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Theology Thursdays: Exclusive Q & A With Imam Najee Ali, Founder of Islamic H.O.P.E. Re: Islam, Activism, Leadership, and Politics

Over the last few years, it appears that virtually everywhere you turn on an issue affecting the grassroots or image of the Black community, you will find the voice and presence of Imam Najee Ali and Islamic H.O.P.E. - the Non-profit national civil rights organization he founded and co-directs. We have described him as "relentless" in his efforts. He is arguably emerging as the most consistent Black activist based in the West Coast of the United States.

Increasingly loved and "hated" for his work; many Black political leaders, fellow activists, opinion leaders, and even multi-national corporations are not quite sure what to make of the trailblazing Activist-Imam, who simultaneously intrigues and frightens them.

While a great many people are aware of the high-profile stances taken by Najee Ali there has been very little available in the public domain offering a picture of the mind, heart and spirit that stands behind and gives birth to those public positions; and which guides his ground-level vision of community development.

Imam Ali granted an exclusive and rare look into his thinking and beliefs that shape his version of civic participation - a brand of activism which merges his reality as a Black man in American with his membership in the Islamic ummah. In the process, the discussion covered a wide-range of topics from his view of the recent resignation of his father-in-law, Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, from the helm of the American Society of Muslims; the steps toward reconciliation between Imam Mohammed and Minister Louis Farrakhan; his relationship with Russell Simmons and Rev. Al Sharpton and the future of political Islam in America.

**** By far, you have been one of the few national activists we know of, working on the ground and cyber levels, that is able to make both strong moral and political arguments relevant to our community's socioeconomic reality. In what way does your practice of Islam inform your activism?

Najee Ali: I doubt very seriously if I would even be alive today had it not been for my acceptance of Islam, while incarcerated at Tehachapi State prison in California on an armed robbery charge in 1992 . The two years I served were an eye opening and humbling experience.

After reading the autobiography of Malcolm X, and in combination with my study of the Holy Quran and life of Prophet Muhammad while attending Islamic services, I embraced my new faith with tremendous vigor and energy.

Upon my release In 1994 I was determined to try and make up for the mistakes and wrongs I had committed by being a servant to the people - performing simple acts of charity such as feeding the homeless, visiting sick children and volunteering at the AIDS clinic.

Muslims have certain obligations that we must fulfill if we truly want to serve Allah. I was determined that I wanted to do good, and help my community in South Central L.A. end gang violence between the crips and the bloods; fight our social ills and put an end to poverty and police brutality.

It is the Islamic principles and instructions that are in the Holy Quran that always guide our organizations work, combined by following the example of our holy Prophet Muhammad (May God be pleased with him) it has served as a blueprint of success for us. Without Allah and Islam I would be nothing. Tell us if you can, of the status of your campaigns that have been directed at opinion leaders in the Hip-Hop community like Russell Simmons, Snoop Dogg and Nelly for their portrayal of images that you see as disrespectful to either Blacks or women?

Najee Ali: That's an excellent question, I was very upset with Lil' Kim and Russell who owns the magazine One World in which Lil Kim posed half nude while wearing an Islamic hijab. It seemed to mock Muslim sisters and Islam.

There were Muslim brothers and Muslims sisters nationwide who were outraged by this magazine cover.

As an Imam, I was obligated to at least say something, During the past 10 years as an activist-Imam I have spoken out successfully on numerous issues and organized various social justice campaigns. If I had been silent on this issue I would have been banned the from the Mosque. (smile)

We asked for an apology from Russell, and Lil Kim on behalf of those Muslims who were offended, but for whatever reason that didn't happen. We began to feel like our community was being disrespected even more. And I don't want to reopen old wounds but I then publicly became critical of Russell and Lil Kim.

Russell and I had a war of words a few months later concerning my organizations stand against the now canceled hip hop show Platinum. Russell supported the show. I chose not too support the show until it could be improved.

I saw the comments that Russell made concerning me on the BET website concerning my opposition, which I didn't particularly care for. I responded immediately with my own comments concerning Russell which I had posted on our website, gave to the media, and anyone else that wanted to listen.

I was so upset with Russell, I called Rev. Al Sharpton who then became a mediator and told me that Russell was a good brother and is doing a lot of good. So I let it go and moved on.

I actually met Russell Simmons for the first time in Washington D.C a couple of months ago during the Congressional Black Caucus weekend. I was leaving a White House reception in the company of one of my mentors, Imam Kashif.

As we both crossed the street a SUV had to stop for us and the red light. I looked towards the passenger side of the vehicle and I couldn't believe my eyes, sitting there was Russell Simmons.

I hesitated for half a second, I knew because we had mutual friends and relationships that our paths were going to cross one day, But I always imagined it would be tense and uncomfortable.

Then part of me was like, well, I need to get this over with. I immediately walked up to his car, with my hand extended and shook his hand and introduced myself.

I was nervous at first because I wasn't sure what his reaction would be. To my surprise he had a big grin on his face and shook my hand warmly and introduced me to his brother Rev Run who was sitting in the back seat.

We only talked for a brief minute, but in one minute our disagreements had been mended. I felt the warmth and sincerity in his voice. Russell told me we both wanted the same thing and that's to help and uplift our people, but sometimes there are different paths.

As The car drove off Imam Kashif remarked that it was the mercy and blessing of Allah bringing brothers back together who once were at odds. Now, Russell and I may have future disagreements, and a month later we did Concerning his support of Nelly's pimp juice, and my non support of this Pimp Juice product but its done now respectfully.

I respect what Nelly is trying to do by going into business ventures. My major complaint is simply the name of his product. According to Webster's dictionary A pimp is a man who solicits clients for a prostitute. I thought the name was demeaning and offensive to women and our community.

So we joined the efforts of Minster Paul Scott, hip hop activist Devon Holt, and community leaders across the nation in denouncing Pimp juice and calling for a boycott of this product until the name is changed.

We have been successful in removing Pimp Juice from various stores throughout the nation. The pimp culture that is being glorified by Ex-pimps such as Bishop Don Juan, rappers 50 Cent, Snoop, and others sends a dangerous, destructive and morally wrong message to our youth.

It is not my job to be friends with entertainers or anyone who sends these corrupt messages to children and our community. It is my responsibility and that of people of faith to speak out against it, and provide leadership with moral guidance.

Allah has blessed us with some triumphs most notably concerning Snoop Dogg, we were successful in removing him from a radio show he hosted in Los Angeles, and having him cut from the NBC Muppet's children's special that was aired last year.

How can Snoop, a gangster rapper, who admits he uses drugs, glorifies gang violence, and misogyny in his lyrics, and has starred in two porno videos have the nerve to think he can perform in a program aimed at children and keep his radio show?

I spoke out and began plans to march on the radio station and NBC - they immediately got rid of Snoop. Its that type of stand we need to take against other artists who harm our community, the sad thing is, that, like so many other confused rappers, he hasn't learned to respect himself or our black people.

I saw him at an awards show in Hollywood earlier this year strolling down the red carpet with two sisters at his side with dog leashes around there neck. It was disgusting and embarrassing for black people. What bothered me most is not so much what he did, its what we didn't do to criticize him.

As a community, he should have been exposed in JET, Ebony, BET; and the entire black press should have exposed him until he apologized.

He should have been run out of black America for doing that not just to the women and himself, but to black America's image across the world. You were quoted in several recent articles over the past few months about the decision of your father-in-law, Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, to retire or resign as leader of the American Society of Muslims (ASM). What are your thoughts on that decision by the Imam, as well as the interest expressed by Imam Mustafa-El-Amin to follow Imam Mohammed as the community's leader?

Najee Ali: Imam Mohammed's decision to retire from the American Society of Muslims was a surprise for many. I believe it will actually help the A.S.M.

For the last several years Imam Mohammad had committees and councils headed by various A.S.M. Imams and others that were supposed to actually get something done.

But nothing of substance ever got accomplished by these groups except to have meetings, whether it was the A.S.M. Monitoring team or the Islamic Affairs council. These groups were for the most part a complete failure. Too many Muslims were part of these groups who were more concerned with having a position.

Imam Mohammed, did a good job under the circumstances, hopefully he will have more time to focus on projects closer to home in Chicago. There currently is no proper place for his community to worship besides a store warehouse.

There is no Islamic school building dedicated to teaching children in the ASM community of Chicago. When you see the growth and development of Islamic schools and A.S.M. Mosques whether its Atlanta, Oakland, Los Angeles, New York or other parts of the country, everyone wonders what happened to Chicago. Imam Mohammed lives here and Muslims here have access to him more than any other community in the country. So you would think with them being so close to the knowledge and leader they would be the most advanced model community, instead its been the complete opposite. I would have retired too (smile).

It is sad and difficult to believe that the community the Honorable Elijah Muhammad established in Chicago has no Clara Muhammad school, and has become reduced to praying in rented hotels and store warehouses. No one even seems to mind. Because its been reduced to a community of largely senior citizens who don't have the strength or vision to go any further. They have become complacent and comfortable.

The young people there who could help save the community have been chased away by the pioneers and a leadership that doesn't want to see change or growth. They like celebrating their festivals and events in a warehouse, it makes me sick witnessing the ignorance and apathy of Muslims who are nothing but hanger-ons and flunkies who just want to be close to Imam Mohammed.

The A.S.M. needs a new beginning and purpose, the proposed effort by Imam Mustafa-El-Amin who is an educator and well known author to help reorganize the group is like a breath of fresh air.

I met him a couple of years ago. He seems sincere and has been a long time student and supporter of Imam Mohammad with all the qualifications needed to serve. His biggest challenge is to overcome those who will become jealous an envious of him.

Imam Mohammed should be commended for supporting younger leaders.

What made Dr. King great was that he mentored and developed leaders, such as Jesse Jackson, Ralph Aberthany, Andy Young, Walter Fauntroy, and Hosea Williams. Dr. King was murdered when he was just 39 years of age but look at the legacy of leaders he groomed and that came behind him to help complete his mission and work.

Imam Mohammed is 70 years old, he should want to leave a legacy of success behind and help Muslims who have the skills to complete his mission and work. Imam Mohammad's support Of Imam Mustafa to help lead the A.S.M. demonstrates how humble and unselfish he is in passing the baton. What are your thoughts on the desire expressed by both Imam Mohammed and Minister Farrakhan to reconcile - on many levels - and work closer together. Do you think that whatever theological differences may exist will be an insurmountable barrier?

Najee Ali: Imam Mohammed, and Minister Farrakhan desire to have unity between their respective communities. It has been a blessing, it demonstrates their wisdom.

Our people are living in a time of danger and uncertainty The last thing we need is a divided house. I don't care if you are N. O. I. Christian, Jehovah witness, Baptist, Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, or any other faith. If you are God-fearing and trying to live a righteous life, we need to find some common ground.

That common ground should be our Creator and our humanity. On the day of judgment God will settle our theological differences. We should look forward to working with all God-fearing people. It is said that the people of the book - who we know to be Christians - are closer to Muslims than any other faith.

So wouldn't it be logical that Minister Farrakhan and the N.O.I; and the A.S.M. community of Imam Mohammad be closer to each other?

The A.S.M. is the evolution of what the Honorable Elijah Muhammad started when he started his mission. The A.S.M. and N.O.I. will always have a link of brotherhood and common bond. We come from the same father and womb.

We are family, we have to be patient and accept each other. In our blood families we don't reject our Christian family members because they may pray a different way or have a different understanding than what we believe.

No of course not. We still love and respect them. At the end of the day they are still our family.

If you don't have family you don't have anything. Do you see the emergence of political Islam in the United States as a real possibility in the 2004 national elections? How would you describe the agenda of an Islamic voting bloc? Would it be a mixture of progressive, liberal, libertarian and conservative issues to use some of the ideological categories of the American political system? What would make it unique?

Najee Ali: It is critical that Muslims get involved politically at all levels. I was invited this year to join the American Muslim Taskforce on civil rights and elections. This is a diverse coalition comprised of every prominent Muslim organization in the country.

Our goals include conducting a nationwide coordinated voter registration campaign, the creation of a unified Muslim voter database, and organizing a civil rights strategy with a focus on fighting the USA Patriot Act. With the 2004 elections close at hand we have to have a collective strategy to unify around a candidate that will deliver for our community.

President Bush issues out press releases were he says that Islam is a peaceful religion. But his administration actions toward Muslims are anything but peaceful. They have attacked and murdered innocent people from Afghanistan to Iraq; we have a U.S Attorney General John Ashcroft, who has become the most dangerous man in America locking up American citizens with out evidence and violating there civil rights.

The 2000 Presidential elections highlighted the political division in the Muslim community. The Muslim international community and organizations decided to endorse Bush. Imam Mohammed, and other Prominent African-American Muslim leaders and groups - we endorsed Vice President Gore. We couldn't establish an Islamic voting bloc.

I believe the groups and leaders who supported Bush in 2000 have learned from their mistakes and there will be more of a dialogue with African American Muslim political activists before we decide on a candidate in 2004. Our Islamic political agenda has to be one that does not conflict with our religious values.

We can't support gay marriages, abortion, or any issues that are un-Islamic; we have to also put pressure on our Arab brothers. If they want support on their political issues in the middle east and Palestine, we demand support for our issues such as reparations.

With Muslims coming from diverse cultural backgrounds and ethnicities, everyone at the table is going to have a different political view. We have Muslims political activists who favor the Republican Party and their conservative values that are in accord with Islam, and we have Muslim activists who favor the Democratic Party and their social and charitable values that are in accord with Islam. What we have to do is begin to break out of the political box we are in. Iím no longer a registered democrat. Iím independent.

I vote for any candidate that speaks to my issues. If the democratic or republican party doesn't treat Muslims with respect we need to walk out their respective conventions next year. And think seriously of creating our own party and invite all God-fearing people to join, or take our collective numbers and join a third party. You are also supporting the campaign of Rev. Al Sharpton. Why are you doing so and in what capacity?

Najee Ali: My support and loyalty is completely with Rev Al. We haven't seen, heard, or had a black activist like Sharpton since Malcolm X.

Sharpton's campaign for the democratic nomination has inspired a new generation of young people who have already become disenfranchised. Rev. Al's efforts are similar to the Jesse Jackson runs for the presidency in 1984 and 1988. Rev. Al is the most progressive candidate in the race, and speaks to our community issues.

When you see his growth and maturity as a national leader it is clear to me that God is with that man. I first met him several years ago at a police protest in L.A, we were both arrested for civil disobedience. Spending time talking to him in that jail cell, along with Martin Luther King III, Dick Gregory, and radio personality Joe Madison completely changed my life.

We had hundreds of people at the protest but only 40 of us were willing to go to jail for our beliefs that day. Being in the same jail cell with Rev. Al and the others was like my graduation ceremony into the civil rights movement.

I had demonstrated I was willing to go all the way, and Rev. Al and I have been close friends ever since. I have his full support, and he has mine. I immediately volunteered to handle his Southern California Campaign. After a slow start we are making progress and I am confident the black community will continue to rally behind Rev Al. He will make a strong showing all across America.

I can't comprehend and understand these other black leaders endorsing these white candidates who have never had a black agenda. When Jesse ran he begged for black support, and called certain black leaders Uncle Toms who didn't support him. He didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning the nomination in '84 or '88. Yet Jesse and his campaign played the black card - appealing to the black community that Jesse was one of us and would fight for our issues.

Now that Jesse and his camp have become Democratic Party insiders, they are trying to shut the door. And they have refused to endorse Rev. Al. In fact Jesse Jr. endorsed Howard Dean.

Those actions are a slap in the face to black people and very hypocritical.

The activist community needs to question, challenge, and not accept any black leader or elected official who won't support a Rev. Al, Carol Mosley Braun, or other qualified blacks for office. We have to hold our leadership accountable.

Once the campaign is over with I will assume the role of working with Rev Al Sharpton's non profit group called The National Action Network, as the California state chair. What is the latest in your work among and regarding street organizations in both Los Angeles and Chicago?

Najee Ali: We are continuing to work with street organizations on a daily basis. That's the type of work that is close to my heart. I love being in the trenches and in the streets working with the brothers and community at the grassroots level. Allah has blessed me and uplifted me. I can never forget where I came from and my roots.

We continue to work with the brothers on issues ranging from maintaining peace in the hood, to trying to secure job training and jobs for them. It is something that I enjoy. Muslims need to be with the people in the streets of L.A and every city we live in.

I have not seen, or heard about too many Imams besides myself actually doing the type of activism and work that we do. Hopefully we can continue to set a good example on what and how things should be done. Whether it is L.A., Chicago, or elsewhere. What do you think is the root of the crises that you work to solve in Black America?

Najee Ali: That's a very complex question, it's a combination of the unfortunate tragedies that make up the black experience in America, beginning with slavery, and the continuation of white supremacy. A large majority of our people have been conditioned to hate each other, and have no ethnic our cultural pride and that is why it is easy for ignorant rappers to use misogynistic lyrics when talking about sisters.

There is a rise of black on black crime. The AIDS pandemic is now global with the continent of Africa slowly dying. And the disease spreading through Black America. There are a number of reasons why we are in the position we are in today and our people continue to suffer.

But I prefer to focus, plan, and work to help end these problems instead of complaining and talking about them.

Our problems won't go away with black leaders just going city to city making speeches.

People are sick of that and don't even want to hear what these leaders have to say.

It has to happen from the grassroots level. And that is where our work is done. Muslims can't have a model community if you are not in the community, and you don't have any work that you can point to.

The practicing Muslim is the best example for America. We just need to put our faith in action and lead by example. That is where my focus and work has been the past 10 years - standing up for justice and working on behalf of the community side by side with the people.

Only then can we begin to help stop the destruction of black America. Project Islamic Hope will continue to be on the frontlines fighting for our people. The question is will the A.S.M. and other Muslim groups be there to join us?

Thursday, December 18, 2003

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