Uniquely Muslim American By Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim


Resident Imam of Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford

“Go back where you came from” is the phrase that shakes the emotions of every immigrant Muslim who feels they have earned the right to be called an American. It is ironic that this same group says to the American Convert “Where are you from?” They assume, that if you are Muslim you must not be American. If you say you are American, then the questioning begins. They want to find out if you are a “Real Muslim.” I tell them I’m an imam and they’re amazed. They think; “How can that be?” They see a black American imam and then they ask me the most basic things. “Do you know how to do Ramadan” I tell them I have performed Ramadan for 32 years.

Other Assumptions are, “Did you become a Muslim in prison?”, “Did you become Muslim through The Nation of Islam?” Not disrespecting any of these great ways of finding Islam, but many Muslim Americans have entered the religion in a diverse manner of ways.

This diversity makes us uniquely Muslim and Uniquely Muslim American.

Many Muslims who come to America are Muslims by circumstance, (demographics and birth make them Muslim) converts are Muslims by choice. For the most part Muslim converts have journeyed through other traditions before they settled into Islam. Muslim Converts have experienced Christianity, and other popular faith traditions. Muslim Converts are therefore familiar with, or have lived these practices. Muslim Converts have also been actively involved with the many aspects of American life. Muslim Converts are American citizens before adding Islam to their Identity.

As African Americans, we also have added perspectives on the way we see the world. We see the world as a people overcoming oppression and facing unique challenges. While at the same time we also see ourselves as gifted and talented.

I continue to believe our diversity is our superpower.

WEB Dubois said one of the great challenges we face as “Negros” is the struggle of dual consciousness. The struggle for us to be “American” and for us to be “Negro”. We waiver back and forth between our identities and cultures. We are trying to find a middle place where we can be comfortable with these two different personalities.

What does it mean to be Black in America? Is it possible to be too Black? Can a person not be Black enough?

Among our peers today, we hear; “he’s trying to act white”, or “talk white”. We will use the expression “that’s the proper way of doing things.” Is it their way or our way that’s “proper”?

This is the struggle that WEB Dubois saw years ago. It is still present in a different form.

I believe this idea of dual consciousness is existing among the Muslim community too. Many new Muslims are struggling to be American and Muslim. This struggle is especially difficult among immigrant Muslims.

Convert Muslims are already American. Converts already know Islam is compatible with their country naturally. American institutions, the constitution, etc., are in our nature and Islam pulls the best of America out of us and leaves the worst in us.

Some new Muslims arriving in America don’t understand how you can be Muslim in this country. They think It’s too hard.

Muslims who have settled into America, especially second and third generation Muslims are more American than what they call themselves. They have chosen for the most part to assimilate into whatever group gives them the most comfort. When you meet the generational American Muslim, they could be a Muslim from Brooklyn, on the line with you for black lives matters or they might be from semi valley trying to advance themselves via the American dream without controversy. Again, uniquely Muslim.

With all this diversity to choose from in the Muslim community why does the popular media neglect the African American Muslim from giving their perspective or view. African American Muslims have been entrenched in the American fabric longer. The African American Muslim has experts in every imaginable category. Their perspective would often give evidence the viewers could identify with. Instead the media chooses a person far removed from subject to be the spokesperson.

This is like the feeling African Americans have when something devastating occurs in our community and the popular media chooses a hip-hop star to represent our view. This is not to disrespect the many learned artists we have, but regardless of the topic, they are chosen as the authority. The issues may be the black economy, social justice, education, poverty, black on black crime, gun violence, etc. regardless of the topic personalities are often chosen as the authority.

We have PhDs, people who have dedicated their lives to studying these devastations, and grassroots people who are living these concerns daily. These leaders could speak with authority, but instead the media chooses a personality that’s going to sell papers or ads. This is often a person we recognize.

As African Americans, we often cringe when a person speaks for us. We think sometimes the media picks the worst in the crowd. It’s embarrassing.

Muslims feel this same way. We quite often hear views that do not represent sound religious views. We wonder why did the media choose that person to speak. Well I think it ties to the same notion of what sells papers and ads. The media looks for an image of a Muslim that America identifies with. Also, unfortunately in some cases an image that America paints as a threat. This sells.

America is obsessed with images. This is true also in Islam. Muslims want a woman in media in journalism to be recognized in full hijab. We want her to be a reporter or an anchor. This would be a great visual conquest. Ironically most of the female leaders the media chooses, to speak for women, don’t wear hijab. They are speaking for women rights, etc., and the women and men watching cringe in silence.

Certain images cause fear. Men with big beards draw fear in America. We have a ways to go before we look past images and color.

The image of Muslims in America has changed.

Prior to 911, Muslims in America were termed Black Muslims. They were called militant Muslims like “Malcolm X and Min Louis Farrakhan.” This was the historical image ingrained in America. After 911 the image of Muslim shifted to “Arab” like. Terrorist. The Muslim American “Arab” has been successful in creating a paradigm shift to remove this false picture of Islam, but it has not brought the African American Muslim with them.

A false narrative about Islam in America was written leaving out the contributions of African American Muslims. Only recently after African American Muslims spoke out loudly were some of these stories adjusted. Immigrant Muslims were saying they were the first to do everything in this country. Some immigrant Muslims ignored the work of African American Muslims who were doing many activities during slavery and also since the 1930s.

As we work with mass media and try to capture proper stories and presentations today we realize, Muslims must do our own reporting. As an African American I realize we must do this as well.  Often our unique circumstances cause us to have a common voice. We live together and face the same problems. Our children attend the same schools. We don’t know if the police stop us because we have on a kufi or we’re black. We have the same problems with housings, gun violence in our communities, and all our young people in our families are dying.

If the media won’t capture our voices correctly, we should not be silenced.