It’s not every day that you get to engage with someone who inspires you with his intelligence, sincerity and passion. Bakary Tandia is one of those people. Tandia continues his work as a human rights and anti-discrimination activist with community organizing, policy advocacy and HIV case management at African Services Committee, Inc.
in Harlem. Although based in New York, Tandia can often be found zipping to and from lobbying trips to Albany and Washington DC, attending anti-racism conferences in Durban, or participating in a host of international conferences and coalitions. The AFRican was fortunate enough to steal some time with Tandia and talk with him about his experiences as an African Muslim living in the Diaspora.
Aba: What brought you to the United States?
Tandia: I come from Mauritania, the only country on the continent where the population is 100% Muslim, Muslim. Even in counties like Morocco or Tunisia there are still non-Muslims living in the country. In Mauritania, the Arab-led government has put in place discriminatory policies against (Black) Africans, including [mandating] the Arab language, which is perceived as the language of Muslims, but we as Africans living in Mauritania have our own culture and language.
People think that to be a 100% Muslim I have to embrace the Arab culture. They are totally different. Like Iranians - they are Muslims but they are not Arabs. Difference needs to be made between culture, language and religion.
In the case of Mauritania one of the challenges we are trying to face is that being a Muslim doesn’t mean you have to give up your culture or language. So coming to the U.S. gives the opportunity to be yourself and be open to others.
Aba: Being that you come from such a specific and defined Muslim culture, do you see any difference between Mauritanian Muslims and other African Muslims?
Tandia: Whether from Mauritania, Senegal or Mali the practice of Islam is the same. What is really interesting in New York, is whether you are from Mauritania, Senegal or Guinea, all Africans pray together and go to the same mosque. There is a newly formed organization called the Council of African Imams in America. I am part of the Council, even though I am not an Imam. Being in the U.S. as a Muslim is a new opportunity for Africans to organize themselves for the betterment of their community.
Aba: What about the relationship between African Muslims and non-African Muslims, i.e. African-American, Arab and Middle Eastern Muslims?
Tandia: The Muslim community includes anyone who is identified as a Muslim. But the reality is limited by realistic factors, for example when people come, they live in neighborhoods where their relatives are. So populations you find in mosques are due more to Muslims in those neighborhoods. But there are people from the Middle East who attend African mosques, and vice-versa.
I don’t make any distinctions as to who should be my friend, I don’t even think about religion. I focus on the quality of individuals. I’m not going to say because you are a Muslim you have to be my friend or I have to be very close to you. It depends on who you are, your moral integrity. Religion is translated into moral behavior. You can’t exercise your religion in a vacuum; you exercise your religion in others. Aspects of being religious, being a good person, a charitable person – you cannot do that alone. You are in a society and have to respect diversity.
Aba: What are some of the trade-offs or perceived challenges you face specifically as a Muslim in the U.S.?
Tandia: That is a very interesting question. In Mauritania, everyone is Muslim. When it is time to pray, everyone is at the same mindset, at work, etc. When you come to the U.S. it’s totally different. At a professional conference for instance, you may not be able to have the time to observe all the prayers required. Even though it is against your will you will have to wait. When you go home you try to make up for it. Realistically speaking, you cannot get up and pray every time you are supposed to. Some people may be able to but it's very, very difficult.
In places like Ohio, Columbus, Cincinnati, there are a number of examples of large groups of African Muslims working for factories. These Muslims were able to negotiate with their employers, allowing them the time to pray and break fast. That can happen if you 100 people working for a company – you cannot ignore their concerns. Also Harlem Hospital has partnered with the Council of African Imams in America, to build a clinic that is culturally and linguistically sensitive to address Muslim patients’ needs. The clinic is called Medina and will be officially open in 2 weeks. It was actually the hospital that sent a proposal to the Council for the idea, and the Council made recommendations. And while the clinic is an acknowledgement of the African Muslim community and their specific needs, the clinic is open to all people regardless of religion, race, gender and national origin.
In the U.S. there is an opportunity for Muslim communities to organize themselves. This is not as easy when you are on the continent,
Aba: What do you think about the mainstream’s conception of Muslims?
In general, many people don’t have a clear understanding of Islam. You cannot judge anything if you don’t know what it is. The way Islam is being portrayed is in reaction to something completely different when you have a peaceful mind to learn about something. The main problem is that people are not in a sound position to make an evaluation. There are millions of Muslims who are not violent, peace-loving people. People tend to focus on individuals who tend to act the way they do and make extrapolations. That is not fair. Individuals who engage in a certain behavior should be responsible for their actions, but an entire community should not be accountable for the actions of a few people..
There is no religion advocating for violence, even though people may use them for political goals. All religions advocate for love and peace. So anything that may lead to conflict is actually in conflict with religion
Aba: So what do you, personally do about this, or think needs to be done?
It’s a long process. Whenever you have an opportunity to explain or educate you have to do it. The Medina Clinic is an example of showing how Muslims are open to communication and partnership and people are not trying to isolate themselves. I think education is very important. It’s a long process, but whenever we have the opportunity, we should do it.
Even non-Muslims working with the Medina Clinic have gone to the mosque to immerse themselves. Those who have the opportunity to have the exposure have had their views completely changed. Maybe this example will inspire others to do similar projects.
How we define ourselves is how we define our mission here. My mission, in coming to this country is to further the work I had been doing in promoting democracy and human rights. My mission is to fight. To fight for my identity, to fight for my community. And we have to be inspired. Many women and men put their lives on the line to make this place welcoming for us. When you receive benefits it is an automatic obligation for you to provide the same for generations to come. New Jersey Mayor Corey Booker said “I drink from a well I didn’t dig”. Anyone who is here today has benefitted from someone who came before. We are part of history and we must be history makers whether we like it or not. It doesn’t matter how many years you live, it’s what you do with your life.