For many African American Muslims, the fallout from the horrendous crime of Sept. 11, 2001 was not entirely new. The U.S. government’s response was a bit of déjà vu for those, like me, who were civil rights activists in college during the 1960s and 70s. The only difference is that now we face a higher level of intensity.
Our phones were wiretapped in the ’60s and ’70s and now our email is also being scrutinized. Our activist organizations were spied on then and now our places of worship are also under surveillance. Four decades ago, paid government agents and informants sought to entrap us and now a whole new generation of such people is hard at work.
Given this reality, many African American Muslim leaders in the post-9/11 world have taken on three varied approaches to this renewed, intensified interest by the U.S. government.
The first approach is what I call the “bring it on” strategy. This refers to the methodology of the African American Muslim leaders who have had extensive histories of advocating for social justice. Therefore, the kind of injustices spurred by post-9/11 fear-mongering has only led them to intensify the struggle on behalf of Muslims and others whose human rights have been violated.
One good example is Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society’s Freedom Foundation, who uses non-violent tactics and interfaith alliances forged in the Civil Rights era to advocate on behalf of the rights of Muslims and others in the 21st century. An example is MAS’s recent human rights campaign in Egypt that has used interfaith protests at Egyptian embassies and consulates as a way to advocate for greater political freedom in that country.
The second approach is what I call the “if you only knew” approach. African American Muslim leaders who fall into this category tend to work the intellectual boundary between Muslims and the broader American community. Using logic and scholarly Islamic and secular research, such people attempt to speak to the American (and world) community in ways that encourage thoughtful cross-culture discussions. Rather than a “clash of civilizations” model, the focus is on issues of mutual concern between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
Intisar Rabb, graduate associate at the Princeton University Program in Law and Public Affairs (where she is finishing a PhD after having graduated from Yale Law School with a JD) is a young, developing example of this approach. Her involvement in last year’s “Women, Islam and the West” Symposium at the international dialogue-building Aspen Institute is one example of this approach. (MORE)
Jimmy E. Jones is associate professor and chair of World Religions at Manhattanville College and president of Masjid Al-Islam in New Haven, Connecticut. This article is part of a series on African American Muslims written for the Common Ground News Service.