ISIS and the Nation of Islam?

Above Image: A crowd of Black Muslims applaud during Elijah Muhammad’s annual Saviors’ Day message in Chicago in 1974.


In respond to my recently posting a story on Facebook about an ISIS supporter in Phoenix (apparently an African-American male who had converted to Islam) who was searching for a midnight mass he could attack over Christmas, a friend asked me the following question.

“Is there a concern that black Americans, who feel marginalized in society, will be a segment of the population ISIS may try to manipulate and recruit? The Nation of Islam is still very active in the US, estimates of around 20,000 or more followers. And while I can distinguish between the Nation and ISIS, I am concerned that in our current political and social climate more African American males will be led to believe they are not valued in Western society. We have the case you have posted here, I think there was a potential plot in Miami a few months ago. I just worry if we do not address the appeal of ISIS to a disenfranchised group of vulnerable Americans, we may see more and more cases of this.”

There are many issues to consider here and I admit plainly that I am no expert on the Nation of Islam, how it indoctrinates its adherents, and the impact of black militancy or black nationalism ideology in the production of terrorists. As a result, let me address some of these points in more general terms and then tentatively theorize a bit about the details.

First, ISIS and other groups promoting extremist forms of Islam have demonstrated the ability to appeal broadly to people of all social groups, economic classes, races, and ethnicities around the globe. They have recruited anywhere around 30,000 foreign fighters to swell their ranks in Syria and Iraq over the last few years as they have fought to establish their “caliphate.” But those are just the numbers that gave up their lives at home, including thousands living in the western world, to go and join them on the ground in Syria or Iraq. A much larger support network of sympathizers made their ability to join ISIS possible and disturbingly high numbers of Muslims have expressed either relative indifference or outright support for ISIS in a number of Muslim countries around the world. Indeed, there are estimates that, at one point, ISIS’s propaganda reached 100 million people around the globe each day and there is no question that the group has armed supporters, sometimes numbering in the thousands (Libya, Nigeria, Egypt, etc…), in at least 20 countries, carrying out attacks against their many perceived enemies.

In the case of the United States, at one point there were over 1000 investigations of ISIS sympathizers or activity by law enforcement agencies in all 50 states. Moreover, hundreds of ISIS supporters living in the U.S. have fled to join ISIS or were arrested for trying. Because the dynamics of leaving the U.S., or other countries, is often illegal and expensive, making it complicated to travel to Iraq or Syria, ISIS has shifted tactics in calling for its supporters to commit acts of terrorism in their home countries, rather than risk being arrested for traveling to the areas they control in Syria and Iraq. As a result, there have been around 100 ISIS related arrests across the U.S. over the last few years as well as a number of terrorists attacks carried out in the name of ISIS. The most notable of these is an attack on a gay bar in Orlando that resulted in 49 deaths, but others include the notorious attack in San Bernardino and, more recently, the stabbing of eleven people at Ohio State University by an ISIS supporter. Also, as in the case of the Phoenix man I mentioned at the top, there have been scores of Americans planning terror attacks that, fortunately, were arrested in the planning stages.

In response to my friend’s question, I wondered how many of the U.S. ISIS supporters (either those planning or carrying out attacks) might have connections to the Nation of Islam or similar groups that promote black militancy or nationalism. I don’t think there is anyway to know a precise or certain number. While one can establish if an attack is religiously motivated by the rhetoric used by the attacker (e.g. the shout “Allahu Akbar” during the attack and previously pledged their allegiance to ISIS), delineating to what degree such a supporter may have also been inspired or influenced by militant black ideology, if at all, often requires a lot more access to information than we usually get in reporting by mainstream news outlets.

For example, in the article I posted at the top of this thread, which inspired my friend’s question about the Nation of Islam, it nowhere mentions that the man arrested for plotting to attack a midnight mass in Phoenix was connected with the Nation of Islam or black nationalism. My friend, and I in my initial response, just assumed it based on some clues in the article. For example, he is black with an anglicized name originally, later adopting an Arab name; he wanted to attack Jews when the Nation of Islam is notoriously anti-Semitic; he hates the U.S. government, etc…, but these are not solely the traits of those associated with the Nation of Islam, but also usually apply to Islamic extremists more generally, whether here in the U.S. or overseas. Since nowhere does the article explicitly connect the suspect to the Nation of Islam (specifically) or even black nationalism (more broadly). It is for these reasons that it is not always possible to state with certainty which ISIS supporters are also influenced by extreme black militancy or nationalism, which makes it a bit tougher to measure the extent of the problem and delineate between black nationalist motives and Islamist motives, as they typically overlap and share much in common ideologically.

Yet there are divisions between the Nation of Islam and the traditional schools of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad obviously did not found Islam with modern black nationalist goals in mind, and so for the Nation of Islam to make it the center piece of their ideology often results in more traditional Muslims questioning the authenticity of the Nation of Islam as genuinely Islamic. The Nation of Islam’s teaching, for example, that white people were invented to be a race of “white devils” over 6000 years ago by a mad scientist named Yakub, is often viewed with ridicule by traditional Sunni and Shia Muslims, particularly millions of white Muslims, I suppose.

There are other problems orthodox Muslims have with the Nation of Islam. The NOI was originally founded in the 1930s by Wallace D. Fard, who appears to have been from Pakistan. Fard preached that African-Americans belonged to “the Tribe of Shabazz from the Lost Nation of Asia,” who by then had been enslaved in North America for more than three centuries. Fard mixed the belief systems of Islam with Black Nationalism and argued that African-Americans should prepare for a race war and argued that Christianity was an inferior religion for slave owners, apparently unaware of the the much larger and longer historical involvement of Muslim states and powers during the so-called Arab (and later Ottoman) Slave Trade, lasting from the 7th to 19th centuries.


Above Image: Map of Arab Slave Trade routes in Africa during the Middle Ages.

Indeed, ISIS is currently justifying its enslavement of Yazidis and others by pointing to the Qur’an and earlier traditions in Islam that encouraged the enslavement of one’s enemies and some at Al-Azhar University, perhaps the most prestigious institution of Sunni learning in the world, have expressed support for the idea.

In 1934 Fard reportedly disappeared, with his followers coming to believe he was an incarnation of Allah, and his birthday is now celebrated by some black Muslims as “Saviours’ Day” on February 26 each year. Viewing Fard as an incarnation of Allah is far from acceptable for most traditional Sunni Muslims, who would see it as a form of blasphemy.


Above Image: Nation of Islam portrait of Wallace Fard.

Moreover, if Muhammad and early Muslims were ever partial to any race or ethnicity, it was Arabs, not sub-Saharan Africans. Qur’ans translated into any language other than Arabic are not considered true Qur’ans, but only translations of the sacred text, which must be in Arabic. During the early Arab Conquest of the 7th and 8th centuries, when perhaps 2/3 of the Christian world was conquered and the entirety of the Persian Empire, a serious debate took place over whether or not non-Arabs could even become Muslims, as the Arab origins of Islam seemed so integral to the faith.

As for my friend’s original question, as a result of our “current political and social climate” (a reference to the recent Trump election, I think) will more “African-American males be led to believe they are not valued in Western society” and, consequently, will we see more and more cases of black Americans embracing ISIS and terrorism?

It’s obviously a political charged question on a number of fronts. To begin with, it suggests that blacks are worried about a Trump presidency and its effect on the current social climate. But keep in mind that some (but not all) American blacks fear the election of any Republican, regardless of who they might be. The political left took the opportunity to paint the last two Republican presidential candidates, John McCain and Mitt Romney, as “racist.” In hindsight, some on the left have regretted the use of such rhetoric now that Trump has been elected, whom they see as far worse on racial matters than McCain or Romney, as the seemingly careless use of charges of racism have apparently deadened their effectiveness. For some on the left, concerned about this very issue, it is a bit like the story of the boy who cried wolf. The boy made up stories about the presence of a wolf and when it finally happened that a real wolf appeared, nobody believed him. Even African-Americans as well, seem not to have been overly concerned by the candidacy of Trump as he did better among black voters in the 2016 election than past Republican presidential candidates. Obama had a 91 point advantage among blacks in the 2008 election, an 87 point advantage in the 2012 election, and Hillary Clinton had an 80% advantage against Trump. So American blacks overwhelmingly support the Democratic candidate or party, but many commentators have noticed that in the recent election Trump’s support among blacks went up comparatively.

Moreover, while the Nation of Islam’s 20,000 or so supporters are very vocal and catch a lot of media attention, they are not a significant portion of the black population in the U.S. Blacks represent around 13% of the U.S. population. In a nation of 320 million, that would come out to a bit under 42 million people. If the Nation of Islam has only 20,000 or so members, then the Nation of Islam has a membership of far less than 1% of the black U.S. population. Moreover, most American blacks are overwhelmingly Christians, deeply religious in many quarters, while fewer than 1% consider themselves Muslim, and an even smaller sub-set belong to the Nation of Islam version of Islam.


But let’s assume that my friend was not referring to the Trump election, which may be the case, and instead was referring to the apparent deterioration of race relations in the U.S. in recent years (e.g. Ferguson, violent protests over police shootings, rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, targeted assassinations of police officers (white or otherwise) by black extremists, polls demonstrating that Americans see race relations at a low point, etc…). In that case, obviously the extreme and irresponsible rhetoric from some could contribute to violence. Indeed, there are some indications that it might already have done so, as a number of police officers have been slain simply for the fact that they are police officers, or in some cases simply because they were (more specifically) white police officers. Moreover, Islamic extremists, including ISIS, have seized on such efforts to try to win recruits and sympathizers to their side from the black community in the U.S., and in the case of the Phoenix suspect it seems ISIS’s propaganda clearly struck a cord, as he is reported to have posted on his Google Plus account in October, “We need to get down with this ISIS shit.” But based on his background, as provided in the story, it does not seem that ISIS was the cause of his violence or anger, but rather his embrace of ISIS’ ideology was a symptom of his pre-existing anger that had been in development long before he ever became familiar with ISIS.

But another aspect of my friend’s question used terms like “marginalized,” “disenfranchised,” and “vulnerable” to describe American blacks, suggesting (I assume) that the various types of hardships they suffer in modern U.S. society risks turning some of them into ISIS supporting terrorists. I have often felt uncomfortable about assigning terrorist acts to such causes, as such arguments only seem to go so far. There are millions of extremely poor Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and others, often disenfranchised, vulnerable, and marginalized in the countries they live in, who do not engage in terrorism on anywhere near the same scale as we see among Muslims. As Theodore Dalrymple wrote in the wake of terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, “After all, impoverished and unemployed Christian Congolese, of whom there are many in Belgium, are not blowing themselves up in the airport and the metro.”

To be clear, I am referring to scale. There are acts of terrorism by Christians, Hindus, and others that one can point to, but they are far less common and nowhere on the same worldwide scale as one sees with acts of terror carried out by Muslims. Systematic studies, such as the Global Terrorism Index, which indexes thousands of attacks each year, have shown that other groups (even when all combined) pale in comparison to Muslims in the commission of worldwide acts of terrorism or violent religious extremism. If poverty, disenfranchisement, or vulnerability were the criteria by which one could determine who will become a terrorist, then many Christian minorities living in the Middle East and North Africa, for example, should daily be carrying out bombings and attacks against the Muslim majorities that often discriminate against them (or even persecutes them) in a far more significant way than American blacks are impacted in the United States. Instead, it seems to be the opposite, as anyone following the news on such a topic will note that Middle Eastern Christians are overwhelmingly the victims of terrorism by the majority rather than the ones committing the acts of terror. So there are important additional dynamics that need to go into the mix beyond marginalization, which in itself it not enough.

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Above images: Recent headlines of persecution of Christians in Libya and Egypt.

But back to my friend’s question; Will American blacks be more susceptible to the propaganda of ISIS for the reasons considered above? I wonder if the question itself could not be interpreted as a bit patronizing? If I were black and a white liberal were asking if I feel more susceptible to the lure or ISIS propaganda, I might find it annoying. As the Washington Post columnist and speech writer Michael Gearson has argued, such otherwise good willed comments may reflect “The soft bigotry of low expectations.”  I’d imagine this would be the case if I were to ask the same question of the black Marines I once served with, who love their country and became Marines (in particular) to defend it precisely against ISIS and groups like them. I think they would definitely be annoyed, or even offended. But my friend’s question was only asked in the wake of the arrest of an apparent black militant convert to Islam who claimed to have been inspired by ISIS, so it is a real issue and a fair question and, knowing my friend as I do, I know there was not any ill intent in asking it. Indeed, it is important not to shy away from such questions.

My response?

I can’t predict the future. Historians are notoriously bad fortune tellers. But if I were to speculate, I doubt there will be any significant impact on the degree of violence by extreme black militants during the Trump era. Such violence, in the wake of the killing of so many police officers, for example, already seems to be high, as Trump enters office. The currently existing high level of violence is not because of Trump, but rather due to a number of other complex social factors and incidents that have taken place over the last few years. Trump could make it worse, of course, depending on what he does once in office, but he has proven to be unpredictable, already seeming to reverse course on a number of issues that he campaigned on (see examples here, here, and here). So Trump the campaigner very well may be quite different than Trump the president. Moreover, as suggested by black voting patterns in the recent election, blacks in general do not seem to have been overly concerned about Trump’s candidacy.

There will undoubtedly be more terrorist attacks in the United States in the next four to eight years, regardless of who is president. It is also certainly possible that some of them will be carried out by black militants who embrace a Nation of Islam style worldview and perhaps can be triggered by ISIS style propaganda, but whether or not the level of this particular type of ideologically inspired violence will increase beyond its current levels is ultimately anyone’s guess.