Professors examine perceptions of black Muslims
Center for Race and Ethnicity tackles media’s portrayal of Islamic culture
A full-body cover photo from the short-lived hip-hop magazine, “One World,” showed rapper Lil’ Kim wearing nothing but a headscarf.
The shot was shown as a part of a discussion yesterday at the Center for Race and Ethnicity on the College Avenue campus, where professors and graduate students discussed confusion surrounding black and Muslim identities in America.
Sylvia Chan-Malik, assistant professor of American Studies, led the discussion that centered around her upcoming book tentatively titled “Race, Gender, and the Making of Muslim America, 1959-2010,” as a part of the center’s series “Race, Space, and Place in the Americas.”
In the series, faculty members presented material they are working on to a small group of their peers for constructive discussion, said Donna Auston, a graduate fellow in the Department of Anthropology.
Muslims, especially black Muslims, have been radically misrepresented in American media with negative consequences, Chan-Malik said.
She said the Lil’ Kim photo caused a firestorm of controversy on the Internet, but most of the negative comments came from non-Muslims.
“[The reaction] shows what happens when the body of [a] black woman enters the clash of civilizations,” she said.
Chan-Malik said the conservative Christian response to the rumors of protests in the Middle East following the photo was particularly surprising because the rumors were not true.
“Conservative websites, mainly neoconservatives, were saying ‘if Lil Kim is offending Muslims, she’s doing a good job,’” she said.
She said the focus on Arab Muslims in the Middle East has overshadowed the large black Muslim community in the United States, which already revived its fair share of bad press.
Domestic Islam was introduced to the popular consciousness of America in 1959 with the documentary “The Hate that Hate Produced,” but it was a part of American culture for much longer, Chan-Malik said.
“This is when black Muslims in America were introduced to the racial imagination of America,” she said.
The documentary, produced by 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace, takes a critical look at the Nation of Islam, a radical African-American separatist group.
She said the documentary fostered fear in white Americans because it gave people the idea that all black Muslims, mostly unknown at the time, were members of the Nation of Islam.
“This documentary spurred a huge conversation about what seemed to be a challenge to [the] mainstream civil rights movement … but many in the black community were opposed to separatism,” she said.
Chan-Malik said the group, which is largely political, grew out of a less radical group called the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, founded in India in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad.
Mufti Muhammad Sadiq became the first Muslim missionary to live in the United States following his imprisonment for polygamy after his arrival.
While in prison, Sadiq realized African Americans would be particularly receptive to the religion because it was different from what the majority of white Americans practiced said Chan-Malik.
But she said Muslims have been present in the United States long before this.
“There were Syrian and Lebanese immigrants in small numbers even before the Civil War,” she said.
Auston said after the United States became involved in crises in the Middle East in the 1980s, Islam became racialized in the country, especially since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Most people in the country associate the religion with terrorism, violence and Arabs, she said.
“There have always been American Muslims,” she said. “But the idea of Muslim Americans is new. The tendency is to cast this group as outsiders.”
Jahaira Arias, a graduate assistant at the Center for Race and Ethnicity, said the media is partially responsible for the negative portrayal of Muslims in America.
She said the religion is seen as dangerous, especially to women, because of the way the conflicts in the Middle East are covered. But the members of the Center for Race and Ethnicity are working to educate people on this issue.
“[The discussions] are resonating with people in a lot of different ways,” she said. “It’s great that they are creating that kind of discussion.”
Chan-Malik said she encountered some difficulty in researching for her book, especially when trying to locate texts written from the perspective of American Muslim women.
“I knew I had to engage the voices of Muslim women, but they were nowhere to be found due in large part to the crisis of archival recognition,” she said.