On British Muslims and US racial politics

A picture of a white woman with slightly darkened skin, wearing a pink headscarf with a white cap underneath, with pink lipstick.Recently I’ve noticed a trend among Muslims in the online community of associating Muslims and Islam with ‘brown-ness’ and in opposition to ‘whiteness’ as well as the uncritical parroting of dogmas which are in vogue in the US anti-racist or social justice community. I’ve also seen an increase in projects designed to highlight a particular racially-based group within the Muslim community, many of which strike me as unnecessary or divisive and which appeal to a sense of victimhood out of proportion to the situation. One of the major appeals of Islam going right back to the days of Malcolm X in the 1960s was that it broke down racial barriers and that nobody was superior to anyone else purely on the grounds of race or tribe, yet now there are people busy putting such barriers up in the name of activism or for cultural or artistic projects. Worst, we have people saying things which plainly put them outside of Islam while Muslims eagerly share and applaud their stance.

Two particular recent exchanges I saw on Facebook illustrate my points. In one, an Asian brother in London posted that a white woman in a Costa café asked that she not sit next to him for reasons unstated, and in the comments below, a white person said that “racism cuts both ways” and the brother responded that racism cannot be by a “person of colour” against a white person but only the other way round as people of colour were “low in the pecking order” and “racism is structural”. This definition is the accepted one in the USA but in the UK ‘racism’ as legally defined includes any act of discrimination based on race, whatever the race of the perpetrator and victim (see this letter by Linda Bellos in the Guardian last May). There are good reasons relevant to the Muslim community here why we should accept this definition and not the US one, but I will say that I have had a similar experience to this man’s; a man told me on a train one time that he did not want to sit next to me and had already moved once to get away from me. He didn’t say why although I have a beard and was carrying a rucksack. Both of us are/were white.

The second such exchange is one I saw last week, also on Facebook: people were discussing a Channel 4 programme in which a white woman, who had expressed prejudice against Muslims, agreed to ‘brown up’ (to appear Asian) and wear a hijab for a week to experience the world the way Asian Muslims do (they fitted her with a “more Asian looking prosthetic nose as well). I’ve said before ([1], [2]) that I think experiments in which people disguise themselves as members of a minority for a short time are unhelpful and do not give the participant a true picture of what a real life hijab wearer or wheelchair user (as disability is the other experience that people ‘try on’ in these exercises) experiences. However, the responses included the complaint that they did not simply ask a brown Muslim woman, rather than simply a Muslim woman, as if a white Muslim woman never experienced abuse for wearing hijab (those I’ve known have said they do) or that the ‘brown’ ones were the real Muslims, especially as they are from long-established Muslim families rather than converts, or children of converts.

This dogma that prejudice or discrimination is “not racist” unless it is perpetrated by a white person against a “person of colour” has some validity in the US context where there is a strong legacy of slavery and decades of legal discrimination and mob violence against African Americans and where expressions of frustration by Black victims of persistent racism are treated as being of equal offensiveness to the original racist aggression (this being a good example). The UK’s history is wholly different (there being no equivalent of the Confederacy and its legacy, for example, and in more recent times they have elected a demagogue who stood on an openly racist platform as their leader and we have not) but we are talking about the Muslim community here, not the general population, and the Muslim community is dominated by the South Asian community which has clung to its native languages and its particular cultural practices. The fruits of that domination have been amply discussed here and elsewhere, in fact long before this blog (or any blog) existed, in the pages of Q-News for example, but they include the fact that newcomers, whatever their colour, are often made to feel unwelcome as they cannot understand the conversations of people at the mosque or at social gatherings and are unable to find spouses as parents refuse marriage to ‘new’ Muslims (even if they are not all that new) for fear of cultural incompatibility, or some other such excuse. In my experience, opposition to mixed marriages has largely died down among whites in urban areas in this country — it no longer passes the “dinner party test” as Sayeeda Warsi put it — but it is still common among Asians in this country and whatever the excuse, the rejected person is still left with the impression that the family thought they were not good enough to marry their son or daughter. Whites have had to face up to their racist attitudes and change them in this country; Asians have not, and prejudice about the morality and modesty of white women and girls has been implicated in the multiple cases of organised child rape which are known of. Racist attitudes by minorities against the majority community, or elements within it, can have a devastating impact.

Muslims of every colour are victims of stereotyping and suspicion in this country and some of it puts us in danger. Muslims of every race have been subjected to control orders, detained at airports for extended questionings for no reasons and missed their flights, and have been denied passports because of their charitable work; Muslims of every race were among the detainees at Guantanamo. Muslims, particularly women, of every colour have suffered abuse in the street by bigots, not all of them white (an Asian friend said he and his family had received more abuse targeted at their religion from Black people than White since 2005, and it is notable that at least one of the recent videoed incidents of harassment of Muslims on public transport involved a Black perpetrator). Muslims of all races have had to answer hostile questions from family members about terrorist acts they had nothing to do with, or been reminded “it’s a Christian country” or some such thing. Yet it has become fashionable to remind white Muslims that they could simply take off the hijab and abandon Islam and all their problems will go away, while a “person of colour” will always remain oppressed! And sometimes it’s Muslims saying this!

I saw a set of videos titled “Black and Muslim in Britain” featuring a group of about six or seven Black British Muslims talking about their experiences, and they included other Muslims presuming you must be either a convert or not a Muslim, difficulties and obstacles in finding a spouse if you are looking outside your ethnic group (which you might well be as a convert, as you are looking for someone who knows the religion better than you do) — things white converts have to deal with as well, although sometimes less severely. As an actual convert I find it quite insulting that a born Muslim is offended by being mistaken for one; this is exactly the sort of attitude that leads the “established” South Asian Muslim community to put up the barriers they complain about. And how inclusive is any visual project which claims to represent “Black British Muslims”? A large proportion of them in London and elsewhere are ‘salafis’ who do not allow photography, so no photographic exhibition is going to represent the whole of the “Black British Muslim community”, if there can even be said to be one.

A final point: apparently in the name of racial solidarity, some Muslims often no longer defend Muslim belief and even tawheed, i.e. the belief in One God. A few weeks ago a woman circulated on Facebook a picture of herself in a T-shirt with a “Black and Muslim” slogan on it in English and Arabic, adding in the caption below that what being “Black and Muslim” meant to her included “honouring the Orisha as parts of Allah” and “praying salah and pouring libations to the ancestors right after”, both statements of shirk or polytheism/idolatry. This is simply the number 1 sin in the entire body of Islamic law by absolute consensus, and they are clear examples, not something that is subject to interpretation. It’s astonishing that people were circulating this without criticism. I have also seen Muslims here who willingly associate with the notorious Amina Wadud, who has made open statements of kufr such as insulting a prophet by calling him a “deadbeat dad” (more on which here). Muslims should not be associating with people who speak like this.

There is, all in all, too much emphasis on race and colour in Muslim discourse in this country right now, while the threats from “on high” are aimed at all Muslims and not just Muslim “people of colour”. In places around the world where Muslims have been massacred or severely persecuted, the perpetrators are as likely to be people of colour as those who might be called white, either by their standards or ours: Indian Hindus, Black Central African Christians, Chinese in East Turkestan, native Buddhists in Burma (Myanmar). There is no link between being a “person of colour” and being a Muslim, so Muslims need to stop using this spurious term of identity and renew their solidarity with their fellow Believers, be they Black, Asian or white. It may seem trite, a bit “can’t we just get along?” but fostering unity and brotherhood amonst Muslims across racial boundaries is vital. I should add that this development of dogmatism over race and racial differences being emphasised by progressive elements in the Muslim community is a new thing; until and in the period after 9/11, race really did not make friendships between Muslims of different backgrounds all that difficult, at least not in my experience in south London. Nobody was calling others out over ‘privilege’ or some minor faux pas or other. We need to get back to that because in the present time, none of us is safe.

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