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Black Muslims in Cleveland Are Bracing for Donald Trump

"What makes us nervous is that one of his supporters is going to do something crazy or extreme just to show their support for him."

by Wilbert L. Cooper
Jun 15 2016, 9:00pm

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

In 1964, at the Cory Methodist Church in the city of Cleveland, the late Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) gave his most enduring and important speech, "The Ballot or the Bullet." The activist had only recently left the Nation of Islam and converted to the more orthodox Sunni denomination. The speech was given against the backdrop a tumultuous presidential race between Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater: Johnson was a Democrat incumbent who had just signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law; Goldwater was a fiery conservative who excited racist whites in the South looking to turn back the dial on recent progressive victories.

At the time, Cleveland was marred with severe systemic racism, due to deep economic, social, and judicial inequality that would later erupt into massive race riots. In his speech, Malcolm X made clear the importance of the upcoming election and urged his black audience to get out and vote. Back then, Malcolm X was speaking first and foremost as a black man, because the threats that existed—from the institutionalized racism of segregation to rogue domestic terrorism like the murder of Emmett Till—were about race.

Today, however, the dog whistle coming from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump isn't just about reversing the legislative victories of a progressive (and this time, black) president—it's also about banning Muslims from entering the United States and keeping the ones who are here under federal surveillance.

Given all of this, it's likely that if Malcolm X were still with us today, his activism would be about his Islamic faith as much as his race. And considering that Cleveland is the city where Trump will get his likely coronation at the 2016 Republican National Convention, northeast Ohio would probably be the place where Malcolm X would deliver a powerful screed about the fight facing American Muslims today.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Muslims in America have been a highly scrutinized and vilified community. As such, hate crimes against Muslims in the US have been rising sharply. The trend has been evident in Ohio, where in 2012, Randolph Linn tried to burn down a Toledo mosque, and where, last year, Eid worshipers at the Islamic Center of Cleveland were threatened by an angry man with an axe who called the parishioners "pedophiles" and "terrorists." And in the wake of the deadly mass shooting in Orlando last weekend, in which a 29-year-old American Muslim named Omar Mateen gunned down 49 people at a gay nightclub, the vilification of the Muslim community in the US is unlikely to stop anytime soon.

Right now, Cleveland is girding itself for the Republican National Convention—an event that is likely to attract the same white supremacist groups that have been vocal supporters of Trump. Couple that with the fact that local law enforcement has been widely criticized for being unprepared for the event, and it makes sense that the Muslims who frequent the 23 mosques in the greater Cleveland area are concerned for their safety.

Tehran Iman, a young, black Sunni Muslim who lives in Cleveland and frequents Islamic hangouts like the Algebra Teahouse, told me over the phone that she was a bit worried about the upcoming event. "Donald Trump has his followers, and what makes us nervous is that one of his supporters is going to do something crazy or extreme just to show their support for him," she said.


Photo courtesy of Basheer Jones

The history of violence committed on the black people in America—from the mass killing of 300 blacks by white rioters in Tulsa in 1921 to the high-profile incidents of police shootings against unarmed black men that have happened in cities like Cleveland—has uniquely prepared black Muslims for the current, contentious climate in America today. In short, they've seen this movie before. As Basheer Jones, a local community activist and political consultant, explained to me, "Black Muslims don't have the same fear as foreign Muslims. Because of our blackness, we are always high on security."

This particular outlook is an result of what Jones called the "triple consciousness" that exists within the black Muslim community. The term, of course, is a reference to W. E. B. Du Bois's "double consciousness," which he used to describe the experience blacks have reconciling their African identity within the framework of a Euro-centric world.

Jones's "triple consciousness" refers to the added complexity of being Muslim, at a time when Islam is demonized by the conservative right and when it remains highly questionable whether black lives actually matter.

"When Donald Trump says 'Muslim,' he's not even talking about the black Muslims. He's talking about the foreign Muslims—Arab, Pakistani, Indian," said Jones. "But this is still a fight for [black Muslims] because to us, Islam is not a foreign thing. Twenty percent of the African slaves who came to this country were Muslim. You could arguably say the greatest boxers of all time, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson; the best basketball player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; and the greatest activist, Malcolm X, were Muslim. Islam is as American as apple pie."


Imam Abbas Ahmad. Photo courtesy of First Cleveland Mosque's Facebook

Many Americans don't realize how far back Islam goes in the country's cultural history, including in Cleveland. Islam has had a presence in northeast Ohio since the early 1900s, thanks in part to the work of Imam Wali Abdul Akram, who helped establish the First Cleveland Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the US, in 1930.

Akram was born Walter Gregg, a black Texan who was raised Christian. According to his grandson, Imam Abbas Ahmad, he discovered Islam when walking past a booth run by Indian Ahmadi Muslims with a sign that said, "Change your name and become free." Like so many great men after him—Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X—he changed his name and adopted the Islamic faith, viewing it as an important touchstone in the liberation of black people in America. After settling in Cleveland, he left the Ahmadi sect and became a Sunni, maintaining a significant economic and spiritual presence in the local community as a rare black entrepreneur as well an Islamic leader. The religious institution he founded in the 30s is still active today, led by Imam Ahmad.

Ahmad has continued to carry on his grandfather's work in Cleveland. In addition to practicing and preaching what he describes as "moderate" Islam, he also works within the community as an advocate and an activist. He's the official police chaplain for the city, and an executive board member of the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, which has been vocal in its opposition to Trump's proposed ban on Muslim immigration.

Although Ahmad balks a bit at the descriptor "black Muslim"—he believes that "once we accept the Qur'an, our [faith] doesn't carry a color"—he recognizes that African Americans who worship Allah have an important role to play in supporting the broader Muslim community in the face of dangerous stereotypes.

"[Donald Trump] is opening up a can of worms," Ahmad said. "African American Muslims are not going to let other Muslims be suppressed and ridiculed. If you are going to impact Muslims, it is going to impact African American Muslims, which is going to impact African American families... And now you've got some trouble on your hands."

Along with other local imams of various races, Ahmad plans to hold a series of CAIR news conferences during the RNC to combat Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric during the national event. Basheer Jones, meanwhile, is helping to organize protest marches during convention, and he has plans to work with the Hillary Clinton campaign this summer on its outreach efforts in the black community.

Perhaps understandably, considering the potential chaos surrounding it, Tehran Iman just wants to steer clear of it all.

"I think the RNC coming to Cleveland is good for the city, because it'll bring in more money," she said. "But I really don't want to be here. I can't call it right now, but I just feel like something is going to happen that could affect me. That's why I'm nervous."

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