Muslims Arrived In America 400 Years Ago As Part of the Slave Trade and Today Are Vastly Diverse

Rather than writing Biblical verses as their captors thought, some enslaved Muslims wrote Koranic verses that condemned slavery. (Courtesy National Museum of African American History/State Archives of North Carolina )

Rather than writing Biblical verses as their captors thought, some enslaved Muslims wrote Koranic verses that condemned slavery. (Courtesy National Museum of African American History/State Archives of North Carolina )

By Saeed Ahmed Khan Senior Lecturer, Wayne State University. First published on The Conversation

Most Americans say they don’t know a Muslim and that much of what they understand about Islam is from the media.

It’s not surprising then to see the many misunderstandings that exist about Muslims. Some see them as outsiders and a threat to the American way of life and values. President Donald Trump’s controversial policy to impose a ban on Muslims from seven countries entering into the United States played into such fears.

What many don’t know, however, is that Muslims have been in America well before America became a nation. In fact, some of the earliest arrivals to this land were Muslim immigrants – forcibly transported as slaves in the transatlantic trade, whose 400th anniversary is being observed this year.

The first American Muslims

Scholars estimate that as many as 30% of the African slaves brought to the U.S., from West and Central African countries like Gambia and Cameroon, were Muslim. Among the difficulties they faced, were also those related to their faith.

As a scholar of Muslim communities in the West, I know African slaves were forced to abandon their Islamic faith and practices by their owners, both to separate them from their culture and religious roots and also to “civilize” them to Christianity.

Historian Sylviane Diouf explains how despite such efforts, many slaves retained aspects of their customs and traditions, and found new, creative ways to express them. Slave devotionals sung in the fields, for example, kept the tunes and memory of a bygone life alive well after the trauma of dislocation.

Diouf argues that blues music, one of the quintessential forms of American culture, can trace its origins to Muslim influences from the slave era. She also demonstrates how the famous blues song, “Levee Call Holler,” has a style and melody that comes from the Muslim call to prayer, the “adhan.”

Blues has also influenced a host of other American music genres, from country to rock ‘n’ roll, and the most well-known of American musical forms, jazz. The famous jazz player John Coltrane, known for his seminal work “A Love Supreme,” appears to be influenced by the cadence of Islamic prayers and devotionals.

Scholar Hisham Aidi, author of “Rebel Music,” along with a host of jazz musicians, argues that Coltrane is singing “Allah Supreme” in the Islamic devotional style of “dhikr,” or remembrance of God.

Early slaves in America.jpg

The Muslim communities of America today

Today’s America incorporates a large diversity of Muslims, who have immigrated from many parts of the world. Many immigrated after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965.

They are from Africa and the Middle East, as well as South and Southeast Asia. African American Muslims, descendants of the slave generations in this country, comprise a sizable chunk – about 20% – somewhere between 600,000 to 850,000 – of the total Muslim population in the in the United States.

In this diverse mix are also those who belong to the Nation of Islam – a political and religious movement founded by Elijah Muhammad in the 1930s. Muhammad, son of former slaves, wanted to promote black empowerment in the face of racism. The number of those who belong to the Nation of Islam have greatly declined since then.

This diversity is reflected in the customs, interpretations and rituals practiced by the many denominations here. It is also reflected in the racial, ethnic and cultural composition of the community, or perhaps more accurately, a group of communities.

All these differences can make interaction between these communities a challenge. But American Muslims, despite their complex histories, have learned to blend experiences that are truly unique.

As more recently arrived immigrant Muslims interact with their coreligionists whose legacy dates back 400 years in this country, new engagements inform the new reality.

Worshippers gather at a Minnesota football stadium for prayer and festivities for Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest holidays on the Muslim calendar. (Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images)  via Pew Research

Worshippers gather at a Minnesota football stadium for prayer and festivities for Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest holidays on the Muslim calendar. (Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images) via Pew Research

‘Too Many Elephants’ in Africa? Here’s How Peaceful Coexistence with Human Communities Can Help

Tea pickers in Kenya’s Mount Kenya region. The  Mount Kenya Elephant   Corridor (MKEC) reconnects a 14km traditional elephant   migratory pathway  between Laikipia and Samburu dramatically reducing human-elephant conflict.

Tea pickers in Kenya’s Mount Kenya region. The Mount Kenya Elephant Corridor (MKEC) reconnects a 14km traditional elephant migratory pathway between Laikipia and Samburu dramatically reducing human-elephant conflict.

By Vicky Boult Postdoctoral Researcher in Conservation Biology., University of Reading. First published on The Conversation

Africa’s elephant population has plummeted from roughly a million in 1970 to around 400,000 today – a decline which is largely blamed on poaching for their ivory tusks. At its peak in 2011, poaching claimed 36,000 elephants a year, or one every 15 minutes.

Many of us are familiar with these statistics thanks to campaigns to end the ivory trade. But with our attention focused on poaching, an arguably greater threat to Africa’s elephants has emerged. In the time that Africa’s elephant population has crashed, its human population has boomed. The number of people living in Africa has doubled since 1982, reaching a billion in 2009, and is expected to double again by 2050.

To feed and house this growing population, natural habitats have been fragmented by roads and railways and entire swathes have been converted to farmland and settlements. As a result, Africa’s elephants have been squeezed into smaller and increasingly isolated pockets of land. It’s very possible that the future for all of Africa’s elephants will resemble what is currently seen in South Africa.

Here, elephants are largely confined to small, fenced reserves separated by vast human-dominated landscapes. Elephants can’t disperse from these reserves, but their relative protection within them has seen their densities increase. So much so that in stark contrast to the “elephant extinction” narrative we’re used to, some consider South Africa’s reserves to have “too many elephants”.

Elephant takeover: the first of the elephants initiating a take over of the camp at Little Governors, Masai Mara. Photo by  David Clode  on  Unsplash

Elephant takeover: the first of the elephants initiating a take over of the camp at Little Governors, Masai Mara. Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

An excess of elephants?

Elephants play a crucial role in Africa’s savanna ecosystems as seed dispersers. Their dung recycles valuable nutrients and by feeding on trees they maintain the savanna’s matrix of woodland and grassland and the biodiversity it supports.

However, over prolonged periods, high elephant densities can reduce tree cover, which shrinks woodland and expands grassland habitats. This may threaten browsing species, such as black rhinoceros and bushbuck, for which trees provide food and shelter.

Managing elephants to prevent habitat change and preserve biodiversity has a long history. Culling programmes continued into the late 20th century and only ended in Kruger National Park in 1994. Culling remains a “last resort” for managing elephants in South Africa and there have been recent calls to resume culling operations in Botswana.

Culls have now largely been replaced by non-lethal approaches, including translocating elephants to other areas and contraceptives to reduce birth rates.

However, all management interventions cause some degree of stress for elephants. There’s always a small risk with using anaesthetics and hormonal contraceptives can alter an elephant’s behaviour.

The fundamental question over the future of Africa’s elephants is whether we are happy to allow them to exist only where they are heavily managed. If so, then we’ll need more research to understand the most effective and ethical ways of managing elephants. If not, then securing more space for elephants alongside human communities could be the answer.

Amboseli National Park, Kenya . Photo by  Harshil Gudka  on  Unsplash

Amboseli National Park, Kenya . Photo by Harshil Gudka on Unsplash

To spare or share

This boils down to an old debate – to spare land or share it. Land sparing means separating pristine wildlife habitats from areas of human activity while land sharing involves maintaining biodiversity within landscapes shared by humans. But which is best for conservation?

South Africa shows us what land sparing means for elephants – expensive, ongoing management in densely populated reserves. The alternative land sharing approach gives elephants greater access to Africa’s landscapes, but relies on coexistence between people and elephants.

At present, land sharing systems outside of Africa’s national parks and reserves are fragile. Human-elephant interactions can threaten the lives of both parties but strategies exist to help coexistence.

At the heart of all of them is an understanding that there must be clear benefits to humans in sharing space with elephants. The revenue from tourists paying to see elephants can provide direct employment but education programmes are also necessary to help people understand how elephants benefit the wider ecosystem.

Livelihoods outside agriculture must be encouraged to reduce pressures on habitats and wildlife while providing stable incomes in the face of changing environments. Thoughtful land management and planning should ensure vital elephant habitats are protected.

Groups across Africa are already working on solutions which can deliver this. Alongside tourism, projects have emerged which generate revenue from elephants without harming them or the environment, such as producing paper and gifts made from elephant dung.

The charity Save the Elephants teaches local children about the benefits of living in harmony with elephants and organisations such as the Amboseli Ecosystem Trust have started working with conservationists, politicians and local communities to plan how coexistence can be achieved.

Land sharing between humans and elephants will depend on this kind of collaboration between governments, conservation groups and local communities. If people want more for Africa’s elephants than confinement to heavily managed reserves, then everyone needs to be consulted. Only then can there be hope for peaceful coexistence between people and elephants.

A mother and child watch an elephant over a protective fence set up by their community in Kenya ©  WWF-UK   Story via Africa Geographic.

A mother and child watch an elephant over a protective fence set up by their community in Kenya © WWF-UK Story via Africa Geographic.

Why Banning the Mammoth Ivory Trade Would Be a Huge Mistake

The Last Wooly Mammoths Died Isolated and Alone via  The Smithsonian

The Last Wooly Mammoths Died Isolated and Alone via The Smithsonian

We are republishing Professor Mac Millan’s 2015 article because his argument against declaring long extinct woolly mammoths as an endangered species is very timely. Israel has proposed exactly that — declaring woolly mammoths to be an endangered species, in an effort to deal with transnational ivory shipments of actual elephant ivory, or co-mingled elephant/mammoth ivory now labeled as exclusively woolly mammoth ivory. The proposal to declare woolly mammoths to be an endangered species is on the docket at the upcoming CITIES conference, taking place in Sri Lanka from May 23 to June 3 and attended by 183 countries

By Douglas Mac Millan, Professor of Conservation and Applied Resource Economics, University of Kent First published on The Conversation

There is widely held belief that the only way we can protect globally endangered species that are being poached for the international wildlife trade is to completely ban the trade. This is a dangerous misconception and will speed up extinction rather than prevent it.

Adrian Lister, a mammoth expert from University College London, recently suggested that mammoths should be listed under the convention on international trade in endangered species to keep their ivory from being laundered into an illegal trade in tusks. He argued that the mammoth trade is encouraging the poaching of elephants by keeping up the demand for ivory.

This is madness. Mammoths and mammoth ivory is not rare – it is estimated that there are 10 million mammoths that remain incarcerated within the permafrost of the Arctic tundra. And in any case a ban on mammoth ivory would not stop the trade, it would simply drive it underground and attract the attention of organised crime groups. For example, in my own research I found that prices for illegally caught whale meat rose very quickly when enforcement efforts intensified and this in turn led to the trade being controlled by dedicated “professional” criminals.

In the same way, a ban on mammoth ivory would drive up prices and lead to many mammoth sites being excavated in clandestine fashion, without any associated scientific endeavours to garner knowledge and understanding of these great beasts. In fact the current situation supports collaboration between collectors and academics about new finds, to the benefit of scientific research.

A ban would not save the elephant either. In fact it would do the opposite and probably hasten its extinction in the wild. Although record levels of funding are now being invested in enforcement and anti-poaching measures to tackle the crime, many species such as the rhino remain on the path to extinction in the wild quite simply because bans aren’t working.

Around the world, incentives to poach elephants and rhinos are increasing due to rising prices and growing relative poverty between areas of supply and centres of demand, and while trade bans can curtail supply it does not seem to have reduced demand in any measurable way. Indeed, high levels of protection can actually stimulate demand for a species due to something called the anthropogenic allee effect.

Economic theory and research can explain why this happens and why we need to urgently reconsider our reliance on global trade bans. Where there is demand that is not very sensitive to price changes and strong enforcement of a ban, prices for illegal wildlife products will rise steeply, but have little overall effect on supply and consumption. This is especially true where organised criminal networks can circumnavigate the police and customs – a relatively easy trick for countries mired in corruption.

The need for bold moves

In this situation we need to look beyond regulation and consider bold strategies that actually make economic sense. In particular we need policies that drive prices down and reduce the pressure on wild populations. To do this we should be considering introducing sustainable off-take mechanisms such as regulated trade, ranching and wildlife farming. If these new sources of supply are close substitutes, such as mammoth and elephant ivory, these mechanisms will certainly cause prices to fall and pressure on wild populations to reduce.

We have seen this happen successfully with crocodilian species, where farmed animals have largely taken over the market and recent economic research in Canada shows that the sale of mammoth ivory into the ivory business in Asia has actually led to lower prices for elephant ivory saving thousands of elephants.

Basic economics tells us that when one introduces a substitute, especially a very close substitute, the price of the alternative product will fall. A recent analysis linked with empirical data predicts that the 84 tonnes of Russian mammoth ivory that was exported to Asia on average per annum over the period 2010-2012 would have actually reduced poaching of wild elephants from 85,000 per year to around 34,000 elephants per year, primarily by reducing elephant ivory prices by about $100 per kilogram.

The policy implication is simple – the mammoth ivory trade should be legal and sustainably managed rather than banned – this will help save both the living elephant and the extinct mammoth.