhaps pales in comparison, though, with that endured by his colleague and fellow Minnesotan, Ilhan Omar. Omar, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives, embraces a progressive domestic and foreign policy agenda. This includes vocal criticism of the broken American tax system that sustains the uber-rich, mostly white elite, while allowing tens of thousands of citizens to go homeless.
She has further won popular support among members of the minority American left for openly criticizing the Israeli oppression of Palestinians, an uncritical foreign policy position embraced within the U.S. and corporate America, leading to the grotesque enrichment of a number of weapons manufacturers, among them Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin.
Omar is so staunch in her advocacy for human rights in Palestine that she authored and proposed an unprecedented bill in the U.S House of Representatives that would cut off military aid to Israel due to its indiscriminate bombing of Gaza’s civilian population during October and November.
And though these policy positions have proven Rep. Omar’s dedicated support for a committed group of progressive, American political activists, voluminous amounts of online bile and racist condemnation for the egregious crime of publicly criticizing the U.S. political and economic relationship with Israel continues to follow her, including from former President Donald Trump’s Twitter account. This racist and Islamophobic criticism culminated in a public censure of Omar in her position in the U.S. House as she was expelled from the Foreign Affairs Committee in February of 2023.
Calling out the motivations of her political opponents, Omar concisely opined, “I am Muslim. I am an immigrant. … Is anyone surprised that I am being targeted?” Omar would later assess her ouster in terms of the centrist, white nationalist American viewpoint, stating, “This debate today is about who gets to be an American.”
Who, indeed? Speaking specifically to the African American Muslim experience, clearly, if Ellison and Omar are representative of this community, then the country as a whole has many miles to go before we truly embrace Black Muslim identity and learn to value it, thereby ensuring that all Americans, everywhere, are viewed as equal in perpetuity.
Luke Peterson, Ph.D., Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Cambridge–King’s College, investigates language, media and knowledge surrounding political conflict in the Middle East. He lives in Pittsburgh, where he regularly contributes to local, national and international media outlets.