New York's Muslim community is key in fighting Islamophobia

New York's Muslim community is key in fighting Islamophobia
6 min read
01 Sep, 2016
Comment: Islamophobia in the US is rising, but Muslims in America have a long history of standing up for social justice in the face of discrimination, writes Nick Rodrigo.
New York’s Muslims have not been immune to the rise in Islamophobia since 9/11 [Getty]

If American Muslims have a second Mecca, it is most surely New York City. This concrete melting pot has been a space for them to contribute to the country's political and cultural evolution for over a century.

It may seem odd then, that one of the city's most infamous sons - Donald Trump - is running for presidential election on an overtly anti-Islamic ticket. Commentators have noted that Trump's promise to block migration to the country for Muslims, and his associating the religion with terrorism has fed into growing Islamophobic sentiment, the roots of which date back to the George Bush administration's declaration of a war on terror in 2001.

Trump's comments have sparked a deluge of anti-Muslim hate on social media, and incidences of Islamophobic attacks across the country are on the rise. Liberal urban centres have not been immune to this. On August 13, an Imam and his assistant were shot dead in the New York borough of Queens, in a suspected Islamophobic attack, sending the 25,000 strong Bengali community there into a tailspin of fear and uncertainty.

For New York's religious and ethnic minorities, discrimination from the city's institutionally racist law and planning authorities has been a common reality. However acts of racial aggression from fellow residents had long been thought of as a thing of the past, washed away by the cleansing nature of multicultural integration.

This integration was long fought for by the patchwork of ethnicities and religions which constitute the five boroughs of New York City, with the Muslim community playing a unique role in this battle.

Some scholars claim that around 15 - 20 percent of slaves captured and taken to the United States were originally Muslim. Many were forcibly converted to Christianity, with the practice of their former faith either conducted in secret, or reduced to small cultural practices.

Trump's comments have sparked a deluge of anti-Muslim hate on social media, and incidences of Islamophobic attacks across the country are on the rise

In the decades leading up to WW1, former slaves from the southern plantation economies migrated north to emerging industrial powerhouses like New York City. At around the same time of this mass movement of people, an enclave of lower Manhattan was referred to as "Little Syria".

Christian and Muslim migrants from Ottoman Syria established a community in the area of what is now Ground Zero, bringing with them the cultural idiosyncrasies of Damascene café culture with them. Decades of gentrification and development have removed all vestiges of Little Syria. The remains of a church and small mosque attest to the multi-religious nature of this fledgling Arab quarter.

By the late 1950s the increased concentration of African Americans in the country's expanding urban centres contributed to the development of a "Black Power" movement within these spaces. African symbols and idioms went through an expressive renaissance, some of which were overtly Islamic in their content.

From this wellspring of ideas emerged the Nation of Islam, a movement of black Muslims which sought to harness the emergent "Black Consciousness" discourse and weld Islamic liberation theology to it in order to promote self-reliance and self-worth within the African American community.

Not only have these communities contributed to the rich cultural tapestry of New York, through art, academia and cuisine but they have also been active in public political life

The Nation provided free school meals, education and strict rehabilitation programmes for substance abusers, turning them into disciplined foot solders for one of the strongest organisations within the Civil Rights movement. Malcolm Little, who later changed his name to Malcolm X to reflect his rejection of his slave name, was a beneficiary of these programmes.

Malcolm rapidly became a rising star within the Nation and his community, organising fiery speeches outside Mosque No. 7 in Harlem helped electrify New York's African American community into action. He was assassinated in 1965 by members of the Nation due to his opposition to the Nation's leadership. In 1987 his immortality as a New York icon was cemented when Harlem's Lennox avenue was co-named Malcolm X Boulevard.

During the 1960s the Muslim world was in a state of turmoil. Repression, statelessness, civil war, social upheaval and poverty forced migration to the US from Egypt, Palestine, Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria, Senegal and beyond. This was greatly facilitated by the 1965 Immigration Act, which made it easier for immigrants from these countries to settle in America.

New York has numerous institutions attesting to this wave of immigration. In 1973, Yoruba Nigerians established the Nigerian Muslim Association in response to the specific needs of that community, whilst Pakistanis, along with their Indian co-religionists, established the Muslim Centre of New York in 1975. Iranian exiles loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini's theological rival Ayatollah al-Khoei built a large mosque and a foundation dedicated to al-Khoei after leaving Iran.

Any prospective Clinton administration is likely to ramp up war in Muslim countries, the blowback of which could include increased hostility against Muslims at home

Not only have these communities contributed to the rich cultural tapestry of New York, through art, academia and cuisine but they have also been active in public political life. From internationalist organising for Palestine, to direct participation in the Occupy Wall Street movement, various Muslim organisations have been at the forefront of a radical political scene and part of the city's civil society, for decades.

Despite this historic contribution, New York's Muslim community has not been immune to the rise in Islamophobia in the country since 9/11. The latent feeling of insecurity was heightened by the 2015 attack in Paris by Islamic State Group militants, and exacerbated by Donald Trump's comments in the lead up to his victory in the Republican primary.

An online map by ThinkProgress documents that of the 102 Islamophobic incidents since November 2015, nine occurred in New York City. They have included an assault on a pupil wearing a hijab at school, verbal abuse on public transport and physical assault on an individual in their place of work.

Key figures within the Republican Party have called for the monitoring of Muslim communities, whilst Trump endorses a mandatory national database for Muslims. Democrat Party Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has condemned these policies consistently calling out Trump for his divisive rhetoric.

Although this may allay the fears of many Muslims, any prospective Clinton administration is likely to ramp up war in Muslim countries, the blowback of which could include increased hostility against Muslims at home. Regardless of the election result, Islamophobia in America is set to mutate, and expand. New York Muslims will not be immune to this, but their long history of standing for social justice means that they will be at the forefront of challenging this growing racist trend in America.



Rodrigo is a journalist and PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Centre. He has worked in policy analysis on the Middle East in South Africa, as well as in Palestinian and Iranian human rights organisations in Palestine and the UK.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.