Can Muslims be racist?
Ten years ago I worked a temporary job in a factory during the summer holidays from university. There I once met in passing a Pakistani gentleman 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 I was studying an undergraduate degree 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 have found myself recalling this man’s statement, and the underlying sentiment it betrayed, increasingly commonly over the last decade. 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.
This came to mind strangely enough as I was trying to make sense of the incidents on London buses a few weeks ago caught on camera, where a black woman in one case and a black man in another, verbally abused and threatened to physically harm some Muslim passengers. In their respective tirades, which lasted several minutes each, they made reference to the most egregious racist language against those Muslims; language that would even make the editors of The Sun shy. Many articles and comment pieces were written, the videos were shared far and wide amongst Muslims and even mainstream news websites, and the perpetrators, within days, turned themselves in to the police, ostensibly showing signs of remorse and fear for their safety.
These events sparked a slew of racial slurs against the perpetrators by some foolish Muslims, which then led to some Black brothers and sisters understandably being offended. Some used this as an opportunity to highlight what they felt was racism within the Muslim community that they had suffered. It led me to ask myself and others the question: can Black/Minority Ethnic (BME) individuals actually be racist? The little sociology I had been exposed to came to my mind on the nature of race, racism, privilege, and so on. The occurrence of prejudice and discord between BME and whites is something well known. However, I was trying to grapple with something different: minorities appropriating racist language towards one another; and the more I read on this subject the more I remembered this man from the factory.
Many have highlighted the unfortunate existence of racial prejudice within some Muslim communities, and they should be commended for this. Many have done excellent work to address some of the ignorance that exists that contributes to this problem. I believe, however, that in order to fully rid the Muslim mind of the disease of racism and racial prejudice, giving a lecture on the life of Sayyiduna Bilāl (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) or a list of Islamic evidences about unity and brotherhood will not do the job. I do not think many Muslims need to be told by an Islamic scholar that oppressing, mocking or insulting another person is something 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).
Firstly, let us think about the concept of race.
Race is a social construct, like money—something with no material or credible scientific basis, but merely a convention society agrees on. Our experience of race appears to be fundamentally euro-centric, although other cultures have had similar constructs such as the Hindu caste system. 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.” Incidentally, the fuqahā (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. 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).
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?
In sociology, 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 the consequences of ignoring the difference between racial prejudice and racism—the systematic abuse of power and privilege—in fact include an exacerbation of the problem. As the sociologists’ argument goes, individual instances of racial prejudice can occur to anyone from any group. However, the reasoning as to why Blacks cannot be racist towards Whites is because the former do not stand to benefit from the latter’s systematic and institutionalised disadvantage.
This is not to say that instances of racial prejudice do not exist, 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.
The recent events we are dealing with are instances of BME people exhibiting racial prejudice and language towards one another. This is not something new, in fact it had been a well-known 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 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. 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 they are free from this 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 dark 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? 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?”
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 appears to be what had taken place on the buses recently. Members of another minority ethnicity appropriated the Islamophobic language and rhetoric invented by the privileged on another minority—in this case Muslims.
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, 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, honour or values. 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 nuanced, tarbiya-based approach to changing an individual 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, and otherwise decolonising the modern Muslim mind requires a proactive effort.
Those brothers and sisters who do experience racial prejudice—especially from other Muslims—need to highlight this problem with wisdom and above all, not let it cause them to feel internally subjugated. Optimism is central to our īmān, and we should not feel that the abuse we receive is happening outside the Sight and Knowledge of Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā). You should treat it 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 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, due to the enlightened, Divine values of Islām, 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 colours, 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 Islām.
This is essentially what Malcolm X wrote in a letter that Allāh had decreed only to be discovered recently:
“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’ (sic). 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 is 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…”
 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.
 Al-Qur’ān 3:110