France’s Muslims Could Learn from the African American Muslim Experience
An indigenous form of Islam developed within the West—rather than influenced by leaders from abroad—is the path to integration and peaceful coexistence.
The despicable beheading of a school teacher in France by an extremist Muslim on Oct. 16—and an attack at a church in Nice later in October—point to a troubling cultural dynamic in Europe. Some Muslims are bringing one-dimensional, old-world thinking to the pluralistic environments in the West, resulting in intolerance and extremist violence.
Some Muslim leaders around the globe claim this violence is a reaction to Islamophobia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to deflect attention from the crimes by saying France and European societies were suffering from an “Islamophobia disease.” More recently, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad tweeted that “Muslims have a right to be angry and to kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past,” alluding to French colonialism.
On the other side, commentators such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali have argued that this dynamic of violence is inherent to Islam, while many academics have claimed that Muslims’ religious values inhibit their integration in Europe. By this flawed logic, violent conflict would appear inevitable when Muslims try to establish their faith in the West. But all of these views ignore that, for almost 50 years, a balanced practice of Islam has existed in the West, in peaceful harmony with a Christian majority, while standing firmly against extremism. And it developed right here in the United States, among African American Muslims.
As native-born African American Muslims—steeped in the Islamic faith, but also with experience working in the U.S. military or the intelligence community—we believe that Muslims in France and other Western nations could learn from us.
Much of the world—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—has ignored our legacy. However, we have lived out a blueprint for overcoming adversity and discrimination in the West while building a balanced Muslim identity and fighting against extremism. When most people think of historic and influential Muslim American leaders they automatically think of Malcolm X, who was killed in 1965. But arguably the Muslim American with the greatest religious influence of the 20th century was a different African American who died of natural causes only 12 years ago: Imam Warith Deen Mohammed (also known as W.D. Mohammed).
W.D. Mohammed was a Muslim reformer, leader, and pioneer who taught a universal Islam that fitted American life and stayed true to the religion’s beliefs, even if it diverged from some of the thinking of old-world Islam. The key to this development of Islam in the United States among African Americans was that it developed organically and internally. Unlike in much of Europe and the rest of the world, where Middle Eastern or Turkish-funded mosques and imams are prevalent, this movement of African American Muslims have not been guided by imported teachings from foreign thinkers or immigrants wedded to the old world.
The roots of W.D. Mohammed’s movement are instructive. In the mid-20th century, the most visible Muslim group in the United States was the Nation of Islam (NOI), even though many of its tenets were not really Islamic. The NOI in reality was an Islamic hybrid movement, mainly addressing the social, psychological, spiritual, and economic burdens on African Americans arising out of the Jim Crow experience. But it still represented the first nationally recognized association of Muslims in the American mainstream, especially as Malcolm X gained prominence as the spokesman for NOI leader Elijah Muhammad.
While the NOI did not espouse violence, it supported Black militancy and an ideology of Black supremacy that countered the integrationist strategy of the civil rights movement at the time. For decades, the NOI taught that the United States was evil and that Muslims should have no part of its future.
A tremendous shift happened in 1975 when W.D. Mohammed, Elijah Muhammad’s son, was selected to lead the group after his father’s death. (W.D. changed the spelling of his surname in 1989.)
W.D. Mohammed quickly dismantled the Black-supremacy ideology of the movement’s followers, eliminated the group’s centralized hierarchy, and began teaching a universal understanding of Islam, based on the Quran and the life example of the Prophet Mohammed. The group for a time became known as the World Community of al-Islam in the West.
Perhaps even bolder given the environment at the time, he encouraged his association of African American Muslims to recognize the United States’ progress on race, welcome all people to their 300-plus mosques in the country, embrace citizenship and the flag, and serve in the government, including the military. W.D. Mohammed pioneered interfaith engagement, including a strong collaboration with the Catholic Focolare movement. He urged his association to become leaders in U.S. civic life and build upon their citizenship. Because of this transformation, many African American Muslims in the 1970s, ’80s, and ‘90s excelled in government and politics, law enforcement, the military, and sports while proudly embracing their identity as Muslim and American.
Through a certain lens, this approach was an organic and indigenous example of successful counterradicalization. It produced an organically developed Islam suited for the pluralistic United States. This should not be surprising. These African American Muslims were mostly converts, many of whom had Christian parents and siblings. Despite coming from experiences of segregation and racism, they were still American at their core. As W.D. Mohammed pointed out, there was no conflict between one’s identity as a Muslim and American; the good in America, such as its founding documents, reflected Islamic principles.
By contrast, immigrant-based Muslim communities during this period often had a different approach to Islam. The bulk of Muslim immigrants to the United States arrived after the mid-1960s, thus benefiting greatly from the civil rights movement. Islam was associated more with their countries of origin, seemingly in conflict with the culture of their new environment. Many of the large immigrant Muslim organizations criticized W.D. Mohammed for his openness to the United States; some saw Muslims serving in the U.S. military as almost blasphemous. Many debated whether it was even religiously permissible for Muslims to vote in U.S. elections.
Mosques set up by immigrant communities often kept themselves rather isolated, setting up suburban mosques. Interfaith dialogue and partnerships were not common. As one of us witnessed, a well-known immigrant imam who is now active in interfaith affairs once shared quite openly that, before 9/11, the door of his mosque was figuratively shut. After the attacks, immigrant Muslims began to open up to civic engagement and interfaith dialogue.
W.D. Mohammed died in 2008, but his influence is still felt by the adult children of those immigrant Muslims who criticized his approach decades earlier. As one of us has chronicled in a new book on his legacy, he created an independent school of Muslim thought that respects classical Islamic tradition but allows for an American Islam to take shape without foreign interference.
Yet while immigrant Muslim communities have made great strides in civic engagement since 9/11, many continue to have a myopic view of Muslim issues. There are still motherland politics influencing how Muslims approach policy. Some argue that Muslim Americans are similar to other diaspora groups such as Jews, Cubans, or Poles. But in reality Muslim communities as voters are more akin to Christian communities. They are extremely diverse, with political concerns driven by the particulars of each community’s ethnic background, culture, geography, and historical experience.
In the wake of yet another series of violent attacks perpetrated by Muslims in France, the model W.D. Mohammed established is more relevant than ever. Protecting Muslims from Islamophobia is important; protection from religious discrimination is foundational to a free society. And seeking representation of one’s co-religionists in politics is fine. But the African American Muslim tradition was never about pushing something exclusively for Muslims; it was about improving conditions for all Black people.
The community, in recent years, has not viewed Islamic identity as a separate ethnicity that needed aggressive advocacy in the political sphere. Our numbers were too few and we were intricately connected to the lives of our non-Muslim neighbors of every ethnicity.
Our tradition was about drawing upon Islam to help us to contribute to the pluralistic communities of the United States and especially to improve the lot of other African Americans. Consider Muhammad Ali—the world’s best-known Muslim American. Rising from humble beginnings in Louisville, Kentucky, he became not just a symbol of Islam in the United States, but a symbol of uniquely American transformation, success, and exceptionalism. And in the words of Ali’s eulogist at his funeral, “Ali put the question as to whether you could be a Muslim and an American to rest. Let us hope that the question is interred with his remains.”
Few understand that his journey as an American hero followed the arc of the NOI transition to the association of W.D. Mohammed. Ali often attended his speeches in the 1970s when he first led the movement, providing a bit of “star power” to his leadership. Ali visited the community’s Islamic schools, and in 2003, even with his mobility hindered by Parkinson’s, he took the stage as a special guest at one of W.D. Mohammed’s annual Islamic conventions.
The Muslim African American tradition does not get the attention in the media or in policy circles that it deserves. That is unfortunate, because in today’s troubling times, what is needed more than identity politics is balance and wisdom.
As the currently tense and fractious social and political environment in many Western nations appears to worsen along racial and ethnic lines, this African American Muslim tradition can offer guidance, and France’s government—and its Muslim communities—would do well to learn from it. The best model for Muslim life in the West comes from the West.
Talib Shareef, a retired U.S. Air Force officer, is imam and president of Masjid Muhammad, the Nation’s Mosque, in Washington.
Yaya J. Fanusie is a former CIA analyst, host of the Rhythm of Wisdom podcast, and a scholar with the 1776 Unites project. Twitter: @SignCurve