Middle East Report, Issue 224 [Fall 2002]
Since the capture of John Walker Lindh, the Marin County "black nationalist"-turned-Taliban,(1) and the arrest of would-be terrorist José Padilla, a Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican ex-gang member who encountered Islam while in prison, terrorism experts and columnists have been warning of the "Islamic threat" in the American underclass, and alerting the public that the ghetto and the prison system could very well supply a fifth column to Osama bin Laden and his ilk. Writing in The Daily News, black social critic Stanley Crouch reminded us that in 1986, the powerful Chicago street gang al-Rukn -- known in the 1970s as the Blackstone Rangers -- was arrested en masse for receiving $2.5 million from Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi to commit terrorist acts in the US. "We have to realize there is another theater in this unprecedented war, one headquartered in our jails and prisons," Crouch cautioned.
Chuck Colson of the evangelical American Christian Mission, which ministers to inmates around the country, penned a widely circulated article in the Wall Street Journal charging that "al-Qaeda training manuals specifically identify America's prisoners as candidates for conversion because they may be 'disenchanted with their country's policies'... As US citizens, they will combine a desire for 'payback' with an ability to blend easily into American culture." Moreover, he wrote, "Saudi money has been funneled into the American Muslim Foundation, which supports prison programs," reiterating that America's "alienated, disenfranchised people are prime targets for radical Islamists who preach a religion of violence, of overcoming oppression by jihad."(2)
Since September 11, more than a few American-born black and Latino jihadis have indeed been discovered behind enemy lines. Before Padilla (Abdallah al-Muhajir), there was Aqil, the troubled Mexican-American youth from San Diego found in an Afghan training camp fraternizing with one of the men accused of killing journalist Daniel Pearl. Aqil, now in custody, is writing a memoir called My Jihad. In February, the New York Times ran a story about Hiram Torres, a Puerto Rican whose name was found in a bombed-out house in Kabul, on a list of recruits to the Pakistani group Harkat al-Mujahedeen, which has ties to al-Qaeda. Torres, also known as Mohamed Salman, graduated first in his New Jersey high school class and briefly attended Yale, before dropping out and heading to Pakistan in 1998. He has not been heard from since. A June edition of US News and World Report mentions a group of African-Americans, their whereabouts currently unknown, who studied at a school closely linked to the Kashmiri militia, Lashkar-e Taiba. L'Houssaine Kerchtou, an Algerian government witness, claims to have seen "some black Americans" training at al-Qaeda bases in Sudan and Pakistan.
Earlier this year, the movie Kandahar caused an uproar in the American intelligence community because the African-American actor who played a doctor was American fugitive David Belfield. Belfield, who converted to Islam at Howard University in 1970, is wanted for the 1980 murder of Iranian dissident Ali Akbar Tabatabai in Washington. Belfield has lived in Tehran since 1980 and goes by the name of Hassan Tantai.(3) The two most notorious accused terrorists now in US custody are black Europeans, French-Moroccan Zacarias Moussaoui and the English-Jamaican shoe bomber Richard Reid, who were radicalized in the same mosque in the London ghetto of Brixton. Moussaoui's ubiquitous mug shot in orange prison garb, looking like any American inner-city youth with his shaved head and goatee, has intrigued many and unnerved some. "My first thought when I saw his photograph was that I wished he looked more Arabic and less black," wrote Sheryl McCarthy in Newsday. "All African-Americans need is for the first guy to be tried on terrorism charges stemming from this tragedy to look like one of our own."
But assessments of an "Islamic threat" in the American ghetto are sensational and ahistorical. As campaigns are introduced to stem the "Islamic tide," there has been little probing of why alienated black and Latino youth might gravitate towards Islamism. There has been no commentary comparable to what British race theorist Paul Gilroy wrote about Richard Reid and the group of Britons held at Guantanamo Bay: "The story of black European involvement in these geopolitical currents is disturbingly connected to the deeper history of immigration and race politics." Reid, in particular, "manifest[s] the uncomfortable truth that British multiculturalism has failed."(4)
For over a century, African-American thinkers -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- have attempted to harness the black struggle to global Islam, while leaders in the Islamic world have tried to yoke their political causes to African-American liberation. Islamism, in the US context, has come to refer to differing ideologies adopted by Muslim groups to galvanize social movements for "Islamic" political ends -- the Nation of Islam's "buy black" campaigns and election boycotts or Harlem's Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood lobbying for benefits and cultural and political rights from the state. Much more rarely, it has included the jihadi strain of Islamism, embraced by foreign-based or foreign-funded Islamist groups (such as al-Rukn) attempting to gain American recruits for armed struggles against "infidel" governments at home and abroad. The rise of Islam and Islamism in American inner cities can be explained as a product of immigration and racial politics, deindustrialization and state withdrawal, and the interwoven cultural forces of black nationalism, Islamism and hip-hop that appeal strongly to disenfanchised black, Latino, Arab and South Asian youth.
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Hisham Aidi, research fellow at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, works on the university’s Islam in New York Project, sponsored by the Ford Foundation. A longer version of this article will appear in Hisham Aidi and Yusuf Nuruddin, eds., Islam and Urban Youth Culture.