By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
In popular Western discourses, the term Islamophilia has a somewhat pejorative connotation. Islamophobes (i.e., people who have an irrational hatred and fear of Islam and Muslims) frequently deploy the term to describe what they call the excessive and uncritical reverence for Islam and Muslims by some non-Muslims out of political correctness, paternalistic condescension, or ignorance of the “intolerant” teachings of Islam.
However, I want to rescue the term from that willfully cynical and manipulative semantic distortion. Philia is a psychoanalytic concept that denotes positive feelings of liking toward something or someone. Islamophilia, therefore, doesn’t have to be the consequence of mealy-mouthed social sensitivity, paternalism, or ignorance; it can be, and often is, the genuine admiration of or empathy with Islam and Muslims by people who profess faiths other than Islam. So Islamophiles can express repulsion at the violent acts of a few Muslims and still genuinely like the majority of Muslims who are peaceful and mind their own businesses.
I have always been intrigued by the Islamophilia I’ve encountered in black America. In this season when the blanket demonization of Muslims is increasingly being normalized and mainstreamed in popular discursive engagements in the West, it is appropriate to call attention to a community in the West that bucks this trend. Although black Americans are some of the most devout Christians you can find anywhere in the world, they are also arguably the most tolerant people toward Muslims and Islam.
I do not by this mean that there are no Islamophobes in black America. There are. After all, Herman Cain, whom I once described as a “black Islamophobic nutjob who wants Obama’s job” is a black American. Allen West, a black Republican Congressman from the southern U.S. state of Florida, is another remarkably vicious Islamophobe.
There are also many white Christian Americans who are extraordinarily tolerant of and empathetic to Muslim Americans. For instance, Muslims and other minorities here generally find tremendous warmth and acceptance among self-described white liberal Americans. But there are also episodic displays of support for Muslims from traditionally hostile quarters, especially in moments of crisis. For example, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, a Muslim woman dressed in a hijab was physically assaulted by a sneaky mob in a small town in the state of Ohio. When people in the town heard of the incident, they were outraged.
In response, they all decided to dress in hijab for more than a whole week both to identify with the assaulted Muslim woman and to protect other Muslim women who might stand out because of their mode of dressing. Small-town white Americans became temporary Muslims just to protect their Muslim neighbors. I was touched when I read the story, especially because small-town America is notorious, rightly or wrongly, for being xenophobic, insular, and intolerant.
However, these exceptions don’t vitiate the often ignored but nonetheless noteworthy fact of the incredibly warm acceptance of Muslims in black American communities. This is particularly worthy of attention because black America is profoundly Christian—in more ways than any demographic group in America. The church is the nerve center of their community. That is why the spokespersons for black Americans have historically been pastors, and those who are not pastors tend to couch their messages in explicitly Christian imagery and symbolism in order to connect with the community.
Given the often acrimonious tenor of Christian-Muslim relations in most parts of the world, you would expect hostility toward Muslims in such a staunchly Christian community. But from my experience—and the experiences of many Muslims here—black American Christians are some of the most Islamophilic people you can ever find anywhere.
What accounts for that? Why should deeply believing adherents of an evangelizing faith be tolerant and even protective of the faithful of a “competing” faith?
I discussed this question this week with a black American friend of mine who actually embodies this trait in bountiful degrees. He is a very religious man who, in fact, studied Christian theology at a seminary. But he is one of the most thoughtful critics of Islamophobia that I have ever met.
Well, the first obvious reason black America identifies with American Muslims is what one might call the solidarity of the oppressed. American blacks have been victims of institutional exclusion and oppression for several centuries. So they know what it feels to be unfairly stereotyped and demonized on account of the misdeeds of a few people who happen to share similar primordial traits with you.
In a way, the empathy black Americans show toward American Muslims is an externalization of their own historical and contemporary experiences of “othering” in the hands of the dominant power structure. Interestingly, the strategies and vocabularies for pushing back at Islamophobia are derived almost entirely from the Civil Rights movement. To give just one example: the phrase “racial profiling,” which Muslim civil rights activists now routinely use, was coined by black American civil rights activists.
Second, many black Americans I have met are acutely aware that some of their ancestors who were sold into slavery in the 16th century, especially from Senegal and the Gambia, were Muslims. There are the well-known cases of Ayub Suleiman Diallo and Umar Ibn Said. Ayuba Suleiman, who was renamed Job Solomon by his slavers, was a prince who was literate in Arabic. He was sent to prison in Maryland because he resisted physical labor. A white American by the name of Thomas Bluett discovered him in prison, saw that he was literate, took him to England, and then set him free. Umar Said, a Wolof man whose first name was corrupted to Uncle Moreau and later Prince Omeroh, was a learned Muslim when he was captured and sold to slavery. While he lived in North Carolina, he wrote at least 14 manuscripts in Arabic, including his autobiography. The manuscripts are now preserved at the library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Many black Americans are proud of this history and probably see contemporary Muslims as the surviving links to an aspect of their past that they cherish. It fills them with pride to know that not all their ancestors were ignorant, illiterate “jungle bunnies” that their slavers said they were when they were captured into slavery. I know of many devoutly Christian black Americans who bear Muslim names in honor of this past.
Third, when Islam re-emerged in black American communities in the 1940s through the Nation of Islam, it complemented rather than competed with black American Christianity. So, historically, most American blacks have never regarded Muslims as foes or competitors. Plus, Islam gave the black American community many cultural icons such as Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Louis Farrakhan, etc.
We all—Muslims and Christians alike— can learn a thing or two from the praiseworthy, if historically contingent, religious tolerance in black America.