Our current political climate is not the only instance when Muslim Americans have been framed as foreigners who did not fit into American culture, according to oral historian Zaheer Ali of Brooklyn Historical Society in a lecture Thursday.
“Have Muslims become a shorthand way of referring to an alien or foreign people?” he asked.
From this overarching question, Ali’s lecture focused on how the diffusion of Islam in African American communities reshaped public spaces and communities in the 20th century.
He began the discussion by indicating the gap between President Dwight Eisenhower’s dedication of the Islamic Center in 1957 and heavy anti-Muslim rhetoric of American society today.
“President Eisenhower affirmed the United States’ commitment to religious freedom and made it very clear that Muslims were welcome in the United States,” Ali said, noting that now, 60 years later, it is “striking” that “we are in a very different place.”
The occupation of space by Muslim Americans was a main component of Ali’s lecture, as he noted that reshaping public spaces created a network that linked sacred, commercial and political activity.
“[The occupation of space is something] we can talk about geographically, materially, discursively in terms of the kind of language that was introduced,” he said. In addition, “we can talk about culinary space in terms of food practices, we can talk about what the body represents in terms occupation of space … just to be walking down the street is a way of reshaping the public space.”
He spoke primarily about the ways the mosque became intertwined with the African American community in places like Brooklyn and Harlem. This intertwinement created openings for religious, cultural, commercial and political exchanges between Muslims and African Americans, he said.
For example, Harlem-based temples of the Nation of Islam — an African American religious community founded in Detroit in 1930 — hosted “African-Asian Bazaars,” which featured guest speakers, African and African American performers, local merchants, screenings of documentary films about Africa and the Middle East and a hybrid of Middle Eastern and African American cuisine.
People throughout the NOI “felt comfortable coming to these gatherings,” Ali said. “The pooling of resources was very much part of the Nation of Islam’s ideology.”
Eventually, Muslims had satellite mosques throughout the boroughs of New York City — and though they were not necessarily grounded in Islam, according to Ali — they shared ideological affinity with the spaces they inhabited.
“There were many occasions where members of the diplomatic court of the United Nations were looking for a place to pray in New York and they couldn’t find one,” Ali said. “They would often come uptown to Harlem to what was at the time called Mosque No. 7 and they would be disappointed because Mosque No. 7 was not designed for the traditional prayer of the Nation of Islam.”
But even with this conflict, Ali said that although one could argue that this wasn’t a “legitimate” Muslim space, they created openings for exchanges people in the Muslim community.
“Even those exchanges were very fruitful because it resulted in cultural exchange, diplomatic exchange, it formed friendships that Malcolm himself would utilize while he was in the Nation of Islam,” he said. “It generated literature.”
The legacy of these spaces and their very presence remains today, Ali said. This spatial practice of redrawing the boroughs of New York to create neighborhoods and spaces for Islam created an alternative political and religious landscape in American cities.