Mending the Rift in a Post-9/11 World

There’s a really interesting article in the New York Times on the “uneasy” coalition that’s building between African American and immigrant Muslims in post-9/11 New York. Although I’m generally cynical of articles that tout people of color solidarity, I found this one to be fairly realistic and yet uplifting at the same time.

One interesting fact that I learned from the article is that of the estimated six million Muslims who live in the United States, more than a third are desis. About 25 percent of American Muslims are African-American, and 26 percent are Arab. Unsurprisingly, there’s been little cohesion between the African American and immigrant Muslim communities. The article explains that some of the decades-long tension is based on class:

Many Muslim immigrants came to the United States with advanced degrees and quickly prospered, settling in the suburbs. For decades, African-Americans watched with frustration as immigrants sent donations to causes overseas, largely ignoring the problems of poor Muslims in the United States.

Then there’s that skin color thing:

Aqilah Mu’Min [an African American], lives in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, a heavily Bangladeshi neighborhood. Whenever she passes women in head scarves, she offers the requisite Muslim greeting. Rarely is it returned. “We have a theory that says Islam is perfect, human beings are not,” said Ms. Mu’Min.

In addition, some feel that many immigrant Muslims make little effort to better understand African American history:

When Imam Talib vented his frustration at a meeting with immigrant leaders in Washington, a South Asian man turned to him, he recalled, and said, “I don’t understand why all of you African-American Muslims are always so angry about everything.” Imam Talib searched for an answer he thought the man could understand.“African-Americans are like the Palestinians of this land,” he finally said. “We’re not just some angry black people. We’re legitimately outraged and angry.”

Post-9/11, however, African American and immigrant Muslims have started to build stronger ties.

Black Muslims have begun advising immigrants on how to mount a civil rights campaign. Foreign-born Muslims are giving African-Americans roles of leadership in some of their largest organizations. The two groups have joined forces politically, forming coalitions and backing the same candidates.

The story elaborates on one particular newly-forged relationship: that between Imam Talib, an African American prison chaplain from Harlem, and Faroque Khan, an Indian-born physician who founded a mosque in Long Island:

[After] Sept. 11, Muslim immigrants found themselves under intense public scrutiny. They began complaining about “profiling” and “flying while brown,” appropriating language that had been largely the domain of African-Americans. It was around this time that Dr. Khan became, as he put it, enlightened. A few weeks before the terrorist attacks, he read the book “Black Rage,” by William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs. The book, published in 1968, explores the psychological woes of African-Americans, and how the impact of racism is carried through generations.“It helped me understand that even before you’re born, things that happened a hundred years ago can affect you,” Dr. Khan said. “That was a big change in my thinking.”

There are some interesting details to their alliance:

After Dr. Khan read the book “Black Rage,” he and Imam Talib began serving together on the board of a new political task force. Finally, in 2005, Dr. Khan invited the imam to his mosque to give the Friday sermon. Dr. Khan then began inviting more African-American leaders to speak at his mosque…The group had recently announced a “domestic agenda,” with programs to help ex-convicts find housing and jobs and to standardize premarital counseling for Muslims in America.

Ultimately, Dr. Khan seems fairly intent on bridging the cultural divide, no matter how challenging:

The more separate we stay, the more targeted we become,” Dr. Khan said.

The article is worth a read. And the multimedia feature, which contains more of an in-depth perspective from members of both communities, is also worth checking out.

69 thoughts on “Mending the Rift in a Post-9/11 World

  1. 48 Chachaji “a liberal-minded desi Muslim friend (who also happened to be a ‘Syed’ – tracing his descent directly from the Prophet)”

    Do you see what’s going on here, Chachaji? Is it historically possible to trace one’s descent directly from the prophet or is it merely a brahminical equivalent of creating a hierarchy when none exists, or should exist. Perhaps it affirms your own point: “But which group (or individual) would not do this?” I admit we Indians “do this” with reckless abandon.

    I am reminded of the history of Jews in the United States. There was a hierarchy, based on socioeconomic factors, making the German Jews the highest in the pecking order and the Eastern European Jews the “white trash,” if you would pardon the expression.

    Siddhartha, a question for you. I have always been curious why a race, namely African Americans, which was exploited by Arab slave traders, would consider Islam as an alternative to the white man’s Christian religion. I haven’t read enough African history to come up with an explanation.

  2. Siddhartha, a question for you. I have always been curious why a race, namely African Americans, which was exploited by Arab slave traders, would consider Islam as an alternative to the white man’s Christian religion. I haven’t read enough African history to come up with an explanation.

    Ethnically, African Americans have little or no cultural memory of Arab slave trading for the simple reason that their own ancestors were bought and sold not as part of the Indian Ocean slave trade, nor the Trans-Saharan slave trade, but the Atlantic slave trade, in which Arabs were not involved. It’s as simple as that. To expect Black Americans to internalize and act on all the grievances that black people from across the continent and its diaspora have experienced no the part of different colonizers, slave trades, etc., is to impose a historical burden that I doubt anyone could shoulder withuot going completely nuts.

  3. Floridian Is it historically possible to trace one’s descent directly from the prophet

    I think it is possible, in the theoretical sense, but whether it is true in any given case where it is claimed – one cannot say. It certainly has the effect of creating a hierarchy – for otherwise why would anyone even mention this!

    I’m not sure about the particular analogy to the Jews that you brought up – there may have been an internal pecking order among Jews, but as far as their interaction with the ‘goy’ world – they were middlemen, literally and figuratively in the US, vis-a-vis blacks on one end and WASPs on the other for a significant period after their arrival here. Those higher up on the internal pecking order may have been allowed into professional occupations initially, and those lower down had to be the small shopkeepers, retailers, clerks, innkeepers, etc.

  4. I have always been curious why a race, namely African Americans, which was exploited by Arab slave traders, would consider Islam as an alternative to the white man’s Christian religion.

    africans vere as part of trading slaves as de arabs.

    then, what sidhRth sez, iz troo as vell. ‘taint trading but indenTured servitood that grates.

    um macaka ijh angree me no rite emGlish like da kWeen and da king who did porkpork to yore mama. queeedee.

  5. I think it is possible, in the theoretical sense, but whether it is true in any given case where it is claimed – one cannot say. It certainly has the effect of creating a hierarchy – for otherwise why would anyone even mention this!

    Some people who claim to be ‘Syed’ need to be taken with a grain of salt. And so do many desi Muslims who claim various ancestries from Turkey, Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, and the Arab world. Yes, upper class Muslims may have significant amounts of such ancestry…along with indigenous desi roots as well…but often the desi side is ignored or minimized, while the foreign aspect is glorified or embellished (if not fabricated entirely). I have personally had very desi-looking Muslims tell me with all seriousness that they are of predominantly Persian descent. To be fair, I’ve also had a lot of very desi-looking Hindus tell me they are of pure Aryan descent, and some Sikhs claim pure Scythian descent, so claiming prestigious ancestors is probably a human impulse to some extent. Unfortunately, it’s not always true.

  6. Turkey, Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, and the Arab world. Yes, upper class Muslims may have significant amounts of such ancestry

    Nice post and good points, Amitabh. Slightly off-topic, I recently heard that Turkey was planning to set up a university in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, recognizing, in part, the significant Turkish-origin population and cultural influence there. This was in response to the state (or central ?) government finally allowing private (and foreign) investment in the higher education sector.

  7. “Siddhartha, a question for you. I have always been curious why a race, namely African Americans, which was exploited by Arab slave traders, would consider Islam as an alternative to the white man’s Christian religion…..”

    My dear friend, slavery has existed for as long as humanity. In my opinion, what makes the American situation unique is that it happened after the enlightenment, and was practiced by a society which considered itself civilzed, in a very systematic manner and at an unprecedented level. Just to cite an example off the top of my head, it involved medical researches(albeit pseudoscientific) involving educated professionals aimed at proving black people are not “human beings” and and a very systematic whitewashing of African history. Many of these things, which would later have persisting consequences, did not happen in Islamic(Arab) slavery.If they did, we don’t know about them. More over, in American slavery there was virtually no chance for a person to reclaim his/her freedom as it was an institution of massive economic interest and of course a logical predication of the notion that black people are somehow inferior and should not be offered opportunities open to all others. It is true that Arabs took many slaves from Africa [every one with power at the time did as African slaves were "available" for a variety of factors]. They probably took more slaves than the transatlantic slave trade. It is also true that Arab slave trade spanned many centuries and, because it was a trickle, did not involve the level of violence, societal disintegration and depopulation of the transatlantic slave trade. Where are the descendants of those slaves in Arabia now? Either they have assimilated or have vanished into thin air with the former being more likely. I hate to use the same word “slavery” to describe what happened transatlantic and what the Arabs did. I don’t think the economic motive behind the Arab slave trade was quite as strong.Arabs, for example, took female slaves from Islamic kingdoms in East Africa to fill their Harems.For some slave men it was also possible to quickly rise through the ranks and become a valued soldier or commander. Did the Arabs do millions of medical, psychological researches on black people to prove they are inferior? No. Did they withhold treatment from dying patients to study the natural course of syphilis? No. Did they lynch black people ? Maybe. But we don’t have the photographs.

    1. Christianity is not a white man’s religion. The second country in the world to officially accept Christianity after Armenia was not Rome. It was Ethiopia, an African country. Ironically it was also the place where Islam took root even before it spread all over the middle East.
  8. It is also true that Arab slave trade spanned many centuries and, because it was a trickle, did not involve the level of violence, societal disintegration and depopulation of the transatlantic slave trade.

    I think this is a very bold statement to make without any substantive backup or reference. It comes very close to being an apologist for a deeply inhumane practice just becoz it differed from the american version in some key aspects.

    Many deeply oppressed groups have internalized displacement and discrimination and ultimately been completely culturally and racially “assimilated” (annhilated?). As the closed societies of the middle-east open up more, my guess is we will learn much more about such groups. This type of information is typically hidden away and not acknowledged by most of these nations.

  9. More over, in American slavery there was virtually no chance for a person to reclaim his/her freedom as it was an institution of massive economic interest and of course a logical predication of the notion that black people are somehow inferior and should not be offered opportunities open to all others.

    This was the crucial difference. A slave in ancient Greece and Rome, in 18th c. Europe, in Arabia, and especially in Africa itself, was a very low-status member of the family, a hereditary and unpaid servant. It was a quasi-caste system. There was no sustained argument that slaves were anything but human. The possibility of working a way to freedom was present in these societies in various ways. In African institutions of slavery the question of race never came into it. Slaves were slaves because they or their ancestors were taken in raids. They became slaves in societies similar to the ones they had been taken from. Their circumstances were extremely grim, unquestionably, but with time some of them married their masters’ daughters and became the heads of the households in which they were slaves.

    In the United States, with the large numbers of Africans brought over to work the land, the institution of slavery became part of a society that had not itself developed an internal mechanism for it.

    It was only at this point in the misadventure that the racial element became essential. Race was emphasized in order to maintain the difference between who could be considered fully human and who could not be permitted to cross that boundary. And it was a difference insisted on, to the death.

  10. The article makes it sound like the friction between African American and Desi/Immigrant Muslims is mostly a function of social status/education/money. To the outsider it may appear that way but the reality might be a little more complicated. Its actually looking at the relationship from a desi perspective in a way where a lot of things are seen through the prism of education and money.

  11. “I think this is a very bold statement to make without any substantive backup or reference. It comes very close to being an apologist for a deeply inhumane practice just becoz it differed from the american version in some key aspects.”

    I completely agree that slavery is inhuman in any form and I am not condoning the trans-saharan/Arabian slave trade at all. I am not saying Arabic slave trade was much less intense as a matter of policy and intent.Arabs traded much fewer slaves for the simple fact that slave traders of the middle ages did not have at their disposal the war making apparatus and the humongous economic structure( eg. plantations, construction in the Americas) which accompanied slavery in the new world. Between 650 CE and 1905 CE it is estimated that approximately 18,000,000 slaves were taken across the Islamic/trans-saharan and Indian ocean slave trades. Between the second half of the 15th century and 1867 Europeans have shipped 8 to 10 million slaves to the New World. If you think that even today( including the populous North African Arab countries) Africa has less people than India, it is not hard to imagine how acutely devastating to African society the transatlantic slavery must have been. So much happened in so little time……( The figures I am quoting are from Britannica- in the section of “Slavery;Slave owning societies”- not even Wikipedia. So long……

  12. It comes very close to being an apologist for a deeply inhumane practice

    No, it doesn’t. It was a perfectly well argued and useful point.

  13. Ethnically, African Americans have little or no cultural memory of Arab slave trading for the simple reason that their own ancestors were bought and sold not as part of the Indian Ocean slave trade, nor the Trans-Saharan slave trade, but the Atlantic slave trade, in which Arabs were not involved. It’s as simple as that. To expect Black Americans to internalize and act on all the grievances that black people from across the continent and its diaspora have experienced no the part of different colonizers, slave trades, etc., is to impose a historical burden that I doubt anyone could shoulder withuot going completely nuts.

    Siddhartha, I think I love you. :)

    I thought Van’s point was really right-on and is an important contextualization of the differences in the different kinds of slave trades in Africa. I think most people would agree that slavery is vile, but I do think it’s important to understand the very different way that the Atlantic trade operated. Especially since the ideas behinds “rights in person,” property, and social structures were so different.

    And chachaji, I’m with Shodan (and GQ apparently?) in that prison culture is where super baggy clothing comes from. I say this having grown up in an “urban” area :) I actually don’t think obesity has as much to do with it in terms of the origin of the style — it wouldn’t explain why guys (of all sizes) still walk around with their pants around their mid-thighs/knees :)

  14. siddhartha

    What evidence do you have that Darfur-like conditions weren’t prevalent when arabs took black slaves??? Statements like “Did they lynch black people ? Maybe. But we don’t have the photographs.” sound like apologia to me.

  15. What evidence do you have that Darfur-like conditions weren’t prevalent when arabs took black slaves???

    You are attributing a claim to me that I did not make. In fact no one made it. I searched this whole thread for the word Darfur and you are the first person to have brought it up.

    Statements like “Did they lynch black people ? Maybe. But we don’t have the photographs.” sound like apologia to me.

    That’s for you and Van to figure out. But I see you have chosen a different sentence to excerpt from Van’s comment than the one you originally labeled quasi-apologia.

    I said that Van’s post was well argued and useful. If you would like to extract individual sentences from Van’s post and suject them to context-free evaluation, I suppose we could do that if we had nothing better to do with our time. However, Van’s post consisted of several sentences, paragraphs even, making an overall point. Perhaps it wouldn’t be asking too much of you to respond at a similar level?

  16. 58 Van “My dear friend, slavery has existed for as long as humanity. In my opinion, what makes the American situation unique is that it happened after the enlightenment, and was practiced by a society which considered itself civilzed,”

    This makes more sense. I am uncomfortable with the “little bit pregnant” explanations of slavery in other times and other parts of the world as somehow being a little more benign than American slavery. The difference wasn’t one of degree but the fact that the crimes against humanity of American slavery “happened after the enlightenment.”

    Did anyone see “Guiana 1838,” a movie made a couple of years ago about the history of Indo-Caribbean indentured labor? In 1833 slavery was officially abolished in the British empire and the plantation owners had to look for cheap labor to replace the free labor. However, unable to break their old slavemaster habits, they started treating indentured Indians like slaves. Raping, beating and torture were rampant. It was years later, and not without some intervention from the British government, that the indentured laborers were treated like farm hands rather than slaves. Watching this movie was like watching “Roots” except it was a lot closer to home. A poorly acted and directed film, but historically very significant to Indians and not completely unrelated to the thread above.

  17. Did anyone see “Guiana 1838,” a movie made a couple of years ago about the history of Indo-Caribbean indentured labor?

    Where can you get this movie?

  18. From Bernard Lewis,Race and Slavery in the Middle East, Oxford Univ Press 1994.

    http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/med/lewis1.html

    The economic exploitation of slaves, apart from some construction work, took place mainly in the countryside, away from the cities, and like almost everything else about rural life is sparsely documented. The medieval Islamic world was a civilization of cities. Both its law and its literature deal almost entirely with townspeople, their lives and problems, and remarkably little information has come down to us concerning life in the villages and the countryside. Sometimes a dramatic event like the revolt of the Zanj in southern Iraq or an occasional passing reference in travel literature sheds a sudden light on life in the countryside. Otherwise, we remain ignorant of what was happening outside the cities until the sixteenth century, when for the first time the surviving Ottoman archives make it possible to follow in some detail the life and activities of rural populations — and the exploration of this material has still barely begun. The common view of Islamic slavery as primarily domestic and military may therefore reflect the bias of our documentation rather than the reality. There are occasional references, however, to large gangs of slaves, mostly black, employed in agriculture, in the mines, and in such special tasks as the drainage of marshes. Some, less fortunate, were hired out by their owners for piecework. These working slaves had a much harder life. The most unfortunate of all were those engaged in agricultural and other manual work and large-scale enterprises, such as for example the Zanj slaves used to drain the salt flats of southern Iraq, and the blacks employed in the salt mines of the Sahara and the gold mines of Nubia. These were herded in large settlements and worked in gangs. Large landowners, or crown lands, often employed thousands of such slaves. While domestic and commercial slaves were relatively well-off, these lived and died in wretchedness. Of the Saharan salt mines it is said that no slave lived there for more than five years. The cultivation of cotton and sugar, which the Arabs brought from the East across North Africa and into Spain, most probably entailed some kind of plantation system. Certainly, the earliest relevant Ottoman records show the extensive use of slave labor in the state-maintained rice plantations. Some such system, for cultivation of cotton and sugar, was taken across North Africa into Spain and perhaps beyond. While economic slave labor was mainly male, slave women were sometimes also exploited economically. The pre-lslamic practice of hiring out female slaves as prostitutes is expressly forbidden by Islamic law but appears to have survived nonetheless.