Second time around for African American Muslims

by Jimmy E. Jones
New Haven, Connecticut - For many African American Muslims, the fallout from the horrendous crime of September 11, 2001 was not entirely new. The US government's response was a bit of déjà vu for those, like me, who were Civil Rights activists in college during the 1960s and 70s. The only difference is that now we face a higher level of intensity.

Our phones were wiretapped in the sixties and seventies and now our email is also being scrutinised. Our activist organisations were spied on then and now our places of worship are also under surveillance. Four decades ago, paid government agents and informants sought to entrap us and now a whole new generation of such people are hard at work.

Given this reality, many African American Muslim leaders in the post-9/11 world have taken on three varied approaches to this renewed, intensified interest by the US government.

The first approach is what I call the "bring it on" strategy. This refers to the methodology of the African American Muslim leaders who have had extensive histories of advocating for social justice. Therefore, the kind of injustices spurred by post-9/11 fear-mongering has only led them to intensify the struggle on behalf of Muslims and others whose human rights have been violated.

One good example is Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation, who uses non-violent tactics and interfaith alliances forged in the Civil Rights era to advocate on behalf of the rights of Muslims and others in the 21st century. An example is MAS's recent Human Rights Campaign in Egypt that has used interfaith protests at Egyptian embassies and consulates as a way to advocate for greater political freedom in that country.

The second approach is what I call the "if you only knew" approach. African American Muslim leaders who fall into this category tend to work the intellectual boundary between Muslims and the broader American community. Using logic and scholarly Islamic and secular research, such people attempt to speak to the American (and world) community in ways that encourage thoughtful cross-culture discussions. Rather than a "clash of civilisations" model, the focus is on issues of mutual concern between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

Intisar Rabb, graduate associate at the Princeton University Program in Law and Public Affairs (where she is finishing a PhD after having graduated from Yale Law School with a JD) is a young, developing example of this approach. Her involvement in last year's "Women, Islam and the West" Symposium at the international dialogue-building Aspen Institute is one example of this approach.

The third approach is what I call the "do for self" approach. This is a strategy wherein certain African American Muslim leaders focus on dealing with internal issues that negatively impact the African American Muslim community. The underlying idea is that African American Muslims cannot be full contributors to the larger Muslim community or broader world until they tackle some of the social, cultural, economic and political issues that affect its community.

A good example of this is Imam Siraj Wahhaj's leadership in helping to found and then lead the Muslim Alliance of North America, an organisation that targets the needs of urban communities with projects such as its "Healthy Marriage Initiative".

The challenge for African American Muslims who choose any one of these three approaches is to do so with justice while remaining undaunted by the seemingly relentless daily fear-mongering against Islam in the name of patriotism and national security. As the Qur'an states so eloquently and succinctly:

O ye who believe! stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear God. For God is well-acquainted with all that ye do. (Qur'an 5:8)


* Jimmy E. Jones is associate professor and chair of World Religions at Manhattanville College and president of Masjid Al-Islam in New Haven, Connecticut. This article is part of a series on African American Muslims written for the Common Ground News Service. It can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 24 June 2008,
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Other articles in this series

Don't forget African American Muslims by Aminah Beverly McCloud
African American Muslim women are a rare gift by Aisha H.L. al-Adawiya
A royal heritage by Sheikh Anwar Muhaimin
African American Muslims refute the clash of civilisations by Dawud Walid
African Americans help diminish Islamophobia by Faheem Shuaibe