Black Muslims aim for unity in challenging time for Islam

In her job as a refugee case manager, Fatimah Farooq would come to work in a hijab and speak with her clients in Arabic. Nonetheless, she found herself being asked whether she was Muslim.

It’s not easy, Farooq says, navigating her dual identities as black and Muslim.

“I’m constantly trying to prove that I belong,” said Farooq, who now works in public health. “It’s really hard not to be an outsider in a community — especially today, in the current times.”

Many Muslims are reeling from a U.S. presidential administration that’s cracked down on immigrants, including through the introduction of a travel ban that suspends new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries and is now tied up in court. But black American-born Muslims say they have been pushed to the edges of the conversations — even by those who share the same religion.

They say they often feel discrimination on multiple fronts: for being black, for being Muslim and for being black and Muslim among a population of immigrant Muslims. Farooq, whose Sudanese parents came to the U.S. before she was born, said her own family used to attend a largely African-American mosque but then moved to a predominantly Arab one — yet in both cases still felt like “outsiders.”

The identity issues have rippled into social media with Twitter’s #BeingBlackAndMuslim and @BlkMuslimWisdom formed in recent weeks to amplify stories of black Muslims, whether it’s to praise Mahershala Ali, who is black and became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar, or to express concern over the lack of black speakers at a recent Islamic conference. Tensions are also being aired at community town halls, with panelists questioning why there hasn’t been more involvement from Arab and South Asian Muslims in Black Lives Matter events.

In response, activists say they’re seizing the opportunity to unite Muslims of all backgrounds.

Kashif Syed, who lives in the Washington, D.C. area, grew up in a family of South Asian Muslim immigrants around Detroit that was insulated from black Muslims. Now that he’s part of a young professional Muslim community, he’s trying to honor the experiences of others.

“We’re seeing increasingly visible threats to Muslims across the country now — it’s an important reminder of what black communities have endured for generations in this country,” said Syed, who volunteers at Townhall Dialogue, a nonprofit fostering discussions about U.S. Muslim identity. “I can’t really think of a better time for non-black Muslims to start examining how we got here, and what lessons we can learn from the hard-won victories of black communities from the civil rights movement.”

Organizer Shamar Hemphill, a black Chicago native who works for the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, said Republican President Donald Trump’s executive orders such as the travel ban have made organizers “quadruple” efforts to form alliances, including recent calls for Muslim groups to attend and organize around Martin Luther King Jr. Day events.

“We’re not going to allow any policy or federal piece of legislation to separate us and isolate us. We’re going to come together and protect each other,” he said. “It’s also a great opportunity because it brings us out of our silos.”

Other attempts at unity have been made over the years. Imam Zaid Shakir at the California-based Zaytuna College, a liberal arts Muslim college, has delivered lectures about similarities between the Prophet Muhammad’s farewell sermon and King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations holds events around the birthday of Malcolm X, a Nation of Islam member who came into mainstream Islam. And IMAN in Chicago has celebrated hip hop, featuring Muslim rappers like Grammy-winner Rhymefest.

Asha Noor, whose family fled Somalia’s civil war when she was a baby, helped organize a town hall after Trump announced his first travel ban in February, which blocked travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries and put the U.S. refugee program on hold. That ban has since been replaced with a newer version.

Noor said she feels there’s less attention paid to the plight of refugees from her native Somalia and Sudan, the two African countries in Trump’s executive order. She sees it as part of a “continuous erasure of the black Muslim experience.”

“Black Muslims often face a two-front challenge, both within the community and the larger American society,” said Noor, who worked for Take on Hate, a campaign challenging discrimination against Arabs and Muslims. “You can never be too sure if assaults or micro-aggressions are coming because you’re black, Muslim, or both.”

Central to the issue, experts say, is that Islam is largely portrayed as something foreign. That’s a misconception University of San Francisco professor Aysha Hidayatullah encounters when teaching an “Islam in America” class where she looks at Islam’s presence in America from the slave trade t