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Black Muslims aim for unity in challenging time for Islam

Fatimah Farooq counsels refugees from places like Iraq and Syria, who have been victims of trauma, torture or sex trafficking. (Paul Sancya, The Associated Press)

By Jeff Karoub, Sophia Tareen and Noreen Nasir

Associated Press

Fatimah Farooq counsels refugees from places like Iraq and Syria, who have been victims of trauma, torture or sex trafficking. (Paul Sancya, The Associated Press)
Fatimah Farooq counsels refugees from places like Iraq and Syria, who have been victims of trauma, torture or sex trafficking. (Paul Sancya, The Associated Press)

DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) – In her job as a refugee case manager, Fatimah Farooq would come to work in a hijab and speak with her clients in Arabic. Nonetheless, she found herself being asked whether she was Muslim.

It’s not easy, Farooq says, navigating her dual identities as black and Muslim.

“I’m constantly trying to prove that I belong,” said Farooq, who now works in public health.  “It’s really hard not to be an outsider in a community – especially today, in the current times.”

Many Muslims are reeling from a U.S. presidential administration that’s cracked down on immigrants, including through the introduction of a travel ban that suspends new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries and is now tied up in court. But black American-born Muslims say they have been pushed to the edges of the conversations – even by those who share the same religion.

They say they often feel discrimination on multiple fronts: for being black, for being Muslim and for being black and Muslim among a population of immigrant Muslims. Farooq, whose Sudanese parents came to the U.S. before she was born, said her own family used to attend a largely African-American mosque but then moved to a predominantly Arab one – yet in both cases still felt like “outsiders.”

The identity issues have rippled into social media with Twitter’s #BeingBlackAndMuslim and @BlkMuslimWisdom formed in recent weeks to amplify stories of black Muslims, whether it’s to praise Mahershala Ali, who is black and became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar, or to express concern over the lack of black speakers at a recent Islamic conference. Tensions are also being aired at community town halls, with panelists questioning why there hasn’t been more involvement from Arab and South Asian Muslims in Black Lives Matters events.

In response, activists say they’re seizing the opportunity to unite Muslims of all backgrounds.

Kashif Syed, who lives in the Washington, D.C. area, grew up in a family of South Asian Muslim immigrants around Detroit that was insulated from black Muslims. Now that he’s part of a young professional Muslim community, he’s trying to honor the experiences of others.

“We’re seeing increasingly visible threats to Muslims across the country now – it’s an important reminder of what black communities have endured for generations in this country,” said Syed, who volunteers at Townhall Dialogue, a nonprofit fostering discussions about U.S. Muslim identity. “I can’t really think of a better time for non-black Muslims to start examining how we got here, and what lessons we can learn from the hard-won victories of black communities from the civil rights movement.”

Organizer Shamar Hemphill, a black Chicago native who works for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, said Republican President Donald Trump’s executive orders such as the travel ban have made organizers “quadruple” efforts to form alliances, including recent calls for Muslim groups to attend and organize around Martin Luther King Jr. Day events.

“We’re not going to allow any policy or federal piece of legislation to separate us and isolate us. We’re going to come together and protect each other,” he said. “It’s also a great opportunity because it brings us out of our silos.”

Other attempts at unity have been made over the years. Imam Zaid Shakir at the California-based Zaytuna Institute, a liberal arts Muslim college, has delivered lectures about similarities between the Prophet Muhammad’s farewell sermon and King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” The Council of American-Islamic Relations holds events around the birthday of Malcolm X, a Nation of Islam member who came into mainstream Islam. And IMAN in Chicago has celebrated hip hop, featuring Muslim rappers like Grammy-winner Rhymefest.

Asha Noor, whose family fled Somalia’s civil war when she was a baby, helped organize a town hall after Trump announced his first travel ban in February, which blocked travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries and put the U.S. refugee program on hold. That ban has since been replaced with a newer version.

Noor said she feels there’s less attention paid to the plight of refugees from her native Somalia and Sudan, the two African countries in Trump’s executive order. She sees it as part of a “continuous erasure of the black Muslim experience.”

“Black Muslims often face a two-front challenge, both within the community and the larger American society,” said Noor, who worked for Take on Hate, a campaign challenging discrimination against Arabs and Muslims. “You can never be too sure if assaults or micro-aggressions are coming because you’re black, Muslim, or both.”

Central to the issue, experts say, is that Islam is largely portrayed as something foreign. That’s a misconception University of San Francisco professor Aysha Hidayatullah encounters when teaching an “Islam in America” class where she looks at Islam’s presence in America from the slave trade to civil rights – something that is a surprise to many of her students.

“It’s a class that is focused mainly on recovering the black memory of Islam in this country,” she said. “That’s the element that’s forgotten.”

Compared with the general population, U.S. Muslims are more racially diverse with a larger percentage born abroad. There’s disagreement on how many millions reside in the U.S., but it’s commonly accepted that American blacks represent about one-third of Muslims in this country.

Many came to the religion through the Nation of Islam, which veers from mainstream Islam on several core teachings, leading many immigrant Muslims to consider it too divergent from their faith. But Imam W. Deen Mohammed transformed the movement after taking it over in the 1970s and gradually moved his thousands of followers toward mainstream Islam, while Louis Farrakhan took leadership of the black separatist Nation of Islam.

Despite the history of blacks in the Muslim faith, Tariq Touré, a Maryland writer and activist, says South Asian and Arab narratives still dominate the conversation.

“It’s disheartening, because black Muslims can’t even get a word in as to how they’re navigating all of this,” said Touré, who’s black. “We really struggle with it all – the bridges that have been burned and the barriers that have been built within the Muslim communities when it comes to race.”

Abdul Rahim Habib, an American-born college student, said even his close friends assumed he converted to Islam because they didn’t associate being black with being Muslim. That’s even though the 21-year-old’s Nigerian father and grandparents are Muslim. While growing up in Chicago, he could remember moments when Arab Muslims refused to greet him with “As-Salaam-Alaikum,” a wish of peace customary among all Muslims.

“A lot of our Arab brothers and sisters didn’t really care about being brothers and sisters until this point when they started having problems,” he said.