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Hijrah to the Hood: Renewing Malcolm's Call 50 Years Later

02/23/2015 03:11 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015

If Malcolm were alive today he would be able to look at the incidents of hate, fear and violence towards Arab and other Muslims in places such as Chicago's Southwest Suburbs since 9/11 and during the last several months and say, "I told you so!"

A week before his assassination, Malcolm X penned a spirited response to a letter from a group of Muslims writing to him from overseas concerned that his ongoing attention to the affairs of black people amounted to lingering Black Nationalist sensibilities incompatible with Orthodox Islam. In his response, written the night his house was firebombed, Malcolm beautifully refuted the argument deploying references to Islamic tradition and challenged the immigrant Muslim tendency to police the beliefs of African American Muslims. In the letter, Malcolm also challenged Muslims migrating to the US for settling in the newly formed white suburbs as opposed to places like Harlem. Malcolm's not so subtle point: Don't lecture me about Islam and issues of race in America, while your people are running into the arms of a white America that has no love for Muslims or their religion.

Today, some American Muslims are grappling with aspects of Malcolm's challenge five decades ago. Over the last several weeks, no less than a dozen incidents of hate crimes have been reported across the country. From the shocking execution of three dynamic young Chapel Hill Muslims, who captured the hearts of so many across the globe, to a Muslim women being cut off and approached by a gun-waving white man yelling racial epithets at a busy intersection in a Southwest Side Chicagoland Suburb.

Many Muslims of immigrant descent are becoming more sensitive to a reality underpinning the pain and anguish animating the movement fueling #Blacklivesmatter. The pain, of course, is not just about one incident of police brutality, but is intensified by the centuries-old project of institutionalized racism that continues today through things like mass-incarceration and police brutality. Similarly, the growing industry generating fear and anxiety about Muslims across the country, coupled with the horrendous images of Islam coming out of groups like ISIS, are creating a dehumanizing affect that will increasingly render Muslims, particularly of Arab and immigrant descent, targets.

Hijra in Arabic means migration and in Muslim history refers to the significant date of migration of Muslims fleeing religious persecution from Mecca to Medinah. My Hijrah to the Hood call is not an unrealistic expectation that immigrant Muslim communities and their children are going to abandon the tremendous infrastructure they have been building for the last four decades to settle in the inner-city. Yet, in reflecting on the Malcolm legacy 50 years after his assassination, my call is to deepen our commitment to repairing, rebuilding and re-igniting hope and mercy in these neighborhoods across the US for three overarching reasons:

1) Our roots are in the 'Hood:

While there is important reason to acknowledge the presence of Muslims during the transatlantic slave trade and Antebellum South, the modern roots of Islam in America began less than a century ago in inner-city communities such as Detroit, Harlem, Chicago and Cleveland. These were the destinations of the great migration North, and these were also the sites where Garveyites and early Indian Muslim immigrants, like the Ahmediyas, mixed and engaged one another around a different vision for the world. It's not a coincidence that nowhere in America are Muslims more comfortably allowed to be themselves then in inner-city neighborhoods. We should champion, organize in and develop these neighborhoods as the living testimony to the legacy of those historic roots.

2) We do a lot of "our" business in the 'Hood:

Over the last three decades many immigrant Muslim families continue to be economically bounded to these spaces. Gas stations, corner stores, food and liquor establishments, fish and chicken restaurants, tax services and an array of other businesses in low-income black communities across the country are still owned and operated by immigrant Muslim families. Bottom line: Irrespective of how you feel about them or how disconnected you are from these businesses, they represent a significant part of the American Muslims community's business infrastructure and we all should be more invested in the neighborhoods these entities subsist off.

3) Our greatest contributions to America are in the 'Hood:

Nowhere was the promise and transformational force of Islam and the American Muslim community more on display than in some of the most dilapidated urban neighborhoods across America. These are places were heroic efforts to organize, sustain, rebuild and heal communities in the face of massive budget cutbacks, disinvestment, middle-class white and black flight, and a range of other factors left neighborhoods reeling. American Muslim efforts over the decades, mostly led by African American Muslim communities have done some phenomenally inspiring work. This is not simply about rebuilding destroyed communities; it's also about rebuilding the fabric of a nation that is still coming terms with deep racial and economic disparities. Bottom line: This commitment is still our greatest contribution to America and, in turn, the greatest contribution to future generations of American Muslims searching for meaning and place in turbulent times.

Again, Hijrah to the Hood is a call to use the reflection on Malcolm's legacy this week, and the life of giants like Imam Warith Deen Muhammed, to collectively elevate a shared commitment to this vision. In the often cited letter Malcolm wrote to Betty Shabazz during his pilgrimage to Mecca, he boldly declared that "the spiritual path of truth" would be "the only way left to America to ward off the disaster that racism inevitably must lead to." The vision that animated those words sought to agitate, inspire and uplift our sense of hope in dark times. Now more than ever, this type of migration of our priorities and renewed focus can provide Muslims with a more dynamic and spiritually-rooted response to the challenges and opportunities of the current moment. As we reflect on the larger legacy of one of Muslim America's greatest martyrs (shaheeds), I still believe this is a vision worth living and dying for.