Race, Islam, and terrorism

Category: Americas, World Affairs Topics: Ethnic Group Views: 6238

I met a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo at a university function at the end of the summer term. A well-educated academic, he had escaped the civil war engulfing his country. In the middle of our conversation on the state of Africa, he reminded me that there were "many well-educated white men engaged in acts of terror" in his country. 

He was not referring to suicide bombers but to middle-class corporate executives who fund warlords and low-rank politicians in exchange for access to diamonds and other precious minerals. Their act of terror was to be party to the ethnic cleansing, rape, child abduction, and murder conducted by the renegades they financed. Conscious of the dangers of stereotyping, I replied, "Surely not all white men involved in business in Africa are bad? I'm certain many get involved in business with the best of intentions but are seduced by the lure of profits." 

Introducing the subject of "race" into the analysis of any area of social conflict can enlighten or obscure the real causes of distress. And this perilous pathway has been followed in some of the news coverage of young black men and domestic terrorism. 

The Jamaican origins of Jermaine Lindsay, one of the July 7 suicide bombers, has prompted some to ask why a disproportionate number of black men are attracted to extremism. Lindsay, 19, had spent the vast proportion of his life in England, which made tenuous the tabloid obsession with his place of birth. Intriguingly there was less of a clamor over the ethnicity of Richard Reid, the notorious "shoe bomber," who had a white mother and a black father. In the case of David Copeland, the white, racist, homophobic nail-bomber, there was no analysis of a potential relationship between ethnicity, extremism, and terror. 

Black men converting to Islam should be placed within the religious context of their communities, where religion still matters. 

African-Caribbean men and women continue to turn out in large numbers for religious activities. But Islam is able to do what the black church cannot - attract black men. 

I have spent most of my working life in conversation with African-Caribbean converts to Islam. Two relationships stand out. I have an ongoing dialogue with an artist who converted in the mid-1990s. His journey began when he listened to tapes of African-American Muslim preachers while at graduate school in America. 

The tapes made a clear-cut link between a commitment to Allah and black liberation from poverty, drugs, gangs, and meaninglessness. His first visit to a predominantly African-American mosque was life-changing. Hundreds of smartly dressed black men full of self-belief, black pride, purpose, and respect immediately became role models. 

This is still the case today. Many black men, including Reid and Lindsay, were impressed by Islam's Africa-centered preaching and positive association with blackness. After all, one of the most powerful icons of the 20th century, Malcolm X, made the journey from Christianity to Islam in search of black redemption. My artist friend says mainstream Islam provides him with a social awareness and commitment to justice that is mostly ignored in black churches. 

I have a nephew who recently converted while serving a prison sentence. Spending an inordinate amount of time alone in his cell, he took to reading the Bible and the Quran to pass the time. Intrigued by the notion that Islam was the last testament, God's final revelation, he pursued his interest by attending lessons with the imam assigned to the prison chaplaincy. Convinced, he became a devotee. 

It was clear to me that the daily regime of Islam provided him with the tools for personal discipline and an interest in intellectual thought. He gained qualifications while inside and, most importantly, became completely dissociated from criminal activity. Having left prison, he continues to live devoutly, and is employed in a management position. 

Most African-Caribbean men converting to Islam do so because it is a religion with a capacity to give their lives hope and meaning. This is not a new idea. 

As long ago as 1888, the Caribbean educator Edward Wilmot Blyden argued that Islam was more respectful of black culture and easier to translate into Caribbean culture than Christianity. 

There will always be a few captivated by extremist versions of Islam that exploit the continued disaffection and marginalization of working-class black youth. After all, with as little potential for social mobility as their migrant grandparents, it is difficult to sell them Tony Blair's New Labour dream of living in a meritocratic "stakeholder" British society. 

As is the case with the white middle-class corporate executives who see no ethical boundaries preventing them from working for exploitative multinationals in Africa, which displace and destroy the lives of tens of thousands, there will always be a small number of impressionable converts, from the poorest communities, who are lured on to the paths of unrighteousness.

Robert Beckford is a lecturer in African diasporan religions and cultures at the University of Birmingham, U.K.

  Category: Americas, World Affairs
  Topics: Ethnic Group
Views: 6238

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Older Comments:
I am a christian, and I find an article such as this to be useless. If you compare the relative merits of one faith over another you find the the last person speaking wins the argument. None of what you said means anything unless you are speaking to a Muslim. As a christian, I feel comfortable saying almost the same thing, but in the opposite direction. I won't do that because I beleive issues of faith are too important. I know Muslims that became Muslims in prison and came out to live devout lives. I also know people that became Muslims in prison, as a means of protection, and came out to the christian church.
Faith finds faith, but many people use religion as a badge of personality. Much of what you say reminds me of that. I don't feel that true faith is represented in what you are saying.
God Bless You

This is a great article. I think Jibrail missed the message of the article completely. The author is not promoting or glorifying race, but is pointing out why African/Caribbean men are attracted to the religion. The bottom line is Islam is the truth, and in understanding the history and dealings of people of the African diaspora in the west especially around religion one can after coming in contact with Islam, one can see why and how brothers are attracted to this religion. Thanks for writing this article.

Salaam wa laikum

Your article was interesting. I too am a African-American convert to Islam.

Having converted about 5 years ago and at a later age in my life I notice some things.

I too have learned different things about myself and Al-Islam from different sources.

Some brothers are just in toon with just one source and that maynot be the best for them.

A brother from Pakistan once told me (This is the Brother that introduced me to Islam), that he will not be able to answer some of the questions that I may have because he never asked those same questions. Him being born into Islam didn't or couldn't ask many questions. Almost like Christians being born into the religions maynot ask many real questions either.

Throught the graces of Allah (SWT), I was pointed in the proper directions to have my questions answered without knowing where I was going or doing and this most of the time took some time.

But, the African-American Mosques were of the most help in learning about myself and a deeper spiritual side of Islam.

The key for me is the Quran. Read it and everyword from the first page before the 1st Surak to the end. Allah will provide you with answers if you're patient. And remember Patience is from Allah (SWT).

Omar S

Assalamu alaykum,
I was not sure if he was talking about Muslims or nation of islam. I am surprised how many times I have to read an article where people pertaining to the natin of Islam are called muslim. Why? I have no idea. "Islam's Africa-centered preaching and positive association with blackness" what? In Islam race is not important...maybe in some Muslims distorted understanding of the thruth, they believe that a race...be so aran, pakistani or any other race...is superior than all other, but in reality race is just another factor that can only come to divide us. Declaring "la ilaha illa Allah, Muhammadan rasulullah" unite us. Black, white, latino...who cares? We are brothers and that is what matters.