HUTCHINSON: John Allen Muhammad Is African American Muslims' Worst Nightmare

Authorities have repeatedly said that they have found no link between John Allen Muhammad and Al Qaeda, and if he is in fact the beltway sniper, that they have as yet have no clue as to why he launched his one-man terror rampage. No matter. African Americans fear a witchunt.

A stray and uncorroborated remark that John Allan Muhammad reportedly made expressing sympathy with the September 11 terror hijackers, and the report that he may have been part of the security contingent at the 1995 Million Man March sponsored by the Nation of Islam was more than enough to ignite another orgy of media and public speculation that black Muslims of one faction or another fueled the murderous rampage.

There is as yet no evidence that Muhammad was driven over the edge by anything other than personal rage and frustration over failed marriages, tangled personal relationships, sour business dealings, and a rocky military career. And there is as yet no way to tell when, where, or even if Muhammad did actually convert to Islam. Still, it's no secret that thousands of blacks have converted to militant Islam while serving prison time, or while serving in the military.

There are now an estimated two million African American Muslims. Prison converts make up only a minuscule percentage of that number. The militant Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan, no longer commands the numbers and influence it did in past years. The overwhelming majority of African American Muslims are orthodox or Sunni Muslims and they have repeatedly denounced the Nation of Islam's past brand of racial exclusiveness as antithetical to the racially egalitarian tenets of Islam.

African American Muslims, including Farrakhan, vigorously condemned the September 11 attacks. African American Muslim leaders were nearly unanimous in their denunciation of the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, as a traitor and a renegade to Islam. There are hundreds of black Muslims in the U.S. military, and there have been no reported acts of disloyalty on their part. John Allen Muhammad had long since been discharged from active military service.

Many African American Muslims are infuriated at the media's refusal to make distinctions between them and extremist Muslim groups, or distinctions between them and immigrant Muslims. In most urban areas, African American Muslims have established their own mosques, and rarely socialize or interact with immigrant Muslims. Indeed, many gripe that immigrant Muslims often display the same racial prejudices and insensitivities as many whites toward blacks, including hostility to black Muslims. But the intra-religious misunderstandings likely can be chalked up to cultural differences, not racism, and more and more Muslim groups are making greater efforts to reach out to each other across cultural, linguistic and racial gaps.

Nevertheless unlike immigrant Muslims, African-American Muslims still regard the issues of police abuse, failing public schools, HIV-AIDS, gang and drug violence as their major issues of concern. The Arab-Israeli conflict, Afghanistan, and Iraq are way down on the totem pole of priorities. African American Muslims quickly joined with other Americans in deep mourning at the murders of the thousands in the September 11 terror attacks. Many of the victims were African Americans and Muslims.

The beltway sniper's victims too apparently were chosen indiscriminately. He targeted women, children, Latinos, a Haitian, and African Americans. One of the victims was Kenneth H. Bridges, the founder of Matah, a national black economic self-help organization. Bridges participated in the very same Million Man March at which Muhammad purportedly helped provide security.

It's not inconceivable that some African American Muslims feel intense rage, bitterness and frustration toward Washington's Middle East policy and U.S. racial practices. Yet with the arrest of Muhammad, many African American Muslims are scared stiff that this could cast great suspicion on them, or worse yet ignite a disastrous witch hunt against them and foreign-born Muslims. After Muhammad's arrest, some Muslim leaders in the Washington D.C. area said that they had already received threatening phone calls.

A major aim of foreign-born or homegrown terrorists is to sow rancor, discord and suspicion among Americans, in short to turn Americans against each other. We don't know whether that was one of Muhammad's objectives or not, but it's an objective that should never be attained.

Hutchinson (EHutchi344@aol.com) is a columnist and the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).

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