Legacy Post: The Ballot or the Bullet: 2016

Sapelo turns 5 this year! In celebration, along with new content, we are republishing some of our most popular content from our first 5 years. Check out this Politics post from 2016.


In April of 1964, Malcolm X/Al Hajj Malik El-Shabazz delivered his famous speech, Ballot or the Bullet. In this speech, he called 1964 “the most explosive year America has witnessed.” He pointed out there was a new generation of Black youth who were deeply dissatisfied with the political status quo–interested in neither the political platforms of the democrats nor the republicans. He argued that white politicians have misused and neglected Black communities pushing the country to a tipping point between the ballot or the bullet. For Blacks to choose the ballot over the bullet, according to Malcolm, means that Blacks must vote strategically, take control over their communities–politically and economically, build new allies and push beyond civil rights to human rights.  Although speaking in 1964, many of his words ring true today. Indeed many of us feel like we, too, are at a precipice. In this light, we asked several voices in our community to address the question: Should Black Muslims choose the ballot in 2016?


Should Black Muslims Choose the Ballot in 2016?      

By Bilal Ansari

Apathetic was a good way of describing how I generally felt about voting this election. That changed in March 2016 when I went on an experiential learning trip to Selma, Alabama with Muslim students from Zaytuna College. Our group was intentionally diverse— made up of two Black Muslim imams (myself and Dawood Yasin) and a dozen Black, White and Brown students. We began our journey from the church where Malcolm X spoke in Selma a few weeks before his assassination. Imam Dawood asked us to march from that church in complete silence and remembrance of the footsteps in which we follow.

edmund-pettus-bridgeWe walked in prayer and reflection until we reached the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, where racial hatred, state power, and police brutality terrorized my ancestors who marched for the right to vote. When we stood on the Selma side of the bridge facing Montgomery, we experienced something of what it must have been like not to know what awaited those brave marchers for due to the way the bridge is constructed, you literally cannot see what awaits you on the other side. We all imagined that horrible Bloody Sunday morning as we crossed. Even though we all knew no brutal police force awaited us, as we crossed over, we all felt both awe and terror.

Perhaps because Muslims are living during the worst Islamophobic time in our history in America, while at the same time the murder of Blacks by police has drastically spiked, as a Black Muslim my soul experienced this convergence powerfully standing in Selma 50 years after Bloody Sunday.  This convergence makes this City, Selma, religiously relevant and spiritually significant. On November 8, 2016, I will stand along with other Black Muslims at another bridge and steep highway. It is a scary space and a dangerous time. Should I vote as a Black Muslim? This is a reasonable question this election, given our choices in candidates.

selma-cityMy answer to this question comes from the covenant I made with the City of Selma. I swore that I would honor this City and the bloodshed of my ancestors and never question whether or not I should vote. So today despite the bleakness on the horizon created by two deeply flawed candidates for president, I am yet compelled to march to the ballot over sitting in apathy because of those Black lives of Selma matter. Furthermore, as a Black Muslim pastoral theologian, I am inspired by God’s call to a City to bear witness in Sura al-Balad. I offer these verses from the Qur’an, interpreted through the history of Selma, for those Black Muslims who may feel ambivalent about voting:

I do call to witness this City (read Selma)
And thou art a freeman of this City (read your City)
And (the mystic ties of) Parent and Child (read Black ancestors)
Verily We have created Man into toil and struggle. (read Black life)
Thinketh he that none hath power over him? (read American power/empire?)

Selma and Montgomery will be called to witness as will Ferguson and Charlotte. Will they witness against us if we let apathy and dejection rule our souls after the sacrifices made by our people in those places and many others? We are the children of the enslaved and we have a responsibility to their legacy and God. It is our job to organize, mobilize and vote. Give voice to those created into toil and struggle- let us choose the ballot.

Bilal Ansari is Faculty Associate in Muslim Pastoral Theology Co-Director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary





Piety Has No Party  

By Faatimah Knight

In 2016 our democracy has failed to deliver. Democracy is supposed to give us viable, worthy choices; so why is it that so many Americans feel that they are dreading the decision they have to make in November? Why are so many people seriously considering not exercising their constitutional right to vote?

The fact that out of the surely hundreds, if not thousands of highly educated seasoned political officials, a misogynistic tax-evader, otherwise known as Donald Trump, is one out of two options is laughable. Not only that, but the fact that Hillary Clinton is once again being recycled among the democrats, a candidate who polls show most voters find untrustworthy, demonstrates that ‘we the people’ are not as self-determined as we thought. If the general American populace is dismayed by this election cycle, then woe to the Black community because when white folks catch a cold, Black folks get pneumonia, as the old saying goes.

michelle-alexanderMichelle Alexander spelled out why Hillary Clinton does not deserve the Black vote in an article for The Nation that should be required reading. One of the salient points made by Alexander is that Hillary Clinton supported and advocated for policies that disproportionately criminalized Blacks and Latinos, essentially targeting them. Sixty years earlier W.E.B. Du Bois argued fiercely and poignantly, also in The Nation, that he cannot keep on voting for the lesser of two evils since he had come to realize that “there is but one evil party with two names.” In other words, the choice was an illusion then as it likely is now.

People of faith should not have loyalty to one party. The fact that we surrender to God means that surrender to anyone else is optional and conditional. We should vote according to our values and interests and nothing else. As Black Americans, we know the treachery of political parties. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and yet among many of us, it is common belief that we can’t touch Republicans with a 10-foot pole. Yet, these political titles are malleable and ultimately meaningless to us as double minorities. Our allegiance is to our values and we can throw our support behind whoever and whatever upholds those values in word and deed. Party affiliation is attractive but ultimately unwise. Sadly, politicians will only value us if they can’t count on us to always be by their side. We need to make strategic moves to get our voices heard in this and all elections. It is highly questionable that voting for the lesser of two evils if that’s how you see it, accomplishes much. It does nothing to show our discontent. Candidates do not care if you vote for them with profound apprehension or with glee. Either way, it gets them the seat in the office that they want so badly.

votingIf you are dissatisfied with both democrats and republicans, voting for one of them does nothing to express that. What would? Perhaps a vote of no confidence which some have been pushing for. It would allow all those discontent voices to see that they are far from alone. It would then be much easier to start a movement and it would communicate to the two parties that engaged citizens are willing to exercise their right to vote in opposition to them. What else? Voting for third parties if you agree with their platforms. Every year people get trapped into thinking that voting for third parties is a waste of time or that doing so takes needed votes away from the less evil candidate, and that is why no progress is made.

web-duboisW.E.B. DuBois was talking about voting third parties in the 1950s. Imagine if in every election since then more and more people voted for third parties. By now we might have actually had a viable third party candidate, adding diversity to our choices and putting pressure on democrats and republicans to have to work seriously for our votes. Voting strategically as we sometimes talk about does not simply mean thinking critically about who to vote for in 2016, it also means looking at local elections and more importantly planning for the long term so that each year we’re just a little bit closer to a political system that is compelled to embrace our values. We must remember always that the progress we have made as Black people was not gifted to us by a benevolent government. On the contrary, we’ve had to organize tenaciously, think precisely and fight spiritedly for every right we currently enjoy.

faatimah-knightFaatimah Knight was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She holds a BA in Islamic Law and Theology from Zaytuna College and an MA in Religious Studies from The Chicago Theological Seminary.




Your Vote Counts      

by Jameel Johnson

jackson-for-presidentI have been involved in politics since 1984 when I engaged in voter registration efforts in Queens, New York during Jesse L. Jackson’s first run for the Presidency of the United States. Since then I have participated in many campaigns, local, statewide and national; including campaigns for two members of Congress for whom I have worked. Although I have had strong preferences and even personal stakes in past elections, I have never been as anxious for the future of this country as I am with this upcoming election.

Unlike most presidential elections this is not just about partisan politics or which party is going to have a power and influence advantage over the next two to four years. This contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump represents this country’s self-image. After the election of the first Black American President, are we going to continue moving forward toward a more inclusive society, or retreat back to a white, male supremacist nation? The Black American Muslim community, though small, is not without a say in determining the answer to this question.

white-prideLet’s begin by clarifying something for Black Muslims that seems to remain unclear in some circles. Does your vote count? Yes it does! If it didn’t, why would white supremacists have spent the last 146 years since the ratification of the 15th Amendment to try and stop you from having it?

From 19th Century Jim Crow laws to 21st century voter I.D. laws, suppression of the minority vote continues to be a favorite tactic of conservatives. Immediately after the Supreme Court weakened the 1965 Voting Rights Act by eliminating the pre-clearance requirement for states with a history of voter suppression, some 17 states led by Republican legislatures enacted laws intended to marginalize the minority vote. Fortunately, federal courts have struck down many of these laws.

Every vote makes a difference. In 1800, 1825, and 1877, extremely close and/or disputed elections caused the decision to be sent to the House of Representatives for final determination. In 2000, less than 5000 votes in Florida sent the election to a conservative Supreme Court that selected George W. Bush over Al Gore. Decisions by the Bush Administration led to false arrests of many Muslims post 9-11, the invasion of Iraq, and the 2008 financial crisis. Right here in Prince George’s County, from where I write, there have been elections decided by 221 votes, 6 votes and 2 votes. We have enough votes to affect the outcome of many elections on both a local and national scale.

blmVoting matters, and for whom you vote matters. The Black Lives Matter movement was formed to protest the unjustified murders of Black men by police officers. The Republican candidate in this race supports Stop and Frisk policies. Stop and Frisk policies have been disproportionately used against Black American and Latino men. Despite evidence that the policy is ineffective in arresting crime, and the ruling of a federal judge that the policy is unconstitutional, conservatives still support it as a justifiable means of fighting crime. A Trump appointed Attorney General (Rudy Giuliani, perhaps) would not challenge Stop and Frisk practices implemented in conservative jurisdictions that ignore court rulings. Such interaction between police and minorities will only exacerbate already volatile relations.

Lastly, voting is a tool, not a magic lamp. You cannot just vote and make a wish that things will improve. Like a tool you have to use it strategically. Just like building a house, the voting tool is only effective when used with other tools and following a plan.


Jameel Aalim-Johnson is the President of the Prince George’s County Muslim Council, a political/civic group whose mission is to involve the Muslim community in the affairs of the county.




Hold Your Vote    

by Hope Copeland

It has been suggested that the presidential election of 2016 is a choice between the Devil, Lucifer, and Satan. For the Black Muslim to choose the ballot in 2016, he or she will be choosing one of three.

If we vote for the Democratic nominee, Hilary Clinton, we would be choosing a woman who during the 2008 election insisted that President Obama denounce Minister Louis Farrakhan. While this may seem minor to some, it should be recognized as major to the Black Muslim as her insistence is an example of the age-old strategy of “divide and conquer.” Ms. Clinton attempted to divide President Obama from one of the few Black Muslim leaders that has been fighting for the freedom, justice, and equality (Islam) of Black people for decades. This act alone is enough for the Black Muslim to reject a vote for Hillary in 2016.

If we vote for the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, we would be choosing a man who uses the terms Muslims, terrorists, and jihadists synonymously. While Trump has clarified his original call for a “ban” on Muslim immigrants to the US and now explains it as “extreme vetting,” the bottom line is that he feeds into the attitudes that perpetuate Islamophobia. If we vote in our Muslim interest then we cannot cast a vote for Donald Trump.

With the Republican and Democratic Parties not presenting viable presidential options for Black Muslims to choose then, we are left to evaluate the Libertarian and Green parties. Looking at the polling data, as unfortunate as it may be, the reality is that those who argue that the 2016 presidential election presents a binary choice are correct. According to polls, the Libertarian party may get around ten percent of the popular vote, while the Green party may get approximately three percent of the popular vote. If these projections are correct, neither the Libertarian nor Green party will get more than ten percent of the vote, which means there is little to no probability that either party will win the election. In that case if Black Muslims vote for either of the two then they would be essentially wasting their vote. Perhaps in the 2016 Presidential election, the Black Muslim should “hold their vote” until the “Justice Party” is a reality.

FullSizeRender 20Hope Copeland learned about Islam at boarding school and took Shahadah during her freshman year of college.  She is particularly interested in the Jafari Fiqh and has found an unlimited amount of knowledge in the study of the Ahlul Bayt of the Prophet Muhammad (saw).






In the Largest Mass Possible      

By Imam Mikal Da’ood Muslim Shabazz

Should Black Muslims Vote in 2016? My short answer to the above question is “in the largest mass possible” because it is an obligation.

voting-buttonVoting is part of what we can do to help make our city, country, and world better for ourselves and our offspring, which should be our intention. Since we do pay taxes, it is important for us to determine how our monies are being used, otherwise, we have taxation without representation. By being involved in the political process via voting, we have the potential opportunity to not only express ourselves and our interest but to in fact influence foreign and domestic spending, e.g., enhance the quality of life via environmental, health and food protection and safety, better educational and transportation improvements, balanced and reasonable foreign aid, and so on.

Philadelphia City Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. successfully urged the council to adopt both Muslim Eid holidays

Philadelphia City Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. successfully urged the council to adopt both Muslim Eid holidays

One small example of the benefits of Muslims’ political involvement is the School District of Philadelphia now has on its 2017-18 calendar and beyond, the Eidain Holidays where everyone, students, teachers, faculty and administrators all will have those days off to celebrate Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha. Not only do the Muslims within the school district benefit, but there is a corresponding Dawah process that inevitably occurs. So, in this election cycle, Black Muslims in America should vote in mass and encourage everyone within their sphere of influence to do the same. We owe it to ourselves, to our ancestors, our offspring and to our Lord if it is our intent to make our world more pleasing to Almighty G’d.”


Imam Mikal Da’ood Muslim Shabazz is the Resident Imam of Masjiduallah, Inc. of Philadelphia, Pa.  He also serves as a member of the Islamic Leadership Council of Islamic Organizations of Pennsylvania and an Interfaith participant of the Mayor’s Office of Faith-Based.

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