The treatment of blacks in Libya during the rebellion against Ghaddafi saw various black groups and individuals building on the narrative that Islam is as oppressive of the black man as Christianity ever was during the heydays of slavery and colonialism. It didn’t help that some Muslims wholeheartedly swallowed the narrative given by the rebels that these were mercenaries from Chad, Niger and Mali, paid to slaughter Arab Libyans, a narrative rejected by human rights groups.
The visible mistreatment of black Libyans and other immigrants from the continent, coupled with the pitiful response of some Muslims gave many the racism stick with which to beat Islam. Many groups including Christian evangelists and the black Hebrew Israelites have increasingly sought to use social media to espouse the idea that Islam is and has been just as repressive of the black man as Christianity ever was with this resulting in the construction of various myths about race and Islam based on simple, and at times, false readings of history. These include the view that Islam, like Christianity, is a foreign religion that was projected onto Africans by invading Arabs resulting in the destruction of indigenous cultures. Yet another is the idea that Islam, like Christianity, has mentally suppressed the black consciousness separating the black man from his own history which in turn has made him apolitical, passive and subservient.
The concern here is with the last point, namely the view that Islam has and continues to suppress the mental consciousness of the black individual. Ironically this view ignores history whilst claiming its importance to an individual’s sense of identity; this has been in large part due to gaps in the scholarship regarding resistance movements in Africa. Often, much of the focus of historical analyses has linked the independence movements with Pan-African figures like Nkrumah and Kenyatta. They, along with Haile Selassie, have become synonymous with the political and social re-awakening that resulted in the various independence movements of the early 20th century. Little attention is paid to the movements against imperialism that started in earnest almost right after the scramble for Africa. A rare but important study in this regard is that of B.G. Martin in a work entitled Muslim Brotherhoods in Nineteenth-Century Africa. Here Martin explores, amongst others, the different movements of the Dervishes of Somalia, the Fulani of Nigeria, and the Mahdi of Sudan. These anti-imperialist movements had the common aim of defending Islam against the encroaching European onslaught and stand counter to the view that the adoption of Islam led to a docile acceptance of oppression.
What is equally neglected is the deeper enquiry of the rise in conversions to Islam of many black individuals. This immediately conjures up stereotypes of prison conversions, but the picture is actually far more complex than that. The conversion of many Blacks to Islam goes right to the heart of spiritual, social and political identity.
Like some feminists who find it inconceivable that a woman in a headscarf has anything of value to contribute to the feminist discourse, some black groups equally ignore the views of Black Muslims themselves. An attempt to gauge these views was made by Richard Reddie in his study, Black Muslims in Britain: Why are a growing Number of Young Black people Converting to Islam? He found that there were no clear reasons for the rise in Black conversions to Islam “but a plethora of theological, emotional and cultural motivations. Practically all those interviewed suggested that Islam had given their lives meaning and woken them from a spiritual malaise. Others said that their faith provided inspiration and strength to engage with a society they regarded as corrupted by materialism and moral relativism. And for those whose lives had previously been errant, Islam’s decisiveness on a range of religious and socio-cultural matters had given them a focus and an anchor. Equally, many of the women interviewed suggested that the Islamic focus on modesty had liberated them from the rampant fashion-related consumerism that objectifies all women, and sexualises pre-pubescent girls.”
Reddie’s findings are important in understanding the phenomenon of black conversions on a deeper level. This brings us to another point, namely the lack of intellectual honesty that is prevalent in the literature and thought of many black groups who take issue with Islam. Much of the criticisms are based on incredibly superficial readings of history and current political events. It was Malcolm X who said, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against.” Thus, ignoring the Islamic position on race and racism and concentrating on the actions of individuals as proof of the faith’s racism is simply dishonest. There is nothing as emphatic as the Prophet’s last sermon on the repudiation of racial superiority, “There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab and for a non-Arab over an Arab, nor for the white over the black nor for the black over the white except in taqwa.”
The continued obsession with race, which in fact was a by-product of European attempts to justify oppression of foreign races through anthropological and scientific study, is actually something that black Muslims have clearly not spent much of their time debating. Indeed people harbour all manners of prejudices, but one cannot attribute that behaviour to a faith that recognises plurality.