All along the campaign trail, Donald Trump made clear his intention to ban Muslims from entering the United States. He also suggested that Muslim citizens were a threat to the country, in need of special monitoring. Given this, many were puzzled by Trump’s tweet commemorating Muhammad Ali when he died. How could Trump espouse anti-Muslim racist rhetoric on the one hand and praise Muhammad Ali, a Muslim, on the other? One explanation is that Muhammad Ali is seen as exceptional, and thereby different from other Muslims. But it is more likely that Ali is not seen as Muslim at all, despite his very public embrace of that identity.
Muhammad Ali's anti-war stance, which initially put him in the public spotlight, was the direct result of his new identity as a “black Muslim”—a term used erroneously, as Ali noted at the time, to refer to members of the Nation of Islam. However in the many years since, Ali's objection has been interpreted within in the broader history of the civil rights era, which has actually obscured his religious identity. Muhammad Ali became the “brave American” who stood up for a cause, rather than the “black Muslim” who stood for his religious convictions. This is the result a kind of religious whitewashing that matches a broader tendency to dilute the radical politics of most figures of the era, including Martin Luther King, Jr.
Black Muslims are subject to a double burden of state violence: the war on crime and the War on Terror.
While Muhammad Ali’s Muslim identity became invisible, the religious identity of most black Muslims in America is hypervisible. To be a black Muslim today is to be part of wide cross-section of U.S. Muslims of African descent, U.S.-born and immigrants, who are subjected to a double burden of state violence: as black people and as Muslims. They are subjected to the war on crime and the War on Terror, to surveillance, aggressive policing, and systematic civil rights violations.
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The city of Minneapolis is home to a large black Muslim community, most of whom are Somali immigrants and first generation Americans. In 2014 nine young Somali American men were sentenced on terrorism charges for conspiring to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State, commit murder, and provide material support for terrorism. The youths’ families and communities have protested, alleging that the young men, just out of high school, were entrapped. This is a common claim from Muslim communities across the United States when members are charged in cases of “homegrown terrorism.”
Black Muslims in the Twin Cities, as with everywhere else in the United States, are surveilled by local and federal law enforcement agencies. Activists have demonstrated that the Somali community in Minnesota is a primary target for the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program initiated by the Department of Homeland Security at the prompting of the Obama White House. CVE is designed to prevent the spread of what the government identifies as “violent ideologies,” through the use of community-based interventions. While it ostensibly targets all kinds of violent ideologies, from white supremacy to jihadism, its initiatives have primarily targeted Muslim communities. Counterterrorism programs in Minnesota are not only transforming mosques into sites of surveillance but have sought to turn social service agencies and public institutions, including schools, into sites of “prevention.” This shift means the identification of potential terrorists would begin as early as grade school, rendering black youth hypervisible as criminals twice over, this time in the name of national security.
Trump’s campaign declaration that Somali Americans “are joining ISIS and spreading extremist views all over our country,” and his later inclusion of Somalia in the immigration ban reinforce the notion that Minnesota’s black Muslims supposedly pose a threat to the United States. But critics note that the fear does not match the perception. Less than .03 percent of Somali Americans are known to have actually tried to join Al-Shabab or the Islamic State. The use of informants and undercover officers in the cases against would-be terrorists further undermines that saliency of this threat. Moreover Somalis have been coming to the United States since the 1990s as refugees fleeing political instability and war, long before groups such as the Islamic State or Al-Shabab even existed.
The NYPD Demographics Unit listed “American Black Muslim” among its groups of interest—the only domestic group it surveilled.
Immigrant black communities are not the only ones subjected to this double burden. During its covert monitoring of local Muslims, the NYPD listed “American Black Muslim” among its groups of interest—the only one that was not from outside the United States. The objectives of the secretive (and officially defunct) Demographics Unit were to identify and map Muslim communities in the area, including where people lived, prayed, and socialized. The unit also tracked Muslim Student Associations online and off, surveilling websites, blogs, and forums, and sending informants to travel with students on weekend trips.
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Profiling Black Muslim groups is absolutely nothing new. Black Muslims have been monitored by the United States government since the 1930s. The Nation of Islam was a particular target of J. Edgar Hoover’s counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, established in the 1950s during the height of the Cold War. Driven by political ideology rather than fact, COINTELPRO cast a wide net that included not only communist groups—the explicit enemy of the period—but also other social movements and leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., who were deemed a “threat” to national security by the FBI. COINTELPRO collected intelligence on domestic terrorism as a preemptive move. Its goals included the eradication of “black nationalist hate groups,” making the Nation of Islam an imminent threat despite its proclamations of nonviolence and corroborating reports by government informants. The NOI was considered a threat because the Islam it preached was “un-American.” Moreover, the NOI was feared for its potential to organize a marginalized black community with transnational ties. One its most prominent members, who was also a COINTELPRO target, was Muhammad Ali.
Black Muslims have been monitored by the United States government since the 1930s.
The perceived black Muslim threat was particularly potent during the Cold War, as the United States sought to solidify its global dominance by claiming moral authority as a multiracial democracy. Cold War U.S. strategy included demonstrating superiority by way of the government’s commitment to freedom and democracy for all its citizens, including the historically disenfranchised. Groups such as the NOI undercut this image by trumpeting the failures of U.S. democracy.
To this day, non-immigrant black Muslim communities operate with the knowledge that government agents could be in their midst. It is not uncommon to attend a Friday sermon in which the imam directly addresses FBI informants presumed to be in the audience. NYPD’s surveillance, which activists say is ongoing, along with other incidents of monitoring by the FBI, only confirm these suspicions.
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While the security state renders black Muslims hypervisible, the multicultural state operates as if they do not exist. In December 2015, six months before his Muhammad Ali tweet, Donald Trump questioned President Obama’s statement that “Muslim Americans are our sport heroes.” Trump asked “What sport is he talking about . . . Is Obama profiling?” In so doing, he attempted to underscore the absurdity of the idea that Muslims could be admired by other Americans. Muhammad Ali’s Muslim identity was invisible to Trump, as it was to much of the American public, because U.S. multiculturalism is not intersectional. For all intents and purposes, black identity and Muslim identity are distinct. Even when seeking to be inclusive, the state is blind to intersectionality.
Intersectionality describes the reality that individuals and communities have multiple and overlapping identities. But American multiculturalism defines communities strictly by their particular and non-overlapping racial identities. Thus the state can recognize blacks or Muslims for hierarchal inclusion, but it is not designed to include those who are black and Muslim. This is because multiculturalism in America relies on race. When we talk about Muslims in the United States, whether as citizens or terrorists, we talk about them in terms of race rather than only religion. The Muslim’s “race” is made up of their perceived national origins and ethnicity, i.e. the Muslim is presumed to be “foreign” and “brown,” neither racially white nor black and their “foreign” cultural and religious practices, like headscarves and prayer. In contrast, black Americans, good and bad, are posited as citizens who are “native” to a multicultural United States. Moreover black American triumph over slavery and Jim Crow is reworked as a testament to American ideals and culture, rather than a sign of its failings. Black “nativeness” thus bolsters the rhetoric of U.S. multiculturalism. Subsequently, it undercuts contemporary claims of racial injustice and supports the moral authority of the United States abroad. Blackness thus also serves to reify and reinforce the Muslim as a particular racial threat.
When the state looks to include Muslims, it does so by rendering black Muslims invisible. This is how a presidential candidate, who pushes anti-Muslim racism, can celebrate Muhammad Ali as a black American hero, but dismiss the very possibility of a Muslim sports hero. And as Trump’s current moves indicate, the paradox of hypervisibility and invisibility for black Muslims is likely to prevail.