The Chair of the Islamic Circle of North America’s (ICNA) Council for Social Justice writes a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in honor of Black History Month:
Salaam Dr. King:
It’s been almost 50 years since your fateful appointment with destiny on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. Time and willful intent have conspired to transform the public perception of you from a transcendent prophetic voice for the voiceless and oppressed to a dreaming romantic who assuaged the anxieties of the privileged by prognosticating about a distant social utopian America.
Since your abrupt departure, the movement has too often adopted as a functional operational modality capitulation to self-righteous suppressors of basic human, social, and economic rights in exchange for advance payments for our souls and a convoluted sense of access to power rather than influence. You were not around to witness the shrewd social manipulation implemented by the federal government to deny tangible material benefits to the masses of African American people after the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and other ancillary legislation. You have more intimate information than I of the known and unknown martyrs and other victims of racial terrorism from the ranks of the civil and human rights armies. But, with the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, legions of highly educated, professionals and tradesmen entered the United States from nations previously denied significant entry to this country.
After decades of struggles for human and civil rights, African Americans were tragically reduced to being spectators as immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, North, West, and East Africa, and the Middle East were greeted into the American labor market. Easily available business loans, mortgages, and the privileges afforded those classified as “White” by the government facilitated a relatively smooth, comfortable transition for most of these new Americans. Even though America was forced by domestic civil unrest and foreign scrutiny to legislate civil rights, African Americans were arguably not the primary beneficiaries of access to an upwardly mobile class.
Not since the times of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, when one out of every third enslaved African was Muslim, had so many millions of Muslims entered the United States. Even to this day, African American Muslims represent one-third of the Muslim population in this country. Animus against Muslims in this nation was primarily directed against the Nation of Islam, a heterodox, ultra nationalist Black organization, during the 1960’s and 1970s. Even though your greatest foil during the mid-1950s to the early 1960s was Malcolm X, at least before he embraced the orthodox teachings of Islam, you never condemned Muslims or the religion of Islam. You showed us how to respectfully disagree without being disagreeable.
Yet, as massive numbers of African Americans embraced the religion of Islam, the most virulent expressions of racism, once reserved for African Americans, began to become conflated with all Muslim Americans. Who could have envisioned that a day would come in post-civil rights America when Muslims would be so despised and Islamophobia so pervasive in the United States that only 26 percent of Americans have a positive view of Islam and Muslims, or that Muslim houses of worship would suffer over 200 random attacks annually, or that a Muslim Imam and his assistant would be murdered, shot in the head, in broad daylight, on a crowed street in Queens, New York, for no apparent reason other than just being Muslim, or that three, universally-loved Muslim college students would be murdered, execution-style, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, by a racist bigot, or that in 2016 the people of the United States would elect a xenophobic, Islamophobic, bigoted racist as the 45th president of the country? There is probably no reference that I can give you for you to understand the collective madness that must have gone into his election.
Martin, you showed us how to sacrifice for our beliefs. Unfortunately, too many Muslims have not understood your sage pronouncement in your Letter from Birmingham Jail when you wrote, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes from the tireless efforts of man willing to be coworkers with God.”
Muslims are sadly finding comfort in historical references to the trials of previous faith communities in the United States and how they eventually overcame adversity. Islam teaches us that human beings were created in toil and struggle. You showed us the direction, Martin. But, somehow I think we got lost along the way.
-Imam Khalid Griggs, ICNA CSJ Chairman