- Brian Chilson
- New Africa
More than a fledgling housing development in the John Barrow neighborhood, New Africa is a utopian experiment. It may not look like much now — five 1,500-square-foot brick homes lining Potter Street, backed by over four acres of tree-dotted field — but the Islamic Center for Human Excellence (ICHE) has poured enormous hope into these concrete foundations.
As former ICHE imam Tauheed Salaam explains it, New Africa is a concept rooted in the Quran and popularized by W.D. Muhammad, the imam who transformed the Nation of Islam — the original American Islamic movement — into the more inclusive American Society of Muslims (ASM) in 1976.
"In the Quran, the emphasis for human life is community life, and God actually calls the adherents to develop model communities. ... We want to model what common people can do with limited resources," Salaam said.
Salaam and others began planning New Africa in 1995, but this March marked the first anniversary of the development's dedication, attended by Mayor Mark Stodola. The only thing distinguishing New Africa from surrounding houses is a small waist-high sign, inauspiciously angled on a vacant corner lot, and the fact that its five houses are at least 30 years newer than anything around. But eventually the development will be more visible. New Africa plans to add 17 houses on roughly 0.2 acre plots, as well as a mosque, community center and school — all of which ICHE currently operates in various parts of the city.
The development is open to residents of any faith, ethnicity, gender or marital status, though all of its current residents are black. Three of the five homes are owned by Christian families, and two of those families are headed by single women. ICHE sells the land at about $10,000 a lot — a price that will also cover proposed infrastructure. Buyers secure their own financing and build their own homes, which have construction costs of about $100,000. As a tax-exempt nonprofit, ICHE will guide potential homeowners through the process. In conjunction with Better Community Development, an outreach program of Theresa Hoover United Methodist Church, potential buyers attend classes where they learn about the responsibilities of home ownership and available resources such as HUD grants. Buyers sign a Bill of Assurance, which mandates architectural and caretaking guidelines. But the text also stipulates that "buyers and sellers are aware that this development ... is for the purpose of creating a wholly-owned residential Al-Islamic community conforming to the social guidelines given in the Quran ... and all parties agree to this purpose."
According to Salaam, the homeowners association recognizes the boundary between public and private. "We do ask residents to adhere to basic moral tenets of Islam — one of those would be no alcohol — but we're not going to spy on homeowners. That would be against our moral principles. In Islam, a person's private life is their private life," he said.
Salaam met with the John Barrow Neighborhood Association in 1997, even before ICHE purchased the six acres from a trust represented by Regions Bank. "We chose John Barrow for its central location and affordability, but also because the Association had developed a plan for that area that looked at traffic flow and demographics and was trying to move toward better streets, better housing, public safety. They wanted to work with city and state officials, private parties, whoever, to do these things," he said. The John Barrow Association didn't want a gated community or buildings that would stand out in the neighborhood, so ICHE designed New Africa's covenants accordingly.
There were other meetings as well. Any planned development must be approved by the city planning commission and the board of directors. Then there were meetings with curious community organizations — local clubs, local churches and a town hall at the John Barrow Neighborhood Alert Center, where John Barrow residents aired their concerns. "But those things that people were worried about, they weren't realities," Salaam said. Namely, neighbors worried that New Africa would function as a separatist enclave, or that the development was a missionary project aimed at proselytizing or that the developers were backed by foreign funds and violent and exclusive doctrine. (According to Salaam, New Africa is about remedying blight more than gathering converts, and thus far all of their funding has come from local donors and grassroots efforts, such as bake sales and banquets.)
ICHE's current imam, Aquil Hamidullah, quoted the Quran: "God says, 'let there arise out of your community, inviting to all, all that is good, and forbidding what is wrong,' " and added, "we understand that a community isn't just brick and mortar. ... We're going to have a community center that serves the needs of the entire community, not just the Muslims."
Hamidullah said the only institutional resistance to New Africa came from David Smith, the former pastor of Heritage Baptist Temple — and he spoke to the media but never contacted ICHE directly. Smith left Heritage two years back and the new pastor, Bobby Creel, isn't familiar with New Africa.
Little Rock's New Africa follows other AMS model communities. Malcolm Shabazz Mosque began extensive residential and commercial development throughout Harlem in 1998. To date, about 60,000 people from various faiths have participated. Beyond this, the most established ASM housing initiatives are in the South. (This could have something to do with racial demographics. ASM's adherents are primarily African-American.) There is New Medinah, a 64-acre agricultural development in Mississippi that dates back to 1987, Atlanta's Neighborhood Works Inc. and similar projects in Houston, Texas, and Fort Myers, Fla.
Media reports have contributed to confusion surrounding these developments. The American Society of Muslims is not the Muslims of the Americas, another largely black group founded by the controversial Pakistani cleric Sheikh Mubarak Ali Gilani. Muslims of the Americas operates at least 22 gated housing villages in the United States, but Salaam doesn't know about those developments, nor did he recognize Gilani's name. "There's a lot of misinformation out there," he said.