Racist da’wah (and “crazy British Muslims”)

A still of Abu Ibraheem Hussnayn, a young South Asian man wearing a white cap and with a long beard wearing a long, dark-coloured robe, talking into a microphone he is holding in his hand, standing in front of an ice-cream van with the slogan "Mind that child" on it.Over the weekend a video surfaced of an Asian Muslim street preacher telling his fellow local Muslims (also mostly Asian) that as well-brought-up people who come from respectable families, they should not be talking as if they were Black or want to be Black. This obviously caused a stir with a number of Black Muslims from various parts of the world, not just the UK, saying it confirmed their belief that the Muslim community was rife with “anti-blackness” but it also seemed to reinforce prejudices among Muslims elsewhere (such as the US and Canada) that British Muslims were wild, extreme and out of ‘control’. The man later posted a video with a partial apology, although he also accused Black Muslims of having a “victim mentality”. The original video (“addressing the gangsters and drug dealers”) can be found here on YouTube and the ‘apology’ here on Facebook.

First, it’s clearly racist to contrast well-brought-up people and respectable families with Black people, to use ‘Black’ as a synonym for riff-raff — he did not mention Muslims or non-Muslims, or gangsters or anyone else. Given that he is a ‘salafi’, a sect which has a very strong Black membership and leadership in this country and in the USA (there is, or was, a ‘salafi’ mosque in Birmingham with an African-American imam), this is particularly astonishing. I’ve met young Asian people who talk with a bit of street slang in their vocabulary who were not drug dealers, they were just young people brought up in places where that sort of language was common. If he really was addressing ‘gangsters’ then whether they talk like they’re from back home in the Punjab or from Compton or wherever, or a bit of both, should be the least of his worries. I’ve also met Black people, including Muslims, who do not act or speak like gangsters and do not want their children mixing with or adopting the habits of those sorts of people. If you want to tell people not to act like gangsters, drug dealers or petty criminals (or their admirers/wannabes), there are ways to express that than telling people not to “sound Black”, because then you are talking about the good and the bad among Black people.

Some of the North American responses to it reflect the prejudices about the Muslim community here which have been taking root there the last couple of years. I’ve seen Twitter profiles saying things like “if you’re from the UK, don’t mention me”, remarks like “I read something disgusting and then looked at his profile, saw ‘UK’ and that explains it” and had lectures from an American Muslim convert telling me not to tell Americans anything about moderation or integration given all the extremism among my community. I suspect this is the effect of several years of right-wing propaganda and scaremongering about “no-go areas” that are a staple of American talk radio in some places. The person whose tweet drew my attention to the talk (and the preacher, whom I had never heard of before then) asked what the Muslim leadership were doing about him or where were they. Well, he was talking in the street, and the “Muslim leadership” consists of mosque committees, school governing boards and a few umbrella bodies and they control what goes on on their own premises but not in the street. It is the local council and the police who are responsible for monitoring and policing what goes on in the street and they could move him on, get a court injunction to stop him doing this or arrest him if he is breaking the law (which he may be). Perhaps these Americans are under the mistaken impression that we really have Shari’ah courts here; we do not, and never have done.

Abu Ibraheem’s apology does not really answer the reason why people criticised his original statement; amid all the side-swipes about Muslims other than ‘salafis’, it consists of the usual accusations of it being taken out of context, when it sounds just as bad in context; that the man who ‘first’ posted the video (who is Black) was in the habit of calling Asians by a derogatory name (which is irrelevant); and that some of “our Black brothers and sisters” have a victim mentality. Well, the reason they may do is because they’ve experienced racism in mosques and particularly from Asians — everything from insisting on giving talks and sermons in Urdu to refusing to allow their daughters to marry them (admittedly, the people responsible for that will do this to anyone who is not Asian or just not from their caste or tribe). What I believe, and have made this point here previously, is that there are people trying to exploit and exaggerate what racial tension there is among British Muslims so as to encourage separatism and manufacture leadership opportunities for themselves, and he has played right into their hands with this speech.

This coming weekend there is an Eid event which is only for Black Muslims; it’s an evening of poetry and political talk and it’s a full week after Eid so it’s not a real Eid event, but it’s disturbing that they think this is appropriate. One of the teachings of Islam is that we are all equal before God and we are all brothers and sisters; this is why it is unacceptable for two people to speak so that a third cannot hear or understand them. White and Black Muslims are both a minority in the British Muslim community; if we exclude Somalis, even together we are a small fraction. As a convert whose only language is English, I often find Asian religious events uncomfortable and isolating, yet imagine that a group of my Muslim friends who also speak English (and not also Urdu) want to spend Eid with only their Black friends — where does that leave me? This is about fostering isolation, fomenting suspicion about others’ attitudes that may be unjustified, and denying solidarity at a time when Muslims are all under suspicion and facing regular attacks from the political classes and the media. Do they think the mobs, or the secret police, will not come for them?

Abu Ibraheem Hussnayn is one man, an obscure street sermoniser of whom many of us had never heard until we saw that clip on Twitter last weekend. Let nobody assume that most Muslims, or even most Asian Muslims, are anything like him or have similar attitudes. There is no justification for using this speech as an excuse to sow further divisions among the Muslims here and to turn Black Muslim against White or Asian or Arab. It is, of course, a good thing for Muslims from West Africa or Somalia, or wherever, to have mosques based in their communities where their culture is reflected in the design and so on (and the manner of prayer, since schools of thought other than the Hanafi school are ill-represented in mosques in the UK), and I have been to the Nigerian-run mosque in Peckham and found it to be a very friendly place and welcoming to non-Nigerians and non-Africans, but there is no reason for exclusivity or for shutting ‘outsiders’ out.

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