The BBC programme Muslims Like Us has brought to light a discussion that has been bubbling under the surface for a while. For those who are not aware of the two-part reality TV programme, #MuslimsLikeUs brought together ten Muslims of different ages, races, classes, genders and sexual orientations under one roof for ten days. As expected when you bring ten complete strangers together, the house soon erupted with impassioned debates about what being a Muslim in 2016 should look like. There is still a lingering disappointment of how participants were portrayed and represented. Whereas the mainstream seemed to focus on Abdul Haqq and his views regarding terror attacks and Shia Muslims; another altogether conversation was taking place on Facebook and other forms of social media.
For many Muslims of African descent, race and the sidelining of blackness was an issue of contention. This was not just an issue felt by audiences, but an issue that Nabil, one of the participants, raised both within the house and once he had left the house. Witnessing conversations after the programme had aired, it became clear that this feeling of racism is something felt by a sizeable amount of Black Muslims, and it is an issue that has been raised for some time. What else became clear was the strong sense that in merely raising the problem of racist attitudes among Muslims of other ethnicities, Black Muslims feel dismissed, often charged with being divisive, sensitive or paranoid – and paranoia was effortlessly attributed to Nabil by one of his fellow participants, Saba.
For some Black Muslims including myself, it seemed that with the airing of Muslims Like Us, a golden opportunity had opened up where mainstream media outlets and indeed even the production team behind the programme had picked up on a sore point for many Muslims. This opening has the potential to be the perfect platform to start nuanced conversations where those raising the issue of race are not shut down on the grounds of always complaining about racism or on the grounds of the subject matter being bad for relations among Muslims.
There was a critique which suggested that the programme focused on problematic issues that exist within Muslim communities and it was not a good PR campaign for Muslims in Britain. But here is the thing: 10 individuals were never going to be an complete portrayal of Muslims all over the UK, just as 10 Christians and their views, attitudes and opinions on life and their faith would radically differ. So why did we expect complete uniformity to be achieved in this instance? Muslims are arguably one of the most controversial sections of British society today, a two-episode reality TV programme was not going to satisfy everyone’s idea of what a good community looks like. Furthermore, if we are to look at what non-Muslims said about the programme, for many of them this was a mind blowing peek into a space which was previously off limits, and it went a long way to shattering stereotypes of the angry Muslim monolith who wants to bring Shariah law to the UK. We should have never expected The Waltons from a reality programme, especially because we are far from Mary-Ellen and Jim-Bob. So what now?
Maybe our new year’s resolution should be to redirect the anxieties that we have over what communities outside of Islam may think about us as Muslims and instead work on how communities inside the fold of Islam are actually treated and how they actually feel. If we are to look back over 2016 I can list countless problematic dialogues that took place on social media. But for the sake of brevity, let’s take two.
Just like orange is the new black, apparently Muslim is the new Black too. Well, what happened to the old Black? The term black in itself can be confusing, as it could be in reference to Black as in people of African decent, or Black as in politically Black. For the purposes of this article, I am referring to the former. Muslim is the new Black, coming from someone of a different ethnicity, carries a degree of privilege. The privilege to conclude that the identities and experiences of a whole race of people are no longer relevant and that they now sit in the position where Black people previously sat is simply dismissive. Sharing struggles? Yes. Seeing similarities? Without a doubt. However, there is no need to relegate Black (people) to being past it and no longer relevant, or our struggles being old news or in competition with anybody else’s struggle. And what of those of us who sit at the intersection of being Black and Muslim, to whom do we pledge allegiance? The old black or the new Black? Either way without deep explanation the statement can imply that Blackness and Muslimness cannot occupy the same time or space without imploding. That is to discount the historical connection between Africa and Islam, which goes back as far Prophethood itself; that is to discount the countries around the world that have had thriving black Muslim populations for the generations; that is to discount the many black people who embrace the religion daily. And although statements like “we are all Muslims and there is no culture – only Muslim culture” are prevalent, in a country like England where the norm of being Muslim is perceived as South Asian (and less frequently Arab), those cultures then become the ‘default’ and everyone else is expected to assimilate. Any assertion of one’s own culture is seen negative. Even a simple act like wearing a west African inspired scarf can lead to accusations of being a ‘nationalist.’
I remember going to the mosque once and being told the Jamaicans go upstairs. Being that I did not tell them my country of origin, it was clear that Jamaican was code for Black or a type of Black. I don’t know what was worse, the segregation or the responses I got from those seeking to justify it with everything from “they just wanted you to feel more comfortable” to “it’s nothing don’t worry about it”. But it is these little ‘nothings’ that are worrying. If someone was physically attacked for being Black, the majority could not deny it would be wrong. However, it is the subtle and indirect daily micro-aggressions that are devastating and often go unchallenged thus becoming the norm. These norms generally go some way to perpetuate negative stereotypes about Black people, for example statements like “are you Muslim Muslim, or Black Muslim”, or “oh you’re Jamaican (or insert country of choice), don’t worry you are Muslim now.” On the surface these comments might seem a form of innocuous ignorance, but regardless of intention when we look at the root of these comments, they come from a place of superiority where either as a Black person, your practice of Islam can’t possibly be like mine and in the case of the second comment, don’t worry about your inferior culture you are one of us now. We should not be surprised that attitudes like this exist and have been given the space to breed when our own scholars perpetuate fatalistic stereotypes – such as Hamza Yusuf’s comments at the RIS conference.
Implying that the cause of racism was primarily due to the dynamic of Black families, he only articulated what many already believe. Perhaps this is why when issues of race come up Black Muslims are told “racism is not a Muslim thing it is society thing, when it changes in society Muslims will also change.” This might be true, but in my own experience, I only recall being called a slave by Muslims (and not meaning a slave of Allah!). More importantly, with all the talk of ummah, I thought we were the ones who strive for excellence and stamp out injustice. Imagine if the Prophet waited for society to change before he told fathers to stop burying their daughters alive. We have now turned to burying our heads in the sand, because it is more comfortable to do so than to hear sections of our community talk about how they are dismissed, judged and looked down upon. The right and ethical thing to do would be to listen engage and understand, rather than shutdown the conversation with juvenile sloganeering.
Like so many other issues in Muslim communities, this is not going away. So the only question left to ask is what are we going to do from here?