Racism and the Glorification of White Converts in Muslim Communities

In discussions about racism, the focus is usually on mainstream society and its treatment of ethnic minorities. What is not usually discussed is the racism within those communities themselves.

​We Don’t Talk about Our Own Racist Attitudes

​Many Muslims are aware of the racism in Muslim communities, but it’s not often spoken about because of the following reasons:
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 communities is not a recent phenomenon, and the key to understanding the issue is to remember that in large parts of the world and for significant periods of time, Muslims formed the majority of the population and are not under attack for our religion. Once being Muslim is not considered a disadvantage, Muslims behave like other communities and display racist behavior, even though the Prophet Muhammad has spoken out against racism very clearly. Keep in mind here that the fact he even had to make clear statements condemning racism is a sign that this was a problem even among the early Muslims.

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

​When Muslims from such communities move to non-Muslim countries they don’t leave their racism and shadeism behind. While they do become victims of racism and Islamophobia, they continue to display racist attitudes towards those perceived lower on the hierarchy of race and ethnicity. This phenomenon where marginalized groups marginalize each other even further and thus play into the hands of those in power can be observed all over the world. I can say without a doubt that my ethnic group, the Turks in Bulgaria, who have faced some of the most severe forms of discrimination including ethnic cleansing often display very nasty attitudes towards the Roma people, one of the most marginalized groups in the history of the world. This serves the purpose of a false sense of dignity (“at least, we’re not the lowest of the low”) but does absolutely nothing to improve the standing of either Turks or Roma in Bulgaria.

The Glorification of White Converts

​In North America and Western Europe, these racist attitudes are amplified by what I call the glorification of white converts. Islam has always been a religion open to conversion from outsiders. However, when this happens in the rich countries of the so-called West, there is one specific type of convert that is preferred: the white, young, and educated one. These converts are often chosen to represent Muslim communities at events because it is assumed that they can speak better to non-Muslims. We are so focused on not alienating the non-Muslim majority that we want someone like them to speak to them about Islam. However, there is a strong misogynist, patriarchal component to this as well. There appears to be a disproportionately high number of white female converts wearing hijab that represent Muslim communities. The underlying message is: “Your women are converting to our religion.” Using women’s bodies in social or even military conflicts is typical of patriarchal societies, and it’s not different when a white convert is chosen to speak for Muslim communities in an attempt to show strength.

​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.


Malcolm X, the most brilliant Muslim leader of the last century (image from Pixabay).

Arab Dominance and the Exclusion of Black Muslims

Black Muslims, whether converts or not, are often marginalized and made to feel very unwelcome in Muslim communities, and it’s hard to find black leaders, in particular women, in organizations that are ethnically diverse. Sure, everyone knows Malcolm X, but among mainstream Muslim communities his time before Sunni Islam is usually dismissed entirely, even though the Nation of Islam was what shaped him most. This is not the place for a theological analysis of the teachings of groups such as the NOI or even NGE, but the arrogance with which these groups are discredited by Sunni Muslims despite their significance in the black community speaks volumes about the willingness of Muslim communities to listen to the needs of black people.

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.

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