Islam and America: Toward Common Ground

September 1, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Milad Alucozai, Purdue University

TMO Editor’s Note:  This is the second essay that tied for third place in the TMO Foundation’s Second Annual Essay Competition, 2011.

bildeIn his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of a world founded upon four essential human freedoms, among them “the freedom of every person to worship God in his own way.” Freedom of religion, deeply rooted in the American tradition, has long been protected by the laws of our nation. Despite legal protections, ethnic and religious minorities in America have been the subjects of discrimination, harassment, and even physical violence throughout our history. Following the events of September 11, 2001, heated rhetoric and acts of violence against Muslim Americans (and non-Muslim Arab Americans) have increased. Public attention to these acts reached a peak in the summer of 2010.

In Florida, a bomb exploded on May 10th at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida with 60 people praying inside, and Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville threatened to destroy 200 copies of the Quran during his “Burn a Koran Day.” In New York City, opposition united against the construction of an Islamic Community Center.  In August, a New York City taxi driver was stabbed by his passenger after revealing he was a Muslim, and during the same week five teenagers were arrested in update New York for firing shots at a local mosque. These events prompted many in the American and international media to question whether the United States is a nation dedicated to the freedom of all Americans.  An August 30, 2010 TIME Magazine cover asked the question, “Is America Islamophobic?” and a September New York Times headline read “American Muslims Ask: Will We Ever Belong?” According to the Justice Department, there have been more than 800 cases of violence and discrimination against Muslim Americans in the ten years since September 11th.

Yet millions of Americans remain committed to peaceful understanding and cooperation and respect the value of our neighbors of all faiths and creeds. What are the roots of this supposed fear and animosity towards Muslims, and what can we do to counter this while promoting our vision for society?

American followers of Islam, now numbering more than 7 million, have been an integral part of our national fabric since the founding of our country. George Washington is known to have welcomed Muslims to his residence at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson was adamant that the 1786 Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom include “within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim].” 

The second president of the United States, John Adams, asserted in the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli that “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.”  These early examples show the respect our founding fathers had for the Islamic faith.

Although Muslims were surely a part of our nation since its founding, their population was made up of a limited number of immigrants living in disparate places who were not able to form communities. A large segment of this population was made up of slaves who were taken by force from the west coast of Africa, where Islam was prevalent. These slaves were not allowed to practice their faith openly and this, combined with the lack of family structure and general difficulties of bondage, resulted in the loss of Islamic practices in subsequent generations of most slave populations that had originally been Muslim.

Evidence from surviving slave manuscripts written by those who were educated describe the practice of Islam within slave communities. One of the most well known manuscripts was written by the Muslim slave Bilali Mahomet. The accounts document how the Islamic faith in the African American community tragically fell victim to the realities of slavery and was slowly extinguished. 

The first significant wave of Muslims who freely immigrated to America occurred in the mid-1800’s from modern day Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Though not slaves, these immigrants possessed little education and came in the pursuit of employment and opportunity. Disenfranchised by their lack of higher education and the large language barrier, many of the immigrants were forced to assume jobs involving menial labor.  Most regarded their stay in America as a temporary opportunity to earn some money which they could take back to their homelands. 

The number of Muslim families immigrating to America steadily increased over the latter half of the 19th century and into the early 20th century when the Ottoman Empire crumbled in World War I. This period was characterized by a rising tide of immigration to American from all over the world, especially Asian countries. Public backlash against the open door immigration policy resulted in the passage of a series of immigration laws in 1921 and 1924 that severely restricted immigration and closed to the door to new Muslims immigrants.

These restrictions combined with the continued effects of slavery, limited the growth of Islam in America. However, a significant number of Muslim families had already settled in America. These families began to organize into close communities that flourished. One of the first documented Muslim communities was established in Ross, North Dakota and it was also here that one of the first American mosques was constructed in 1929.

As the major urban centers of New York and Chicago became the gathering places for tens of thousands of immigrants, large Muslims communities also developed around these metropolises and networks were developed between communities across the country that relied on each other for mutual support and assistance.

While many of African American communities in the United States had lost most of their Muslim faith, they represented a population which would be the face of Islamic growth in the middle decades of the 20th century.  The growth of Islam in the African American community arguably can be traced to a clothing salesman in Detroit by the name of Wallace D. Fard.  Fard preached a message of African American empowerment and called his message the Nation of Islam (NOI).  One of the Fard’s prominent disciples was Elijah Poole, later to become Elijah Muhammad.  Through their meetings, Elijah Muhammad began to associate Fard with a status of divinity and even went as far as to proclaim that Fard was the Messiah, an image that Fard did little to downplay. Most mainstream Muslims claim that the teachings of the Nation of Islam are not rooted in either the Holy Quran or the Prophet’s recorded teachings (Sunnah) and thus are not truly within the fold of Islam. Although analysis of the major teachings of the NOI vindicates this position, the NOI was nevertheless the vehicle which introduced large numbers of African Americans to the idea of Islam, however inaccurate that idea may have been.  Wallace Fard was arrested several times in the beginning of the 1930’s under the pretext that he was inciting violence.  He was expelled from Detroit in 1933 and was never seen after 1934.  His departure from the NOI left the organization without its “promised” leader and Elijah Muhammad quickly moved to fill the vacuum that had been created.  Under his authority, the NOI became more institutionalized with an order of command squarely placing Elijah Muhammad at the top.  Elijah Muhammad was able to cast the claim that he was in fact a messenger of Allah, further alienating the NOI from mainstream Muslims. 

With the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, his son Wallace Muhammad, also known as Warith Deen Muhammad, assumed leadership of the NOI. Since his childhood, Warith Deen Muhammad had studying Arabic and the Quran, and he had also made the pilgrimage to the Holy city of Mecca. Through these experiences, he developed a viewpoint that was more in line, yet still distinct from, mainstream Muslims and worked to bring the beliefs and practices of the NOI closer to those of mainstream Islam until the organization as a separate group eventually disbanded. While many of the NOI members accepted Warith Deen’s changes, there were some that sought a return to the traditional teachings of the NOI as emphasized by Wallace Fard and Elijah Muhammad. Louis Farrakhan became the leader of this group and went on to reinstitute the Nation of Islam as an organization, and it continues in this form today.

In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson and it significantly eliminated immigration barriers that had been in place since the 1920’s.  The relaxation of immigration requirements provided the opportunity for people to once again come to America. Where the previous wave of immigrants had largely been working class individuals seeking employment, the majority of immigrants coming to America in the 1970’s and onward where highly educated and well trained professionals, including physicians and engineers.  This new wave of immigrants came to seek higher education or escape from unrest in their homelands. This recent influx of Muslim immigrants represents by far the largest growth of the Muslim population in the history of America. The immigrants entering in the last three decades of the 20th century are unique with respect to the large numbers that they came in and the positions that they were able to attain within society.  These two factors, in concert with one another, allowed for the development of Islam in America to occur at a remarkable pace.

The arrival of large numbers of immigrants followed relatively the same distribution pattern as had been maintained over the 20th century. Incoming Muslim families settled in large metropolis centers throughout the country. One of the first cities to feature a pronounced Muslim community was the city of Chicago which is now home to more than 40 mosques and Islamic centers. The degree of maturation that the Muslim community has undergone in one generation is also a result of the large inflow of educated professionals and is evidenced by some of the activities the Muslim community is involved with. One of the landmark community programs run by the Muslim community in Chicago is titled the Inter-city Muslim Action Network (IMAN). This Muslim led nonprofit organization develops programs to uphold social justice and combat inner-city poverty. Similarly large and developed communities were quick to rise in Houston, New York, Dearborn and Los Angeles, as well as many other localities. 

As Muslim communities flourished around the nation, the need for overarching institutions to coordinate Muslims and Islamic efforts became apparent.  In response to this need, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) was founded in 1982 with the mission of providing a national platform for Islamic activities and extending assistance to civic and service organizations . Prior to the formation of ISNA, Muslim college students attending universities throughout the United States founded the Muslim Student Association (MSA) in 1963 to create an official Muslim presence on campus and facilitate inter-faith talks.  These major organizations were precursors to several smaller Islamic organizations that were founded in response to local and regional needs. The establishment and growth of these organizations within one generation is a testament to the size, development and organization of the Muslim community within America.

In light of national and global events over the past decade, Islam has been portrayed as something that is foreign to America.  This proposition is rendered baseless when it is appreciated that Islam has been present within America since the time of the founding fathers and its history can be traced from that point to current times.  This presence has allowed for Islam to be intertwined with American history and has manifested in the development of a large American Muslim population that is deeply rooted in our communities throughout the country.

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Community News (V13-I28)

July 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Islamic school opens near New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS,LA–The Islamic School of Greater New Orleanswas officially  opened this week in Kenner. “Everyone is so excited,” Director Ahmad Siddiqui told the Times-Picayune. “We have been dreaming for this day for a long time. We bought this land in 1997, and we were supposed to start in 2002 and 2003. After Hurricane Katrina, our donations were down and we were trying to secure enough funds to complete construction.”

The new site at 2420 Illinois Ave. sits on more than five acres of land. The building is 15,000 square feet and boasts 12 classrooms, science and computer laboratories, a library, teacher’s lounge, assembly area, conference room, and offices for administration and support staff.

It can accommodate more than 250 students from pre-kindergarten to seventh grade, Siddiqui said.

A gymnasium and multipurpose hall with more than 10,000 square feet also were added. The attached building will house student activity as well as community functions.

“This building is for the entire community and the kids,” Siddiqui said. “This is a great place for everyone to get together and enjoy different occasions.”

The inauguration ceremony attracted more than 500 people. Among the dignitaries were the Mayor, police chief, council woman, and a judge from the Circuit Court.

Atlanta Muslims send message of peace

ATLANTA,GA–Members of metro Atlanta’s Muslim community spent part of the Fourth of July holiday spreading a message of peace and unity, WSBTC reported.

Organizers of a small gathering at the Bethak Banquet Hall in Duluth said they want to move beyond recent controversy surrounding the proposals to expand and build mosques in Lilburn and Alpharetta.

But Monday’s event wasn’t about politics, but patriotism.

“I’m here to say the Pledge of Allegiance,” said Gwinnett teen Suha Rashied. She was among a group of children who lead the gathering with a salute to the American flag.

The families who gathered Monday said the show of patriotism was more important than any fireworks.

“We wanted to remind everybody, yes, we are your fellow Americans and we are sending a message of peace and harmony,” said organizer Shamina Voora.

Voora said Monday’s celebration of the nation’s Independence Day is a first in metro Atlanta, a chance for local Muslim to send a message of peace. That was echoed by civil rights leader and Baptist minister the Rev. Gerald Durley.

“When we communicate, we eradicate the ignorance. When we eradicate the ignorance, we eradicate the fear,” said Durley.

Drs. Abdullah Daar and Ali-Khan’s research recognized with $10,000 prize

TORONTO,CANADA–Since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2000, there has been debate in biomedical literature about the use of race and ethnicity in genetic research potentially resulting in racial/ethnic stereotyping. Drs. Daar and Ali-Khan examined the 2005 Admixture Mapping study, which looked for risk factors for Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in African Americans and European Americans, a disease that is extremely rare in Sub-Sahara Africans, common in populations of European desent, and of intermediate frequency in African Americans.

Drs. Daar and Ali-Khan examined the ethical and social issues raised by the Admixture Mapping project and used these to draw up a series of recommendations and points for policy makers and researchers to consider when undertaking population-based genomics studies.

“We are extremely pleased to be awarded this prize by OGI and have our work recognized,” commented Dr. Abdallah S. Daar, Senior Scientist and Director of Ethics and Commercialization, McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health, and Professor of Public Health Sciences at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto. “Working to encourage public understanding of genetic diversity, which goes beyond simplistic racial or ethnic stereotypes, is crucial to extract the maximum benefit from newly emerging genetic knowledge. We very much hope that our paper may function as a key reference document for those working in this field.”

The paper, titled Admixture mapping: from paradigms of race and ethnicity to population history, published in August 2010 in the HUGO Journal, examined the social and ethical issues, the benefits and the risks of Admixture Mapping, and more generally, of population-based genomic methods. Over the course of the study, Drs. Daar and Ali-Khan conducted interviews with researchers at the forefront of genomics and bioethics, including representatives from the International Multiple Sclerosis Genetics Consortium, the Harvard Center for Neurodegeneration and Repair, and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and members of the African American MS community.

“The findings examine issues that are also directly relevant to the development, testing and marketing of drugs aimed at specific population segments,” commented Dr. Sarah Ali-Khan, who was a Post-Doctoral Fellow in genomics and bioethics at MRC at the time of the study. “Our work provides practical guidelines to mitigate and negotiate potential pitfalls around fears of discrimination in genetic studies, and therefore may facilitate better population-based studies and assist in moving beyond racial and ethnic stereotyping.”

Dr. Mark Poznansky, President and CEO, OGI, said: “It is fitting that the potential of population-based studies be recognized. Such studies hold the promise to yield important biomedical knowledge, which may otherwise be hindered by fears of discrimination. We may all be 99.9% the same in our genetic make-up, but the 0.1% really makes all the difference, and we need to recognize this if we are to move towards fulfilling the possibilities of personalized medicine.”

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Remembering “Brother Hodari”

May 12, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

MANA Press Release

hodari1Hodari Abdul-Ali or, “Brother Hodari,” as he was widely known; had a long history of activism and social commitment.  His contributions were highly respected; and he was well-recognized as a social justice activist, journalist, media personality, a pioneer purveyor of Islamic, African and African American literature and as a businessman.  Brother Hodari was particularly beloved in the Washington, D.C. area of the United States, where a large event in his honor was held on April 23rd.

As a member of the MANA Shura, he was dear to us because of his warm and deeply caring personality, love for Allah (Glory be to Him) and His Messenger (peace be upon him), his commitment to social justice, and his love for his people. It was because of these qualities that Hodari was asked to serve as both the Chairman of the MANA Social Justice Task Force and as a primary representative of MANA in the Washington, D.C. area.

He was dear to us because of his warm and deeply caring personality And his love for Allah and His Messenger (s).

Although we understand that illness is all too human, and that to bear it with faith is one of the characteristics of a believer, we were shocked to learn of our brother’s suffering from the effects of prostate cancer. Over the past two years, he slowly succumbed to the disease which claims the lives of too many African American men; and yet, he kept it a secret from all but his immediate family. We ask Allah to forgive his sins multiplied by each hour of each day that he bore his fate with faith and dignity, and to reward our beloved brother, Hodari with Jannah (Paradise).

Brother Hodari’s janaaza prayer, held on the 28 Jumada Al-Awwal 1432 (May 2, 2011) was attended by several hundred believers. Among those present from the MANA family were Deputy Amir Imam Al-Hajj Talib ‘Abdur-Rashid, Imam Mohammed Magid, brothers Jihad Abdul-Mu’mit, Altaf Hussain, Jameel Johnson, Johari Abdul-Malik, Tariq Nelson. Our brother Mahdi Bray (MAS Freedom Foundation), who continues to recuperate from the stroke he suffered last year, Alhamdulillah, was present; as was our brother Nihad Awad of CAIR National.

One can only imagine the degree of financial hardship that Brother Hodari’s family has endured over the past two years. Our Prophet Muhammad (s), taught us that “Whoever relieves the stress of a believer will have his (or her) stress relieved.” Therefore, we strongly encourage all members of MANA to aid Brother Hodari’s widow, Sister Ayanna, and his family by sending a secure monetary donation to them via PayPal.  Details on how to make a donation are below.

Brother Hodari was particularly beloved in the Washington, D.C. area. Brother Hodari bore his suffering with faith and dignity… May Allah reward him with Paradise. We strongly encourage all members of MANA to give financial support to Brother Hodari’s widow.

Please continue our support of Hodari by making a financial contribution to help his family to defray costs. You can make a secure donation via PayPal. Go to www.PayPal.com. Click on “send money.” Enter in the amount of your contribution, and then the following email for the payee account: sadiq.akmal@gmail.com. The funds will be sent safely and securely and will be used for his burial and to assist his widow and their family needs.

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Why Democrats and Republicans Won’t Confront Black Mass Incarceration, and Why The Green Party Will

November 25, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Bruce A. Dixon

Although the phenomenon of black mass incarceration is at the center of African American life, it continues to be obfuscated or ignored. The bipartisan consensus is that the social policy of black mass incarceration may exist only the minds of black people, and is certainly off the table as a political issue. To get this very real concern of Black America on the table then, may require stepping outside the bipartisan consensus. In Georgia, the state with the third highest black population and the largest percentage of its adults in the correctional labyrinth, the Green Party proposes to do what Democrats and Republicans won’t — make black mass incarceration a central political issue.

With less than 5% of the world’s population, the US accounts for a quarter of the world’s prisoners. While African Americans are only an eighth the population, we account for almost half the locked down. America’s widely acknowledged but rarely discussed social policy of black mass incarceration has been a decisive fact of African American family and community life for a generation. Four years ago in Black Commentator, this reporter wrote that

“…Right now, the shadow of prison squats at the corners of, and often at the center of nearly every black family’s life in this nation.

“Since 1970, the US prison population has multiplied more than six times… despite essentially level crime rates over the last four decades. This has only been possible because the public policies which enable and support locking up more people longer and for less have until now been exempt from analyses of their human, economic and social costs or from any reckoning of the relationships of spiraling imprisonment to actual crime rates and public safety. Most tellingly, while public discussions of these policies are deracialized, their racially disparate impacts are a seldom discussed but widely known fact. Thus even though the damning numbers are widely reported and well known, mass incarceration is practically invisible as a political issue, even in those heavily black communities which suffer most from its implementation.”

Little has changed since then. The number of persons in prisons, jails, on probation, bail, parole, pre-trial and post-conviction supervision continues to rise and according to a March 2009 Pew Center report is now one in 31 nationally, including one in eleven African Americans. An astounding three percent of all black Americans are in prisons and jails, the majority for drug charges, although black and white rates of drug use have been virtually identical for decades. While politicians in black constituencies are regularly obliged to wag their fingers at it, their misleading analyses often point to educational outcomes, and job markets as if these were causes of explosive growth of the carceral state rather than its outcomes. In fact, the policy of mass black imprisonment has functioned as a kind of reparations in reverse, curtailing the economic vitality of entire black communities, stressing and destroying the cohesion of millions of families and thousands of neighborhoods, worsening black health outcomes and more.

The pretense that black mass incarceration is the murky outcome of other social policies rather than a plainly failed and malevolent social policy by itself misdirects public attention and effectively takes the issue off the political table. If black joblessness, lack of family cohesion and health disparities are somehow supposed to cause black mass incarceration, there is no reason to examine the growth of the carceral state itself. Thus the social policy of black mass incarceration never has to justify itself, its costs or its outcomes, never needs to be publicly acknowledged, and can never become a political issue in and of itself. But this may be about to change.

Making mass incarceration a political issue

The ninth largest US state, Georgia leads the rest with one in every thirteen adults in its prisons, jails, on parole and probation, and various kinds of pre-trial and post-conviction court or correctional supervision. A generation of white and black politicians from both major parties have built their careers on stoking the fear of crime and the expansion and justification of the state’s vast crime control industries. The state’s current Republican governor, as well as the top two Democratic contenders who want to succeed him all had a hand in passing the state’s three-strikes mandatory sentencing legislation under former Democratic governor Zell Miller. One of those Democrats is the state’s African American attorney general, Thurbert Baker. The last Democratic governor Roy Barnes wanted to put a “two-strikes” provision into the state constitution.

But Georgia’s Green Party, BAR has learned, will announce tomorrow that its major focus for the coming two years, including the 2010 election cycle, will be making a political issue out of black mass incarceration. The Green Party of GA intends to do this by running candidates for the state legislature and for district attorney and sheriff, not just in metro Atlanta, but in Augusta, Macon, Columbus, Savannah and elsewhere. Georgia’s Green party will expect its candidates to put the fact of black mass incarceration squarely on the political table by advocating positions including but not limited to:

•opposing in principle the trials of or incarceration of juveniles as or with adults;

•repealing all mandatory sentencing legislation;

•an end to all privatized prisons and jails, and the swift phasing out of piecemeal privatization of inmate health, food services and other functions;

•an end to all privatized probation services — Georgia has an almost uniquely corrupt and oppressive regime of fines with loan-shark interest payments collected by private sector probation companies;

•ceasing the incarceration of juveniles for most or all nonviolent offenses and reexamining the “zero-tolerance” policies forced upon many school districts;

•immediate cancellation of all the private contracts enabling well-connected corporations and corrupt politicians to collect exorbitant tolls on the money sent to and phone calls made to inmates and persons in custody;

•the extension of meaningful educational opportunities beyond G.E.D. to people in the state’s jails and prisons and its extensive community corrections networks;

I should say how BAR came to know this. We know it because I have been for the last few weeks a member of the GA state committee of the Green Party and its press secretary.

We know that the effects of the nation’s policy of black mass incarceration are among the most deeply felt concerns of millions of African American families. We are confident that vigorous, competent, grassroots political campaigns that bring their concerns to the fore are the key to growing the Green Party in Georgia and bringing into existence a broader and more permanent movement for peace and justice than has ever existed before. With the third highest black population among US states, Georgia is uniquely positioned to lead the way on this issue.

In Georgia, our Green Party will look a lot like a red, black and green party. We are confident that with black majorities or near majorities in many of the state’s largest counties, including several outside metro Atlanta, that some of these contests are eminently winnable by Green candidates willing to place the issue of mass incarceration squarely on the political front burner. We will be recruiting and training those candidates and the people who want to work with them to change this failed and destructive social policy.

By comparison, the mobilization achieved by the Obama campaigns last year was superficial, a mile wide and an inch deep, its imperatives dictated from the top down rather than from the bottom up, and its activists dispersed and demobilized immediately after the election. Establishment campaigns, such as Democrats usually conduct, are not “movements”. They are where movements go to die, or are betrayed misdirected, and disbanded. To be successful the fight to change and reverse the national policy of black mass incarceration must be closer to a real mass movement than anything seen in a generation, directed and inspired in large part from below. As far as Georgia’s Green Party is concerned it will not be the slave of any candidate’s political career. It won’t go away after a few, or maybe quite a few people get elected, or not. It aims at nothing less than explaining, confronting and curtailing the carceral state with the power of organized people.

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