“So my question always to Muslims is that if the Islamophobes are treating us like we are one community, when are we going to start acting like we are one community”
Linda Sarsour, Activist, Losing My Religion conference 2019
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has unleashed a wave of anger across the world and led to a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. His last words “I can’t breathe” have become a slogan for the movement as well as a metaphor of how black communities have been suffocated by structural racism worldwide – a metaphor that is sadly even more poignant in the middle of a pandemic whose cardinal symptom is also an inability to breathe.
In the UK, a heady mix of a numerous factors have ignited the tinderbox of anger, including rise in the far-right, a Government that has pursued structurally racist and Islamophobic policies for years, and deep disparities in how black people are treated in the criminal justice system as a whole.
COVID-19 has also brought into sharp focus these disparities with a report from Public Health England data showing that Black people are two to four times more likely to die from COVID-19. Yet the publication of recommendations from this report were delayed the Government, since they suggest that structural racism may have played a part in these deaths. A similar study into COVID-19 deaths in Wales has gone further and concluded that structural racism had played a part.
Playing politics with peoples lives is a dangerous game, and is a tactic that may yet come to haunt this Government amidst the inevitable public inquiries that will flow from COVID-19. For far too long we have ignored the structural inequalities in the NHS, both in terms of adverse impacts on the health of our patients but also the deeply rooted discrimination and bullying against Black members of staff. Perhaps now is the time to address these with new vigour.
Recent weeks have seen a wave of Black Lives Matter protests, with far-right groups mobilising in violent opposition in a way that can only be seen as a manifestation of hatred and oppression, demonstrating that, even in year 2020, human equality and dignity is still somehow a controversial issue.
So, how should Muslim communities respond to Black Lives Matter? Supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and showing solidarity with organisations such as Stand Up To Racism are important. It is evident that Islamophobia is an intersectional phenomenon that is linked to racism and is a form of racism, with a large body of evidence suggesting that Muslims face similar obstacles in tackling inequality and discrimination, particularly considering the ways in which Islamophobia manifests itself as a racism.
From a religious perspective social justice should be ingrained into Muslims’ lives and we should support the Black Lives Matter movement from this perspective. The Qur’ān states; “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both….” Surah An-Nisa, 135
Some Muslim groups and organisations have been silent on this issue, which is unacceptable. We must acknowledge that the same structural racism that oppresses black people also oppresses Muslims and it is only by standing together and having a unified stance that such policies and attitudes can be successfully tackled. This is our struggle too.
Whereas there is no doubt that structural racism affects black and Muslim communities alike, we must also accept that there are significant differences in the experiences of Black Muslims and the challenges they face, as noted in a report from the Social Mobility Commission in 2017 on the Social Mobility challenges faced by Young Muslims “Black Muslims face significant racism as well as Islamophobia and so encounter an additional ethnic penalty”
We thus need to be honest with ourselves, and take a long hard look at whether we are contributing to the problem. Racism is not just a black and white issue. Within the Muslim community in the UK, Black Muslims are the minority, not only in terms of numbers but also in terms of political and societal influence.
Intra-community discrimination against Black Muslims is a major issue within our communities. Unfortunately, our mosques and community organisations are often operated, by design or default, along ethnic lines, and relatively few are as welcoming to the Black community. A survey from the Black Muslim Forum in 2019 found that nearly two thirds of participants felt that they did not belong to the UK Muslim community. This is a damning indictment on how inclusive our community actually is.
We all, including MEND, thus have to ask ourselves what we are doing to promote the cause of Black Muslims. This requires a programme of education and building links with Black Muslim groups within our communities to ensure that we support and amplify their voices, whether this be through promoting their views on social media, proactively welcoming them into our organisations and mosques, or giving them platforms from which to have their voices and experiences heard. We must ensure that Black Muslims truly feel part of our communities and, in so doing, we may move closer to actually manifesting the concept of ummah. We at MEND are determined to play our part. We thus commit to a root and branch review of our organisation, examining how we can improve recruitment, promotion and retention of black people into our organisation. If the ultimate goal is advancing the cause of tackling Islamophobia, it is important that Black voices are now heard. It is our collective responsibility as UK Muslims to build the platforms and megaphones to make this happen.