In conceptualising the Muslim Atlantic, it is perhaps best to begin by considering the origins of the Atlantic world itself as a historical and political-economic unit. Muslims and people of African descent – two overlapping groups of non-white people who have been racialised in various ways – have been at the heart of that construction from its very beginning.
When we look at the beginning of the Atlantic world economy in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, we observe an increasing antipathy toward Muslims and people of African descent among European religious, cultural, and economic actors. I think it’s important to put the relationship between that history and the origins of our modern notions of race and racialisation in historical context. Before that time in history, in ancient Rome or ancient Greece, if you would have started talking about people as being black and brown and white the way we do today, people would not have even the slightest idea of what you were talking about. So, in many ways, these are modern notions of race that became global in the subsequent centuries, and the Atlantic world economy has largely facilitated that transition.
The beginning of this prevailing racial regime involved the conflation and vilification of Muslims, Arabs, Saracens, Africans, Moors, and Blackamoors from Senegambia. All of that became the raw material out of which our modern racial hierarchies emerged, initially prompting an association of sub-Saharan Africa with Islam and, later, the conception of its inhabitants as people without history. As Portuguese Christians travelled to West and Central Africa during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in search of resources to exploit and routes to the land of the legendary Christian patriarch, Prester John, discourses emerged that rendered people of African descent appropriate for enslavement. This enabled representatives of various European states including, among others, the Portuguese, the British, the French, and the architects of what became the Americas to justify their participation in this inhuman institution.
In theorising the Muslim Atlantic, this history unites the various racial groups that make up the bulk of the Muslim communities in the UK, the Americas, the Caribbean, and West Africa. This reality becomes clear when we consider that the same structures are at work in the Atlantic Ocean world and the Indian Ocean world during the era of European colonisation and subsequent neo-colonial exploitation. That is to say, the same processes that led to the extraction of innumerable resources, both natural and human via the transatlantic slave trade, from Africa in the Atlantic Ocean world, similarly siphoned untold resources from colonised areas in the region surrounding the Indian Ocean. Similarly, people from that region were forced by Europeans to relocate to Africa and the Americas through various forms of coerced labour – as indentured servants and the like. So that is where our presence in these lands begins.
In the case of the Americas – specifically the US and the Caribbean – the twentieth century witnessed the emergence, or more accurately the re-emergence, of various efforts by people of African descent to connect with the histories of Islam in the Atlantic world. Of course, these connections were largely severed through the violent, abusive, tumultuous institution of transatlantic slavery. Currently, historians are estimating that maybe a third of the enslaved African captives brought to the Americas were Muslim. It could have been much more, but we are still learning about the identities of these enslaved Africans whose histories were intentionally and violently erased. But we do know that a considerable amount of them had Muslim ancestors. To some extent, by the end of the nineteenth century, the memory of the relationship between Islam and people of African descent in the Atlantic world context had been largely forgotten. During the early twentieth century, that memory was revived through the emergence of various organisations that promoted Islam’s Atlantic world legacy and popularised it in Black communities in the US – prompting more and more people of African descent in the West to embrace Islam.
In historicising the securitisation of Muslims, we might well begin by recounting that enslaved African Muslims were often prevented from practicing or openly identifying with their religion under the threat of torture or death. In the modern context, we might start by discussing the career of Marcus Garvey. The Garvey movement served as an important institution for reconnecting Black people in the West with the historical legacy of Atlantic world Islam. In fact, it is among members of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) that we find some of the first recorded twentieth century examples of Black American and Afro-Caribbean people embracing Islam. The Garvey movement also holds the important distinction of being the organisation on which J. Edgar Hoover – who went on to become the director of the FBI – cut his teeth. Hoover had the dubious distinction of being the architect of our modern regimes of illegal surveillance and targeting of both Muslim and Black communities in the US.
Hoover orchestrated an elaborate legal strategy to neutralise Marcus Garvey on charges of mail fraud. But in the wake of the Garvey movement, another important institution emerged in the US called the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA). Although smaller than the UNIA, the MSTA was even more successful in popularising the history of Islam in the Atlantic world. The MSTA was also highly surveilled, infiltrated, and targeted for a couple of reasons that I think are particularly important for our conversation here. One reason was its emphasis on building political and economic autonomy for Black people in the US. Another was the fact that, much like the Garvey movement, it succeeded in fostering an internationalist consciousness among working-class Black people. These become essential reasons why the MSTA was targeted by law enforcement in general and the FBI in particular. Members of the organisation were proponents of Third World internationalism. They critiqued US imperialism and promoted Black American solidarity with Japan during the 1930s.
By the 1930s, the MSTA had been weakened by factional disputes and sectarian violence. But from its ashes rose two important, concurrent streams that constitute the origins of the most popular iterations of Islam in the US during the twentieth century – the Black American orthodox Muslim tradition and the Nation of Islam. One of the earliest national Black American orthodox Muslim organisations was the Adden Allahe Universal Arabic Association (AAUAA). It was founded by Muhammad Ezaldeen, who previously served as a leader of the MSTA in Detroit. In 1929, he left the MSTA, travelled to Turkey and lobbied the Turkish government to provide land for Black American Muslims who wished to relocate to the Muslim world. As this occurred during the reign of Kamal Ataturk and his secularisation project, Ezaldeen’s plan was less than well-received. Subsequently, Ezaldeen moved to Cairo, Egypt, where he spent about five years formally studying Islam and the Arabic language. When he returned to the US, he created an umbrella organisation connecting orthodox Muslims throughout the country. Ezaldeen was deeply influenced by the discourses of Islamic and Arab nationalism that he encountered in Cairo in the 1930s, but he selectively appropriated aspects of these discourses specifically for a Black American context. He was highly surveilled by law enforcement, in part because of his organisation’s espousal of Afro-Asian solidarity and Black American support of Japan – a growing symbol of non-European political power and military might. In the context of the Second World War, some Black radical intellectuals and activists around the country, including Black Muslims like Ezaldeen, encouraged Black radicals to see Japan not as their enemy, but as a natural ally.
The other stream of Islam in the early twentieth century US, one with which more people will be familiar, is that of the Nation of Islam. The Nation began in 1930 and, during the 1950s, grew to become the most visible Muslim community in the country. The Nation’s espousal of Black Nationalism and critiques of white supremacy and US imperialism similarly made it a target of US law enforcement. The Nation was subjected to various schemes of surveillance and infiltration, as well as incidents of profiling and police violence. All of this gives us a historical perspective on the emergence of the notion that Muslims constitute a sort of fifth column in America – that because of their religion, it is somehow reasonable to suspect them of sympathising with hostile foreign nations and violent, anti-American conspiracies.
One of the important distinctions and implicit conversations between adherents of these two branches of Islam in the US revolves around the question of internationalism. On some level, both Black American orthodox Muslims and members of the Nation of Islam simultaneously devoted themselves to the task of building political economic power to transform majority Black and Brown communities in the US and demonstrated an internationalist political orientation. The two differed, however, on emphasis. Black orthodox Muslims were often characterised by their internationalism perhaps more than any other quality. They sought to build relationships and solidarities with Muslims and Muslim institutions around the world. For the Nation, the emphasis was on building Black political economic independence – something for which the Nation became known in cities around the country.
In 1954, Malcolm X began serving as the minister of the Nation’s Mosque Number Seven, and shortly thereafter, he became the national representative of the organisation’s leader, the Honourable Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm contributed to the Nation’s surge in popularity throughout the US during the 1950s and 60s. During this period, the Nation experienced an unprecedented degree of visibility and success in promoting Islam and organising communities throughout the US, particularly in the urban north. It is also worth noting that the Nation was crawling with informants and was probably the most surveilled organisation of the period. In fact, Elijah Muhammad has been referred to as the most heavily surveilled figure during the civil rights era.
But then something interesting happened in 1964, when Malcolm X was forced out of the Nation of Islam. At that point, Malcolm also started to focus on the imperative for Black people in the West to embrace a more internationalist political orientation, while at the same time maintaining a concurrent emphasis on fostering Black political economic power locally in US cities. As an orthodox Muslim, Malcolm advocated armed self-defence in the tradition of Black organisers and freedom fighters like Robert F. Williams. This dual emphasis on internationalism and armed self-defence had long been a feature of certain strains of Black radicalism in the US. In the decade following Malcolm X’s martyrdom, it became a hallmark of Black orthodox Muslim community organising throughout the Americas.
Black Muslim communities’ advocacy of armed self-defence rendered them even more susceptible to propagandistic rhetoric that fuelled their increased securitisation in the US. One pertinent example of how Black American Muslims actualised this stance can be found in the Dar-ul-Islam movement. Founded in 1962 and deeply impacted by both Malcolm’s embrace of orthodox Islam and the radical turn of Black political organising during the late 1960s, the Dar-ul-Islam movement became the largest network of Black orthodox Muslim communities in the US by the early 1970s, with affiliated mosques in the Caribbean and Canada as well. For members of the Dar-ul-Islam movement in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, Washington D.C., and elsewhere, community policing was an important component of a more comprehensive strategy to build robust Black Muslim political economies. Like the Nation of Islam before it, the Dar-ul-Islam movement focused on building strong, community-oriented institutions including businesses, schools, and a nationally distributed newspaper. Also like the Nation of Islam, mosques affiliated with the Dar-ul-Islam movement crafted community policing strategies to create safe zones around their houses of worship and their community institutions. The Nation of Islam did this by requiring its male members to serve as part of the Fruit of Islam, a well-organised and well-trained force that worked to ensure the safety of the mosque and surrounding residents. The Dar-ul-Islam’s answer to the Fruit of Islam was called Ra’d (Thunder), which similarly soldiered to make both its mosques and nearby areas safe. However, whereas the Nation did not officially allow its members to carry weapons, it was not at all uncommon for members of Ra’d to stay armed.
One of the most prominent figures attracted to the Dar ul-Islam movement was H. Rap Brown, a Black Power organiser who served as the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) for a time and also the Minister of Justice for the Black Panther Party. After being incarcerated in connection with his activism, Brown became Muslim while in prison and adopted the name Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. After his release, he emerged as the imam of a national, Islamic community that we might refer to as a successor to the Dar ul-Islam movement. Imam Jamil established a mosque in Atlanta, GA, where he implemented some of the same strategies that characterised both his own radical activism and the work of the Dar-ul-Islam movement in places like New York and Detroit. In Atlanta’s West End, an impoverished area where the police had failed to provide adequate safety to community members, Imam Jamil organised local Black orthodox Muslims to rid the neighbourhood of drugs and crime – thus rehabilitating the area through community policing.
A commitment to armed self-defence – whether in the face of white vigilante violence, police brutality, or the lack of safety caused by systemic poverty and the state’s criminal neglect of urban Black communities – also characterised many of the Black political organisations that emerged in this period. These include groups like the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, Maulana Karenga’s US Organisation, and the Black Liberation Army (BLA). The BLA is particularly interesting for the purposes of our discussion. The BLA was a radical wing of the East Coast Black Panther Party. It was greatly impacted by the rising popularity of Islam in cities like New York and Philadelphia, and many of its members were Muslims. Some of these Black Muslims associated with the BLA liberated the political prisoner and Black freedom fighter Assata Shakur, who lives free to this day with political asylum in Cuba.
Against this backdrop, the vilification and securitisation of Black and Muslim communities rose to new heights as law enforcement officials utilised illegal methods of surveillance and infiltration, like those associated with the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program to destroy organisations and even assassinate young activists. From this history, we can observe continuity as the same legal apparatus and the same kinds of strategies used to neutralise Marcus Garvey in the early twentieth century were further developed and deployed against the Nation of Islam and, eventually, virtually every organisation associated with Black Power. This also served as a precedent for the persisting surveillance of Black Muslim communities up to the present.
Beginning in the neoliberal era of the 1980s, the possibilities for grassroots organising became straitjacketed. In that moment, Black, Brown, and Muslim communities were subject to greater surveillance and criminalisation. Earlier strategies for community policing and armed self-defence became almost impossible to pursue in an era marked by heightened suspicion of Black and Brown communities and increased militarisation of the police, and this continues to be the case today. For instance, just imagine if someone today advocated for Black Muslims to police their own neighbourhoods – armed with their own weapons at that! Imagine the level of fear that would evoke and how the government and law enforcement officials might respond. But this is exactly what communities were doing during the 1960s and 70s. The limitations placed on Black and Muslim communities’ ability to organise for self-determination, due to heightened fears and increased securitisation, was part of a broader shift in US politics. The preceding decades witnessed a broader climate of widespread political dissent related to the anti-war movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and other expressions of political radicalism. However, from the 1980s onward, the space for radicalism and political dissent shrank significantly. In the closing decade of the Cold War, this also meant that the kinds of Third World internationalism that previously characterised these communities were further suppressed.
From the 1970s onward, new Muslim communities began to emerge as greater numbers of immigrant Muslims moved to the US with a very different economic and political orientation than their predecessors. Muslim immigrants who come to the US before 1965 were primarily single men who worked as unskilled labourers. Due to segregation, they were often forced to live in majority-Black neighbourhoods. There, they collaborated with Black orthodox Muslims to build multi-racial religious communities.
But that trend changed with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the earlier quota-based system and sought to recruit highly skilled labourers.
Thus, many of the Muslims who immigrated to the US after 1965 had professional backgrounds, and relocated there to work as doctors and engineers. The circumstances in the UK were, of course, very different. This speaks to the great potential that our transatlantic conversation presents. In the UK, Muslims have a kind of class solidarity that is, ostensibly, less common in the US today. What does that class solidarity make possible? The professional opportunities and resulting upward mobility afforded to many Muslim immigrants in the US served, for a time, as a kind of veil or shroud from the realities of American racial capitalism. Many immigrant Muslims naively imagined the US to be a meritocracy, where, through hard work, the American Dream was attainable by all.
While Islamophobia is widespread in the US, it is arguably less pervasive within Black communities. This is largely because there is a very real memory among Black Americans of the positive impact that Black Muslims had on Black and Brown neighbourhoods during the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. This was especially true of the Nation of Islam, but was very much true of Black orthodox Muslim communities as well. There are cases in New York City, for instance, where various Black Muslim communities were targeted by law enforcement, and Black non-Muslims rallied to defend them against the police. In one instance, when a Harlem mosque was under siege by the New York City Police Department, local residents surrounded the police and started to throw bricks and bottles at members of the NYPD. The residents of Harlem said, ‘We will not allow you to harm these Muslims who are part of our communities and who make our communities better.’
This emphasis on serving and benefiting the broader community is one of the critical sources of the power that twentieth century Black Muslim communities were able to amass. This, coupled with a concerted effort to reinvigorate an internationalist consciousness among aggrieved populations in the West, could reveal a pathway forward for resisting and combating the structures that undergird both Islamophobia and white supremacy. These structures – neoliberalism, capitalism, and neo-imperialism – are inherently transnational. Therefore, any attempt to oppose them must be transnational as well.
Part of what I find generative in facilitating a transatlantic conversation between Muslims of colour through the notion of a Muslim Atlantic is the potential it holds to help us rediscover a rich tradition of internationalism that, while based on shared notions of spirituality and morality, has the potential to bring about major political and social transformation as well. Perhaps we might discover a way to reopen the imaginative space for people to conceive of pursuing radical strategies to empower their communities, like those developed by our Black Muslim foremothers and forefathers, rather than settling for limited reforms or seeking inclusion from states and economies that are fundamentally based on white supremacy and inequality. How might we forge new strategies, based on old lessons, to empower non-state entities that are actually accountable to our communities at a grassroots level? Such entities could, like the Nation of Islam, the Dar-ul-Islam movement, and so many others, adequately secure their own communities and provide benefit to the broader society – undermining the defective logic behind current regimes of state-sponsored securitisation.