Radical Trends in African-American Islam
By Chris ZambelisSince the arrest of members of the Seas of David, due to allegations that they sought al-Qaeda support in facilitating a plot to attack targets in Chicago and Miami, law enforcement and intelligence officials have been paying closer attention to radical trends in the African-American Muslim community. Despite its rhetoric and embrace of Islamic discourse, Seas of David is not a Muslim organization. Instead, its ideology appears to reflect an array of influences that includes a heavy dose of Judaism, Christianity and an affinity for pan-African nationalist ideals. Nevertheless, the group's predominantly African-American and Afro-Caribbean immigrant membership and its reported intent to seek out al-Qaeda raised alarm bells about the potential radicalization of Black Muslims in the United States, especially Muslim converts (Terrorism Focus, July 11).
Inner City Islam and Identity
Fears of the threat of al-Qaeda's influence spreading among African-American Muslim converts and underprivileged minorities in impoverished inner cities is in part based on alarming trends in Europe. Evidence of the presence of Black and Latino American-born Muslims in terrorism training camps in the Middle East and South Asia is one point of concern . Richard C. Reid, the infamous "shoe bomber," also known as Abdul Raheem or Abu Ibrahim, was the British-born son of an English mother and a Jamaican father. He converted to Islam while serving a prison sentence and is alleged to have had close links with al-Qaeda . Germain Lindsay, also known as Abdullah Shaheed Jamal since his conversion to Islam in his early teens and one of the four participants in the 2005 suicide bombings in London, was born in Jamaica and raised in Great Britain (Telegraph, July 17, 2005). Trinidad and Tobago's Jamaat al-Muslimeen, a radical Islamist organization comprised mostly of Afro-Trinidadian Muslim converts that has a history of violence and crime, also counts on support from impoverished Blacks in Trinidad's urban centers (Terrorism Monitor, March 9).
Despite these concerns, it is important to emphasize that Muslim conversion in the African-American community has a long history as a positive force for empowerment. In many respects, conversion to Islam has traditionally represented an assertion of social, political, ethnic and racial identity in a society where Blacks and other minorities face discrimination and obstacles. As the descendants of slaves who had adopted the Christianity practiced by their former slave owners, but who were at the same time subject to severe discrimination and relegated to churches and societies segregated along racial lines, many African-Americans see in Islam an opportunity to formally break with the injustices of the past. Others believe that they are reverting to the faith of their enslaved ancestors and hence are adopting a proud native tradition that they can call their own.
Many Muslim converts identify with the greater ummah (Muslim community). Some may learn Arabic in order to read and study the Quran in its original form. The plight of the Palestinians and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, issues typically important to Muslims, often become of interest. At the same time, many African-American Muslims identify with the issues affecting the Black community as a whole, regardless of sectarian affiliation.
Black Power and Nationalism
In order to assess the potential threat of radicalism in the African-American Muslim community, it is important to distinguish between the myriad of ideologies that influence the outlook of Black Muslims today from the groups and individuals on the extreme fringe implicated in terrorism. This holds especially true when one considers social protest movements that fought for racial equality during the U.S. civil rights struggle that continue to wield influence today, such as the Nation of Islam (NOI). Founded in 1933, in its early years NOI encompassed a mix of Islamic discourse and a worldview that held that Blacks were God's chosen people. Whites were seen as inferior, oppressors and regularly referred to as "devils," in what many observers contend was a reaction to the ideals of white supremacy that prevailed in society .
NOI borrowed heavily from the beliefs held by the Moorish Science Temple. Founded in 1913 by Timothy Drew, later known as Noble Drew Ali, the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA), as it is referred to today, is regarded as the first major Black identity movement. MSTA's worldview was shaped by Islam, Judaism, Christianity and other belief systems. MSTA declared that African-Americans are the descendants of the ancient Moorish Muslim civilization whose culture had been suppressed by the legacy of slavery.
NOI helped inspire the radical Black Power movement of the 1960s that broke with the non-violent approach of activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr., including the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, later known as the Black Panther Party (BPP). BPP did not rely on religious discourse and instead emphasized popular revolutionary struggle in the name of social justice and Black liberation. NOI also influenced Black identity movements across the English-speaking Caribbean, Canada and Great Britain. In many respects, the agendas of NOI and BPP converged in a number of areas.
The Nation of Gods and Earths, also known as the Five Percent Nation of Islam or simply as the Five Percenters (FP), represents another side of the Black identity movement that mixes aspects of Islam, Judaism, Christianity and other beliefs (http://www.allahsnation.net). FP, which split from NOI in 1964, is adamant that it is not a religion, but maintains that Islam represents a way of life. Its worldview declares Blacks as the original people of the earth and the founders of civilization. FP sees Black men as Gods, which they refer to as ALLAH (Arm, Leg, Leg, Arm and Head), not to be mistaken with the Arabic word for God. FP ideology also espouses the theory of "Supreme Mathematics," which among other things maintains that followers represent the chosen five percent of mankind who lead a virtuous life. FP enjoys a large following among popular Hip Hop artists and African-American activists . It also has a following in the U.S. prison system, where some members have been linked with gang activity and violence . FP made headlines when false allegations surfaced linking convicted Washington DC-area snipers John Allen Muhammed and John Malvo to the group. Muhammed was actually a former member of NOI, but had left the group years before the attacks.
Orthodox Sunni Muslim organizations regard MSTA, NOI and FP as heretical cults. India's Ansar us-Sunnah Library and Research Center refers to NOI as the Nation of Kufr (unbelievers) for its emphasis on Black nationalism and identity and what it describes as a blend of false Muslim and Christian beliefs. The group's website places NOI alongside Shiites, which they describe as rafidah (rejectors), and other groups they consider heretics such as Sufis, Druze and Amhadis in a section warning Muslims to guard their faith (http://www.allaahuakbar.net).
The NOI continues to grapple with the dilemma of reconciling its origins as a Black identity group with orthodox Islam. This has led to major rifts and splits within the movement over the years. Despite the influence of NOI under the charismatic leadership of Louis Farrakhan, the vast majority of Black Muslims today subscribe to orthodox Islam, a trend that has been growing over the years. Most African-American Muslims look to mainstream orthodox Muslim organizations such as the Muslim Society of America (Christian Science Monitor, February 14, 2002). This includes believers once affiliated with NOI who eventually parted ways with the group due to its emphasis on Black identity.
The highly publicized Seas of David case was not the first of its kind. The case of the obscure Jamaat al-Fuqra (Community of the Impoverished, JF), a Muslim association with branches in South Asia and North America, once raised concerns about radical trends in the African-American Muslim community. According to some reports, JF was founded in the early 1980s by Sheikh Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani. Gilani is a Sufi cleric from Pakistan. In the United States, JF is reportedly comprised mostly of African-American Muslim converts. Gilani also heads the International Quranic Open University (IQOU), which is affiliated with the Muslims of the Americas (MOA).
U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials have accused JF of militant and criminal activities in the United States and abroad, including the murder of religious and ideological rivals on U.S. soil . Prior to his abduction and eventual murder, American journalist Daniel Pearl was on his way to interview Gilani to investigate reports that Richard C. Reid studied under him in Lahore, Pakistan. Gilani denies any links to Reid and Pearl's kidnapping and death (Dawn, February 1, 2002). In a statement on the IQUO-MOA website, Gilani also denies any connection to or knowledge of Jamaat al-Fuqra or radical activities and attributes such allegations to sinister political agendas meant to tarnish his image (http://www.iqou-moa.org).
JF also made headlines when news spread that followers of Gilani established a series of isolated rural communities across the United States, including Baladullah (God's Village) outside of Fresno, California. According to MOA representatives, these communities were intended for believers to live and worship in peace. Given Gilani's background, however, U.S. security officials worried about their potential use as radical training grounds (The San Jose Mercury News, February 3, 2003). The group established other settlements in Colorado, Virginia, South Carolina and upstate New York (http://www.iqou-moa.org).
In another incident, the recent case involving Jam'iyyat Ul-Islam As-Saheeh (Assembly of Authentic Islam, JIS), an extremist Islamist group based in the California prison system, was the first major publicized incident of its kind involving a homegrown terrorist plot hatched by radical African-American Muslim converts. Led by Kevin James, an African-American Muslim convert currently serving a lengthy sentence for a robbery conviction, JIS is alleged to have planned attacks against a number of targets in California in the fall of 2005, including U.S. military installations, Israeli government facilities and Jewish synagogues (Terrorism Monitor, January 26). JIS is comprised of African-American Muslim converts, as well as a legal U.S. resident of Pakistani descent. Members of the group allegedly swore a bayat (an oath of allegiance) to James . The JIS case also highlights the threat posed by the spread of radical Islamist ideologies in U.S. prisons.
Given the current trajectory of the threat posed by radical Islamist terrorism in the form of homegrown cells or possibly individuals plotting and acting independently of organizations such as al-Qaeda, security officials need to be alert to emerging radical trends within U.S. borders. This includes extremist tendencies in the African-American Muslim community. Based on al-Qaeda's success in inspiring others to act on behalf of its radical agenda, however, this threat does not differ from the larger issue at hand and should instead be considered in the larger context of homegrown terrorist threats.
1. Hisham Aidi, "Jihadis in the Hood: Race, Urban Islam, and the War on Terror," Middle East Report (Fall 2002).
2. See United States District Court, District of Massachusetts Indictment of Richard Reid at http://www.fas.org/irp/news/2002/01/reidindictment.pdf.
3. Ogbar, Jeffrey, O.G., Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2004).
4. Ted Swedenburg, "Snipers and Panic over Five Percent Islamic Hip-Hop," Middle East Report Online (November 10, 2002), http://www.merip.org/mero/mero111002.html.
5. Brian Levin, Radical Religion in Prison, Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report (Fall 2003), http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?aid=120.
6. Narayanan Komerath, "Pakistani Role in Terrorism Against the U.S.A.," Bharat Rakshak Monitor (Vol. 5, September-October 2002).
7. U.S. Department of Justice Press Release, August 31, 2005, http://www.usdoj.gov/opa/pr/2005/August/05_crm_453.htm.