This post was last updated on January 29th, 2019
We Don’t Talk about Our Own Racist Attitudes
1) Racists don’t like to acknowledge their racism, and this is no different in communities who are otherwise marginalized themselves.
2) People are discouraged from speaking about problems in our own communities (racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism) to avoid giving additional arguments to Islamophobes.
3) It can be quite comfortable to be in the position of solely being the victim. This goes back to the concept of intersectionality. Where different identities intersect you can be both privileged and discriminated against. In order to fight all forms of discrimination, it’s, of course, essential to acknowledge them.
Whatever the reasons for not wishing to discuss racism in Muslim communities, it sends a very strong message to those who are at the receiving end of racist attitudes: “Your experiences don’t matter. You don’t matter.” We must work to end this.
Racism and Shadeism
Racism in Muslim majority countries comes in the form of racism against African people in particular, but also severe shadeism against darker-skinned members of one’s own ethnic group. (Bleaching creams are extremely popular in Muslim majority countries, as is the idea that one should marry a lighter-skinned person to have lighter-skinned children.)
New and Old Racism
The Glorification of White Converts
On the other hand, if you appear white, but are not a convert you’re not worthy of anyone’s attention. I was once asked if I was white and a convert, and when I said that I’m half-Bulgarian Turk and that we are Muslim, the conversation ended there. No interest in the diversity of our community. White female converts, however, are congratulated, asked if they converted for their husbands (“masha’allah, he will enter paradise because of you”), and if they don’t have a husband yet, there are thoughts of who they could be set up with.
That’s not to say white converts always have it easy. They are useful for certain roles in organizations, but they are also expected to leave behind a lot of what culturally defines them. As they don’t usually have a very firm background in Islamic theology it is easy to denounce everything they do as haram. The more dominant groups (Arabs and South Asians in many Western countries depending on the location) can usually sell their own cultural practices as “real Islam” which goes as far as South Asians claiming that not eating meat is haram because they associate it with Hinduism. (Others claim that eating with a fork is haram.) Such statements of course alienate white converts. However, in comparison with black Muslims, in particular, white converts benefit from a great number of privileges.
This glorification of white converts goes as far as young, single Muslims talking to each other about how they should marry a white convert to have “more beautiful children.” Again, misogyny plays a role here, as the opportunity to marry a white convert is particularly attractive to Muslim men. Pair that with the traditional view that Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men, and you find a lot of females born into Islam left without a Muslim husband because Muslim men are off marrying white converts.
Arab Dominance and the Exclusion of Black Muslims
Despite the fact that most of the world’s Muslims are non-Arabs, there is a strong preference for and dominance by Arabs. To some people, Arab Muslims are automatically better Muslims simply because they come from the same linguistic background as the first Muslims. Arab names are often considered to be the only real “Muslim” names even though Arab Christians can have the same names. Converts sometimes change their birth names to these “Muslim” names accepting Arab culture as the norm.
Similarly, out of all the struggles that different Muslim peoples face in the world, those of Arab Muslims are given higher priority. Any Muslim organization places great importance on the situation of “our Palestinian brothers and sisters” but ignore the plight of many non-Arab Muslims, let alone the plight of non-Muslims that suffer from oppression by our so-called “Muslim brothers and sisters.”
When I was a member of the MSA at McGill University several years ago, we organized a Genocide Awareness Week which was supposed to shed light on groups that suffer other than the Palestinian people. When I brought up the ethnic cleansing of Bulgarian Turks (which has since been recognized by the Bulgarian government) I was told that my information was not “reliable” (I had given examples of people that I and my family knew). Instead, the South Asian dominated committee decided to focus on Kashmir and Gujarat. (In addition, Balkan Muslims have had to live with comments stating that the ethnic cleansing carried out in the various countries was because we are not good enough Muslims. Some Muslim lives clearly matter more than others.) Darfur? Too hot a topic for the MSA altogether.
The idealized image of Muslims as one big community where everyone is the same is just as false as the one of the USA as the land of the free (a phrase that was already in use during slavery!). Thankfully, this is the day and age of social media where Twitter gives us the chance to see stunning #BlackOutEid posts, but remember that if hashtags like that are necessary, it’s because black Muslim women and men don’t feel accepted by the larger Muslim community.
People like Hamza Yusuf and Asra Nomani can openly display their distorted views about the Black Lives Matter movement. No matter how conservative or progressive your approach to religion may be, the lives of black people rank lower for many Muslims, and this is a fact we have to acknowledge if we want any sort of improvement. The idea that we should keep quiet about these things because Islamophobia is the common, “bigger” threat makes it clear whose lives are valued more. Black Muslim lives are seen at the bottom of the list of concerns. The idea is that black Muslims should deal with being excluded as long as other Muslims are excluded from the white Christian mainstream. It’s all about Muslim immigrants finding their place in the countries they chose to move to, ignoring the history of colonialism and genocide some of those countries were built on. The myth that Muslims have only been marginalized in the West since 9/11 completely disregards black Muslims who have been having to deal with racism since long before then.
A lot of work needs to be done in order to truly arrive at the non-racist ideal that is propagated. Sweeping the issue of racism in Muslim communities under the rug, will only make the problem worse and much harder to deal with. It’s time to listen to the experiences of those who are marginalized in Muslim communities (and that includes women, LGBTQI Muslims, and others, as well).
Have you experienced racism in Muslim settings? Do you know any black Muslims on social media that people should follow? Let me know in the comments below.