Umar Lee grew up in a Baptist family before converting to Islam at the age of 17. Living as a teenager in North St. Louis, Lee was keenly aware of — and troubled by — America's racial divide, which he hoped to transcend by converting to Islam. "I was attracted to Islam by black men — the lectures of the Nation of Islam, rappers, and the legacy of Malcolm [X]," he wrote in his recent memoir, In Malcolm's Path: A Journey Through Community Chaos, Muslim Fundamentalist Fantasy, and The Tragedies of America (2020).
After affiliating with Salafism in his twenties and thirties, Lee became disillusioned and wrote a critique of the movement titled The Rise and Fall of the Salafi Dawah in America: A Memoir (St. Louis Stranger, 2014). In recent years, Lee has been a particularly harsh critic of Islamist leaders and intellectuals in the United States.
Lee has condemned Jonathan A.C. Brown, the Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University who has condoned slavery and toed the line of the Muslim Brotherhood. Lee asks why a member of the Saudi royal family is funding Brown's work in light of his support for the Ikhwanis, whom the Saudis have worked to suppress. Earlier this year, Lee traveled to Israel, enduring significant blowback from his fellow Muslims as a result.
Lee recently spoke with Focus on Western Islamism about the attraction disaffected young men in American society have for Islam, the male-led insurgency against "woke Islam," and the growing alliance between Islamists and the Far-Right in the United States. In addition to affirming his previously-expressed view that young white men should not convert to Islam, he declared that the Islamist revival that began in the Middle East in the late 1970s has faded away in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. For his own part, Lee reports that his "conversion had some negative consequences, a period of extremism and Islamist political support, but it also kept me out of trouble and away from a criminal lifestyle." He also offered a stark warning against the growth of antisemitism, particularly in the black Muslim community.
This interview, condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted by FWI's managing editor, Dexter Van Zile, on November 9, 2022. Links have been added for context.
FWI: I've read your memoir In Malcolm's Path: A Journey Through Community Chaos, Muslim Fundamentalist Fantasy, and The Tragedies of America and I am struck by how much suffering is evident in the lives of American converts to Islam. They seem to have a lot of unmet needs that they hope Islam will meet. This is particularly true among young men, black and white, from cities. Does this suffering make people, young men especially, vulnerable to the allure of political Islam or Islamism?
Lee: I would say no. If you're going to specifically talk about political Islam, I would say that I'm an anomaly. I'm part of a small minority. What most would be attracted to is the countercultural. It's apolitical in a sense. It's almost like dropping out of society—particularly with black American Muslims.
It's different in the UK where there's a big appeal to Salafi jihadism. That appeal has always been marginal in the United States. The strain of Salafi that became popular here was largely guided by Rabee al-Madkhali, a Saudi scholar who instructed people to leave political affairs alone.
It's countercultural, it's political in the sense that it would call to non-participation in American politics. It would hold up an ideal of a theocratic governance, but it's non-participatory, not active. I don't think it made young men vulnerable to Islamism. I think I was the anomaly. I was not alone, but for most people it was more of a countercultural experience.
WI: In Christianity, sometimes we hear people talk about a quietest impulse. They have some sort of hope for utopian end times, but they're not really interested in politics.
Lee: That's a good correlation. That's an accurate phrasing. There's this vague idea of this kind of theocratic utopia but no action towards that. We do see them become very political. It is most often because they have, either online or in suburban mosque settings, been acculturated into some immigrant group, whether it be Palestinian, Pakistani or some other community.
FWI: You would encourage people not to be too alarmed by disaffected young men converting to Islam.
Lee: I wouldn't be alarmed at all. I also would say the numbers are much lower than they used to be. The data is clear. The recent mosque study [conducted by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding], indicates that the number of converts is decreasing. Anecdotally, we already knew this.
In the history of American Islam, the conversions came in waves. In the late 1960s-early 1970s, there was a movement mentality where a lot of African Americans were joining various movements. Islam was seen as one movement to join. In the late 1980s-early 1990s, because of the re-emergence of the popularity of Malcolm X and Spike Lee's Malcolm X film, the re-release of his biography by Alex Haley, and conscious hip-hop, there was another big wave.
We're not seeing a wave these days. We are seeing people convert, but not like we used to. Islam has declined in popularity in the black community. It doesn't have the prominence and popularity and esteem that it once had for a variety of factors.
But when we do see young men converting, it really depends on how they convert, where they convert, and what happens afterwards because most don't stay around long. And those that do, the percentage that would be attracted to political Islam would be minuscule. In most cities, it's more of a quietist Salafi influence.
On the West Coast, pockets of Sufi influence are growing. Even in terms of people that — I'm talking about not just converts but Arabs and South Asians, for example — used to be Islamists, many of them have gravitated from Salafism to Sufism. Sufism has become much more popular and with that, what I call Neo-Ottomanism, a fetishization of the Ottoman Empire, because the Sufi scholars that they follow are quietest. They're people that are not affiliated with Islamist politics.
Many of them, what I call the "Akh-Right," especially males, have gravitated toward conservative and right-wing politics in the United States. The ground of political dialogue is rapidly shifting in these Muslim communities in America.
Islamism Losing Ground
FWI: How so?
Islamism is no longer popular. Back in the day, it was very popular. Islamism is kind of like the Patriarca crime family which used to dominate organized crime in New England [before its fortunes declined in the face of federal prosecutions the 1980s and 90s]. It just kind of died a death of old age. People flipped. People went to jail. People died. Their kids became successful, middle-class Americans and didn't want to pursue that life. It's not that there aren't still guys around there that are hustling and making money. They're still there, but they don't have the clout that they once did. Islamism is in the same situation, it's no longer popular. Very seldom will you talk to someone of any age, outside of a MAS convention or something like that, who espouses Islamist politics.
I attribute that to reality — the failure of the Arab Spring, the disaster of what happened in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. Islamist politics has become so unpopular in the Muslim world that historians in 100 years are going to write that there was a 40-year period — from the mid- to late seventies until the late 2010s — of this Islamist political revival that faded away after the Arab Spring. In the U.S. we don't see people talk about Islamist politics.
FWI: You have distanced yourself from Islamism.
Lee: I have changed a lot, evolved a lot. I was one of those people who was very much attracted to Islamism — never to the extreme ISIS type, but definitely to the Islamist spectrum.
But we also have to combine that with the things law enforcement did in America after 9/11. Oftentimes they were doing intelligence, but they weren't that intelligent.
They would go to a place like Philadelphia and see all these violent black guys on the street and think, "Oh wow, this is a real Islamist threat. These guys are real militant radicals" — when actually, that wasn't the case. They weren't Islamist at all. They weren't Islamic militants at all, like zero on the scale, because they were influenced by the quietest Saudis. But they were street guys.
They weren't going to commit a terrorist attack. They may shoot each other. They may sell some drugs. Law enforcement saw these guys in Philadelphia as inherently suspect and dangerous, even though they weren't Islamist. Some of them were criminals, but they weren't Islamist. Their demeanor, their posture and just who they are seemed threatening.
With me, yes, I was attracted to Islamist politics, I was with Ali Tamimi and Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Basir and many people that were espousing those views and kind of got acculturated in it. I took on that rhetoric and worldview. But I'm also a north St. Louis Guy. Even if I hadn't been a Muslim, I probably would've been out robbing people. It wasn't like I would have been like a dove if I hadn't been a Muslim. I liked to talk smack before I was a Muslim, I liked to talk smack after I became a Muslim.
Conversion had some negative consequences, a period of extremism and Islamist political support, but it also kept me out of trouble and away from a criminal lifestyle. You have to remember that a very high percentage of guys who grew up where I did ended up addicted to drugs or alcoholics. Many didn't live to see 40 and quite a few didn't make it to 21. For all of the problematic aspects of the Muslim experience in America, there is a track record of conversion keeping some men off the streets and clean.
Converting to Transcend Race, Class Conflict
FWI: In Malcolm's Path you indicate that you are part of a group of young white men who are frustrated by the issues of race and class America. Is this frustration one reason why you said the shahada? Did Islam represent a way to transcend the white-black divide in American society?
Lee: A hundred percent. That was the initial attraction to Islam for me and for several other people I've talked to. It was naive and of course ludicrous, but that was the initial attraction, no doubt about it.
FWI: What allowed you to stay a Muslim? Was there something about the practice of the faith?
Lee: Yes, there was. When I'm feeling high-minded I'm tempted to say it was the theological concepts and the connection to God, but what really made me stay was really the brotherhood. I developed this camaraderie and learned how to live as an adult in a different way. I don't eat pork, alcohol's not a part of my life, for example. It's a different way of living, a different way of talking. We got enculturated into this Americanized version of Islam. But we never quite get to where a Muslim from a Muslim family and country gets because we don't have that cultural component. We're kind of hybrid, but we identify with each other.
Impact of 9/11
FWI: In your text Malcolm's Path and the text that preceded it, The Rise and Fall of the Salafi Movement in America you argued that 9/11 was a catastrophe for Muslim communities in the United States. But the message that I saw in parts of the media was that there was an increase in interest in Islam in the aftermath of the attack and that this interest was a great driver for conversion. What was really going on?
Lee: Well, I've heard that said. People have said that. I've never seen the data that backed it up and I didn't see that personally. Interest definitely increased a hundred percent. People studying Islamic studies in universities and Middle Eastern studies went up, foundation grants went through the roof, as did media interest, book deals, which have all kind of fizzled out in the last years. It's hard to get a book deal writing about Islam now. Public interest in Islam has plummeted. Muslims are passé. America has moved on twenty years after 9/11.
As far as 9/11 being a catastrophe for Muslims, I don't even look at it in the sense that a lot of people were harassed. I think that was true. It happened and it happened to me as well but at the end of the day it was not that big of a deal by itself.
But all of those things went to create an immigrant Muslim identity movement, divorced from religion, a kind of a secularized ethnic identity that led people into book deals, that led into TV shows like Ramy [a TV show about an Egyptian immigrant family living in New Jersey] that led into every news outlet having to hire a hijabi and promote this kind of hijabi culture, divorced from faith and piety.
It led people to think "OK, we see ourselves as oppressed and marginalized, so we have to abandon dawah, abandon calling to the faith, abandon publicly discussing the faith and just root ourselves as an oppressed minority and have this perpetual victim mentality." That became the dominant culture of the community, a victim mentality, secularized identity, using Islamist talking points when it suited, using progressive talking points when it's suited, sometimes kind of merging the two, in weird, odd ways, that didn't make a lot of sense. So essentially the stance of the mosque community became nothing more than identity politics, anti-Israelism and victimization. If you don't see a lot of people converting now, or you see mosques without a lot of young people in them, I think it's because the community did not offer a lot. If all you are offering is identity politics, you can go to TikTok and get that. You don't need to go to the mosque if there's no spiritual component.
Gender Divide in Muslim Politics
FWI: Sam Westrop at the Middle East Forum has written about a growing connection between Islamist leaders, the Republican Party, and the conservative movement in the United States. One of the concerns he's raised is they're actually affiliating with white supremacists.
Lee: That's right. So when I went on that podcast to talk about my trip to Israel, Mahin Islam, the host, got attacked. People said, "Why did you have this guy on?"
I said, "Hey, you had Richard Spencer on! How am I controversial?" And Mahin said, "Well, most of my listeners are quiet Nazi racists. He said Richard Spencer wasn't controversial to them at all. He was half joking. But what he meant is that his base is very far to the right in terms of race and other issues. Richard Spencer was not controversial to them. And I've seen several instances just in the last year of people that used to be steeped in this kind of Islamist rhetoric and worldview and now they sound like Candace Owens. They're echoing MAGA talking points. They're not using the talking points of MAGA, but the talking points of the very Far Right,, the neo-Nazis, the extreme Right. That's growing and it's growing with males.
What you're increasingly seeing in the Muslim community in America is a gender divide. You're seeing that progressive politics [are] very popular, especially with women, especially young women. We know after 9/11 there was this leftward shift in the American Muslim community — the Muslim Brotherhood, Muslim American Society — all those people supported that. It was kind of Machiavellian because they weren't actually progressive.
But what happened is that their kids went very far to the left. It was a project — a political calculation in response to the Patriot Act, the Iraq War, MAS [Muslim American Society], the Ikhwanis, they allied with the Left. But their kids and the younger generation genuinely became progressive. They couldn't manage the creation that they created. Their idea was "We are going to send our kids to Harvard, to Columbia and they're going to come out being eloquent spokesman for political Islam." And they came out leftist.
Now some of them, like Dalia Mogahed, would kind of merge the Left with Islam. But often, the young girls are coming away with a very secular world view and a secularized Muslim identity. At the same time, these progressives have the institutional support within the organized Muslim community.
But you're seeing an insurgency led by men, particularly younger men, that are rejecting this progressive shift. They're rejecting it in very harsh terms and going very far to the right. What you're seeing in the Muslim community is — especially the young people — the Left, and now this segment of the Far Right, are really taking up all the oxygen and moderate politics is very unpopular.
People went nuts when I supported Joe Biden in the presidential primary, because Bernie was so popular. It was almost a heresy, that's how popular Bernie was to young Muslims.
What we're seeing is an insurgency against the institutionalization of progressivism because the "woke" posture of the Muslim community, of Linda Sarsour, of Ilhan Omar, is not the actual Muslim community. The actual Muslim community is a very conservative place. The actual Muslim community is not a "woke" place. When I say conservative, I'm talking about cultural conservativism. A lot of people just said, "Hey, why do these people have a monopoly on the discourse or representation of Muslims?"
I get that. I understand that, but I don't see why you have to say, "OK, now I'm going to be a Trump person," or "Now I'm going to go even further — I'm going to be Akh-Right, associated with people like Richard Spencer." I get the critique because I had the critique myself. I don't like the politics of Linda Sarsour and I don't like the politics of Ilhan Omar. That doesn't mean I have to flip off to the extreme Right. But that's being instigated by people like Daniel Haqiqatjou and others.
Dexter Van Zile is managing editor of the Middle East Forum publication Focus on Western Islamism.