x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

On the role of African-Americans and Islam in the US

It's crucial to understand how other people who share the same religion have taken it into their own culture and society.

Matt Carr
Matt Carr

Although I didn't set foot in the USA until I was 13, I was educated mostly in American schools in different parts of the world. As a result, for me, February means Black History Month. The idea for Black History Month was started in the early 1900s with Dr Carter Woodson (the second black person to receive a degree from Harvard University) and Reverend Jess E Moorland (who co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History). Woodson, trying to shed light on the largely ignored role that black people played in American history, urged the fraternity Omega Psi Phi to create a Negro History and Literature Week. This was later changed to Negro History Week and in the 1970s, as a result of the Black Power movement, it became a month-long observance. Woodson chose February, to honour the births of Abraham Lincoln, the US president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and Frederick Douglass, one of the nation's leading abolitionists.

It made a great impression on me. I particularly remember going to the library in second grade, picking up Mildred D Taylor's Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry and becoming engrossed in the story. Set in the 1930s, the novel tells the story of a black family in the Deep South who suffer brutal racist attacks, poverty and betrayal. I tried to engage my mother's sympathy and outrage at the idea of slavery. "That was a long time ago," she would remind me. But this was the first time I realised what discrimination was and that it mattered, and the lesson stuck.

Now, more than 10 years later, my continued interest in the subject prompted me to take a class on Islam in the African-American Community. Often claimed by some of its adherents as "the black man's religion", Islam has a unique relationship with Black America, especially by those who see it as an alternative to what they feel is the racism of white Christian North America. What really strikes me is how, in America, Islam has shaped, and has been shaped by, African-American political and cultural traditions and identity.

In light of recent international political events there has been a lot more interest in Islam and Muslims in general. What always irritated me was the idea that Islam was something foreign to America - especially post 9/11 - as if American Muslims didn't exist unless they were recent immigrants who had brought the religion over with them. In fact, Islam has been present here for at least a century.

Living near Harlem, I don't have to go far to see a handful of masjids or reminders of African-American-Islamic movements such as the Nation of Islam. After going to Eid prayer last year at the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque (named after Malcolm X) I felt almost a culture shock to experience Eid celebrations within the American tradition when I was so used to associating anything Islamic with "Arab". Coming from an Arab Islamic tradition, where we tend to merge the religion and the practices that go along with it, it's crucial to understand how other people who share the same religion have taken it into their own culture and society, and to understand Islam as a tradition practised across a broad range of communities.

In the Emirates there is an assumption that everyone is doing the same thing when it comes to religion - eating the same food during Ramadan or celebrating Eid in the same way - but in fact there is huge variety within the Muslim community. Pakistani Muslims, Syrian Muslims, Emirati Muslims, Lebanese Muslims - we all have different customs and practices. And in learning about what makes us different, we can also learn about what makes us the same.