Leaders in Philly, nationwide honor Black Muslims during virtual town hall

State Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, was one of several Black Muslim leaders who spoke during an online town hall on 2/28/21 (Philadelphia Tribune screen capture)

By Samaria Bailey

PHILADELPHIA — Muslim leaders from Philadelphia and across the country joined together to honor the legacy of Black American Muslims in a virtual town hall on Feb. 28.

Hosted by the national Muslim organization Emgage, organizers said the event was an effort to celebrate the history of Black American Muslims, with an added focus on current social justice efforts and issues.

“The legacy has been a marathon and not a sprint. Our legacy here is very layered and consists of persistence and caution and authentic resistance against injustice. We have been at the foundation of securing that justice, maintaining that justice, moving forward other efforts towards justice, not just for ourselves but the people who came after us,” said Aliya Z. Khabir, president of the Philadelphia-based AZK Communications.

“Non-indigenous Muslims benefit from our experience here, from our trans-Atlantic slave trade all the way up until the collapse of Reconstruction, through Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, sending of Black bodies off in foreign lands to fight for other people’s freedom … through everything we’ve been through — all the movements … and as we fight tooth and nail as Black people to relieve ourselves of police brutality and the injustice. Other people benefit from our struggle.”

Khabir added that Black and non-Black Muslims should search our “souls,” especially as Ramadan approaches, to check barriers such as racism that prevent unifying.

City Councilman Basheer S. Jones, the first Muslim to serve in this role in Cleveland, Ohio, shared a similar view, with an emphasis on the treatment of the Nation of Islam.

“One-third of those who came over on [slave ships], they were Muslim. They came from a place there was only Islam and African traditional religion, so Islam is as American as apple pie. When you look at the movements, from the rebellions to the greatest leaders, to Hip-Hop, they have all been influenced by Islam. We live in this culture where we are trying to decide what type of Muslim deserves to receive recognition,” said Jones, adding that he is working on a master’s thesis that will explore the Nation of Islam.

“Imagine how [controversial] that can be for people who don’t even consider the Nation of Islam [NOI] to be Muslims. There was always this idea of who can decide who is Muslim or not based upon their perspective. But let me be crystal clear — and I’m saying this to everyone — including African American Muslims, that the Nation of Islam was absolutely necessary and if it was not for the Nation of Islam’s sacrifice in urban communities in this country, you would not see Islam,” Jones said.

“You are safer in urban communities than you will ever be in rural communities,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what type of Muslim, that’s Allah’s business but we do know we stand on the backs and the shoulders of great people that dedicated their lives to establishing this religion.”

Then speaking to broader racism against Black Muslims, Jones said it was nothing new.

“The first racist was Satan and this issue still exists today, unfortunately among Muslims but … look at the impact of Black people in Islam. You read that beautiful book the Quran, you find that the one who is spoken of more than anyone is a Black man by the name of Musa. You can’t even finish your Hajj without following the footsteps of a Black woman. We have to get out of this idea that blackness is something that is opposite of our very nature. You can’t stand up only for Palestine and not stand up for our brothers and sisters in Chicago. You can’t only stand up for Syria and any other country but your Black brothers and sisters right behind your house or in your neighborhood are being destroyed by structural racism. If you don’t pay attention to their struggles, how do you expect them to stand up for yours?”

State Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton, a Democrat, and the first Muslim elected to the Delaware Legislature, stated that “the legacy of Black Muslims on America is vast, it is wide, it spans so many different aspects of life,” but that there is still work to do.

“One of the main ways for us to reach equal access … and to really achieve our full potential is to have economic opportunity. Economic justice is the key,” said. “I’m interested in how we make sure when we tax people — how do we tax people in a way that is progressive and not regressive — so the people that are making the most in our society should be the ones that are paying more and the people that can’t afford to should pay less.

“Economics is connected to quality public education. Quality public education helps people to be able to get to training they need, get a job that will support them and their families. I’m interested in educational equity here in Delaware, that’s an issue across our country. A lot of these issues affect the Black community disproportionately.”

State Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, who is also a Muslim, reflected on the public officials and leaders from Philadelphia who inspired him.

He noted that Sylvester Johnson was the first Muslim police commissioner that he knew of. Johnson served from 2002 to 2008 as Philadelphia’s top cop. He also mentioned Bilal Qayyum, who served as a deputy commerce director and Michael A. Rashid, former AmeriHealth Caritas CEO who now serves as the city’s commerce director.

“They are an entire generation older than me. Growing up and watching their leadership in our civic space at a time when we didn’t really have a lot of Muslims in public office inspired me to show some of the impact Black Muslims could have on the public discussion and public square,” Street said. “And ultimately I think some of the impact I’d like to think I’ve been able to have in the public space is built on the work they did as unelected public figures.”

Samaria Bailey is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.