It was 1989, shortly after the fall of the Wall, and I was a just a young Filipino American drawn to the underground culture and intensity of Berlin. I had taken to hanging out with Kurdish and Turkish friends while in Germany. I found their easy-going attitude and humorous outlook refreshing and oddly familiar. They were not unlike the African American and Latino friends I had grown up with back home.
On a Friday night just a week after Germany’s World Cup victory, we stopped in a falafel restaurant in the Kruzberg section of Berlin. My friends pointed out that the place had to be good because of the number of Turks who were dining there at the time. As we were waiting, my eyes wandered around the restaurant. There were several family groups with many children. Some of the women dressed like the German women and some wore the conservative garb I recognized as the typical outfit of a Turkish woman: large pattern-printed scarves hooded over their clean and unpainted faces; loose-fitting blouses with long sleeves; long, pressed skirts hemmed no higher than mid-calf, and mid-heeled leather loafers on stocking covered feet. It was a look that conveyed respectability and conventionality. This was nothing special in that part of Berlin, but my gaze was arrested by a woman accompanied by two others, each dressed in the Turkish manner. This one woman was so very "Aryan" in her features that even with her hair covered, I could see from her flaxen eyebrows and lashes that she was very blond. Her alabaster skin so fair you could practically see the blood vessels just under the surface, and her eyes were the lightest of blue. This was not what I had come to expect of a Muslima.
I hadn’t realized that I was staring, gawking really. This is considered very rude in Islamic cultures. I was jarred out of my trance by the sharp elbow of one of my companions. "Hey man! What are you doing? You don’t stare, especially at a woman…" Still bewildered, I made the situation worse by thoughtlessly saying in a loud voice, "But she’s WHITE!" The entire restaurant turned to look. Very embarrassed, my friends tried to apologize for me in Turkish as they pulled me out the front doors and into the street. "What’s wrong with you, man? You crazy or something?"
It wasn’t until then that I realized how race had so defined my perception of Islam. Coming from the urban environs of Oakland, California, an association I had made of Islam was that, among other things, it was not white.
On Ships in Chains
"We have created you from one male and one female, and hen We made you into different races and tribes so that you may (recognize and) know one another."
(The Qur’an 49:13)
Brother Qadir Abu Al-Amin is the Imam of the San Francisco Muslim Community Center. A strong and stout African American with Southern roots, Imam Al-Amin speaks with an authority not only from his intimate study of the Qur’an and Islam, but he is also informed with a great deal of street knowledge and involvement with Islam.
"To look at the issue of racialization of Islam here in America, you have to look at the history of slavery. Islam came here on the slave ships," Imam Al-Amin says. "Even though the practice of Islam was banned amongst the slaves of the antebellum south, elements of it remained as a part of our oral tradition."
Out of these roots, early movements developed such as the Moorish Science Temple in the 1920s, founded by Noble Drew Ali. Ali’s message of dignity and economic independence had strong appeal to depression-era African Americans. These teachings, along with those of black nationalist Marcus Garvey, were strong influences on the next generation of African American Muslims.
Imam Al-Amin’s involvement with Islam, like many African American Muslims of his generation, started in the Nation of Islam under its charismatic founder, Elijah Muhammad. The doctrine of the Nation was well-known for its racial component. Whites were regarded as genetic mutants not only devoid of color, but also of morals.
It was this "White Devil" doctrine that shocked and terrified America, despite the fact that there were many other positive elements to their movement. This reverse psychology was a means to shake African Americans out of their own internalized oppression. Imam Al-Amin explains, "Whites had put themselves up on a pedestal, practically attributing themselves a divine status and a lot of us had bought into that, consciously and subconsciously. We had to hear a wake up call out of that nightmare."
By the time of Elijah Muhammad’s death in 1975, the Nation of Islam had established over 76 temples nationwide with an estimated 100,000 members. Leadership of the Nation was ceremoniously passed on to Elijah’s son, Warith Deen Mohammed, by election. Almost immediately W.D. Mohammed began to dismantle the Nation as he started to lead the members into the practice of Sunni (Orthodox) Islam.
Today, African Americans comprise over 40 percent of the estimated 6 to 8 million Muslims in America today (the largest racial group). This move towards orthodoxy, however, was not entirely accepted by all members. By the early 1980’s, the then disgruntled and now controversial Louis Farrakhan reorganized the Nation of Islam and brought this contingent back to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. The two camps held a long standing animosity for each other, but, as leaders of both factions will point out, not a drop of blood was spilled between them in the years of this separation. Disagreement was kept on the rhetorical and theological level and both were still focused on the common goal of strengthening the African American community.
Islam has been seen as a significant part of the African heritage of black Americans. But as the immigrant population grew, it became apparent that Islam belonged to another group of Americans as well. From 1878 to 1924 there was a wave of immigrants who came from what was then called Greater Syria. These Syrian, Jordanian, and Lebanese immigrants were, for the most part, uneducated laborers. A great number of these disenchanted migrants returned to their homelands, but those who did stay, though they suffered from isolation, somehow managed to establish Islamic communities. Enclaves in places like Iowa and North Dakota developed. Muslims congregated in homes and rented halls. Later these enclaves started to develop in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Indiana, but this growth almost came to a halt in 1924 due to the Asian Exclusion Act (Arabs were classified as "Asians") and the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act which slowed the immigration of "Asians" (including Arabs) to a mere trickle.
America was not to see a significant wave of Muslim immigration until 1948, when the first Palestinian refugees arrived after the creation of Israel. With the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 and 1965’s major immigration reform, the population of Muslim immigrants continued growing. Muslim Americans whose ancestry trace back to Africa, the Middle East and South Asia have formed significant communities across the country, but now, after 9/11, this social fabric is in danger of being torn apart.
An Internalized Crusade
"We should come to know our Shadow or else there is a strong tendency to project our Shadow upon others." (Carl Jung)
It’s evident from the current racial profiling that Islam has been seen as something of a "non-white" faith. Part of the reason for this is because Islam developed here in America through non-white communities. But add to this the element of the European cultural and ancestral backgrounds of white Americans. During the Crusades, Europe had practically defined itself in terms of its resistance to Islam.
As celebrated British theologist and historian Karen Armstrong explains, "The West misunderstands Islam largely because we’ve got a deep cultural prejudice that is as deeply ingrained as our anti-Semitism, which developed alongside it from about the time of the Crusades. We’ve got into the habit of projecting our own shortcomings onto Islam, just as we did upon the Jews."
In today’s lexicon of the dreaded burqa and fanatical woman-hating, one-eyed clerics, it may be hard to remember a time when Islam represented wanton sensuality and licentiousness. "Today when many people in the West are trying to shed the sexual repressions of their Christian past, we say that Islam is a sexually repressed religion," Armstrong points out.
Sexual repression is just one issue the West projects upon Islam. Class and gender also take on this distortion. Armstrong continues, "At a time in the Middle Ages when Europe was extremely hierarchical, we blamed Islam for giving too much power to menials like slaves and women. Today we’ve thrown that off and we blame Islam for being oppressive to women. Again, we’ve reversed the old stereotype, not because we’ve found out anything about Islam necessarily, but because we’ve got into a cultural habit of making Islam the opposite of us."
These cultural projections continue today in the mainstream media. Attention and emphasis has been placed upon the more extreme, yet relatively small, factions of the Islamic world. Muslims are frequently pictured as militantly aggressive and fanatical. What does this say about what Americans are projecting? Throughout the history of Western civilization, Islam has been portrayed as "exotic" at best, the "enemy menace" for the most part, but always as the other.
Whirling and Learning
While Islam was established among African Americans and the immigration of Arab and South Asian Muslims continued to grow independently, it may be surprising to find that Islam also found its way into the hearts of a great number of white Americans. During the experimental 1960s, many were searching for the meaning to life and existence outside the Western paradigm. Along with the Gurus, the Human Potential Movement seminars and the Transcendental Meditation, a good number of seekers started investigating Sufism – the mystical practice within Islam.
Sufi orders have existed in America since 1910, but it was the ’60s that brought it into the landscape of American culture. The ’70s marked the arrival of several sheikhs ("teachers") of undisputed Islamic linage. This firmly established a number of Sufi orders’ presence here in America. Loved for its universalist principles and devotional practices, Sufism’s popularity and growth has been strong ever since.
In every religion there is Love, yet Love has no religion.
Love is like an ocean, without borders and shores where so many drown,
Yet regretful cries are not to be heard. (Jalaluddin Rumi)
Most dervishes ("Sufi practitioners") in America are white. Shaikh Rashid Patch explains, "Exposure to Sufism in America was initially academic. In this relatively early stage in (Sufism’s) development in this hemisphere, it has been those privileged enough to go to college or to travel to Islamic countries who have been exposed to it."
Rashid, a former U.S. Marine who converted to Islam, is of Irish descent. His frequent smile and a hearty laugh are practically the trademark of dervishes. Far from being a fundamentalist of any sort, Rashid, like many Muslims, is involved in a number of interfaith efforts and he remains dedicated to peace. But Shaikh Patch takes an uncharacteristically terse tone when speaking about the developments since 9/11.
"This racial profiling is insanity. Why weren’t white men profiled after the Oklahoma bombing or during the Unabomber scare? Most Americans don’t even have a clear idea of what a Muslim is and ‘Arab’ isn’t even distinct enough. An ‘Arab’ could be anyone!"
Shaikh Patch continued, "When I was young, I can remember Catholicism being racialized. It became a big issue in the election of John F. Kennedy. When I was nine years old, back in the ’50s, I remember members of the KKK shooting at me. To them, me and my family were not "white." We were something else, and that something else happened to be Catholic. Sounds crazy, eh? Well, racism and bigotry don’t have much to do with sanity."
One God, Many Voices
In the aftermath of 9/11, mainstream America found itself in a quandary over this tragedy. Why would anyone attack us? Who are these people?
In the struggle for answers, a great number of Americans began to settle for the easy answers that some media pundits were serving up like junk food. "Islam is a religion based on war and aggression," "Muslims stand in opposition of everything that America stands for," "The Islamic world hates America." The fact is, however, the Islamic world is hardly monolithic in its view of anything. Being just about the most racially, culturally, and ideologically diverse of religions in the world, it is virtually impossible to claim any one view as the Muslim worldview. Moreover, the plain fact is that Islam is a very present element of American culture and society. It is still one of the fastest growing faiths in the world and in America even after 9/11.
"In my short life span, I have seen Islam influence American culture in clear ways as well as subtle," says Imam Al-Amin. "No longer can America only acknowledge Judaism and Christianity as its only major faiths. Islam must also be included and recognized for its worth. America must respect its own diversity. Our nation’s inclusion and future in the world community may count on it."