Members of this congregation, founded in the 1960s by followers of Malcolm X after he left the black-separatist Nation of Islam, will tell you that Islam is as indigenous to America as the arrival 400 years ago of African slaves, many of whom prayed five times a day to Allah.
“We who have served in the armies of America as Muslim African-Americans since the American Revolution are not at odds with the West,” says Abdur-Rashid, the congregation’s genial, 53-year-old leader. “We are the West.”
For these worshipers, it’s been a source of bitterness to find themselves marginalized yet again after Sept. 11, 2001, this time for reasons unrelated to blackness. Many say they are stunned to find they are treated as something less than authentic, not just by the dominant American society but often by new Muslim arrivals from South Asia and Arab countries as well. They joke that they have gone from the back of the bus to the back of the camel.
“As Ralph Ellison would say, we are the invisible Muslims in this country,” says Amir al-Islam, a professor of Islamic Studies at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York. “Our betweenness puts us in a precarious position. We are the single largest Muslim community in America, and we have been practicing Orthodox Islam for decades. Yet the media often relegates us to the margins. And Muslim organizations from the immigrant community often view us as new Muslims who are seen as not proficient in the Islamic canons and, therefore, lacking in authenticity.”
But there are other tensions, too: Until Sept. 11, the immigrant Muslim communities often focused on striving and advancing in their adopted country—as have many newcomers before them—rather than on the issues of jobs, education and health care that preoccupy many of their African-American brethren.
A major perceived slight was the so-called Muslim endorsement of George W. Bush four years ago—without any African-American input. “It was deeply polarizing,” Abdur-Rashid says. “Not because a group of Muslims decided to vote Republican, but because of the way they went about it. There was no consultation whatsoever with those of us who have any history in this land. And then, to project their collective decision as representative of all Muslims in America was an insult.”