African-American Muslims have a successful counter-radicalization formula

African-American Muslims have a successful counter-radicalization formula
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Last month, Mujahid Ramzziddin, a 14-year Prince George’s County, Maryland, police officer and former Marine, while off duty was shot and killed by the estranged husband of a neighbor who sought the officer’s help because of repeated domestic disputes at her home. Hundreds attended Ramzziddin’s funeral, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer and police officers from across the country. The mourners were black, white, Muslim, non-Muslim and from all walks of life. Police Chief Hank Stawinski called Ramzziddin’s death a “selfless act in a time of selfish violence” and noted that, “He led a consequential life and he suffered a consequential death, but he saved her life by giving his own.”

The martyrdom of Ramzziddin wasn’t in battle with the so-called Islamic State, al Qaeda, or any other transnational terrorist organization that has occupied a public discourse widely plagued with the notion that Islam is synonymous with extremism.

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In fact, Ramzziddin’s martyrdom was that of protecting and serving all of humanity, an Islamic mantra that has been part of the oldest indigenous Muslim community in America — African-American Muslims, a community whose members have served in the U.S. military in every American war and have been part of America’s fabric since the country’s inception.

 

Despite the slow erasure of African-American Muslim identity from the public discourse, and the popular misconception that Islam in America is a religion of “foreigners,” the first wave of Muslims to arrive in America actually were on slave ships leaving the West Coast of Africa. Most scholars estimate that between 15 to 40 percent of the enslaved African populations who arrived on U.S. shores came from Muslim lands in West Africa, including present-day countries such as Mali, Senegal and Nigeria.

Among them were personalities such as Yarrow Mamout, Omar ibn Said and Ibrahima Abdul Rahman, to name a few. These individuals brought with them a nonviolent, pacifist and deeply spiritual form of Islam.

America is unique among Western democracies in that it is the only country in which a sizable percentage of its Muslims are native-born converts of African descent. This group has flourished as part of the American experiment. First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and religion provided the foundation for the African-American Muslim community’s establishment and resilience over time.

Perhaps there is no better example of this resilience than the quiet operation of one of the most successful de-radicalization programs in American history, which remains largely unknown. Following the 1975 death of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, his son W. Deen Mohammed led hundreds of thousands in a step-by-step program of reform that transformed the Nation of Islam. The community abandoned its more extreme racial and anti-government views, replacing them with narratives that were more compatible with normative Islam and views that stressed the value of working within the constitutional system for reform and staying true to both the American and the Muslim identity.

The community has demonstrated its continued resilience in the face of extremist efforts to recruit African-Americans, building upon its original reform framework with further programming. Despite being one of the largest communities of African-American Muslims, with some 300 mosques and associated centers including schools throughout the United States and Caribbean, not a single member of the community of Imam W.D. Mohammed is known to have engaged in jihadist terrorism-related crimes.

Islamist terrorists have appealed to the history of African-Americans to recruit and radicalize individuals, with some limited success. However, a combination of factors, including the unique history of the African-American experience and the late W.D. Mohammed’s efforts, have resulted in an extremist radicalization challenge that takes a different form among African-Americans than it does among others wrestling with jihadist efforts to radicalize and recruit predominantly male, Muslim youths.

African-American Muslims have a decades-long tradition of inclusiveness, moderation and coexistence with those who are non-Muslim, sharing religious holidays and other family celebrations. As Sherman Jackson, a professor of religion at the University of Southern California, said in his eulogy for Muhammad Ali last year: “Ali put the question as to whether you could be a Muslim and an American to rest. Let us hope that the question is interred with his remains.”

We should ensure that vulnerable youths and other susceptible individuals targeted by ISIS, al Qaeda, al-Shabab and other extremist groups are presented with these examples and achievements of the African-American Muslim community — and that these experiences highlight alternative, peaceful ways to channel their frustrations and political grievances.

Notable African-American Muslims such as comedian Dave Chappelle, hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco, film producer Mara Brock Akil, and sports stars Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, are all examples of individuals whose vocal criticism of past injustices within American society has been effectively channeled within public and legal parameters.

By observing and learning from this community’s success, including the life and sacrifice of Officer Ramzziddin, Western societies could unlock a wealth of information and problem-solving experience that has the potential to create effective, operational strategies for long-term successes in counter-terror.

Muhammad Fraser-Rahim is executive director of Quilliam International (North America), a counter-extremism think tank. He is the co-author, with Dr. Adrian Taylor, of an upcoming report, “Transforming the Hate: A policy report on the threat of radicalization among African American Muslims.”