As a black American, Husain Abdullah worries about the entrenchment of racism in his country. And as a Muslim, the former NFL player faces discrimination within his own religious community.
That’s why Abdullah, 32, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in dispute resolution and conflict management at SMU, is using his charisma to help push past segregation and bigotry. With his two older brothers, Abdullah founded the Ashab Network, an activist group working to connect the diverse Muslim American community. The three brothers—Husain, Abbas, and Hamza, another NFL veteran—met many members of the network driving around the country for personal, face-to-face meetings with others.
“It’s a network of good companionship for spiritual and human development, supporting one another to spread good,” Abdullah says.
Abdullah ended his 7-year professional football career in 2016, writing for The Players’ Tribune about his five concussions and concerns for his longterm health. With the future in flux, Abdullah followed a suggestion from his friend Omar Suleiman, the imam and founder of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research in Las Colinas. He came to Dallas, taking a liking to its active organizations.
“The resources here are great, and people in Dallas are beautiful, but we have to get uncomfortable to have this conversation about race,” Abdullah says. “Just the term ‘race’ is scary to us because we don’t understand the emotional trauma and emotional charge that’s behind it. I’m new to Dallas, but I can see the segregation in our housing and schools. It’s in our politics, (the) prison industrial complex. Even the way we enforce laws has a racial undertone. People think that everything is great, and we should be grateful it’s better than it was back then, but that’s not the case.”
He was inspired to pursue social activism by his mother and Muhammad Ali, the outspoken Muslim athlete who Abdullah calls the most American of the country’s legendary sports figures.
“Whether people loved him or hated him, everyone respects him. If you’re Muslim, non-Muslim, black, or white. When Muhammad passed away, everyone stopped. Even though people hated him, he stopped time,” Abdullah says. “With Ashab Network, we want to help people start a journey of purification of the heart to keep touch with themselves. We want to help spark that flame he felt.”
Abdullah says anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S., including a federal travel ban targeting people from Muslim-majority countries, is nothing new. It’s similar to the oppression he has long felt as a black man.
“It’s one of those situations where, as a black community, we have been telling you how America operates,” Abdullah says. “When it hits the Muslim community, it becomes a bigger deal. There’s racism within the Muslim community today.”
When it came to light that Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man shot dead by police in Sacramento, was Muslim, members of the Muslim community rushed to protest. But, Abdullah says, some immigrant Muslims have remained silent on other issues affecting religious and ethnic minorities, and movements like Black Lives Matter. It dates back to prominent African-American Muslims like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, Abdullah says.
“If a black man is killed, immigrant Muslims assume he probably broke the law. If he’s a black Muslim, they claim this person to further their agenda. As Muslims, we have to call one another out in a respectful way. We all want to be upright and supportive,” Abdullah says. “I’m interested in sparking this conversation among the Muslim community, especially in Dallas, because it could be a blueprint of how to do it the correct way. If we can hear the dialogue, the different hardships, needs, fears, and interests, then we can get somewhere.”