Mariyamou Drammeh arrived at New York University in the fall of 2014 poised for action.
The Black Lives Matter movement was pulsing in response to police violence against Black people, and the 3,000-member-strong Islamic Center on campus was engaging in exciting interfaith work. Yet as a Black Muslim, the 20-year-old New Yorker felt self-conscious about how she would fit into both communities.
Less than two years later, Drammeh was at a vigil at the school’s student center honoring three young, Black men — two of whom were Muslim — who had been shot dead in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Also in attendance was Noor Rostoum, president of the Muslim Students Association (MSA). He was scheduled to speak at the event.
As he prepared his remarks in early March, he was approached by members of his community asking why the MSA had chosen to mourn these lives.
For many young Muslims, college is the first time they practice their faith in a multi-ethnic and multi-racial community. Religious communities in America are often divided along ethnic or racial lines—a Pakistani mosque on this side of town, a Black mosque on that side. A 2001 study conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that only 5 percent of American mosques are truly diverse.
But college is supposed to be different. It should be where the separation comes undone. But the undertones of doubts that swirled around the vigil crystallized for Rostoum something Drammeh had felt for years: American Muslim communities have a deep-seated race problem.
Tracing Black Muslims in the U.S.
For as long as there have been Black people in the U.S. there have been Black Muslims. Social scientists estimate up to 30 percent of all slaves to America — as many as 1.2 million people — were Muslim. They were kidnapped mostly from modern-day West African countries like Senegal, where over 90 percent of the population is Muslim.
Black Muslims, immigrants and native-born, remain a large portion of the Muslim community in America. According to a 2015 Pew Research study, 28 percent of American Muslims identify as Black, making them the second-largest grouping of Muslims in the U.S.. This is fewer than white Muslims, a category that includes most Arabs, and greater than Asian Muslims. Among native-born Muslims, over 40 percent describe themselves as Black.
Yet experts say despite the demographics, much of the prevailing public American Muslim mindset focuses on an Islam from thousands of miles east.
Alaina Morgan, a lawyer and Ph.D candidate at NYU studying the history of Black Muslims in the African diaspora, said there’s a “hierarchy of authority and authenticity” within Islam.
“Even among African-Americans who converted to Islam, they have historically looked at the Middle East and North Africa as a source of authority,” she said. “South Asian and Arab imams are looked at as more authentic.”
In the U.S., that global cultural hierarchy is mapped over a hierarchy of race.
As Muna Mire said in the The New Inquiry, “Part of the covenant of the American Dream is an agreement non-Black immigrants enter into when they land on U.S. shores. It’s an implicit contract with explicit aims: when you come to America, you’d better not ally yourself in any way with Black people or Blackness if you expect to get ahead…For Arabs and South Asians who make up a significant portion of the U.S. Muslim community, this manifests in a model-minority ethos that uses Black Americans as an example of what not to do and who not to affiliate with.”
The result for Black Muslims in American Muslim communities, Mire wrote, is a contradiction: “invisible despite being the foundation for the faith in the country.”
Like many college Muslim communities, NYU’s is predominantly South Asian. Growing up, I practiced in an American Muslim community that was happily diverse, a trait I did not yet know was rare. Upon arrival to NYU three years ago, I attended a welcome activity as part of my introduction to the school’s Islamic Center. It was an ice cream social, but by the time my Egyptian friend and I arrived, what was left of the dessert had melted. We were instructed to sit in a large circle. The event organizer, like nearly everyone else in the room, was a South Asian student. We were the only Arabs in the circle of about 40 people. If there were Black Muslims, I didn’t see them.
Once situated, the organizer asked us to introduce ourselves and mention where we were from. Before she finished, a loud voice interjected, “We all already know!” The circle, except my friend and me, cracked open with laughter.
The first MSA was launched in 1963 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Its foundation coincided with the peak of the Civil Rights movement. In the early 1970s the MSA conducted a survey to learn how it could better serve its membership.
“A significant portion of the surveys that are still in existence indicated that members who are Arab and South Asian wanted to include and reach out to the African-American Muslim community,” Morgan said. “They felt like there weren’t enough efforts to include them.”
Drammeh, a public policy and sociology major, said she felt that she would need to learn to accept being the only Black person in a room, just as she had learned to do in her classes.
The problem at the Islamic Center was social, she said. “For me, first semester, I felt excluded, because I didn’t really feel anyone was like, ‘Hey Mariyamou, come sit with us.’ I didn’t really feel invited.”
And the feeling of exclusion isn’t just a product of freshman nerves. Husam Ahmed, an upperclassman from North Africa, is a serious man with a big smile. He is in the Islamic Center’s prayer room every day of the workweek. He had an emergency appendectomy last winter, during the crush of final exams; he was out for four weeks. Friends outside the Islamic Center noticed his absence, but no one within it reached out to him.
“If I’m back home in a regular mosque,” Ahmed said, “if you miss three days in a row people will go to your house, will call you, will reach out to you. But two weeks and nobody bothered?”
Searching for solidarity on college campuses
The three young Black men were murdered “execution-style” in Fort Wayne, Indiana, 120 miles north of Indianapolis, on Feb. 26 — a week before NYU’s vigil. Muhannad Tairab, 17, Adam Mekki, 20, and Mohamedtaha Omar, 23, were members of a diaspora community from Africa’s eastern Sahel region. Omar and Tairab were Muslims and Mekki was Christian, according to the Associated Press.
On the evening of March 2, more than 100 students gathered on the marble front steps of NYU’s student center to mourn their loss, crammed against the wall to make room for passersby on their way to class.
The sight of grieving students, searching for consolation in the harried aftermath of police violence or terrorism, had become familiar at this campus and ones like it across the country.
Over a year earlier the Muslim world unified in its outrage after three young Arab-Americans were gunned down in North Carolina. The vigil held in their honor at NYU came the day after the attack, and attracted over twice as many community members on the same steps.
Student response to those deaths was definitive: it was a hate crime, no doubt about it. In comparison, after the death of #OurThreeBrothers, as Muhannad, Mekki, and Omar became known online, students raised questions about why the community was mourning their deaths in the first place.
In his speech, Rostoum, visibly angry, repeated some of those questions: “Was it a hate crime? Was it gang-related violence? Was it Islamophobia? Was it racism?”
The faces that lined the steps — a mix of Black, brown, and white, Muslim and non-Muslim — looked back at him.
Some students were surprised by the MSA president’s rapid-fire directness, but Drammeh said she felt seen. Finally, an ally had decided to speak up, she thought.
In conversations with a dozen Black Muslims at universities across the country, I heard story after story of exclusion. Being a Black Muslim within American Muslim communities means learning to navigate the precarious intersection of two marginalized groups, they told me, simultaneously fighting for respect from their Muslim peers and safety within a national system of violence. At NYU and other colleges, they’re searching for allies within their own Muslim communities.
NYU student Fadumo Osman, a California-raised daughter of Somali immigrants, said she noticed the reticence of the Muslim community to engage in issues affecting Black people in the winter of 2014. During those months, the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner were acquitted in quick succession. New York erupted.
Fadumo immediately took to the streets. But she said her Muslim friends from the Islamic Center were reluctant to participate, saying they felt justice would be served.
Reassurance often came in the form of inshallah, Fadumo said, using the Arabic term for “if God is willing,” a phrase regularly deployed by Muslims to outsource daily responsibilities to God. “Inshallah it will get better, inshallah it will be okay,” Fadumo said she was told. But then… nothing. No action.
In the Black Lives Matter crowds rallying for the causes that matter to her, she said she felt herself wondering: “Where are the Muslims?”
Muslims today, Black or otherwise, are confronted with a stream of hate and violence. The Islamophobia entrenched in some circles since 9/11 has resurfaced with the rise of anti-immigrant campaigns across the globe, most of which, spurred by the refugee crisis and taken to their extremes by far-right politicians, have targeted Muslims. This year alone, 233 anti-Muslim acts have been committed, according to The Huffington Post.
And hate isn’t only perpetrated by individuals. In 2012 it was discovered that the NYPD had for years been secretly tracking the activity of Muslim student communities at colleges across the Northeast, including at NYU. The department even planted undercover officers at universities within city limits.
At NYU, where fear was made real by systemic suspicion, many Muslims are hesitant to put their already-uncertain standing in jeopardy. For international students, there’s an additional concern of losing visa security in the case of an arrest. Fadumo says she understands these considerations. But for Black Muslims, whose Muslim struggle is compounded by the reality of being Black in America, the urgency to act leaves little room for hesitation.
‘You’ll have to choose: Black or Muslim’
When Ikhlas Saleem, 27, prepared to leave her hometown of Atlanta, which in an essay for BuzzFeed she called a “black Muslim Mecca,” a friend’s older sister told her, “When you get to college, you’ll have to choose: black or Muslim.”
In her first few weeks at Wellesley College she said she felt the tug between the MSA and the Black Students Association. In the end, she committed to neither.
“I gave up a part of myself to hang with each group that made up my identity,” she wrote. “I would hide from my Muslim friends on my way to parties. I pretended to be an international Ghanaian student for at least three years of college. I figured it was easier to just drop some parts of myself in exchange for the simplicity of a singular identity, depending on the circle.”
Saleem told me that she felt her only choices were communities that treated race and religion separately. Attempts to insert race into religious conversations, or vice versa, were met with resistance.
Drammeh said when she brings up race in Muslim company, and she frequently does, she is often confronted with people who believe conversations about race have no place in Islam. Sometimes people argue with her by citing Hadith, the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
“People love bringing up the Hadith where the prophet says, ‘You are not better than anyone else in this world in terms of race or culture except by your deeds.’ It’s the famous line that everyone pulls out to say like, hey, don’t exclude people who are different from you,” she said.
And when students are willing to bring race into the conversation, they can be reluctant to consider the ways that their attitude blocks attempts at engagement, according to Drammeh.
Last November, the MSA at the University of California, Berkeley, hosted an event called “Is the Ummah Racist?” (Is the global Muslim community racist?) The heavily-attended conversation was moderated by three Black Muslim students.
Fatima Ibrahim, a rising junior at Berkeley whose family is from Cameroon, was in attendance. She said several students in the crowd of mostly Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslims grew defensive as the panelists discussed the ways Black Muslims are ignored.
Ibrahim said she heard them say, “Well I’m not racist but my parents are,” “Don’t attack my character, don’t attack me,” or “That’s just the way I was brought up.”
This past April, Drammeh was awarded the Community Outreach Award at the Islamic Center’s end-of-year ceremony for her work to expand conversations about race within the Muslim community. The crowd of several hundred Muslims, including three of her siblings, whooped and hollered when her name was called.
In a Facebook post the following night, Drammeh wrote, “Honestly, this time last year, I felt so out of place in this community but Alhamdulillah” — praise be to God — “so much has changed since then and I sincerely owe it to the love and support of the members of this community.”
A week earlier, she was elected the Community Service Chair for the 2016-2017 academic year. In her new role, she plans to launch a mentorship program at a local school with majority Black students.
“Bringing people from the [Islamic Center] into schools and for them to have an idea of what it means to be Black, like myself — that all opens your awareness,” she said. “It takes you out of your comfort zone and helps you appreciate the struggles of people who are within your community who might not be like you.”
But Mariyamou knows her successes are not a guarantee that future Black Muslims at NYU will encounter a similarly welcoming community. The challenge, she said, is building cultures of inclusivity that are sustainable, even in the absence of Black leadership.
This weekend, NYU’s MSA hosted a conference called “We Are Power” to teach Muslim students how to organize around causes that matter to them, and causes they may not think enough about. One of the scheduled events is called “Intersections of Race, Gender, Class & Faith.” Another is “Racial Profiling of Muslim Communities.”
University efforts join a national movement to train young people in the practice of inclusive leadership. The Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, the two-year-old group behind the hashtag #BlackInMSA, offers racial justice training to Islamic schools, MSAs and independent organizations.
With the yearly turnover of students, maintaining an infrastructure of inclusivity can be especially difficult at the university level, Margari Hill, cofounder of MuslimARC, said. The work of sustainability, then, falls to chaplains and MSA alumni, she said, because inclusivity is too important to be left susceptible to flux.
The bigger struggle may be helping young graduates transition their toolkit of “cultural proficiency” to their mosques back home, where they might encounter resistance to their activism-streaked brand of Islam.
The eager graduates can hit a wall, often in the form of a “boys club” of elders, Hill said. That’s no reason to be discouraged, though. “If you hit a wall, that means a bunch of other people hit a wall too.”
If the elders don’t respect you at first, fine, she said. Unite with the other frustrated Muslims to build a welcoming community. “In the end, after they see what you produce, they will respect you. Don’t wait for anybody to create that space for you.”