October 8, 2020 Abdul Haqq

Black [In]visibility & the Muslim Voice

The US Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s have long since been conflated with myriad other causes that have sought to gain similar traction to the initial movement, originally galvanised to protest anti-black racism and the structural apparatus supporting it.[1] Since then, accusations of the initial cause being hijacked continue to reverberate as new ones emerge, further diluting the voice of proponents for racial justice for black people. During the 1980s, the UK witnessed blackness as a hegemonic concept, encapsulating other people of colour like south Asians. This ‘political blackness’, according to Professor Tariq Modood, was problematic as use of the term ‘black’:

“…encourages a ‘doublespeak’. It falsely, equates racial discrimination with colour-discrimination and thereby obscures the cultural antipathy to Asians and therefore of the character of the discrimination they suffer.” [2]

Such observations were invariably met with hostility and accusations of divisiveness;[3] however, on the flip side of the same coin, a similar argument can be made regarding Black Muslim communities and the marginalisation – not to mention anti-black racism – they continue to suffer among larger, more predominant South Asian communities today. The ‘doublespeak’ Modood refers to translates to a ‘double whammy’ effect for the minority Black Muslim populace, this being anti-black racism experienced at macro levels from the predominant non-Muslim wider society on the one hand, and micro levels from South Asian Muslim communities on the other.

In fact, as this article asserts, the requirements for distinct Black Muslim Voices and Visibility (BMVV) are more important than ever, as the type of effective and overarching leadership that is inclusive of other non-Muslim Black diaspora is essential in order to effectively challenge structural, systemic and generational racism that disproportionally affects these same minorities across western societies today. The very public death of African-American, George Floyd, at the knee of a law enforcement officer, together with the prevailing curfews imposed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, catapulted this longstanding societal scourge into the spotlight, reviving Black Lives Matter protests worldwide. The Black Cause can only, therefore, be successfully represented by those most ethnically and psychologically apposite to address the complexities surrounding it, without conflation of what may amount to other parallel and occasionally overlapping causes.

The need to examine aspects of British identity from socio-political and socio-cultural perspectives has never been more poignant, especially in light of the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests across the US and UK following the death of George Floyd.  Incidents like these, alongside continuing debates regarding anti-black, systemic racism and privileges afforded to other ethnic groups are also continuing at microcosmic – yet still significant – levels among Muslim communities. Habeeb Akande’s observations regarding a ‘third space’ for Black Muslims are poignant in this regard:

To be Black and Muslim in the UK is to be part of two marginalised and misunderstood communities. There are misconceptions and issues within both communities and towards each other. There is Islamophobia in Black communities and anti-Blackness in Muslim communities. Both are a result of the idea that each community is monolithic.[4]

 He further highlighted:

The general perception in UK society is that Muslims are either South Asian or Arab, but not black. One is either Black or Muslim, but never both. Growing up, many Black British Muslims would often look to the United States to see a positive representation of Black Muslim figures.[5]

There ain’t no black in the Union Jack: Who should represent Black Muslims?

In a previous article, I highlighted the lack of representation of Muslim converts at societal levels:

Muslim converts traverse all spheres of British society and yet their voices are seldom heard against the backdrop of socio-economic, political and religious issues that by and large relate to the predominant South Asian (and of late, increasingly Somali) culture.[6]

In fact, this observation is equally applicable to Black Muslim voices that only function at localised community levels with few representing their respective ethnic groups or indeed, the larger wider Muslim populace on the whole. The latter type representation continues to be dominated by non-Black Muslim diaspora – particularly South Asian entities. Unsurprisingly, the resultant effect is as Akande, describes:

‘There is a growing interest in Black British Muslims beginning to control their own narrative and build their own institutions to address issues not tackled by the mainstream Muslim community.[7]

These narratives and institutions extend beyond Black British Muslims as they have an even more important and overarching role to play among other non-Muslim Black communities in view of shared understandings and experiences, not to mention other commonalities surrounding issues of racial inequality and injustice pervasive at almost every level of society. While these also affect other communities of colour, Black minorities continue to disproportionally bear the brunt of anti-black racism. Black Muslim voices have been largely muted due to more vocal representations by the predominant South Asian Muslim community. While this is unsurprising due to the multifarious and complex social dimensions of this largely progressive group, their representation of almost everything that is supposed to reflect Muslim ‘Britishness’ should now be reexamined in view of the growing influence of Black British Muslims. Again, similar to Muslim converts (among whom many are of course also Black, of African-Caribbean, African etc. descent) Black Muslim visibility and representation are such that engagement and leadership at societal levels with all groups regarding pertinent issues of the day, particularly those relating to racial disparity, discrimination and marginalisation, should be the ambit of Black Muslim voices. Arguably, these voices are better placed than co-religionists heralding from the more traditional/cultural communities, in the same way that converts fulfil the role as conduits between two socio-cultural paradigms:

‘Converts may have greater empathy with non-Muslims because of their non-Muslim past and ongoing relationships with their family of origin. They often have a heightened awareness, compared to other Muslims, of how Muslims are viewed by outsiders, so there can be a strongly reflexive element to their discourse.’[8]

Conclusion

Without ignoring or diminishing the overwhelmingly positive contributions of these more predominant traditional communities, Black Muslims can also play an invaluable role as conduits between non-Muslim Black communities, wider society and the more culturally orientated Muslim diaspora. Debates relating to the (r)evolving issues around British Muslim participation, representation and leadership must begin to incorporate a wider audience and inclusion of members whose presence, visibility  and voice have been – to a greater extent – side-lined and, at most, afforded periodic tokenistic recognition. Black Muslim visibility must be as prominent as their counterparts and no longer consigned secondary and/or superficial roles at localised, microcosmic levels.

Finally, it is important to reiterate that, while advocating increased Black Muslim visibility, the majority South Asian Muslim voice should not be ignored or marginalised in preference for increased Black representation. Rather, acknowledgement that the latter is an intrinsic factor towards shaping the narratives of British Muslims during this tumultuous period and beyond.In fact, Black Muslim Voices Matter as much as Black Lives do and:

“Until we have eliminated racism from our current lives and imaginations, we will have to continue to struggle for the creation of a world-beyond-race. But to achieve it, to sit down at a table to which everyone has been invited, we must undertake an exacting political and ethical critique of racism and of the ideologies of difference. The celebration of difference will be meaningful only if it opens onto the fundamental question of our time, that of sharing, of the common, of the expansion of our horizon.”[9]

 

 

 

[1] Library of Congress: ‘The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom, Civil Rights Era (1950-1963). https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/civil-rights-act/civil-rights-era.html (Last accessed on 7th September 2020)

[2] Modood, T: ‘Political Blackness and South Asians,’ British Sociological Association, 1st November 1994, SAGE Journals: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0038038594028004004

[3] Sandhu, R: ‘ Should BAME be ditched as a term for black, Asian and minority ethnic people?’ BBC News, 17th May 2018: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-43831279

[4] Akande, H: ‘Finding the Way Forward: The Black Muslim Third Space’, Proudly Muslim and Black: Exploring Black Muslims’ History and Heritage Conference, SOAS University of London, 9th February 2019, reproduced with permission: https://www.abdulhaqqbaker.com/finding-the-way-forward-the-black-muslim-third-space/

[5] Ibid

[6] Baker, A H: ‘Part 2: Defining Muslim Identity in Conservative Britain,’ 10th May 2015: https://www.abdulhaqqbaker.com/repairing-the-cracked-lens-defining-muslim-identity-in-conservative-britain-part-2/

[7] Akande, H: ‘Finding the Way Forward: The Black Muslim Third Space’, Proudly Muslim and Black: Exploring Black Muslims’ History and Heritage Conference, SOAS University of London, 9th February 2019, reproduced with permission: https://www.abdulhaqqbaker.com/finding-the-way-forward-the-black-muslim-third-space/

[8] Zebiri, K: ‘British Muslim Converts: Choosing Alternative Lives’, Oneworld, Oxford, 2008, p.39

[9] Mbembe, A: ‘Critique of Black Reason’, Duke University Press, 2013, p.177

 

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