Muslims in America remain separated by race.
Islam is the fourth-largest religion in the United States, and one of the fastest-growing. It also has a complicated history in this country. Although the number of American Muslims has increased substantially over the past few decades, the faith is divided along racial lines. The tension between African-American converts and immigrant Muslim communities dates back to the 1960s, and has come to define the religion’s American presence. Since the September 11 attacks, the automatic association of Muslim with Arab has exacerbated this divide, as immigrant Muslims have suffered the brunt of anti-Muslim prejudice and African-American Muslims have suffered relatively less. Until African-American and immigrant Muslims can overcome the contradiction between their shared faiths and their divergent ethnicities, American Islam will continue to suffer from a partially divided community.
According to a 2007 Pew survey, foreign-born Muslims comprise 65% of the American Muslim community, and African-American Muslims 20%. The two groups have substantially different histories and motivations.
For many African-Americans, the conversion to Islam was strongly intertwined with political radicalism and revolution. As Professor Richard Turner of DePaul University has written, “Large numbers of African Americans … turned to mainstream Islamic practices and communities since Malcolm X’s conversion to Sunni Islam in 1964.” Islam’s tenets of inclusiveness and one nation under Allah appealed to African-Americans who were seeking equality, and the faith provided support for the political resistance of the Black Power movement.
For Muslim immigrants of Middle Eastern extraction, however, Islam is less a vehicle for modern-day resistance than an ancient cultural identity. Unsurprisingly, immigrant groups have enjoyed variable degrees of harmony with African-American converts. Columbia University history professor Richard Bulliet told the HPR that this division has created an internal sense of “other” within the domestic Muslim community. According to Bulliet, September 11 “added fuel to the smoldering anti-Arab sentiment in the United States,” but the division between African-American and Arab Muslims began much earlier.
Terror and Race
The lingering effects of the 2001 attacks have been difficult for the American Muslim community, dividing it between Muslims who bear the stereotypical appearance associated with their religion, and those who do not. “After 9/11, Muslim became synonymous with ‘terrorist,’” Sobia Sharif, co-president of Duke University’s Muslim Student Association, told the HPR. But the label did not apply equally across racial lines. Sharif explained, “African-American Muslims were not victimized or labeled ‘terrorist’ after 9/11 to the same degree as Middle Eastern Muslims.”
Even though African-American Muslims originally carried a militant image because of their roots in the Black Power movement, they are no longer seen as the “threatening” type of Muslim.
“First and foremost, blacks in America are identified by their race rather than their religion,” Beatrice Laney, a retired professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told the HPR. “This perhaps explains why blacks were not lumped into the ‘terrorist’ category with Arab Muslims.”
Statistics confirm Laney’s speculation. The 2007 Pew survey found that over two-thirds of immigrant Muslims felt that it was more difficult to be a Muslim in America since September 11, compared to barely half of African-Americans. These different perspectives have bred some resentment and disunity within the American Muslim community, which persists almost ten years after the attacks.
Building an American Islam
Islam in the United States is far more complex and diverse than the simplistic mainstream narrative would suggest. Far from a homogenous bloc, American Muslims are split into, if not opposing camps, certainly very different ones, both in terms of their self-conceptions and their images among outsiders. “
Whether popular aversion to Islam among non-Muslims increases or decreases, the American history of racism based on color will continue to affect the social status of African-American Muslims more than their religion,” Bulliet concluded.
Thus, internal divides in the American Muslim community are not ideological, but rather founded in separate experiences of race-based discrimination. Such a separation saps the strength and cohesion of America’s Islamic community. Until all American Muslims are recognized as members of the same community, and recognize themselves that way, Islam in America will continue struggling to form a powerful unified voice.
Brian Burton ’13 is a Contributing Writer.
Photo Credit: Flickr (ranoush)