On March 7, 2007, a chilly evening welcomed the warmth of an electric space heater. The setting was an overcrowded home in the Highbridge area of the Bronx. A total of 23 Soninke immigrants from Mali occupied the four-story house, with a staggering 17 of these being children. The two families that occupied the home were from one of the hottest regions in the world, and as the space heater warmed the first floor to a bearable degree, sleep began to take hold of the occupants. What happened next blurred their distinction between nightmare and reality. The space heater’s overheated electric cord ignited a small fire. While the woman sleeping on the first floor hurriedly warned and sought help from others in the house, the fire intensified beyond their control and within minutes had engulfed the entire building. In the aftermath, a total of ten people died, with nine of these being children. Apart from 9/11, it was New York City’s deadliest fire in 17 years.
The families involved in the tragic fire were Soninke, an ethnic group that numbers around two million total people. They, along with other ethnic groups from Francophone West Africa, are almost exclusively Muslim. When the news of the tragic event spread, thousands of dollars were donated from individuals and businesses to assist the families involved. However, the most newsworthy responses from New Yorkers came not from removed donators, but from the West African community itself. While West African mosques and associations gathered, organized, and represented West Africans and the families involved in the fire, America received a candid look into the culture and religion of Muslim West Africans in the city. West Africans’ Space in the Larger Muslim Community
Hailing mainly from such countries as Mali, Guinea, Gambia, Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone, West African Muslims are just one fiber in a convoluted thread of Muslim ethnic groups in the New York City metro area. An estimated 600,000 Muslims live in New York City itself, while an estimated 800,000 live in the New York City metro area. Within these numbers, community estimates place around 100,000 West African Muslims in the metro area, making them one of the more populous Muslim communities in the city. These large numbers, however, are not commensurate with the measure of influence or voice West Africans have in the overall Muslim community.
There are several reasons why West Africans Muslims do not have much influence or interest in the activities of the broader Muslim populace. First, there is a Sahara desert that literally and figuratively separates West Africans from the Arab world. Ironically, while much of West Africa has adopted the culture and practice of the Arab-centric religion of Islam, Arabic people are not looked upon with favor by the average West African. This might have something to do with the fact that millions of black Africans were enslaved or sold as slaves by Arabs from 650-1900 AD! In reality, despite the illegality of the act, some Arab-background people still enslave black Africans in places like Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. Needless to say, despite their adoption of Islam, West Africans are often not too fond of Arabs.
Second, the ascension of fundamental Islam in the world casts a World Trade Center-sized shadow over New York City, thrusting all those with a Muslim identity or perceived similitude (just ask the turbaned Sikhs…who are not Muslim by the way) into a defensive posture. Many Muslim groups in the city used 9/11 as a platform to expound on the “truth of Islam” as a way and religion of peace. In this stance, the 9/11 terrorists were derided as “not Muslim,” and every effort was made to paint a completely different picture of Islam. Their efforts were largely successful, as the New York City public currently tends to have the perception that mainstream Islam is a peaceful religion. It is not coincidental...