No electorate understood the sting of the Trump presidency perhaps more than African-American Muslims, whose ethnic and religious identities had been the target of discriminatory federal policy and unfettered acts of domestic terrorism.
So much so, some political pundits eyed deemed members of this group as pivotal in the recent presidential race.
As history has shown, this would be far from the first contribution that African-American Muslims made to American society. With a highly anticipated change in the Oval Office, some people like Imam Talib Shareef said they foresee a deeper embrace of that tradition that will encourage more African-American Muslims to help actualize the U.S.’ founding ideals.
“We were a people denied the most, but here we are in 2020. With the stakes the highest, we were able to contribute the most,” said Shareef, leader of The Nation’s Mosque, a place of worship for thousands of Muslims in the D.C. metropolitan area, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s partner in combatting American Muslim extremism, via what’s called the American Muslims Against Violence and Terrorism Initiative.
Bridging the Gap
Though they represent less than two percent of the U.S. population, American Muslims — a group that includes African-American Muslims — have diverse experiences and backgrounds that have drawn many to the Democratic Party.
During the Democratic primary, nearly four out of 10 American Muslim Democratic voters expressed a desire for an anti-war candidate, a situation that explained their strong support for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) , even as Biden solidified his lead. An increasing contingent of young Muslim Americans, deviating from the conservative nature of their foreign-born parents, have also aligned with the Democratic Party’s support of LGBTQ rights.
Among African American millennials, Islam has been a beacon of light for those struggling in impoverished, crime-ridden environments to overcome the generational effects of crack-cocaine, deindustrialization, and mass incarceration.
For District-based activist Azyirah the Poet, Islam has brought a sense of peace at a time when she struggled with the pitfalls of living as a Black woman in the U.S.
Three years ago, Azyirah converted to Sunni Islam after studying the history of Malcolm X and the NOI. She later expanded her knowledge about the pillars of the Islam faith with the guidance of her husband, a Muslim who she had known since their days as Catholic schoolchildren.
At the culmination of her evolution, Aziyrah would be the second of three people in her immediate family to turn to Islam.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Aziyrah spent much of her time attending prayer services known as Jummah and volunteering at the American Islamic Heritage Museum and Center on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue where she said she learned much about African-American Muslims’ historical contributions.
It was at the Southeast D.C. museum that Azyirah also recounted learning about the value of serving others, including those not sharing her religious identity. She said that experience has kept her grounded amid the scrutiny she often faces for wearing a hijab.
“People are obsessed with our culture, our religion, and us as a whole, but they never want to deal with the negativity that society gives us,” Aziyrah, a Northeast D.C. resident and mother of two girls, told The Informer.
“I use my message through poetry to say it’s OK to be Black, to be Muslim and to be woman,” she continued.
“What’s not OK is me being judged for wearing my hijab. For peace, I rely on my Deen, my faith, and the knowledge and wisdom to know that my ancestors set forth a path where I can’t falter.”
For the past 25 years, Collections and Stories of American Muslims (CSAM), and later the American Islamic Heritage Museum and Center, have served as an epicenter of African-American Islamic thought, organization, and mobilization in the District, all with the support of the Bowser administration and those of previous mayors.
At the prodding of museum president and curator Amir Muhammad and others, then-D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) declared October as Islamic Heritage Month.
With the temporary closing of The Clara, the building in which the museum exists, comes the question of where many of the African-American Muslims who frequent that space will gather to pray, and dole out food and clothes. Over the last few weeks, worshippers have remained posted in front of museum curator Amir Muhammad’s residence for prayer and meditation.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the American Islamic Heritage Museum and Center, Muhammad said he has maintained a commitment to raising awareness about the African-American Muslim’s contribution to the United States.
In recent years, he has focused on reconciling philosophical differences between NOI affiliates and observers of old-world Islam, American and foreign.
“The common theme between the different Black Muslim groups is the belief in Allah, and the belief in freedom, justice and equality for all,” Muhammad told The Informer.
“The call of Islam is a call for humanity,” he continued.
“We get lost in our cultural diversity and our likes and dislikes, but humanity is our common denominator, no matter what. The African-American Muslim community makes up one of the largest populations of the Muslim community in the United States. We have this quiet power and influence.”