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NY Times’s Analysis of African-American/Immigrant Interactions

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The New York Times published a rather lengthy article today on the interactions between African-American (AA) Muslims and Immigrants Muslims. The story revolves around the situation in New York City between the affluent Mosque on Long Island and the less-affluent AA Mosque in Harlem.

I am inclined to say that this story repeats itself in major cities, probably all across America. Some places are better than others. From my experiences in Houston and the Philly area, I have seen it play out similarly in some aspects, yet differently in many others. In Houston, the AA Muslims form a small minority in the overall Muslim community, and the Warith Deen (WD) people have had greater success in attracting most of the AA towards their own circle. Other than the AA sector though, the Houston community and mosques are very diverse. There are a couple of ‘desi’ (Indo-Pak-Bangali subcontinent) mosques here and there, but by and large, most of the mosques are integrated (as far as non-indigenous Muslims).

On the other hand, the mosques in Philly are mostly segregated along many lines: you have the hard-core SS brothers who likely run the majority of Masajids for AA brothers (such as the Germantown Masjid), then you have a couple of Arabic-heavy Masajids (like Al-Aqsa), and then you have the desi Masajids (like the one on Upper-Darby). The point being that integration in Philly is not just a problem between AA & Immigrants, but rather between various communities of AA, Desis, Arabs, and likely others.

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I don’t claim to be an expert on race-relations nor can I make any real insightful takes on the situation (like Tariq), but I’ll still throw in my 2-cents :) :

  1. Affluence: If the AA Masjid or the Immigrant Masjid had their locations switched, you would still have pretty much the same general people visiting the Mosque. People go where they are comfortable in going, and location by far is usually the over-riding factor. If someone is afraid of going to an inner-city Masjid because he is not used to the ‘rough neighborhoods’, it isn’t because he has something against AA Muslims, it is because it’s difficult to get there. And this does not mean that there aren’t AA Masajid in good neighborhoods, but where there are, you do find more immigrants. I myself go to a very rough neighborhood AA Masjid in Chester, PA (one of the most dangerous cities in America), but only for Jumuah because it’s in broad day-light. I would also never live around there, it just isn’t a great place to live in, and so it is not any surprise that you don’t see many immigrants in that Masjid.
  2. Lack of Historical Grounding: I have mentioned affirmative action and lack of historical perspective in my series on the previous blog (Part 1, 2, 3) and I feel strongly that in order to break barriers between the two communities, both need some education and perspective, especially the immigrants (since they are the ‘newcomers’ and newcomers should scope their new adopted land and its history and culture, just like the scoping we do of the neighborhood that we would like to buy a house to move into). Also, there is no doubt that immigrants have significant ‘color-complex’, and I can speak at least for desis. In Indo-Pak area, the whiter your skin, the more you are marriage-worthy and the more you have it going for you in most aspects of life. However, here too, (1) comes into play, and a dark rich dude will pretty much get whatever girl he wants (and you can bet he would be looking for the fairest of all).
  3. Racism: Some of the racism comes from (2) above. However, to be honest, most of the people I (and many other immigrant desis) considered as ‘Shayookh’ years ago, and some even now, are black. For instance (again 10 years or so ago), we had absolutely no hesitance in taking in inspiration and knowledge from Dawud, Abu Usamah, etc. In fact, we were just completely mesmerized by these folks. Even today, Shayookh like Bilal Phillips, Jafar Idris still represent some of our finest. So, in general, most immigrants don’t really feel belabored in taking in knowledge from AA scholars. However, being part of a majority AA community, is a different thing, and may pose some difficulty. In this regard too, I think we have to remember that people are usually comfortable in their own circles… so perhaps its not so much that immigrants are trying to keep away from AA, but it may just be that Arabs like Arab circles, desis like desi circles, and so on.

So, it really boils down to “if” and “how”. For the “if it is possible”, I believe that just like any two dissimilar cultures, you can never completely blend the two together. But you can try, you can at least integrate Masajids, if not your communities. That brings me to the “how”, and this effort (though I don’t claim to know much about it) seems to be on the right track.

Update: This is an interesting, and if I may add, controversial, plan to avoid the “Philly-type” balkanization of American Muslims.

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Abu Reem is one of the founders of MuslimMatters, Inc. His identity is shaped by his religion (Islam), place of birth (Pakistan), and nationality (American). By education, he is a ChemE, topped off with an MBA from Wharton. He has been involved with Texas Dawah, Clear Lake Islamic Center and MSA. His interests include politics, cricket, and media interactions. Career-wise, Abu Reem is in management in the oil & gas industry (but one who still appreciates the "green revolution").

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Ruth Nasrullah

    March 11, 2007 at 7:49 PM

    Salaams. Br. Amad, you stole my post! Just kidding. I’ll try to make time today after work to read the article and your post and throw in my European-American’s 2 cents (additionally as someone who was influenced by African-American Muslims in New York prior to embracing Islam).

    (BTW, I’d change “AA/Immigrant Interactions” in the post title to African-American/Immigrant – looks like Alcoholics Anonymous, LOL.)

  2. Tariq Nelson

    March 11, 2007 at 8:41 PM

    Jazak Allah Khair Amad,

    What you described in Philly is what I am afraid of for Islam in America: A bunch of mini-ethnic communities where the alliance is based on race/nationality and no overlap whatsoever except to see an occasional person straggle in for salaah every once in a while.

    As I said, I am not very optimistic of it ever breaking

  3. Amad

    March 11, 2007 at 10:24 PM

    Waiyakum Tariq, perhaps it won’t break, but a few cracks would help.

    The Philly situation is unfortunate… I live in Delaware with a much more integrated Masjid (if only because there are not that many people here to make another Masjid so everyone is stuck with one :) ). That’s why I miss Houston so much!

  4. Shahla Wahid

    March 11, 2007 at 10:40 PM

    Muslim Americans will have to make a conscious effort to overcome this divide. The only viabe solution to me seems to be inter-marriage. Sorry for saying the ‘M’ word.

    Till we inter-marry and are forced to be exposed to each other’s culture, there will be no inegration.

    Most immigrant communities at this point are more open to their men marrying women outside of their communities. It is considered taboo, even shameful for a woman, to marry outside of ethnicity, specially to an American. There are some genuine concerns about mistreatment (though emotional abuse is part and parcel of a South Asian marriage).

  5. AnonyMouse

    March 12, 2007 at 9:58 PM

    As-salaamu ‘alaikum wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatu,

    Masha’Allah, good post… I’ve read quite a few writings on this particular subject, although I must admit I can’t really relate to it myself, having never been anywhere where this happens.
    That’s one good thing about a small city with just one masjid, I guess: there are so few of us Muslims here, that to divide ourselves into ethnic groups would mean isolating ourselves even further to the point that we would *have* no community left. We’re practically forced to interact with each other… which is a good thing, really.

    If ever I end up in a big city and find this sort of situation, I’m going to keep this stuff in mind, insha’Allah… I would love to be active in breaking down the barriers between the members of the Muslim community!

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