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One Faith, Two Minds

Feeling snubbed by Muslim immigrants who are defining the faith for the U.S. public, African American Muslims are calling attention to the way they, too, practice their beliefs.


At noon on a recent Friday at the Bilal Islamic Center on South Central Avenue, African American Muslims turned their attention to the call to prayer. A leader in a brightly colored skullcap faced east and began an Arabic chant--not in the high-pitched, nasal tone of a Middle Eastern imam but with the soulful sound of a black jazz musician.

Worshipers' head coverings tended toward baseball caps for the men and floral scarves for the women, not the turbans and veils typical of the more ethnically diverse mosques whose worshipers are immigrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. The setting also blended traditions of Islam with American roots. The Bilal center's mosque is a converted house with a dirt parking lot set in an empty field; it has a rural feel, very different from the elaborate stone structures common among Islamic American mosques.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, such differences have taken on new significance. Ironically, the increasing attention on Muslims in America has left many African American Muslims feeling marginalized. "We share the faith with immigrant Muslims, but not much else," says Abdul Karim Hasan, Bilal's director. "For African American Muslims, the priorities are economic justice, education and service to humanity at the street level in our country. We don't make decisions based on what is good for Pakistan, Afghanistan or the Middle East."

Indeed, after the service, there was a call for volunteers to help at a Skid Row shelter and for recruits to teach Islam to women in prison. There was also an update on legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, who has not yet announced whether he will accept an invitation to represent American Muslims in a public service video to be distributed in the Middle East as part of Hollywood's response to terrorism.

Founded in the early '50s, the Bilal Center offers a clear example of ways that African American Muslims blend their religious convictions with their mission to the community around them. Hasan, who was honored by the Los Angeles City Council last fall for his years of service to the community, says African Americans proved themselves long ago to be good Muslims and good Americans. They are accepted around the world as members of the faith, he says, but since the terrorist attacks on the U.S., Islam in America has become synonymous with Arab Muslims, and he believes people curious about the faith are getting the wrong impression.

"Those who are making the most noise right now aren't speaking for all Muslims," says Hasan, a trim man in his 60s. "When it comes to how Islam is actually practiced here, we African American Muslims know more about it than anyone."

Scholars of religion and history say the American Muslim community is in a state of flux. Bringing some 50 ethnic groups together under one united front will take time.

"Until now, Islam in America has been an example of what the Koran describes as streams that flow together but don't mix," says Zahid Bukhari, Pakistani-born research director of Muslim Americans in the Public Square. His group is researching demographics, participation in the political process and the role and functions of mosques for American Muslims in a study sponsored by Pew Charitable Trusts.

"My personal observation is that all American Muslim leaders are aware that they need to work together," says Bukhari, a fellow at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Yet since Sept. 11, while a small number of African Americans have been present at high-profile news conferences, interfaith prayer services and meetings between President Bush and American Muslim leaders, the focus has been Middle Eastern politics and the protection of Muslim immigrants. Some African Americans say black Muslims included in these high-level gatherings are being relegated to the background when they could be explaining Islam in ways American audiences can understand.

"The complaint is fair," says Dr. Maher Hathout, senior advisor for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Los Angeles-based Muslim leader who was present at those public events. "However, it's explainable. The events of Sept. 11 by their nature focused on Arabs; those of us who were accused were naturally the ones who were interviewed."

He says that his group has reached out to African Americans, but says more could be done to breach the gaps within the American Muslim community. "Immigrants and indigenous American Muslims see America differently," he said, adding that greater dialogue would benefit both groups.

African American Muslims have been active in the U.S. since at least the 1920s. Some claim the history goes back to the slave era, when African Muslims were brought to this country. Most of the earliest converts learned the faith from immigrants born in Muslim countries. In 1930, a salesman named Wallace D. Fard founded the Nation of Islam in Detroit as a black separatist movement with a doctrine that bears little resemblance to the Muslim faith.

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