Interview with Imam Plemon El-Amin

February 19, 2016

Photo by Eyesome Productions
Photo by Eyesome Productions

MPAC talked with it's newest Board Member, Atlanta Muslim leader Imam Plemon El-Amin to discuss the state of the American Muslim community and the contributions of the African American Muslim community to our nation.

MPAC: What do you feel regarding the state of relations between the African American Muslim community and the 'immigrant' Muslim community?

Imam Plemon: I don't think it's bad. It could be better, but I don't think it's bad. Nowadays, it's a little more difficult to generalize because it's a different relationship between the generations as well. The younger generation has a different relationship than the older immigrant generation with the African American community. I think that the relationship [between the younger generations] is better because it has less history. When the younger immigrant community talks about home, they're talking about America. Versus the older generation, when they're speaking of home, they're speaking of where their family came from. That's a natural divide there in terms of differences and priorities. But see, in the younger [generation], you don't have that. So I would say that the relationship of the under-40 immigrants and African Americans is much more connected than the over-40. But the over-40 has improved quite a bit since 9-11. I think it's mainly because the immigrant communities have sought out the African American communities because our history of civic and political involvement. 

In respect to the older immigrant generation and the African American Muslim community, what are some ways that we can work to improve the relations between the two groups?
The best way to bring the communities closer together is to do things together and to do those things together as equal partners. There is a difference in terms of the financials with the immigrant community versus the African American community. Too often the relationship has been about the immigrant community giving something to the African American community or the African American community asking for handouts from the immigrant community. So that is very problematic and we need to stop looking for handouts and we need to stop seeing on the other side that the role of that community is handouts- it's really partnerships. Both communities have distinctive histories and capabilities that need to be shared with one another to benefit the whole. 

What are some examples of what these partnerships would look like?
I would say in the immigrant community you have a higher percentage of professionals such as doctors, lawyers, tech people, engineers and in the African American community you have a high percentage of people involved in social aspects- social work, community work,  education and those types of things. So it can be a perfect partnership from the political standpoint- when you bring a diverse group of people to voice their concerns and to express what they would like to see from a political standpoint, it means much more. If there is a diversity of people- professional folks, social folks, a lot of those kinds- as well as a diversity of races and ethnicities, then it makes a much more powerful impact. A politician operates on two things: basically those people who are able to donate and people who are able to vote, and the reality is that the immigrant community has a higher propensity to give financial assistance and the African American community is much more involved in voting and the social justice issues. It can be a great partnership. 

Is there a strong or growing Muslim presence in the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM)? 
I think there's a strong sentimental support, though I don't necessarily see as strong of a physical presence. We need to establish partnerships and allegiances to support our faith but sometimes it is made difficult because there are certain things we’re not going to do or not going say. On one hand we're very conservative, but on the other hand we have a global perspective that can be regarded as being radical. Because we are a minority, a minority can recognize injustices quicker than a majority so we do recognize injustices. 

BLM is a different generation so it's a challenge. Everybody from the Civil Rights movement agrees with what's going on with BLM but they have some differences in how it's been done or how it’s being layered. I think the Muslim community is in a similar position. That's one of the challenges but we have to support people working for justice and equality. 

The Muslim history in America, which is more related to the African American community is not a history of protest, it's a history of trying to make things clear. [Making clear] the wrongs being done and the injustices, and then making a point that we are not going to stand by this. We were on that side on the Civil Rights movement. We weren't protestors- we were more like a do-for-self type of community.

Do you feel that the African American Muslim experience and history is adequately represented in the overall American Muslim experience, or in our national conventions, etc?
I don't think it is and almost everything in how we would define an American Muslim as a community, almost every aspect of that was pioneered by the African American community-- for example, calling the adhan out loud in the neighborhood, nobody else was doing that. The African American community developed that openness.

I think it's been the African American community that really forged Muslims in America and they see themselves as voting citizens. The only Congressmen we have are African American Muslim congressmen, and even asking for the right to take off for jummah [are examples of pioneering]. The African American mosques were the first where non-Muslims could feel comfortable coming through and for the most part it's really just African American mosques that women feel comfortable in. It's changing, but it's changing slowly. 

What is the most unique aspect of African American Muslim history that has contributed to our nation's experience?
African American Muslims have really influenced not only the culture of Muslims in America but also the culture of Americans. In this day and time the long dresses have sort of completely disappeared in the fashion world. Because of the style of African Americans, the long dresses and  the hair wraps stay in the culture. Another example is the long shorts in professional and college basketball- that came from the Muslim community. We have several African American Muslim communities, what they do is pray and play basketball, and because of the sunnah of the Prophet they would never wear shorts above the knees. That's a direct influence that came from the African American Muslim community and now everybody has these long shorts. If you look back in the history, in the old games you'd say “Wow, those are short shorts”. 

The biggest influence would be the boldness and pride to present ourselves as Muslim. We have this pride in this position of saying “I am Muslim” to everybody even in our dress and the way we carry ourselves. It's in the front not in the background, and that carries out in the mosques and the dress of the women and even to bumper stickers. In Philadelphia everybody has a head wrap on and all the men have short pants. Half of them are not even Muslim but the Muslims have affected the culture to shape what's hip and what’s cool. That's one of the biggest influences- that we have put Islam in the public and it's not something that any of us have to hide.



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