Does the Muslim American Community Have a Problem with Intra-Muslim Racism?

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

It’s hard for a community that feels under siege from Islamophobia to admit that it has a problem with racism and bigotry within its ranks; it’s hard, but necessary. Our Muslim American community must be united to respond effectively to bigotry directed against us, especially when the vast majority of its members are considered people of color or non-white and are therefore targets of racism. As we all have seen in recent months, in the U.S., racism is the major obstacle to unity. That’s why as founder and executive director of Islamic Networks Group (ING), I felt compelled to develop a webinar series on intra-Muslim racism titled, Educating Ourselves: Expanding the Muslim American Experience Beyond the Immigrant Story.

Ordinarily, ING is engaged in teaching in schools and public institutions about Muslims in the context of both religious and ethnic pluralism, but in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the resulting upsurge in concern about racism, the Muslim team at ING felt we needed to address racism within Muslim American spaces. That team includes Rahimeh Ramezany, who came up with the idea for the series, Ishaq Pathan, Ameena Jandali, and myself. We all contributed to the series, but it could not have been a success without the invaluable contributions of our African American Muslim consultants: Imam Faheem Shuaibe, Imam Abu-Qadir Al-Amin, Imam Muhammad Ali, Dr. Mansa Bilal King, and Dr. Jamilla Karim.  These consultants have also been the primary speakers in the webinars, recordings of which are available on the Islamic Networks Group Facebook page.

As a quick review, the first webinar, held on July 15, addressed some of the history of Islam in America, which begins with enslaved Muslim Africans.

The second webinar, held on July 29, addressed African American Islam today by looking at its institutions, thought leaders, scholars and activists.

The third webinar, an Intercultural Speakers Bureau panel held on August 12, began the conversation on racism by addressing the roots of racism in the US, going back to the period of European colonialism. Europeans constructed the idea of race, placing populations into categories of “White” (people of European descent”) over against “Brown,” and “Black” (indigenous peoples encountered in the course of colonial expansion) and then arranging these groups into a racial hierarchy in which certain qualities and characteristics were attributed to each group. Starting from this point, the webinar showed how different forms of bigotry today that target various populations, including Asians, Latinx, Muslims and Jews, are all interrelated and interdependent, making it imperative to confront all of them together.

This August 12th webinar was a perfect introduction to the most recent one we did on August 26 on racism within the Muslim American community. If we want to address racism in the greater community, it is critical that we address it in our own community.

According to a Pew poll, one-fifth of Muslim Americans are African American, while a survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) puts the figure at 28%. Either way, it’s clear that Muslim African Americans are a major component of the Muslim American community. Anything that produces tension or friction or simply lack of connection between African American and other Muslim Americans is a major threat to the unity and cohesion of the Muslim American community overall.

Studies have already revealed clear evidence of anti-Black racism in Muslim American communities. In ISPU’s Getting Race Right, it is noted that,“Unfortunately, African American Muslims face intra-Muslim racism from other immigrant Muslim communities, namely South Asians and Arabs. Existing research on intra-Muslim racism is limited. MuslimARC released their preliminary study of race relations in June 2015. Based on this research and anecdotally, many African American Muslims—including youth—constantly face ethnic and racial discrimination from within the American Muslim community.” A 2017 ISPU study found that 33% of African-American Muslims reported experiencing racist discrimination from other American Muslims.

Some Muslim leaders are beginning to face this problem, while acknowledging the community’s reluctance to deal with it. In 2017, a young Muslim American author wrote: “The Muslim community is a global community of diversity, variety and color. We are taught to accept every Muslim (and non-Muslim) with complete disregard to their color, nationality or ethnicity. Yet somehow black Muslims experience racism from our brothers and sisters in Islam. Every attempt to tackle these issues has been swept under the rug with the phrase ‘One Ummah brother, we accept no racism in Islam.’ How can you explain the feeling of superiority towards black and brown people? Why are we still finding excuses on anti-blackness in the Muslim community? When we are not willing to accept these problems proactively, the problem festers.”

Just this past June, Imam Luqman Ahmad wrote“As America battles its own racism problem…Muslim America has its own festering racial problem between Black American Muslims… and the larger Muslim American immigrant community. The question of racism in Muslim America has never been fully unpacked as a national American Muslim conversation. Sure, it has been hinted at, pointed to, glossed over, generalized, and even headlined in articles here and there. Still, the issue has never been domestically unwrapped and laid bare so it could be subject to critical and compartmental examination.

Following up on Imam Luqman’s final comment, I suggest that we begin the honest conversation he calls for by starting with the local Muslim American communities that we belong to. To that end, I suggest a few lead questions for use in an anonymous survey that would uncover the ways that internal racism operates in our communities.

The questions below are written for non-Black Muslims to respond to. They can be easily edited for African American Muslim communities to respond to, but I want to point out that posing these questions to non-African American communities is better than asking African American Muslims to tell us about the racism they’ve experienced. It’s not the responsibility of African Americans to help the rest of us deal with our own racism, nor do they have any obligation to do so. Moreover, they should not be placed in a position that forces them to relive humiliation, trauma, or other negative experiences. It’s up to Arab and Asian Muslims to take the initiative to address intra-Muslim racism.

The first set of questions deals with institutional racism and the second with interpersonal racism. All the questions were addressed by local San Francisco Bay Area imams and a local activist on the August 26 webinar. Their answers, of course, don’t necessarily represent the state of relations between African American and Arab and South Asian Muslims in the rest of the country.

Institutional racism:   

  1. How often has your mosque or Muslim organization engaged with African American Muslims and their organizations?
  2. When engagements did take place, were they mutually beneficial? Did you solicit feedback from the African American community and was their feedback incorporated into your plans?
  3. How often has your mosque or organization offered or provided fundraising help to African American mosques or organizations?
  4. Has your community joined with African American Muslims in dealing with problems related to Arab/Muslim-owned liquor stores in inner cities?
  5. How many mosques and organizations have African American Muslims on their boards or staff or among their volunteers?
  6. How are African American Muslim children treated in day or weekend Muslim schools?

Individual/personal level racism:

  1. Have you or others in your community made or expressed an assumption that African American Muslims are recent converts? Or that their understanding or practice of Islam is not correct?
  2. Is there a difference in how your community treats African American converts as opposed to white or Latinx converts?
  3. Do you have African American Muslim friends? Have you ever invited African American Muslims to your home for social events with your family?
  4. Have you ever attended jummah or other events at African American mosques, and, if so, how often? Do you ever see African American Muslims attending your mosque, and do they feel welcome?
  5. Have you volunteered or attended fundraising events for African American mosques or Muslim organizations?
  6. Do you know of any intermarriages between African American and non-Black Muslim families?
  7. Do your children have African American Muslim friends?

I realize that these question may reveal uncomfortable truths. They most certainly did to us at ING. In fact, that is their intent. But their point is not to elicit feelings of guilt but to provoke action to counter the racism which is pervasive in our country, including in our Muslim communities. Not facing up to it means becoming complicit in it. All our communities have much to gain from coming to terms with our own racism and addressing it. African Americans, and in particular African American Muslims, have much to teach us. They have a long history of dealing with racism and bigotry, the same sort of bigotry that Muslims face regardless of their ethnicity or national origin. Arabs and South Asians can benefit immensely from the African American Muslim experience.

I want to close with a final comment and a reminder. First, I have found that African American Islam is deeply spiritual precisely because it is rooted in the suffering of slavery, Jim Crow, and racism and the struggle against these oppressions, so that the deeper meaning of Islam may come more easily to our African American sisters and brothers than to Muslims who are more privileged. This comes across for me in the khutbahs I hear in African American mosques. So our struggle to overcome our own endemic racism and to deepen our relationship with African American Muslims is not just for our political or social benefit; it is a task that can lead us to a deeper appreciation for and practice of our faith.

Second, as a reminder, don’t miss our final webinar in the series on Wednesday, September 9, between 5 and 6 pm PST when we will wrap up the series to discuss Calls to Action – Countering Internalized Racism. The webinar is free, but you must register for the webinar here. Joining us will be all our African American consultants who have participated in the series, with the addition of Imam Zaid Shakir.   

Maha Elgenaidi is the founder and Executive Director of Islamic Networks Group (, a peace-building organization providing face-to-face education and engagement opportunities that foster understanding of Muslims and other misunderstood groups to promote harmony among all people. Maha received an M.A. in religious studies from Stanford University and B.A in political science and economics from the American University in Cairo. She has taught classes on Islam in the modern world at Santa Clara University, Stanford University, and the University of California at Santa Cruz, and has been recognized with numerous awards, including the “Civil Rights Leadership Award” from the California Association of Human Relations Organizations, the “Citizen of the Year Award” from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, and the “Dorothy Irene Height Community Award” from the Silicon Valley Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A former Santa Clara County Human Relations Commissioner for 6 years, Maha is currently an advisor to the California Commission on Police Officers Standards and Training on Hate Crimes and Cultural Diversity.