Sekou Jackson is used to the questions: Why does he need to leave a work meeting to pray? Don’t black Muslims convert to Islam in jail? Why would you even want to be Muslim?
“It’s kind of a double whammy to be African-American and Muslim,” said Mr. Jackson, who studies the Navy at the National Academy of Science in Washington. “You’re going to be judged.”
Mr. Jackson’s struggle may have gotten harder when the FBI on Wednesday raided a Detroit-area warehouse used by a Muslim group. The FBI said the group’s leader preached hate against the government, trafficked in stolen goods and belonged to a radical group that wants to establish a Muslim state in America. The imam of the group’s mosque, a black American named Luqman Ameen Abdullah, was killed in a shootout with agents. The FBI says he resisted arrest and fired a gun.
On Friday, the Masjid Al-Haqq mosque in Detroit, where Mr. Abdullah served as prayer leader, dismissed as “utterly preposterous” the FBI’s allegations that Mr. Abdullah was part of a radical Islamic group. Mr. Abdullah was a “recognized and respected member of numerous mainstream Muslim organizations and leadership bodies,” the mosque said.
“The slanderous allegations of his being a national leader of a radical Islamic sect is utterly preposterous. … These allegations are contrary to what we as a community stand for,” the mosque said.
Although the FBI was careful to say those arrested in Detroit were not mainstream Muslims, it has accused other black Muslims of similar crimes, most recently in May, when four men were charged with plotting to blow up New York synagogues and shoot down a military plane.
Yet the Muslim faith continues to convert many average black Americans, who say they are attracted by Islam’s emphasis on equality, discipline and family.
“The unique history African-Americans have faced, we’re primed for accepting Islam,” said Mr. Jackson, 31, who grew up in a secular home and converted to Islam when he was about 18.
“When someone comes to you with a message that everyone is equal, that the only difference is the deeds that they do, of course people who have been oppressed will embrace that message,” he said. “It’s a message of fairness.”
It was a message of black pride in the face of dehumanizing prejudice that launched Islam in America in the 1930s.
Created by a mysterious man named Wallace Fard, the “Lost-Found Nation of Islam” strayed far from the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, but its mixture of self-reliance, black supremacy and white demonization resonated with many blacks. Some 30 years later, Malcolm X began the black movement toward traditional Islam when he left the Nation of Islam, went on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and proclaimed that all whites were not evil.
In 1975, the Nation split into two factions: a larger group that embraced orthodox Sunni practices, and another, led by Louis Farrakhan, that maintained the Nation’s separatist ideology.
Today, it is difficult to determine the number of Muslims in America. A 2007 Pew survey estimated 2.35 million, of whom 35 percent were black. Lawrence Mamiya, a Vassar College professor of religion and African studies and an expert on American Islam, said Muslim organizations count about 6 million members, a third of them black.
Most black Muslims are orthodox Sunnis who worship in about 300 mosques across the country, Mr. Mamiya said. The second-largest group follows Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, which has about 100 mosques in America, abroad and in U.S. prisons, Mr. Mamiya said.
He said the third-largest group is the Ummah, founded by Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, the black activist formerly known as H. Rap Brown. The group has about 40 or 50 mosques. The organization targeted in the raid near Detroit was part of the Ummah, the FBI said.
“The vast majority of African-American Muslims are using the religion to strengthen their spirituality,” said Mr. Mamiya, who has interviewed many black Muslim leaders and congregants. He said the number of black Muslims is growing, but not as fast as before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Few white Americans convert to Islam “because the tendency is to view Islam as foreign,” he said. “For African-Americans, it’s part of their African heritage. There’s a long tradition [in Africa]. … It moves them away from the Christianity they saw as a slave religion, as the religion that legitimized their slavery.”