Before she moved to Wisconsin, LuAnn Sorenson taught English as a second language at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Many of her students were practicing Muslims, mostly from Saudi Arabia. LuAnn says she always looked for ways to get her students out of the classroom and interact with Americans, and she wondered how a city as diverse as Chicago could help. So, she came to Curious City with a question:
In the Chicago area, do Arab Muslims attend the same mosques as African-American Muslims?
Islam is one of the most diverse religions in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center, and Islam celebrates this diversity. In his last sermon, the Prophet Muhammad reminded his followers that all Muslims are equal. He said:
“An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.”
Since mosques don’t require a membership and, in theory, any Muslim can go to any mosque, one might assume that mosque attendance in a city as diverse as Chicago would reflect that diversity. But when Curious City posed LuAnn’s question to 11 Muslim leaders around the Chicago area, we found that’s not usually the case.
Their short answer was yes, some Arab Muslims and some African-American Muslims attend the same mosques. But more often than not, they don’t. Local religious leaders told us that people tend to go to the mosque in their neighborhoods, but because Chicago is a segregated city, mosque attendance often reflects that segregation.
In addition to geography, Muslim leaders also said that their community is divided by race, class, and language. They said these divisions are not talked about very often, but they should be discussed more, especially with today’s divisive political climate.
So Curious City brought four Muslim leaders from the Arab and African-American communities together to talk about their relationship, why it’s been divided, and how it’s changing with President Donald Trump in the White House.
The discussion included interfaith and anti-racism educator Hind Makki (who identifies as Afro-Arab); Tariq El-Amin, the imam at Masjid Al-Taqwa, a mosque on Chicago’s Southeast Side; Sultan Muhammad, the imam at Mosque Maryam, the national headquarters of the Nation of Islam; and Kifah Mustapha, who is originally from Lebanon and currently serves as the imam at the Prayer Center of Orland Park.
Here are some highlights from their conversation, where we learned how American perceptions about race and identity reinforce divisions in the Arab and African-American Muslim community, why some people don’t feel like they fit neatly into either community, and why both groups believe the time is right to try to bring their communities closer together.
On segregation in Chicago and the Muslim community
Tariq El-Amin: On the polite side, we say Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, but we understand — those of us who live here and have experienced it — that it is really just code for a segregated city.
Kifah Mustapha: We can talk a lot about community segregation on individual levels because there’s not much interaction. I used to lead prayers as the imam at the Al-Salaam mosque on Ashland and 48th Street. There, Africans made up the majority of the people praying, and the [local] store owners were Arabs or Indo-Pakistani. So the mosque represented a place where everyone came together.
But then when I shifted to the suburbs of Bridgeview, and now Orland Park, it was back to the segregation that the city is all about. There you see less African Americans and more of the Arab community.
Sultan Muhammad: Movement between [these two] communities has always existed to some degree. For instance, those mosques that are closer to the lake, or the city, have more diverse populations. At our mosque, Mosque Maryam, you’ll see Turks, Palestinians, African-Americans, and Nigerians on a consistent level. … But again, we’re closer to an area that is more diverse in its population.
Tariq El-Amin: I went to Sister Clara Muhammad School here … in the late ’70s, early ’80s. My experience was that there was not much diversity aside from my Arabic teacher, a sister from Pakistan. Outside of that, there wasn’t much interaction that I had, or that I could observe, that my family had with anyone who was not black. …
I think it wasn’t really until my mid-twenties — when I began to become more deliberate about my associations and expanding my circles — that I met and formed relationships with Muslims outside of the African-American community.
Hind Makki: Most Muslims believe that Islam is an inherently anti-racist religion. So most Muslims — even if they, themselves, will say, “Well I feel uncomfortable driving on the West Side,” or “I feel scared going to that mosque or that church on that side of the city” — will still say that Islam is anti-racist.
On what ‘whiteness’ means within the Muslim community
Kifah Mustapha: The first generation (of Arab Muslim immigrants) came, and let me say bluntly, they came on a horse of white America. You know, the dream of Hollywood, and they did not incorporate much of the struggles the black American community had to go through.
So they weren’t as focused on the relationship as much as now, because now Islam is on the table. Now the young kids are relating to each other and the boundaries are kind of falling off.
Hind Makki: Arab immigrants, by the (U.S. Census Bureau), are designated as white. My family, who identify completely as black and African — my father and my cousins with their afros — are legally designated as white people. But our reality, especially for the men in my family, is that they are seen by society, and by the police, as black people.
So for those of us for whom our religious identities live alongside our racial identities —and the most racialized identity in the U.S. is the black one — that’s another issue that I think a lot of immigrant mosques are simply not equipped to handle.
Tariq El-Amin: The Muslim community is really a microcosm of the larger American community because of its diversity. But when we look at what has caused segregation within the Muslim community, it is pretty much the same thing that has been at the root of the segregation of the American community. That, unfortunately, is black inferiority, white supremacy.
Sultan Muhammad: Arabs are falsely represented through media as the majority of the Muslim population. But conversely, as Arab equals Muslim, American equals white (for immigrant Muslims). So you find that many of our migrant brothers and sisters, whether they’re Indo-Pakistani or Arab, focus on relationships with the broader, white, dominant community.
On how language divides the community
Hind Makki: When my parents immigrated from Sudan, one of the things they were thinking about was where to live. They wanted a community where we would be around Muslims who were similar to us in important ways — and one of them was language.
So they chose to live in an Arab community. At the same time, both of my parents worked with many African-American Muslim communities. So growing up, even though we lived near an Arabic-speaking mosque, we would travel out to the South Side or to the West Side to various African-American Muslim communities. I have very fond memories of joining my dad in prayer and having bean pie afterward.
Tariq El-Amin: Most Muslims are not native Arabic speakers, but Arabic has a cultural collateral, a religious collateral that it is given. Coming from the perspective of folks who do not grow up speaking the language, who are not fluent in the language — language can connect or divide you. It can leave a segment of folks outside of the conversation who feel like they don’t really have a place.
On the impact of today’s divisive political climate
Hind Makki: When Mike Brown was shot and killed (in Ferguson, Missouri), I remember having a conversation with some friends of mine who were Muslim — Arab and South Asian, from immigrant backgrounds — and I was the only black person there. A few of my friends made the argument, “Oh we don’t really know what happened.”
I was dismayed, you know, that they were my friends. I thought they were more woke than that. Today, or even a year ago with Laquan McDonald, there isn’t that questioning anymore. There is this acceptance that this country has always been and remains brutally anti-black, and there is this question of white supremacy that exists that we need to tackle.
Many people who voted for Trump voted for him on the basis that America is a white country and should be a white country, and anyone who symbolizes anything but white Christianity needs to go.
Kifah Mustapha: I believe it’s gonna fire back in a good way for the minorities. Every day Islam is being spoken about in media and on TV channels. This is like PR for Islam, really.
Hind Makki: I think that is a silver lining in this cloud of a presidency, that a lot of American Muslims — especially those who come from very well-off backgrounds, who have always lived in the suburbs and are coming from a professional background, who are maybe, I would say, “bougie Muslims” — are becoming more aware of this (white supremacy).
Sultan Muhammad: This has forced us as communities to establish coalitions that go beyond our own traditional faith practice (and) to be able to navigate the problems that Mr. Trump is throwing in. So we may say that it may be good in the long run, but what is the price we have to pay in this journey?
Kifah Mustapha: I think this discussion should continue. This is something that I hope we can take to a higher level for the well being of our community. I feel the betterment of our community will reflect a better America.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation.
More about our panelists:Hind Makki is an interfaith educator, and develops and delivers trainings on civic integration through interfaith action, anti-racism education, and youth empowerment. She is currently a religious advisor to the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study (YES) Program. Hind, a former fellow of the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute, is the founder and curator of “Side Entrance,” a crowd-sourced website that documents women’s prayer experiences in mosques around the world. She serves on the Islamic Society of North America’s Mosque Inclusion Taskforce and is an adviser to the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding project, “Reimagining Muslim Spaces.” She holds a degree in international relations from Brown University. Kifah Mustapha is the imam and director of the Prayer Center of Orland Park. He has been an imam at various mosques in the Chicago area for the past 25 years, including the Al-Salam mosque and the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview. Sultan Rahman Muhammad, a native Chicagoan, great-grandson of Elijah Muhammad, and nephew of the late Imam W. Deen Mohammed, was appointed as the first imam of Mosque Maryam National Center in 2012 by Louis Farrakhan. At an early age, Imam Muhammad studied Arabic and Islamic sciences abroad, and he currently serves as the national imam for students of the Nation of Islam. He also teaches courses on Arabic and Islamic civilizations at Muhammad University of Islam in Chicago. Tariq I. El-Amin is an active participant of Chicago’s muslim and interfaith community, and one of the leaders of The Community of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed in Chicago. He is also the host of Radio Islam, a Muslim-run and -produced daily call-in talk show, the resident imam of Masjid Al-Taqwa, and the founder and executive director of Bridging the Gap, Inc. El-Amin has also been a contributing writer for The Muslim Journal and is currently completing his first book, a collection of spoken-word poetry, monologues, and reflections. El-Amin resides in the south suburbs with his wife, Dr. Aisha El-Amin, and their three teenage daughters.
More about our questioner
LuAnn Sorenson is from Eau Claire, Wisconsin. She has a masters degree in scandinavian studies and applied English linguistics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. LuAnn has taught English as a second language (ESL) for more than 20 years at universities in the Midwest, Massachusetts, and Finland. From 2010 to 2016, she volunteered with an ESL teacher-training program at the Danville Correctional Center in Danville, Illinois. The program is run by the Education Justice Project, a college-in-prison program at the University of Illinois.
LuAnn says that she is a non-practicing Lutheran, but that working as an ESL teacher means she gets to meet “people who have all different beliefs, and it’s certainly opened my mind to the various ways one can worship — or not.”
Sarah Geis is an independent audio producer in Chicago. Follow her @sarahegeis.
Alexandra Salomon is the editor for Curious City. Follow her @AlexandraSalomo.