Over the past few weeks, a strange crime played out in Hampton, Virginia, as men unloaded trucks of furniture and belongings into an empty house still up for sale. The squatters eventually changed the locks, and took out a newspaper ad and posted fliers to the effect that the house was now owned by their religious organization, the Moorish Science Temple of America. This obscure news item nicely highlights the tensions between American law and the religion of Moorish Science, as well as the situation of “sovereign citizen” groups in the United States.
“I am a citizen of Moorish America, an Ordained Government prepared in due time by the Great God,” reads a typical contemporary “Nationality and Identity Card” from a branch of the Moorish Science movement. Such “passports” are characteristic of the groups that have emerged from the original Moorish Science Temple, a religion begun in 1913 by Timothy Drew, who called himself Noble Drew Ali. Claiming to be a prophet of Allah, Drew preached to black Americans of their true racial nature as “Asiatic” Moors, descendants of the Moabites of the bible; and their true religion, an “Islamism” of Drew’s devising, which holds as its central sacred text a “Holy Koran” authored by Drew, drawing heavily on esoteric Christian and Rosicrucian sources, which argues that knowledge of one’s true “nation” is the key to one’s identity.
Shortly after Drew established the Temple’s headquarters in Chicago in 1925, Moors were proudly representing their Asiatic heritage by wearing turbans and fezzes, hosting Orientalist stage shows, and parading down public streets. Emboldened by their new understanding of nationality, Moors also, as historian Susan Nance describes, began “daring startled whites to trample black rights by announcing, ‘I am a citizen of the USA!’” This phrase, featured in capital letters on the original Moorish Science identity cards, suggests that Drew intended his separatist nationalism to exist peacefully within American society. In fact, recognizing how dangerous “this nationalistic topic” could be within wider American society, Drew issued a proclamation to be read at all temples: “Stop flashing your cards at Europeans [white Americans],” he urged, as “it causes confusion.”
The confusion that followed, however, wasn’t between “Europeans” and “Moors,” but among the Moors themselves; the movement was torn apart from within. One leader seceded and was subsequently murdered, a crime in connection with which Drew was arrested. He died before he could stand trial, and in his absence various parties struggled for power. The kidnapping of another leader led to a full-scale shootout with Chicago police, resulting in the death of two law officers and a legal crackdown, in the aftermath of which the organization fragmented. Today there are myriad groups under the umbrella of “Moorish Science,” many of them manufacturing their own “diplomatic” license plates, passports, and drivers licenses to be presented before the police, whose authority they reject.
Law enforcement classifies such Moors under the rubric of “sovereign citizen,” the term for domestic groups who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the American government and who engage in “paper terrorism”: the use of fictitious legal and financial documents, the perpetration of assorted scams, or the filing of frivolous lawsuits and claims rooted in the individual group’s assertions of authority, such as the case of unlawful entry in Hampton, Virginia. In response to that group’s attempt to seize property, other Moorish Science groups contacted the media and authorities in Virginia to dismiss the group in question as mere pretenders, an inauthentic Moorish Science organization. This is where Drew’s original vision of black identity as a return to authentic nationality and religion has led – to Moors who, rather than “agitating” for civil rights, make headlines via their disavowal of American law as, meanwhile, they squabble with other Moorish splinter groups over their own claims to authority.
Consider, for instance, an “official” application for citizenship from Chicago’s Temple 13, which warns of other “person(s), group(s), or companies” selling Moorish “paperwork, passports, diplomatic appointments and papers, titles of nobility, doctorates or other educational titles, business or banking licenses, driver’s licenses, diplomatic motor vehicle license plates, tax shelters, tax ID cards, and the like.” Should one feel that any of these fraudulent documents is forged (and not an “official” fraudulent document), one is instructed to “contact the Moorish Bureau of Investigation.” Those who pay to reject American law through another organization, Temple 13 warns, “will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
But what is the extent of that Moorish “law,” the “law” of one branch of Moorish Science? What “sovereign citizen” ideologies lead to, in practice, is precisely such chaos of contested authorities. Chaos, indeed, is the state of the Moorish nation today, the muddled and disappointing legacy of an early twentieth-century experiment at clarifying black identity in relation to American citizenship.
Susan Nance, “Respectability and Representation: The Moorish Science Temple, Morocco, and Black Public Culture in 1920s Chicago,” American Quarterly 54, no. 4 (Dec. 2002): 623-59.
For news on the Hampton case, see http://articles.dailypress.com/2010-06-25/business/dp-nws-hampton-moors-20100625-13_1_religious-group-moorish-science-temple-moorish-republic-nation and http://articles.dailypress.com/2010-06-28/news/dp-nws-national-moors-20100628_1_moorish-science-temple-religious-group-claim.
Spencer Dew is a lecturer in the department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Iowa State University and the author of the forthcoming Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2010). Dew holds a PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School and is a former junior fellow in the Martin Marty Center and the former editor of the Religion and Culture Web Forum.