I was saddened to see the reports that a local imam had been gunned down by the FBI in a shootout. I have vague recollections of seeing Luqman Ameen Abdullah, imam of the Masjid Al-Haqq mosque in Detroit, at various gatherings around the city. He never struck me as a threat or anything close to it. Although I certainly didn't know him, he seemed like a decent guy.
But I was struck by some of the beliefs he espoused and couldn't help but be reminded once again that religion chased by even justifiable anger and paranoia can be a toxic, deadly brew, particularly for the black community.
If I'm rightly reading many of the comments attributed to Abdullah, he carried with him much of the same pain and rage that simmers in a whole lot of people who feel they've been wronged, especially African-Americans. And like a lot of us, he took shelter in his religious beliefs, finding in the Qu'ran both explanation and antidote for his circumstances.
His black Muslim group calls itself "Ummah," or the brotherhood, and wants to establish a separate state within the United States governed by Sharia law, Interim U.S. Attorney Terrence Berg and Andrew Arena, FBI special agent in charge in Detroit, said in a joint statement."He regularly preaches anti-government and anti-law enforcement rhetoric," an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit. "Abdullah and his followers have trained regularly in the use of firearms, and continue to train in martial arts and sword fighting."
Personally, I'm one of those black people who doesn't buy into most claims about homegrown cells of black Muslims set to carry out nefarious, post-911 copycat plots against "the Great Satan." I don't think this man was a terrorist. And I don't think brothers, by and large, go around trying to blow up the ports. (Even the FBI says he wasn't being charged with national security crimes.)
But that doesn't mean we can't be convinced to do, say and believe plenty of other extreme and stupid things when it comes to matters of gods and prophets and race. See, despite the breathless accounts of shock that a group of black religious separatists is out there, anybody who grew up in any sizable African-American community knows folks like Abdullah have always been around -- and are often viewed as purveyors of a sort of black political consciousness. Sure they gained popularity in the 1960s along with other elements of the black power movements, but they had been present long before and have remained long since, as much a part of the daily fabric of our neighborhoods as restaurants and party stores. Just as it did in the 1960s, during the heydey of the Nation of Islam, rejecting the Christ traditionally preached in black churches in favor of Allah or some other god or pantheon of gods often still represents an effort by many folks to establish a new identity for themselves by "throwing off the white man's religion." (Of course, there are also many black folks who dismiss these types as simply "kooks.")
And while Islam is certainly no more violent than Christianity -- and there are millions of Muslims who reject violence of any kind -- many men and women like Abdullah do indeed see in calls for Islamic "jihad" a parallel call-to-arms to fight racial inequity in America, and yes, with weapons if need be. A struggle for freedom and equality somehow comes to look like a fight to set up Sharia law.
This is the part that saddens me the most, that reach into the supernatural to speak to the real. I mean, black folks are going to be suspicious, of course. Heck, millions of Africans wound up here as part of a racist plot to get free labor, so asking their descendents not to be paranoid is just plain unrealistic and maybe even a little unfair. Furthermore, in spite of having a black President and all the claims by the magazines of high opinion that we're in "post-racial" epoch in America, black folks are still very much in social and economic pain.
But we keep trying to take the wrong medicine.
In our desperate search for answers, we keep on swallowing snake oil and wackiness. We're running around trying to establish spiritual kinship with ass-backwards Saudis hiding in mountain ranges when we need to be figuring out how to create jobs, rebuild our neighborhoods and educate our children. We need more science and math, but we keep issuing more directives from ancient books. While the world moves further into a 21st-Century economy, we hold fast to Dark Ages balderdash.
Despite the FBI claims, all of Abdullah's neighbors who've been interviewed say he was a good man who did indeed work in the community by feeding the hungry and letting the homeless sleep at his mosque. And I have no reason to doubt this, same as I don't doubt that a desire to do good drives the social works that many Christians and Jews do in the name of their religions, too.
But, according the FBI, he also apparently thought that we needed a separate nation run according to Sharia law. He also wanted to cut ties with everyone of differing faiths, and certainly with those like me who have no faith at all. And while this isn't new or stunning, it is still, to me, illustrative of how anger unchecked by reason can lead us so tragically astray. It represents the point where the pain of racism and violence and poverty in our communities begin to overwhelm good reason and where the grasping desperation leads to the embrace of ideas that lead us down dead-end paths.
Perhaps in some ways, it's no different than the white kid who turns to skinhead Christianism -- except our community doesn't have the same margin for error.
I felt the same way when I listened to Mos Def a while back as he tried to debate Christopher Hitchens about al-Qaeda. It's hurtful to see a community of people who I think are legitimately aggrieved and rightfully wary turn to bad ideas and warped logic to explain very real pain, express very authentic worry and address very real injustice.
The Qu'ran won't change the material conditions of the black community in Detroit anymore than the Bible will. And trying to help bin Laden establish Muslim supremacy in America will do no more to change what harms us than will buying the church pastor a Bentley.
As far as I'm concerned, you can keep heaven. I'll settle for figuring out ways our neighborhoods can catch a lot less hell.