By Habeeb Akande*
In recent years, Black British Muslim communities have witnessed the growth of a new religious and social institution, known as the Third Space. The ‘Third Space’ refers to an institution that seeks to fulfil the particular needs of a faith community which are not being met by mosques, schools or traditional religious institutions. A Third Space can be a community centre, library, or social media networking site. In the context of Black British Muslims, Third Spaces place a greater focus on meeting the social, cultural and spiritual needs of its participants. Broadly speaking, the Black Muslim Third Space seeks to provide a safe space for black/mixed-race Muslims to come as they are, free of religious, racial and cultural discrimination. In this presentation, I will provide a brief overview of the Black Muslim Third Space,why it exists,and the importance of online Third Spaces going forward, particularly for young people. .
Who is a Black British Muslim?
Who is black is a problematic and ongoing debate which some use to refer to people of African descent, non-white ‘people of colour,’ BME, ethnic minorities, or the controversial notion of ‘political blackness.’ Political blackness is a concept rooted in 1980s anti-racist activism. It was used to define non-white people of colour who identified with the struggle against racism and oppression. ’Black’ was an encompassing term to refer to non-white peoples including Asian, north African and mixed-race people.
Some people of African descent do not identify as ‘black,’ but by their tribe (i.e. Habeshi) or ethnic origin (i.e. Somali, Arab).There are also some white-skinned people of north African descent who identify as ‘black’.Historically, ‘black’ has been used to refer to people in one of four ways; descriptively, ethnically, culturally or politically.
For the purpose of this presentation, by ‘Black British Muslim’ I am referring to self-identifying ‘black or mixed-race’ Muslims of African or Afro-Caribbean descent living in the UK, irrespective of their hue, hair texture or country of origin. As there is not one homogenous Black Muslim community, I will use the term ‘Black British Muslim communities’ rather than a ‘Black British Muslim community.’
How many Black Muslims are in the UK?
According to data from the latest national census, there are approximately 272,000 Muslims of African descent in the UK, representing about 10% of the UK’s Muslim population. 33% of UK’s Muslims are 15 years and under, whereas only 4% are over 65 years of age.The majority of the UK’s Black Muslims are of west African, east African and Caribbean descent. Large numbers of the Muslims trace their origins to Nigeria, Ghana, and Somalia.
What is a Black Muslim Third Space?
The ‘Third Space’ refers to an institution that seeks to fill the gaps where the mosque, school or traditional religious institutions are not meeting a faith community’s particular needs. An institution is defined as an organisation founded for religious, educational, professional, or social purpose. Organisations can also be digital on social media platforms or online.
In the context of Black British Muslims, Third Spaces place a greater focus on meeting a community’s social, economic, cultural and spiritual needs. Broadly speaking, the Third Space seeks to provide Black Muslim male and female participants with a safe space “for people to come as they are,” in terms of their religious and cultural understanding and leanings.
Different Types of Third Spaces
What constitutes a Third Space may vary from one community to another. A community centre, hub, library, café, local restaurant, or social media networking site can all serve as a Third Space. Some Third Spaces take place in more informal settings such as a living room, halaqas (discussion circles), or even a privately rented office space. Third Spaces attract a wide range of Muslims who span a range of religious observance and covering styles. It’s supposed to be a non-judgemental space and open space to have open and honest conversations.
Third Spaces are created to cater to the needs of isolated or excluded Muslim subgroups from the Muslim majority group. Invisible Muslim subgroups include; Black people, millennials (young people), women, converts/reverts, and an ethnic/cultural group. The Third Space phenomenon is growing in popularity, particularly amongst minorities within a Muslim community.
Is There A Need For A Black Muslim Third Space?
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.
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.”
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.
A Third Space does not have to be exclusive to Black Muslims. It can be created by non-Black people but the focus is Black Muslim issues. Advocates argue that the aim of a Third Space is not to replace the mosque, but to provide culturally-specific services for participants by qualified and/or experienced practitioners. A Third Space is not usually religious centred but revolves around social-cultural issues.
In an interview about Black Muslim only spaces in the UK, young activists Neimo Askar and Ayo Olatunji, spoke about the need of “letting people have a space where they feel safe should be our primary goal, and we should aim to keep creating spaces for people that are excluded in one way or another.”
The activists were part of a Third Space event in Brixton Pound Café which involved a panel discussion and performances by Muslim creatives. Although they were aware of some Muslims’ reservations that black spaces are exclusive and embody “tactics or methods used by western secular society,” the activists feel such spaces are much needed. Neimo Askar said she believed such spaces are important to listen to “Black Muslims and challenging those mindsets that perpetuate anti-Blackness in mosques, households, and even within family and friendship circles.” In addition, some Third Spaces provide marital/relationship and counselling services.
Free from the Asian/Arab gaze, the Third Space encourages dialogue and exploration of variety of issues such as; identity politics, cultural differences, lifestyle changes, and support systems. Not seeking validation from others, unapologetic Black Muslims are free to navigate in spaces where there are no microaggressions, performative acts of ‘colour-blindness’ and back-handed compliments from non-black Muslims. The spaces are also an opportunity to discuss issues between born-Muslims and revert Muslims.
Examples of Third Spaces for Black British Muslims
Some examples of popular Third Spaces which cater to Black Muslims in the UK include; Roadside 2 Islam is a youth outreach and media organisation featuring interviews with converts and reverts to Islam. Pathwaze is a supported housing organisation based in Croydon, South London, providing living accommodation primarily targeting at risk adults between the ages of 18-45 years old. The Salaam Project is a youth and revert /convert focused not-for-profit organisation delivering workshops and seminars around the UK, mainly in the heart of UK BME communities. AfroHijabi is a visual online campaign to raise awareness about the lack of representation of Black Muslim women and celebrate diversity in British Muslim communities. Blacklisted is a popular UK podcast show with 125,000 listeners by three Black British Muslims in London discussing current issues affecting Black Muslims in the UK.
Black and Muslim in Britain web series features personal narratives of influential Black British Muslims speaking about race, representation and their experience in the UK. The Black Muslim History Archive by Everyday Muslim is the first archive collected based on the stories and memories of the Black, African and Afro-Caribbean (BAAC) Muslim communities in Britain. The Baraka Boys is a popular podcast by young Black and Asian Muslim creatives living in the UK speaking about topic projects. Female Muslim Creatives (FMC) is an arts organisation seeking to support, nurture and connect Muslim female identifying artists. Exhibitions, panels, workshops. Mostly Lit is an award-winning books and pop-culture podcast co-created and co-hosted by a hijab-wearing Black Muslim woman chronicling the “millennial experience” whilst exploring the intersection between literature, wellness and pop culture.
Black Muslim Forum blog brings awareness and creates solutions to combat racism, colourism and anti-Blackness in the Muslim community. The blog’s founder is also in the process of setting up Nana Asma’u community Saturday school for children aged 7 to 11 years. The Islamic History Project website designed to empower Muslims through history. The annual African and Afro-Caribbean Eid Festival during the days of Eid. Black Muslim Times is an online publication and platform for Black British Muslim representation. Black History Month events across various UK universities in October, including the ‘Beyond Bilal: Black History in Islam’ lecture series tour. Halcyon is a creative online space aimed at empowering Muslim women. Founded by a 20-something black Muslim woman, the website features a range of articles from Muslim women of colour on lifestyle, art, and female sexuality.
Muslims have also created a number of online communities via social media networking sites and apps such as Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook. Online Black Muslim communities allows members to connect with like-minded Black Muslims in the UK and around the world such as the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative and NbA Muslims.
Online Third Spaces for Black British Muslims
Online media is very influential amongst young people in the digital age studies show. More than 150,000 young British teenagers spend over eight hours a day online at weekends, according to Ofcom. Another study found that almost a fifth of young people aged 16 to 24 are “addicted to their smartphones,” spending more than seven hours a day online.
Online people can curate their own content, learn about their faith and heritage, and build relationships for the next generation of Muslims. Material online is also documented which allows others to learn and be inspired by produced content.
In the UK it is common for ‘black’ people to self-identify by their ethnic tribe (i.e. Yoruba), country of heritage (i.e. Jamaican) or continent (African) rather than the term ‘black’ or ‘British.’ In recent years, Twitter and Instagram have become a means to raise awareness of social issues, celebrate achievement and discuss day-to-day experiences. In response to the ‘erasure of Black Muslims’. hashtags trended across social media platforms to raise awareness of Black Muslim representation and achievements. Popular hashtags include; #BlackTwitter, #MuslimTwitter, #BlackAndMuslim #BlackLivesMatter, #BlackMuslimExcellence, #BeingBlackAndMuslim, #BlackAndMuslimInBritain, and #BlackOutEid.
Challenges Facing Black Muslim Third Spaces?
Some of the challenges which Black Muslim Third Spaces face include; lack of infrastructure and funding, disinterest from mainstream Muslim communities and organisations, mental health (depression, anxiety) of social media influencers and consumers, obsession with celebrity shaykhs, spread of ‘fake news’ and online bullying.
The online community of #MuslimTwitter and #BlackTwitter can be divisive at times in which some describe it as ‘toxic,’ and ‘abusive.’ Black women are disproportionately targeted online, being 84% more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets. The online abuse of Muslim women and black women in particular, remains an ongoing issue where some people appear to enjoy abusing black and Muslim figures. The pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune is a concept referred to as schadenfreude.
Going Forward for Third Spaces
Social media influencers, online curators, artists, vloggers, and bloggers, are part of the growing number of Muslim creatives reflecting the diverse experiences of African / Afro-Caribbean descent Muslims across different generations.
Going forward, more religiously-trained students, scholars and Islamic speakers are needed on social media to address the social issues black Muslims face in contemporary Britain. Such issues are not only about race, anti-black racism, history and discrimination.
In addition, sustainable businesses and institutions are needed to hire and finance black Muslim initiatives. Social media can be an extremely useful resource to financially empower Muslims. LinkedIn for example is a leading social networking business and employment-orientated service that operates via websites and mobile apps, which Muslims have used to find work.
For several years Black Muslims have created and collaborated with various communities and institutions including mosques, communities and charities. Despite making up only 10% of the UK’s Muslim population, black Muslims have played an integral role in changing the perception of Muslims in the UK. Some have argued that their experiences and contributions have not always been appreciated by the wider Muslim community, which has caused many to seek Third Spaces where they can congregate as Muslims and black people away from the white/Asian/Arab gaze. The aim of the Third Space is largely formed to serve its participants’ social, cultural and economic needs. Particularly on social media, the online Third Space reflects the diverse experiences of young black British Muslims. That being said, more engagement from elders, religiously-trained scholars, and experienced professionals are needed to guide and engage with young Muslims online.
*This paper was first presented at the Proudly Muslim and Black: Exploring Black Muslims’ History and Heritage, Conference on 9 February 2019 at SOAS University of London, UK.
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