Conference Focuses on How “Social Invisibility” of African-American Muslims Leads to Psychological Trauma, Suffering

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A few days before the third Black Muslim Psychology Conference, Kameelah Mu’min Rashad and her husband Qasim Rashad were looking for another venue. They were expecting 150 people but registration numbers were growing. The Philadelphia based couple is the heart and soul behind the Muslim Wellness Foundation, a Muslim mental health organization. They moved the venue to the Presidential in East Norristown, PA.

The first conference had 75 attendees, last year 125 attended, and this year on July 21 and 22, 375 people came from all over the U.S and Canada to attend this one of a kind conference.

The Black Muslim Psychology Conference was established in 2015 and focuses on mitigating the “acute social invisibility” which professionals state affects the mental health of Black Muslims, “particularly in light of rising anti-Muslim bigotry and increased awareness of police brutality and violence in the Black community”.

Black/African Americans represent 25 percent of the American Muslim population, the single largest racial group in this religious community. “Black Muslims experience intersectional or “acute” invisibility as they are not perceived as typical members of the American Muslim community, with Arab and South Asian Muslims viewed as the norm); or of the Black community, in which Christianity is the dominant religion. Black Muslims also experience marginalization due to anti-Black sentiment within the Muslim community,” states The Muslim Wellness Foundation research.

Mu’min Rashad says that there is cycle of liberation which addresses the stages of peace and freedom. “We have to work internally to dismantle what white supremacy does to us psychologically. Speak to all that reinforces it and serves to imprison us,” she said. “People need this conference to decompress after suffering all year long,” she added.

The intent of the conference is to address the erasure of Black Muslim experiences and perspectives from the lens of psychology, counseling and emotional well being.

With a broad cross-section of speakers, the Black Muslim Psychology Conference is interdisciplinary, with lawyers, spiritual leaders, anthropologist, therapists all coming together.
“Until we as people have healed from racial wounds, we will not be as effective as a people,” says Mu’min Rashad.

“We have to approach these problems with a new mind,” reiterated Ustadha Iesha Prime of Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center, in Fall Church, Va., in a keynote.

“We are very inclusive across different communities,” says Mu’min Rashad. The growth is a byproduct of being inclusive, says Mu’min Rashad, of Black Muslim life in America. “We call everyone in. The focus is on healing and wellness and people can be free to talk about challenges.”

A highlight of the conference was the historic imam roundtable of thirty imams.

Some of the imams attending the roundtable included Shaykh Tahir Wyatt, the first American granted a teaching chair at the Prophet’s Masjid, Daud AbdulHaqq of NIA in New Jersey, Talib Shareef of Washington, D.C., Imam Shadeed Muhammad of Delaware and Imam Siraj Wahhaj of New York.

Two moderators, including MWF’s Donna Auston, facilitated a fishbowl style dialoguefor the imam roundtable. Fifteen Imams were seated in the center, surrounded by approximately 150-175 non-Imams (both men and women). Those in attendance were given the opportunity to hear the Imams deliberate about two hypothetical "case studies" which raised themes related to intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, succession planning, power, and accountability. Discussion ground rules and guiding principles were provided in order to facilitate a respectful dialogue.

“Our primary goal for the Imam Roundtable was to develop a space for meaningful and substantially interactive conversation between the Imams and the listening audience--a safe, productive space where we can listen and learn from the perspectives of everyone present, and in turn, grow stronger together,” stated Mu’min-Rashad.

Imam Daud hoped to deal with marital issues in the community: young people getting married and divorce. He is concerned about these issues and hopes to see them further addressed in the conference.

In a session on Ethical Muslim Leadership: New Direction through Turbulence Theory was led by Dr Quaiser Abdullah, an educational psychologist, and Assistant Professor of Adult & Organizational Development in the College of Education at Temple University.

“We turn to religious leadership about any and every thing- they are not equipped to handle it,” he said to a full house.

“9-11 was a cause of turbulence- we are mistaken when we say that 9-11 didn’t affect the African American community,” said Dr Abdullah. Other causes of turbulence are the splits that occur in community when ideological differences divide a community and racism. “We have to speak about racism as an issue. Most groups fall apart because the racism issue has not been fully addressed,” said Dr Abdullah.

Dr Abdullah said every profession has a code of ethics and being an imam is also an profession. He believes that the community should consider a code of ethics for imams.

Stressing that leadership is about ethical and compassionate decision making, he gave the example of a woman who has fallen and is hurt but a man will not help her because a man cannot touch a woman who is non-mahram. “There is no lack knowledge in our communities but there is a lack of compassionate leadership,” he stressed.

Rajeeyah Bashir is the wife of an imam. She resides out Trenton, NJ. She wishes that her now grown five children had access to a conference like this when they were growing up.

The youth were centered in the conference with a panel dedicated working with African American youth led by Aamaal AbdulMalik and a collegiate forum of young gifted and talented Muslims. For many this was the first time that they were not the minority in a room.

Asha Noor, Yasmin Yousof and Mohammed Shukri presented on the Somali diaspora. Earlier, the keynote speaker Somali -American Ilhan Omar spoke about her journey to the Minnesota State House of representatives from a refugee camp in Kenya (a Q&A with Ilhan is published in this issue).

Asha Noor discussed the history of colonization and displacement of Somalis from 1840-1960. “Resistance to colonialism is an untold story. Somalis had religious based resistance led by Mohammad Abdille Hassan, also known as ‘the mad mullah’,” she said.

This resulted in the death of the one third of Somalia population.

Noor delved into Somali identity. She quoted sociologist Abdi Kusow “The main question raised here is how do immigrants who migrate from society that do not historical color based racial categories negotiate identities in situations where color based systems of classification are the primary source of social stratification?”

Mohammed Shukri spoke about vulnerability of Somali youths to national security apparatus because of the CVE program. Discrimination during job searches- we are faced with institutional racism. “Our women are very visible and we do not compromise on hijab and salah requirement,” he said.

“Many who are detained and deported from the US majority are black immigrants- this is the kind of violence we face from the system,” said Bakri. “After the Muslim Ban, 4000 Somalis were slated deportation- ICE agents are knocking on the door and targeted community raids are going on in states like Georgia, Minnesota,” he shared.

Hate violence speaking about the Kansas terror plot against Somali community. “As diaspora we like to find community and concentrate,” he added.

Collective struggle for black and muslim liberation via social media and other internet forums in response to oppression that Somali youth face in the West was a focus of Yusuf’s presentation. “The Somali community faces poverty, often working in meat packing plants doing grueling low labor work replacing the Latino community who were deported.”

In another room, Yusuf Jones discussed his work on Islamic Healing Circles. He grew up spending time at plantations as his father wanted him to know where he came from. He has counseled parents who didn’t understand the kind of trauma that they have experienced, “We are told ‘there is something wrong with you, you are too sensitive- look at Bilal’.”

“We have been duped by social media, that is not engagement. We make intentional dua for everyone in a healing circle. We include these people in our duas. Whether it is parents who are struggling with their kid’s mental health or their businesses,” He looked at African traditions that fall within Islamic boundaries so people can heal from traditions. He hopes to develop a peer-oriented and directed model.

El-Mekki, an elder activist and community volunteer, says that Muslim Wellness Foundation is onto something, “as soon as you start addressing Black issues, people start calling it divisive.” “People want us to be at peace without justice,” she said. “Nobody focuses on justice,” said Aisha- El-Mekki of the Quba Institute of Philadelphia. “They are looking for justice,” she said of her community.

Jones explained that many people on non-Black descent do not understand the threat level. “They ask why does it hurt so much?” he noted. “We are vigilant about it,” he said. It hurts when people do not understand why are we so traumatized, he shared.

The comraderie and joy in healing was contegious. “[The conference] has become so important to so many people, we can not compromise on the integrity of what we are trying to build,” says Mu’min Rashad.

Amina Salim is a Native and African American Muslim who came the conference from Ellicott City, Md. After seeing a Facebook post. She came with her husband, Ahmein Watson, a mental health professional, who runs Healthy Lives, a mental health and drug facility in Baltimore. “We need this in the Muslim community – mental health issues are still taboo,” she said. “There are so many divorces, losing children, it is a whole array of issues that we are dealing with and no one wants to say we need help.”

It was Mosi Peyton’s first time at the conference. “Helps remind us we talk about things from an Islamic perspective. Islam encompasses all those things.” It has been refreshing to see that. Peyton enjoyed the friendship and comfortable environment.

“I like local grassroots feel to it,” said Peyton. His wife, Dr Maisha was speaking this year but he said he would come again next year even if she was not a presenter.

“It has been a resurgence of my iman seeing men, women and children, indigenous and from the diaspora to be speaking and looking into mental issues of those born in America and to how to resolve the pain and issues,” said Imam Hassan Cisse of Detroit. “The greatest issue [addressed] was recognizing what media has given us and not being apologetic in believing in myself as an African American in Islam. I was denying my heritage in such a way that I have to mimic another cultural heritage of Islam. That was really empowering for me.”