Allahumma salli 'ala muhammad
Home / Politics / America / Are we in denial about racism?

Are we in denial about racism?

In the summer holidays 15 years ago I worked a temporary job in a factory. There I once met in passing a Pakistani brother who was to say something to me that I still remember to this day. When he learned during a conversation on the production line that my undergraduate degree was in Biochemistry, he asked: “Maybe you can do some research and find out why [English people] are superior to us?” At the time I just smiled politely and carried on working, but I find myself recalling his words—and the sentiments they betrayed—often. At first I thought, what a poor soul he was to suffer from an inferiority complex after the colonisation of his ancestors. However, engaging with different kinds of Muslim discourse and activism in recent years has given me the impression that this man merely expresses openly what many of us have internalised without even realising.

With the murder of George Floyd forcing anti-black racism onto the news agenda,[1][2] the western world appears it has been set ablaze. Protests calling for black lives to be valued have erupted in every major city in the US and an increasing number outside. Many of our black brothers and sisters—rightly so—are using this relatively rare airtime as an opportunity to highlight racism in general, including within the Muslim community that they have suffered, and for us to reflect on whether or not we have been carrying out our divine obligations towards justice in this regard.

However, unfortunately it is a common trait within human beings to react when someone advises us, especially if they highlight something sinful or embarrassing that we would much rather remain in denial about. It is a bitter pill for our nafs to swallow. It could be a subtle form of denial to respond to criticism of racism among Muslims with how perfect and not-racist Islam is. Of course Islam is anti-racist, but that is not the point. Giving a lecture on the life of Sayiduna Bilāl (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) or a list of Islamic evidences about unity and brotherhood will not cure the very specific disease of racism or racial prejudice. I do not think many Muslims need to be told by an Islamic scholar that it is forbidden in Islām. Rather, in our arsenal we must have a process of decolonising the Muslim mind and purifying it of the stains and characteristics of Jāhiliya (pre-Islamic ignorance). We need to think about the man from the factory.

Firstly, let us think about the concept of race.

What is known as race today is a social construct, like money—something with no material or “scientific” basis, but merely a convention society agrees on. [3] Our experience of race appears to be fundamentally euro-centric, although other cultures have had similar constructs such as the Hindu caste system which some of us no doubt have been influenced by. From the outset, it is worthy of note that the Islamic worldview does not seem to accept the notion of race as we understand it today. Rather, from the sources and early discourses in Islām, notions like tribes, lineages and people’s geographical locations seem to be the closest analogies, which were all trumped by a new classification of human beings the Quranic message introduced: those who profess belief in and acceptance of its message, and those who do not. It was partly for going against this Divine categorisation the Munāfiqūn of Madīna were censured when they referred to the Muslims of Madīna as “O people of Yathrib” instead of “O believers.” [4]  Incidentally, many Islamic jurists appear to even reject the notion of citizenship being necessitated by where one was born, but rather one’s consciously chosen or professed way of life and values are what qualifies them for full “citizenship” of the Muslim nation.

Though race as we know it is a social construct invented outside of the traditional Islamic worldview, it must not be ignored. This is because—whether we like it or not—it exists in our cultures today due to many factors (that we can thank European history for), as a means of social stratification and subjugation. It is not too outlandish to say that there exists in the world an unspoken spectrum where the whiter someone or something is, the better it is, and the darker someone or something is, the worse or more suspicious it is. In other words, while our brother in the factory may have regarded himself as inferior to a white Englishman, chances are he would have regarded himself as superior to a darker skinned people.

Ignoring race would be ignoring a monumental historical and on-going system of injustice. It is also important to note that “Muslim-ness” is also a racialised social construct in our time (as explained in: Islamophobia IS Racism[5]). Arguably the Muslims’ aim should be not to ignore these social constructs but to confront them and work towards their eventual dismantlement as constructs – for future generations. Indeed it would be a sign of a colonised mind to maintain perpetually these ignorant and unjust inventions imposed upon us by others. It does not take an anthropologist to recognise that racism (or even race) does not come naturally to mankind, but it is a quickly learned behaviour particularly for a child unfortunate enough to have a jāhili upbringing. Anyone with experience in raising children recognises that the pure fitra Allāh created human beings upon does not automatically acknowledge these constructs.

What about racism?

Social scientists will tell us racism is not just racial prejudice, but it describes a systematic disadvantage based on race, where one race is either explicitly or implicitly privileged above another. This is why it is important not to ignore race whilst there exists racism or indeed racial prejudice. It may seem like a trivial or pedantic point but ignoring the difference between racial prejudice and racism—the systematic abuse of power and privilege—exacerbates the problem.[6] As the sociologists’ argument goes, individual instances of racial prejudice can occur to anyone from any group. However, the reasoning as to why black people cannot be racist-proper towards white people is because the former do not stand to benefit from the latter’s systematic and institutionalised disadvantage—generally speaking in the world today.

This is not to say that instances of racial prejudice do not exist against white people, but when it does—as the argument goes—it is not called racism. This oft-refuted notion of BME individuals being ‘racist’ towards white people is called ‘reverse racism’. There is a wealth of written material refuting reverse racism, but when it comes to racism or racial prejudice amongst BME people including Muslims, more subtle and hidden notions like ‘internalised oppression’, ‘horizontal racism’ and ‘white passing’ theories come into play.

Horizontal racism

BME people accepting and repeating racial prejudice towards one another is not something new. In fact it had been a ubiquitous tool for enduring subjugation over populations by colonisers: divide and rule. The Belgian colonisation of what is today Rwanda is a poignant example of strategically favouring the Tutsis over the Hutus, [7] to create a rift between them which precipitated a genocide a century later. They were both subjugated compared to the colonisers but distinguished from one another. Likewise, some lighter-skinned Indians were also “imported” by European colonisers, for example, as indentured labourers or settlers to occupy a category above black people. Furthermore, racial prejudice can occur within the same ‘race’ as well, with members appropriating and perpetuating narratives and standards of normativity prescribed by the normalised (white) group.

If someone thinks that their hearts are free from this without working hard to uproot its tentacles, then chances are they are infected without even knowing. For example, what kind of view do we have of people who come “fresh off the boat” from the lands of our forefathers? How do we react when we hear their broken English and their inability to grasp aspects of our culture, idioms and norms? How do young brothers and sisters feel when they are seen in public with their own parents even, who may stand out because of their ‘otherness’? How much money is spent on beauty products designed to make darker-skinned sisters look and feel ‘fair and lovely’? How do we react to the history of concentration camps and extermination of innocent white Jews compared to innocent Black Africans?[8][9] Think about what our notions of beauty are, of success, of what is ‘normal’, and to a dangerous extent, what is right and wrong; our values.

I cannot put it as eloquently as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbazz, also known as Malcolm X:

“Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the colour of your skin to such extent that you bleach to get like the white man? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much that you don’t want to be around each other?”

White passing

Many have grown up internalising stereotypes about their own identity, or with an inherent inferiority complex about their own race or culture. This leads to something referred to as white-passing, where some people may temporarily or permanently pass off as the ‘normalised’ or ‘superior’ group, and even adopt the racism of this group against their own or another minority. This is how Islamophobia can be perpetrated by non-white people, for example.

It is also reminiscent of the traditional ‘Uncle Tom’; the “House Negro” who sold out his fellow Africans for favour with the slave masters; those Jews that fought for Hitler despite his desires to exterminate their own people; those “Muslims” and “Ex-Muslims” today who jump at the opportunity of showing how enlightened and superior they are—like the dominant, normalised culture around them—compared to those backwards, inferior, illiberal, extreme Muslims.

So what does this all mean?

In order to truly overcome race related issues in our community, we need to wash our minds of the stains of colonialism and subjugation. A culture where Black Muslims suffer racial prejudice or racism from other Muslims is a culture that is still deeply influenced by characteristics of jāhiliya. We need to purge our minds of inferiority and subjugation to manmade frames of reference and normativity, whether this be in what constitutes beauty, success, and honour, or even things like values and philosophy. This is why it does not require teaching merely the fact that racism is harām—much like we do not need to be told that salāh is obligatory. Once we know those simple truths we need to carve out a more deliberate, tarbiya-based approach to changing an individual’s and society’s habits and culture.

One can argue that we are all culpable if racism and racial prejudice exists in our midst, even those that do not take part in the abuse personally. Undoing the brainwashing, countering racist propaganda and biased reporting that leads to subconscious racism,[10] and otherwise decolonising the modern Muslim mind requires a proactive effort.

Those brothers and sisters who do experience racial prejudice—especially from other Muslims—should continue to highlight this problem with wisdom and above all, not let it cause them to feel internally subjugated. Optimism is central to our īmān,[11] and we should not feel that the abuse we receive is happening outside the Sight and Knowledge of Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā). Let us treat any abuse as an opportunity to come close to Him as He is giving you an opportunity to enjoin good and forbid evil; to tackle an injustice for His sake, not to gain sympathy or pity from men.

Those brothers and sisters who, upon sincere introspection, find something in their hearts against one racial group or another, and are honest enough to admit it to themselves, should receive glad tidings for the fact that they are aware of it. It is far worse to be unaware or yet worse in denial. Perhaps Allāh has given you this test because He loves to see His slaves struggling and striving against the tribulations of their own hearts to please Him alone.

It would be a shame for the ummah that was sent as an example for the rest of mankind,[12] due to the enlightened, divine values of Islam, not to take those values seriously and instead seek honour in other than them, leading to the problems outlined above. We take for granted that these values are what brought the world out of the darkness of jāhiliya into enlightenment. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) was the earliest human being in known history to explicitly state the equality of all ethnicities, only distinguished due to their taqwa. Those who benefit from the increasing inequality of humans and disempowerment of the masses have succeeded greatly in separating the Muslim ummah from the enlightening values of Islam.

This is essentially what Malcolm X wrote in a letter that Allāh had decreed only to be discovered recently:[13]

“If white Americans could accept the religion of Islam, if they could accept the Oneness of God (Allah) they too could then sincerely accept the Oneness of Men, and cease to measure others always in terms of their ‘difference in color’. And with racism now plaguing in America like an incurable cancer all thinking Americans should be more respective to Islam as an already proven solution to the race problem.

“The American Negro could never be blamed for his racial “animosities” because his are only reaction or defense mechanism which his subconscious intelligence has forced him to react against the conscious racism practiced (initiated against Negroes in America) by American Whites. But as America’s insane obsession with racism leads her up the suicidal path, nearer to the precipice that leads to the bottomless pits below, I do believe that Whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, through their own young, less hampered intellects will see the “Handwriting on the Wall” and turn for spiritual salvation to the religion of Islam, and force the older generation to turn with them – This is the only way white America can worn off the inevitable disaster that racism always leads to…” [14]

Source: www.islam21c.com

This is an updated article from 2015, Can Muslims be racist? found here.

Notes:

[1] https://www.islam21c.com/news-views/george-floyd-death-ex-police-officer-charged-with-murder-of-black-man-amidst-protests/

[2] https://www.islam21c.com/politics/the-killers-of-george-floyd-werent-just-bad-apples/

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/06/16/how-fluid-is-racial-identity/race-and-racial-identity-are-social-constructs

[4] Al-Qur’an 33:13. The other more ostensive reason was they referred to it as Yathrib rather than Madīna. In either case, they used a designation of people from pre-Islām.

[5] https://www.islam21c.com/politics/islamophobia-is-racism/

[6] http://www.dailykos.com/story/2010/7/15/884494/-Reading-Racism-Right-to-Left:-Reflections-on-a-Powerful-Word-and-Its-Applications

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rwandan_Genocide#Background

[8] http://www.filmsforaction.org/news/when_you_kill_ten_million_africans_you_arent_called_hitler/

[9] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/apr/23/british-empire-crimes-ignore-atrocities

[10] http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2015/04/09/racial-bias-and-media-coverage-of-violent-crime/

Link to report: https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.colorofchange.org/images/ColorOfChangeNewsAccuracyReportCardNYC.pdf

[11] https://www.islam21c.com/islamic-thought/in-pursuit-of-optimism/

[12] Al-Qur’ān 3:110

[13] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/malcolm-x-letter-found-and-now-on-sale_5624ee2fe4b0bce347013f14

[14] Text of the letter: http://momentsintime.com/the-most-remarkable-revelatory-letter-ever-written-by-malcolm-x/#.VleftMaRBSV

The views expressed on Islam21c and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.

JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER

  • Sent every few days to 20,000+ people
  • Receive our unique Islamic perspective on current affairs.
  • Ready for trustworthy, relevant & transformational articles, videos & podcasts?
 
By proceeding, you agree to receive our free email newsletter and accept our privacy policy.

About Dr Salman Butt

Salman studied Biochemistry at Imperial College London followed by a PhD in Chemical Biology, carrying out research into photosynthesis. During his years at university he became involved in Islamic society da'wah and activism, and general Muslim community projects. He is the Chief Editor and a regular contributor at Islam21c, and also has a blog on the Huffington Post.

10 comments

  1. I just wanted elaborate on a couple of points that I made in my original comment. I said,

    “I think that black people in general, like Muslims in general, need to reclaim their great history and expose the junk science about their intellect and temperament for the deliberately propagated rubbish that it is.”

    A few years ago, we had a science text book in the school that I worked at with a chapter titled something along the lines of ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’. It gave a timeline of western scientists and linked them back to Greek scientists, and there was a whole chunk of centuries of scientific achievements missing in the middle, that would have included Muslim scientists. It became the teacher’s responsibility to fill those gaps in for her pupils. She was able to do that because Muslims have worked hard over the last few decades to make that information widespread.

    Similarly, I think more work needs to be done to bring the achievements of black Africans in history, into the mainstream, to counteract centuries of deliberate distortions of the reality. Ilm Feed had an excellent video not that long ago about a university in Timbuktu ‘that was teaching a level of maths 600 years ago equivalent to Sorbonne University’s second-year degree programme today’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbdpGE3Th8Q). More videos like this need to be produced in-shaa Allah. This sort of knowledge would also challenge the disgusting ‘intelligence of black people’ debate. Does anyone remember Ragi Omar’s 2009 documentary on race and intelligence? It makes you shudder.

    Also, when it comes to the temperament of black people, the typical stereotype is ‘angry’, ‘violent’ etc. I don’t have a lot of knowledge but from my basic seerah knowledge, three black men have been written about and are part of our Islamic history. Bilal, Wahshi and the Negus of Abbysinia (may Allah be pleased with all of them). Never has anything been written about these 3 men that suggests anything other than mild manners, patience, hospitality and being honourable. The Negus of Abbysinia (Ethiopia), before he became a Muslim and while he was still a Christian ruler, was chosen by our prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) as the ruler who he would send his persecuted followers to, as he understood that he was a man of integrity. In fact, when the idol worshippers of Quraysh sent ‘Amr ibn al ‘Aas (ra) to convince the Negus to hand the Muslims over, Ja’far ibn Abi Talib (ra) made his famous speech that is still one of the most compelling descriptions of Islam today. He ended the speech by saying, “…They opposed us, made life intolerable for us and obstructed us from observing our religion. So we left for your country, choosing you before anyone else, desiring your protection and hoping to live in justice and in peace in your midst.” This is the true heritage of black people, not the socially engineered nightmare that they find themselves in today. By social engineering, I’m referring to the following definition:

    ‘Social engineering is a discipline in social science that refers to efforts to influence particular attitudes and social behaviors on a large scale, whether by governments, media or private groups in order to produce desired characteristics in a target population’.

    • *Abyssinia(!)

    • I forgot to mention black women mentioned in our Islamic history. Women like Sumayyah and Barakah (may Allah be please with them) were not the stereotypical ‘angry black women’ but they were wise, patient, intelligent, resilient, caring, nurturing and steadfast.

  2. MāshāAllāh you hit the nail on the head with the tone

  3. Poor article simply because too academic and dynb at the same time. The tone is completely wrong. Better ti reflect and say nothing than this.
    At the same time as speaking of a ‘Pakistani’ brother saying something stupid, as if all Pakistanis or Brits or other nation is homogeneous.

    What actions come out of this?
    Nothing really.
    So please, don’t waste our time.
    Leave this space for a banging article that sets the right tone.

    People with their hand forcibly held in a flame are not patient.
    That, if it was not clear, is us as a nation.
    Up the game and learn this lesson young man.
    Thank you

  4. Handsome Jack

    Wow, no thanks. Your barbaric doctrine might accept any race into your cult, but they are antagonistic to all kuffar. Thanks for showing what a deceitful opportunistic jihadi you are. Sowing schism.

    • Without intending to sound like Robert de Niro, are you talking to me? If you are then I’m sorry that you feel that way, but in the absence of having anyone around me who shares my particular concerns, and who I could discuss them with, I consulted my Lord before penning down my thoughts, which is why I feel content with what I wrote.

      I apologise again, this time for your obvious dislike of my use of the word ‘disbeliever’. In my defence, expecting me to replace it with another word is a bit like expecting people to replace the word ‘white’ in white privilege and ‘black’ in black lives matter, with something else. People around the world have done well to pinpoint the deaths of men like George Floyd to a white versus black issue. To try to water-down the words would dilute the message and consequently delay or impede the solution.

      Similarly, the suffering and deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslims around the world is essentially an issue of belief and disbelief, and I refuse to play any part in delaying relief and victory for my people (those who are black and those who aren’t) by diluting in the minds of people, who’s feet our problems lie at. May Allah continue to give me strength. Ameen. I did try to say that by ‘disbeliever’ I wasn’t referring to one’s neighbours, colleagues, the homeless etc. but maybe I didn’t make myself clear. Maybe you can think of it as the issue of ‘white’ being a problem but not all white people being part of the problem.

      Perhaps you’re also offended by my mentioning of disbelievers being condemned to Hell forever. In my desperation to point out to my fellow Muslims the double standards in being harsher towards other Muslims, who they may disagree with, than with disbelieving leaderships who have far more blood and devastation on their hands (who the original commenter was praying for and calling for unity with) I didn’t think about how it would make readers like yourself feel. For that, again, I apologise.

      If it makes you feel any better, then apart from prophets and a few others, no Muslims are guaranteed to enter Heaven (it depends on the number of our good deeds versus our bad deeds-no assurance of salvation for us!), and if we die as hypocrites then we will also enter Hell forever. I’m sorry. I can’t sugar-coat it for you any more than I can sugar-coat it for myself. In any case, wouldn’t trying to do so ACTUALLY make me ‘deceitful’ which is what you accused me of being?

      And ‘opportunistic’? Isn’t that what racists are calling George Floyd’s family? Maybe it’s easier to accuse people who have genuine grievances, of having ulterior motives. It makes it so much easier to dismiss the concerns they raise.

      As for the ‘jihadi’ add on at the end, it reminds me of the question that black people in the media get asked by white presenters,

      “You see a protest that was initially peaceful that then becomes a violent protest that then turns into looting, does it dilute the message?”

      A typical answer that I hear is, “I don’t agree with the looting but you need to understand the injustice that lead to the looting.”

      It seems to make sense when people say it in response to racism against black people, but not when Muslims say something similar in response to their persecution?

  5. Jazaak Allahu khair for this thought provoking article. It’s interesting how Malcolm X (rh), in his final letter, seems to be suggesting that the problem of racism lies with both the older generation and the lack of ‘college and university’ education.

    I was just about to give anecdotal evidence that feeling inferior to a white Englishman seems to be more of a problem in the older siblings of second generation immigrants (the ones who were teens in the 80s and were probably not born here) rather than the younger siblings (who were teens in the 90s and were born here). It’s interesting that the person making the comment about white people being superior was a factory worker. In my experience, the older siblings who studied to university level, got high paying jobs and who moved up from being ‘working class’ certainly don’t consider white English people as superior, unlike their similar aged siblings who didn’t study as much.

    Also, Dr. Salman Butt gave many examples after making the following statement, “If someone thinks that their hearts are free from this without working hard to uproot its tentacles, then chances are they are infected without even knowing.” I would add to that list, ‘How would we feel about marrying our son or daughter to a black brother’? This one seems to stump many of us regardless of our age, educational level or supposed level of religiosity. We have Somalian and Jamaican friends but this is something that I have struggled with in the past because, and this is going to hurt, some of my relatives would absolutely gloat at the fact that my children married someone with darker skin and would have darker skinned children themselves. I didn’t marry a black African but the ending sounds of many of the nationalities in Africa sound similar, and I still remember one of my older relatives mocking me when I was newly married, after I told him where my husband was from. He said something along the lines of, “… I thought you said Nigerian.”

    My pre-teen son only yesterday asked me if racism will ever stop. I told him that at some level, like other prejudices, it will always exist, as long as Shaytan and bad people exist. However, on a large scale, it can be stopped. How? In addition to turning to the ‘spiritual salvation’ of Islam, I think that black people in general, like Muslims in general, need to reclaim their great history and expose the junk science about their intellect and temperament for the deliberately propagated rubbish that it is.

  6. Dear Dr Butt,
    JZK for your very informative article. I’ve encountered many different forms of discrimination in my life. Be it Black supremacist, white supremacist, Islamaphobe the chosen people of God (Arabs,Jews) and all sorts. I’ve even had an attempt on my life by my own people who are coloured muslims. So I have a very simple approach in life when dealing with people. I don’t bracket them into groups, colours or religions. If I find a sound individual or community who are kind and compassionate then I try to reciprocate that with what is better. I think your article highlights a very important step that we must all take, the process of tarbiyah and purification. It’s a long path and Islam has the answer although as muslims we may be lacking.

    I’ll leave you with a joke. View the clip below!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOg-aVvKA3A

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

Donate / Subscribe
Send this to a friend