Few topics touch a raw nerve in the United States like race and racism in America.
Given the deeply embedded psychology and history of racism found in American society, it is often surprising to discover individuals who have truly fought against racial hatred with not just their words and actions, but in the two most important battlegrounds: their hearts and minds.
Abdussalam Sipes is one example of this.
Sipes is currently chief of security at a masjid. His calm, frank discussion of his journey from being a member of the virulently racist American white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to his decision to leave racial hatred, and then his acceptance of Islam will make you not only see one individual's courage to change paths and "see the light" -it will also bring tears to your eyes.
Sound Vision interviewed Sipes about his former racism, what brought about his change and why he ultimately chose Islam. This is an edited version of that interview:
SV: What exactly was your connection to racism before your conversion?
AS: "I was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and before that I was a member of other (white supremacist organizations) too. I was originally just a card-carrying member and I grew up in their ranks. I started with them when I was 14 years old and by the time I was 21, I was a high-ranking official in the Klan organization.
I was involved with major recruiting efforts. I was the main organizer of most of the activities in my region. I was in charge of a large geographical region of Klan chapters in the northern district of California.
My activities involved everything from media interviews, recruitment drives to literature leaf letting to criminal activities [and went] as far as assaults on people, violent crimes, intimidation. I've spent most of my life in prison, over 13 years.
SV: What factors in your childhood or personal experiences made you adopt racist views?
Just being around the people I grew up around who were racist. I grew up in a predominately white California suburb.
All of my family used the word "n*****" (a racial slur against African-Americans) and referred to black people as parasites on society, kind of like cockroaches, just violent and bad in nature. They just [reaffirmed] the stereotypes that white America has of people of color.
I went to prison for armed robbery and attempted murder. I was 15 at the time. I was involved with a group that was a paramilitary organization and their activities were intimidating blacks in the town that we lived in. We used to [commit] a lot of violent crimes against people. This particular crime was not race-motivated but we had particular views that were racist.
In prison, things [are racially] segregated. You've got the blacks, Mexicans and whites. Of course I gravitated towards the white organization. In every subculture, you have organizations and you have groups and individuals. You have a rank and file and you fall into that rank you feel is part of your culture. People that you share a lot in common with culturally.
SV: What triggered you to change your racist views?
AS: I eventually came to question some of my actions and some of my beliefs through my search and study of genealogy and the origins of man.
The racism drove me to study to find out proof and evidence and to find out the origin of my own people (Europeans). The deeper and deeper I got into the subject I began to find evidence that revealed that all human beings have the same origin. So I began to doubt the validity of the supreme, pure race of people anywhere in the world, let alone Europeans of Aryan race.
The other element [of my change] was [that] when you hate somebody so passionately and you just live and just consume the hatred everyday, it starts to deteriorate.
It's like a cancer because it destroys your personality, it distorts your soul, and it destroys [those] close to you because it wears off on other people. I was inflicting more harm on myself than the people I hated. I was basically destroying my family and anyone else who had contact with me.
Hatred and racism will manifest itself in any people in the world and that's the interesting thing as far as the world is concerned. Everyone looks at America because of the recent slave trade, because we have the most recent history of slavery. [But] when we look at what the Serbs do to the Albanian or Bosnian Muslims, for some reason because it's European versus European, we overlook the fact that it's blatant racism.
SV: What made you consider converting to Islam, and did it have something to do with your previous views on race?
AS: I made a decision to get out of the white supremacist movement. Unfortunately, I was still living my life without guidance. I ended up going back to prison. I was in the federal penitentiary for possession of Semtax explosives (a solid form of plastic explosives).
With the hatred and burden of hate off my shoulders I was able to think, contemplate. My heart was a little more open to spirituality so I knew I was tired of the life I was living, tired of going to prison. I just felt that I hit a plateau in my life where I wanted to make some serious changes again, but I didn't know which direction to go.
I think all sincerely decent, kind, caring, loving human beings always gravitate to whatever is most near to them in their subculture. My interactions with people (Christians) were always pleasant. I would sometimes gravitate towards the church but their way of believing in God, the words in the Bible, their basic beliefs, I just couldn't grasp it, I never could develop any real belief based on the Christian view of God.
The turning point was when I got to federal penitentiary in Pekin, Illinois. At that point, I had given up being racist, the guards came and asked me if I had any problem having black roommates (they interview you to see where they can place you because you have three to four roommates in one prison cell). I said I didn't care. They usually take advantage of that because most people want to be with their own kind. I got one black roommate. This person had a friend named Fareed who was Muslim. When Fareed came to the cell, [he] noticed I had nothing-no cosmetic items, stamps to write my family, or money.
One day he came to my cell and he asked me: ‘don't you have any money or anything like that. I said I didn't 'have any. He said you want some? I said no.
About 15 minutes later, he came back and he had a bag in his hands.
He said ‘here' [giving it to Sipes-it contained some basic items he needed]. I said I don't want it, I didn't ask for anything. I said don't come to me next week saying I owe you something. He said it's not like that at all, its just part of my religion.
I just kind of smiled and laughed and said what religion is that? He said Islam; I'm a Muslim.
At that point, I said ‘yeah right'. Now I was convinced this guy is going to give me problems. He'll be back saying I owe him something, I'm going to have to look for [a] knife or some weapon to allow me to eliminate this problem that he's going to bring to me later.
At this time, my understanding of Islam was that it was a black, racist religion [with] their teaching that the white man was the devil. I knew this from run-ins with the Nation of Islam [an African-American nationalist and spiritual movement].
He [Fareed] came back later. I said why don't you give me something about your religion, because I was thinking I ‘m going to catch this guy in a lie. I was going to get a hold of some of his literature and ask him ‘how can you believe the white man is the devil and you're going out of your way to help me? How do you explain yourself? How are you going to share with the devil (me)?
He came back with some literature. It was an introduction to Islam.
It was just really different from what I had thought it would be. It was something that I was not expecting to find and at the same time it was something that I needed to find.
This was a real religion based on truth and that's basically what I was hungry for and what I was searching for. I found out how simple it was, that there's no intermediary between man and God, [that] you had a direct link to God. I felt that this is a religion where you can practice without the help of outsiders, putting partners with God.
Allah created Islam with a purity that could not be rivaled with.
I finally got a hold of the Quran. Every page I read I broke down crying because I felt that as I was reading the Quran, in a way my soul was cleansing itself of all the poison. The Ayat (verses) that I was reading, they compared to Christianity, but there were a lot of things that sound so much more believable [in the Quran than the Bible]. [It] sounds so pure.
When I read [most of] the first two Surahs of the Quran, that was enough for me. I was convinced the Quran was a miracle and it was the Divine word of God.
I couldn't find anything wrong with the Quran. I felt in my heart that this was the true religion Allah had created for us. I was convinced at that point.
After I took my Shahada, I read more [in the Quran about] how Allah keeps those people in ignorance and He brings people out of ignorance as He wishes. He had a plan for me to become a Muslim. At this stage in my life, Alhamdolillah, since I took Shahada, everything has been in a positive direction in my life. Everything keeps getting better.
SV: What was your reaction when you read verse 13 of Surah number 49, given your background as a former racist?
I broke down and cried.
I just wanted to be part of a world religion where there is no racism involved, where everybody's created equally in the eyes of God. I wanted to be part of a religion in which God did not favor anyone other than those who were most pious.
When I read that particular Ayah, it really validated this religion for me because that told me that Islam is the sworn enemy of racism.
This is one Ayah of many that jumped out at me. The Quran was answering questions for me. That was a very powerful Ayah for me because of my past.
It was proof for me that I could go ahead and be a Muslim because God was saying how mankind should be towards one another. That was complete harmony [and] that was a beautiful, beautiful thing.
SV: What would you advise Muslims seeking to rid themselves of racial hatred?
AS: Basically, people to have to work on strengthening their Iman (faith) because when you lose your Deen, when you lose your prayer, Shaitan steps in and then he takes over. And then it's all Fitna (trials and temptations) after that.
Other than prejudice in our Ummah, we're plagued with many other problems. The answer to all of those problems is that we need to start practicing the Deen and becoming better Muslims in our Ibadah (worship). When we lose our Deen, when we lose our prayer, we lose His (Allah's) favor; we lose His protection from the Shaitan.
People don't realize the power of Shaitan, he gets between people. He manifests the divisions between us. As Muslims, we should have no real difference. Yet if Shaitan gets in there, he'll make some reason not to get along. That's my understanding.
Every Muslim knows this is a fundamental belief that there is no racism in Islam and everybody knows its Haram (forbidden) but they just take it like any other subject that they know is Haram because the Iman is so weak, the Taqwa (fear of Allah) is [in] such a low state that they continue to commit acts and they get worse. The farther away you get from Islam [the worse its going to be].
Photo Attribution: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KKK_night_rally_in_Chicago_c1920_cph.3b12355.jpg