By Julia Kassem
It would be disingenuous to discuss the history of Islam in America without tying it into the history of Black America. The legacy of the first Muslim in North America, Mostafa Al-Zammouri, a slave from Morocco, reflects the liminal identity of the Muslim that was hostage to the social climate of his time.
He was referred to as "brown", not Black; seen as a servant relative to his captors, yet transcended the social confines of slavery as a Moor.
Primarily Berber, Zammouri was also an Arabic speaker. While his Arab identity, as such with the linguistic subgroup, complements rather than contradicts his Berber heritage, his presence in history underpins the intersectional histories and complexities of the Arab, Black and Muslim communities.
From the sedition acts and quota limits to the civil rights movements, Black, Muslim and Arab Americans have navigated through multiple identities in service of the political contexts that shaped and defined their semantics.
The immigration and sedition quotas, as mandated by the 1924 Immigration Acts, marginalized immigrants, just as Jim Crow and segregation laws marginalized Black Americans.
One of the earliest manifestations of a Muslim community politically mobilizing can be traced to Dusé Mohamed Ali, a journalist and former actor of Egyptian and Sudanese origin who left performing out of disenchantment with his often Orientalist roles.
Joining politically active South Asian Muslims in England, Ali embedded his mission into the greater anti-imperialist movement of his Anglo-English counterparts in delivering a message that dually— through a medium of Islamic unity— resisted African and Asian colonialism.
Ali transferred these teachings into an establishment of shared political affinities with the South Asian immigrant communities in Detroit. Along with Sheikh Kalil Bazzy, who was of Lebanese origin, the Universal Islamic Society (UIS), born out of the pluralist movements, became the first mosque established in the city of Detroit.
Through the multiethnic coalition the mosque represented, shared political affinities materialized into a political perspective that delivered a multi-ethnic Muslim voice.
While the relatively universal message of Islam served as the basis for coalescing different ethnic communities, each ethnic group retained its distinct features that manifested differently within the society and culture it inhabited.
"These intersections were being revived by [Marcus] Garvey's group and the Moorish Science Temple," said Dr. Sally Howell, professor of history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and author of "Old Islam in Detroit." "Each emphasized a different point; [such as] pan-Africanism, [or] pan-Islamicism."
Congregations such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, the latter having been influenced by the UIS, contained elements recognizably distinct from more Orthodox Islamic customs and beliefs in constructing a unique narrative for themselves to transgress the historical one with which slavery had associated them.
The construction of a unique ideology was put in practice with the self-help doctrine preached by Elijah Muhammad. His mandates included various lifestyle changes and behavior modifications to redefine a racial identity contrary to that of disenfranchisement and poverty.
Just as pan-Islamic and pan-African nationalist ideologies bridged the gap between marginalized Muslims in the West, ethno linguistic groups, too, turned to their communities in times of economic hardship to solidify a sense of a social safety network.
Kambiz Ghanea Bassiri, a professor at Reed College and author of "A History of Islam in America", recognizes groups like the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple of America as fulfilling those roles. "Outside of the Christian church, [there were] not many avenues for African Americans left," he said. "The Science Temple used Islam for establishing the rights of African Americans."
The lifting of restrictions on immigration accompanied the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. While this had mixed implications for immigrant Arab and Asian Muslim communities, the passage did not erase all the institutional and social problems African American Muslims faced.
Mosques like the Nation of Islam were routinely the target of surveillance and FBI investigations. Additionally, groups within these congregations were not immune to the routine and systematic racism and discrimination integral to American society.
"One of the major impacts for the immigrant groups was that when they came to the United States after 1965, they didn't have to fight for rights because they were able to establish mosques," Ghanea Bassiri said. "They didn't have a 'racialised' experience like earlier immigrants did."
Recently, immigrants have faced increased targeting and have been marked with suspicion, though the social and political realities they've suffered under are indicative of the blowback caused by U.S. involvement in the Arab and Muslim world for decades.
Both historical and present day experiences with colonization and discrimination have served as catalysts to cement a sense of solidarity between the different Muslim groups in America.
Howell said interfaith organizations have strengthened more in recent times and immigrant communities have focused more of their philanthropic and community building efforts at home rather than abroad.
"Those relationships are very strong because people are collaborating on these projects together," she said about community initiatives such as the HUDA Clinic, Dream of Detroit Project and the Michigan Muslim Community Council.
Noting the increasing collusion of the voices and political visions of groups like Black Lives Matter and pro-Palestinian movements such as Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS), Ghanea Bassiri cited political solidarity as being a strong factor for the salience in solidarity movements.
"The overlap is in the experience of being colonized," he told The AANews, adding that, "through social justice causes, second generation Muslims don't operate based on distinction."