"America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem," Malcolm X wrote in 1964 during his pilgrimage to Mecca. Though Malcolm's anti-white rhetoric was moderated after his conversion from the Nation of Islam (NOI) to orthodox Sunni Islam, his disdain for the West, rooted in extremist black nationalism, remained integral to his Muslim identity.
Malcolm's words now appear on countless Islamist websites dedicated to finding black, English-speaking converts. The assumption that all African-American Muslims broke their ties with the anti-Western, anti-white, and anti-Semitic worldview of the NOI is a naive one. Though Warith Deen Muhammed, who led the majority of the members of the NOI to Sunni Islam in the mid-1970s, was more interested in alleviating domestic problems like crime and poverty than in creating an Islamic political movement, many of his followers were loath to abandon their radical ideology.
Islamists have harnessed these radicals' anti-Western black nationalism for their own purpose: establishing an indigenous Islamist movement in the United States that can advocate their political agenda in the foreign and domestic policy spheres. The Muslim Alliance in North America (MANA) and the As-Sabiqun movement are proof that their efforts have not been in vain.
Imam Siraj Wahhaj, the founder of the primarily African-American MANA, is a product of the volatile intersection of black nationalism and politicized Islam. A former member of the NOI, Wahhaj often has been portrayed as a "moderate" by the mainstream media. However, his words speak for themselves: "In time, this so-called democracy will crumble, and there will be nothing, and the only thing that will remain will be Islam," Wahhaj has predicted.
Imam Abdul Alim Musa of the As-Sabiqun movement is even more overt about his Islamist worldview. As-Sabiqun, founded in the early 1990s, advocates the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in place of America's democratic system. Though officially a Sunni Muslim, Musa's views echo those of the NOI.
"Who ran the slave trade?" Musa asks rhetorically. "You'll study and you will find out: the Jews." His words suggest the influence of the NOI's The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, which first outlined this conspiratorial distortion of history.
Another prominent leader of the African-American Islamist movement is Jamil Abdullah al-Amin, the former H. Rap Brown, who is now incarcerated for murder. Like his colleagues, Imam al-Amin has only disdain for his country of origin, saying, "[The main essence of the U.S. Constitution] is diametrically opposed to what Allah has commanded." At al-Amin's mosque in Atlanta, attendees sported combat uniforms and long robes, reflecting the influence of both Black Panther-style nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism.
African-American Professor Robert F. Reid-Pharr, in his article "Speaking through Anti-Semitism: The Nation of Islam and the Poetics of Black (Counter) Modernity," ascribes the susceptibility of African-American Muslims to anti-Western and anti-Semitic rhetoric to their rejection of modernity and capitalism. According to Reid-Pharr, many African-Americans view Western modernity as flawed from its inception because it was built on the foundation of slavery.
This distrust for the modern world is evident in the words of Malcolm X, who said, "Show me a capitalist and I'll show you a bloodsucker." Many African-American Muslims have therefore embraced the Islamist agenda as a means to overcome inequalities they see as inherent to the modern Western system.
The irony of this situation is that the argument that politicized Islam inherently improves the position of racial minorities is entirely untenable from both a historical and a modern perspective. Though many Islamist websites make claims like "only … through Islam has this idea ['of racial equality and of human brotherhood'] ever been realized in action," reality tells a different story.
According to historian Bernard Lewis in his book Race and Slavery in the Middle East, slavery was an established practice in the lands of Islam from the time of Muhammad. The Islamic states later hosted an extensive slave trade network that rivaled that of the Europeans. A look at the modern world is even more telling: in the Arab Islamic states of Mauritania and Sudan, black slavery is still so pervasive that the word "black" in the local Arabic dialect has become synonymous with "slave."
Mainstream Muslims have begun to realize that Islam is not a cure-all for society's racial ills. They have subsequently started to address the prejudice of immigrant Muslim groups against African-Americans. For instance, Altaf Husain, a former president of the Muslim Students Association, said at a 2007 MANA conference, "It is a shame that in the 21st century, the problem in the Muslim-American community is the color line."
However, fringe elements of the African-American Muslim community still identify with Islamist causes, because, from their myopic perspective, it is more important to impose the hijab or combat the "Zionist media" than to address issues like prejudice, drug abuse, or crime. This distorted set of priorities provides a catalyst for African-American Islamists' disregard for U.S. laws, expressed in numerous violent crimes and terrorist plots. These plots include those most recently against a U.S. military recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, a Jewish community center in Riverdale, New York, and Jewish and U.S. government targets in Los Angeles.
Today, many African-American prisoners are turning to radical Islam. The government has neglected its oversight responsibilities, allowing men like Imam Warith Deen Umar to become influential Islamic chaplains in the prison system. Umar has noted the utility of prisons for terrorist recruitment and made such reassuring statements as, "Even Muslims who say they are against terrorism secretly admire and applaud [the 9/11 hijackers]."
Under the supervision of men like Umar, Saudi-funded programs have introduced the most intolerant Salafi and Wahhabi interpretations of Islam to convicts. These interpretations, claiming that an Islamic caliphate will alleviate racism and societal strife, support the radical doctrines of imams like Wahhaj and Musa over the moderate positions of W.D. Mohammed.
Since abandoning the NOI and turning to orthodox Sunni Islam, most African-American Muslims have mitigated their anti-Western and anti-Semitic ideology. However, the danger of Islamists who seek to take advantage of black nationalism's legacy of intolerance remains. It is therefore imperative to marginalize fringe Islamist elements of the African-American Muslim community and empower those who seek personal fulfillment, not political dominance, in their Islamic faith.
Brendan Goldman is a senior at New York University, majoring in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, and an intern at the Middle East Forum.