Racial and Religious Identities Collide Leaving Black Muslims Overlooked

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By Mashaun D. Simon

As pundits, political strategists and talking heads debate Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, there is one group of individuals still left out of the conversation.

African American Muslims are reacting to the statements of the GOP front-runner from a different set of lenses; lenses that not only involve their religious identity, but also their racial identity — realities often overlooked and neglected in such conversations.

Jihad Ahmed, 42, believes the African American Muslim community feels slighted in many ways, not just the most recent anti-Muslim sentiments.

“No one is speaking for us,” he told NBCBLK. “No one is speaking for the Black Muslim, Sunni Orthodox.”

“We are caught in the middle of the really intense discussion around the value of black life and the value of black Muslim lives.”

It is a sentiment shared by many within the African American Muslim community, Kameelah Rashad points out. For a very long time, she says, the public imagination of what is Muslim has excluded Black Muslims.

“Part of the reason is because people want Islam to be foreign to them – outside,” she told NBCBLK. “But my ancestors built this country. I usually lead with, ‘Hi, I am a descendent of enslaved Africans brought to this country by your people.’”

Rashad, who works as the interfaith fellow and Muslim chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania, said African American Muslims are not seen as typical members of the Muslim community. Usually, African Americans are stereotypically associated with Christianity.

Kameelah Rashad and her two kidsKameelah Rashad

“Most think of the Black Church when they think of Black or African American,” Rashad points out. “A third of Muslims in this country are African American.”

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2015 Religious Landscape Study, Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the United States population. While the majority of those in the United States are immigrants – somewhere around 60 percent – about a third of those overall in the United States are black.

Sherman Jackson, King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture and director of the Center for Islamic Thought, Culture and Practice at the University of Southern California, points out that African American Muslims have ties to the United States that stem as far back as pre-United States status.

even when blacks did not qualify for citizenship, when congress restricted citizenship to ‘free white persons’ in 1790, religion, including Islam, was not a bar to becoming an American.”

“By blood, they are the brothers, uncles, mothers, fathers, sisters, aunts, grandparents and nieces of millions of non-Muslim Americans. In sum, Trump cannot target Black American Muslims without affecting millions of Black American (and other) non-Muslim Americans who love and cherish their Muslim kin,” he told NBCBLK via email.

“We have to pushback against this idea that Islam is foreign,” Rashad added.

When Ahmed initially heard of Trump’s statements, the Philadelphia deputy sheriff said the word “fool” is what immediately came to mind.

“For Trump to be a businessman, I felt the statements were contradictory,” he said. “He runs businesses that have dealings with wealthy Muslims and Arabs in the Middle East, Dubai, Turkey, and numerous others.”

Jihad Ahmed with four of his eight kids: (left to right) Ahmed's daughter Ahmed (20), son Suhayb (3), daughter Ameenah (17), and son Aqil (15).Jihad Ahmed

And then he thought of his family.

With eight children, four boys and four girls, Ahmed said he became alarmed. Especially for his daughters and his wife who are on the frontlines.

“They are covered up. When you see them, you see Muslim. But for me, you see my clean shaven face; you don’t know I am Muslim until you see my name,” he said. “Kind of makes me think of Adolf Hitler and how he labelled the Jews living in Germany. Remember, early on Trump said he wanted all Muslims here in America and the mosques to be registered. That went by people’s radar and caused a few waves, but did not cause as much of a stir as his most recent statements.”

Trump’s anti-Muslim sentiments also caused Rashad, who is married and also a mother, think of her family – especially her son. She called it her “Momma Bear” mode, adding in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and Trump’s anti-Muslim sentiment, she worries about her son’s life chances.

“We are caught in the middle of the really intense discussion around the value of black life and the value of black Muslim lives,” she said.

Bilal Rashad (son of Kameelah Rashad) at the BlackLivesMatter rally in Philly in Dec 2014Kameelah Rashad

Jackson suggests Trump’s statement creates a shift of sorts.

“It means fundamentally that we have moved from citizenship as a status that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, to some other criterion that does discriminate on that basis. This renders some Americans ‘more American’ than others, more entitled to Constitutional protections than others, based purely on their religion,” he said. “This is partly what this country was established to avoid. In fact, even when blacks did not qualify for citizenship, when congress restricted citizenship to ‘free white persons’ in 1790, religion, including Islam, was not a bar to becoming an American.”

Some have said that Trump’s statements further anti-American sentiment around the world. Jackson, in some ways, agrees those “all too happy to condemn” America now have evidence to support their claims.

even when blacks did not qualify for citizenship, when congress restricted citizenship to ‘free white persons’ in 1790, religion, including Islam, was not a bar to becoming an American.”

“This will play right into the hands of many in the Muslim world,” he said. “Trump’s proposal will give these detractors a nice fat ‘I told you so’ on a silver platter.”

And yet, what would be next for Trump, his supporters and those who would agree with him?

Rashad points out that when one group is demonized they are dehumanized which leads to all sorts of abuses to others -- and America has a history of dehumanizing and abusing entire communities and cultures. For Rashad, this is a moment for African Americans, whether Muslim or not, to see the connection that white supremacy has created for all groups.

“America we need to get this right. Native American genocide, racial intolerance, it all is embedded within white supremacy,” she said. “We need to connect the struggles… If we are silent about any of our identities, this is not going to end well.”

Ben Carson, another Republican candidate hopeful, expressed some of his hopes regarding Trump’s statements and the Muslim community during a town hall at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, MI last week. He even offered solutions for how Muslims can prove whose side they are on.

“I would say to the Muslim community, particularly the moderate Muslims, please concentrate on how you can help to identify radicalized individuals so that you put yourself squarely on the side of the American populace, so that people aren’t really wondering which side that you’re on,” he said, adding, “We have to fight to the tendency to react out of fear and emotion in this kind of situation.”

Trump’s statement, and even Carson’s assertion, point to one explicit truth for Jackson, Ahmed and Rashad: division is not an option.

“Trump wants to convey the sense that Muslims are, should or can be separated from America. Muslims cannot be separated from America,” Jackson said. “What needs to happen is for these non-Muslim Americans to stand up alongside their Muslim family-members and declare that they will not tolerate their family and loved ones being alienated in this fashion.”

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Jackson believes Trump’s “blatant, hate-filled discrimination” should inspire action and activism across communities. This is not just a Muslim problem.

“All Americans, period – especially racial and religious minorities - who know the infectious nature of bigotry, should line up against his candidacy,” he said. “Bigotry is a very blunt sentiment, and those who harbor it are not likely to stop with Muslims.”

Rashad agrees there must be a call for transformative legislation that addresses Native American issues, black and Latino, even Muslim issues.

“We cannot just pander to one community. We have to address the issues of each marginalized community across the board,” she said. “People are effected and dealing with multiple identities. It makes for a more dynamic political process.”

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