The rise in Black converts to Islam has unearthed the ugly face of racial prejudice that exists amongst the more established Muslim communities in Britain. Dealing with such prejudice can be challenging. The harsh reality of it is apparent very soon after an individual makes their declaration of faith, where the welcoming hugs from members of the congregation soon become a distant memory. The subsequent isolation may manifest itself in a number of possible outcomes. Some find their own way of reconciling their identity as Black men and women within their newfound Islamic identity, whilst others end up joining heretical sects like the Nation, which offer disaffected individuals a sense of belonging. In some circumstances, they end up leaving Islam altogether, and whilst the reasons for relinquishing the faith are likely to be multifactorial, the social exclusion that some black converts face most certainly is a contributory factor.
The biggest challenge for those who have remained steadfast in their faith, is to try and carve out a space in which they can freely discuss challenges they face as Black Muslims living in Britain. The issue of racism has long been one of those great taboos within the Muslim community. Whilst there are signs that things are slowly beginning to change, discussions are often marred by misunderstanding, stereotypes and hypocritical view points, all of which must be robustly challenged.
Indeed, even initiating the discussion in-house on the issue is fraught with obstacles, the most common one being the classic argument that exposing the reality of racial prejudice amongst Muslims will result in unnecessary discord within the community. This not only stifles any opportunities for the open and frank discussions that most Black Muslims want on the subject of race, it also implies that their experiences of injustice are just not that important. Such an attitude bears some similarity to the way in which right-wing commentators belittle the experiences of Muslims by strongly claiming that Islamophobia is a non-issue.
Another way in which discussions around racism within the Muslim community are quashed is by Muslims providing evidence from scripture illustrating that Islam doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race. Of course, common sense dictates that just because a religion doesn’t discriminate against race, it doesn’t necessarily mean that its followers won’t. In fact, we find this precise phenomenon when discussions around cultural misogyny take place in certain factions of the Muslim community. Firing off a barrage of verses from the Quran and Hadith may well illustrate how Islam is innocent of the charges of misogyny, but that doesn’t mean some Muslim men aren’t misogynists. In both instances, it is the culturally inspired attitudes of some that are on trial not the religion itself.
However, it’s not just Black Muslims who are subjected to such prejudice; white convert Muslims have also found it difficult to be accepted. They too face a type of xenophobia which makes it extremely difficult for them to be included within the Muslim community, as fundamental aspects of their cultural identity are questioned and wrongly labelled as contradictory to the faith. Admittedly these sorts of attitudes are most prevalent in areas where certain ethnic groups are most concentrated, often in areas with limited diversity but they are wholly damaging.
However herein lies the hypocrisy – Arab racism is widely recognised and condemned by sections of the British Muslim community. Take, for example, the widely expressed disgust at the treatment of workers from the Asian subcontinent in the Gulf Arab states, or the cries of racism when Saudi Arabia reportedly brought in legislation forbidding Saudi men from marrying women from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Chad. It is ironic that those who protest the loudest at these racial injustices come from communities where racial prejudice is widespread.
Whilst some Muslims are very comfortable talking about Arab racism taking place against members of their own ethnicity, they often display wanton denial about racial prejudice in their own communities. Even when the issue is acknowledged, there still seems to be a resistance to acknowledge the full scale of the problem, as it is often side-lined to being a problem amongst the elders. However, from my personal experiences and of the numerous converts I know, despite having had the opportunity to experience multicultural Britain in all its glory, many young Muslims of various ethnicities still seem to harbour the racial prejudices of their elders.
More worryingly, the effects of racial prejudice permeate nearly every aspect of social life. Take mosques as an example; how many of the imams are black or white converts and how welcoming are they to Muslims of other ethnicities? Why is it so difficult for converts to get married within certain ethnicities of the Muslim community? Given the social exclusion that occurs as a result of such attitudes, the British Muslim community at large must shoulder much of the blame for the social exclusion converts experience. The onus, therefore, is on those communities that struggle with racial prejudice to identify it, and begin the process of bringing a fresh approach to race relations amongst Muslim brothers and sisters.