New leader steps forward to revive Islamic group

N.J. cleric vows to unite blacks, other Muslims

Three months after W. Deen Mohammed resigned from the Chicago-based American Society of Muslims, a preacher from New Jersey has vowed to reconstitute the group and accelerate the integration of its 1.5 million African-American members into the country’s broader Islamic community.

Mustafa El-Amin, a longtime Mohammed supporter and the imam of the Ibrahim mosque in Newark, said Tuesday that he will make a formal announcement on Dec. 21 at Rutgers University of his plan to revive the 28-year-old society.

Leaders in the group and Islamic experts said it is uncertain if El-Amin, who has Mohammed’s support, can revive the society. Since Mohammed’s resignation in late August, many imams have left the organization, and it is unclear if they will return or form breakaway groups.

“I will openly state my intentions and ask others to join me in what I understand and know to be Imam Mohammed’s hopes for the ASM,” said El-Amin, a high school history teacher. “Whatever shortcomings there were, we will correct. I will continue the commentary on the Koran and the life of the prophet Mohammed, and I will stress that [Muslims in America] are one Islamic community, although we have distinct backgrounds.”

Mohammed’s unexpected resignation at the group’s annual convention in Chicago left the organization rudderless. In the weeks that followed, key leaders resigned from various councils that run the association’s day-to-day affairs. This effectively dissolved the organization, which Mohammed founded in 1975, when he took the radical step of aligning the Nation of Islam, founded by his father, Elijah Mohammed, with mainstream Sunni Islamic principles shared by most American Muslims.

He then renamed the group the American Society of Muslims. That prompted Louis Farrakhan, now head of the Nation of Islam, to split from the movement and revive the separatist beliefs advanced by Elijah Mohammed.

Although W. Deen Mohammed said in August that he did not want to see his group dismantled, he also said he resigned out of frustration that most of an estimated 1,000 imams nationwide refused to adopt his more mainstream Sunni religious ideas.

Bridging the divide

Over the last several decades, African-American Muslims have felt they were sidelined by the United States’ estimated 6 million immigrant Muslims from countries including Pakistan, Egypt, Iran and Lebanon. Differences exist over the interpretation and application of Islamic beliefs. But in recent years, leaders from both sides, such as Mohammed, have tried to bridge the divide.

Mohammed could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But his aides and society activists said he supports El-Amin’s efforts to reconstitute the organization.

“W. Deen Mohammed is supporting Imam Mustafa El-Amin, and this is encouraging,” said Najee Ali, Imam Mohammed’s son-in-law and director of the Los Angeles-based Project Islamic Hope.

“Everyone is talking about Mustafa El-Amin’s plans,” Ali said. “He is attempting to keep the organization intact that Elijah Mohammed and others fought so hard to establish. Unless you have an organization with goals and objectives, how can you empower people? Without an organized structure to the ASM, it will have no purpose.”

El-Amin said the resignations of leaders within the group since August will enable him to start the organization anew and correct past mistakes.

“Now there is no structure. Everyone is running their individual mosques on their own. My job will be to create interest again, and I have received many phone calls and support from members saying they are glad I am doing this,” El-Amin said.

El-Amin took out an advertisement in this week’s edition of the Muslim Journal, the society’s newspaper, announcing his intention to lead the organization. The ad features a photograph taken in October of El-Amin sitting next to Mohammed, who holds a Koran. Observers said the photo was a signal from Mohammed that he supports El-Amin’s efforts.

But society leaders said Mohammed’s support is not the only factor that will determine if El-Amin succeeds in re-establishing the group.

“Mustafa El-Amin will get some support for reorganizing the American Society of Muslims, and we wish him well” said Ayesha Mustafa, a close aide to Mohammed and the editor of the Muslim Journal. “But many imams have begun to re-evaluate the structure of the American Society of Muslims and they are still going through this reassessment. They still follow Imam Mohammed.”

Ex-leader’s power remains

Some Islamic experts noted that W. Deen Mohammed is likely to remain the spiritual leader of the society and wield influence over the faithful, even if a new leader begins running the organization’s affairs.

“It’s hard to resign from a movement because you’re the charismatic leader that people follow,” said professor Lawrence Mamiya of Vassar College. “Mohammed could be waiting to see who will follow [El-Amin]. What he and others were trying to do is establish Sunni Islam more solidly, but it will take the next generation.”

Some imams, when informed of El-Amin’s coming announcement to lead the society, said they were likely to support him if he continues Mohammed’s effort to integrate African-American Muslims with immigrant Sunni Muslims in the United States.

“I am not knowledgeable about Mustafa El-Amin’s plans, but if he continues to integrate us with Sunni Islam, that’s fine,” said Abdullah El-Amin, executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan, a group of 40 mosques that include followers from Iran, Pakistan and many other Islamic countries.

“Islam is the belief in one God, regardless of your ethnicity. The more interaction and interrelationship between African-American Muslims and immigrant Muslims, the better,” Abdullah El-Amin said.

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