Black, British & Muslim; We’re not just a “Complication”

by Momtaza Mehri

The last UK census undertaken in 2011 showed that Black Muslims made up 10.1% of the British Muslim population, not counting Muslims of mixed Black heritage. The British Black Muslim reality is whispered in hushed tones: it is the Jamaican converts frequenting inner-city mosques, the Nigerian doctors administering your prescriptions, Somali working mothers who nurse the aged in recession-hit care homes. We navigate a precipice few would want to tiptoe in 21st century Britain: the two-pronged realities of unbridled Islamophobia and established racism.

Black British Muslims possess our own distinctive heritage spanning centuries of blood, nobility and disenfranchisement. When Elizabeth I wrote of the need to control the number of ‘blackmoores’ brought into her realm, she was speaking of the many Black interpreters, musicians, servants and sailors who inhabited major English cities in the 1600s. This was a multi-ethnic and certainly multi-faith populace, hailing from what we now know as Ghana, Guinea and North Africa’s much-debated Moors who entertained King James IV’s Scottish court. Somali seamen could even be found serving in the Royal Navy or clustered in 19th century Cardiff and Liverpool. I was born in London to parents who had previously sought education and employment in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt and India.

Increasing anti-Muslim sentiment has forced many Muslims to retrace their immigrant stories and re-configure their identities amongst accusations of extremist complicity, or, more troublingly, suspected disloyalty. November 2014 saw the release of data from the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey, singling out Muslims as the most ‘disadvantaged’ ethno-religious group in terms of employment prospects. Researchers Dr Nabil Khattab and Professor Ron Johnston found that Muslim men were up to 76% less likely to find employment than similarly qualified white male British Christians of the same age. Surprisingly, Muslim women, despite their often high visibility via dress codes, enjoyed better career prospects – if you can consider being 65% less likely to be employed than their white Christian counterparts a cause for celebration. This study was simply a sociological approval stamp of lived experience, so I was hardly surprised. The language employed by the researchers, however, belied an unsettling oversight.

The study went on to compare Muslims with Blacks of Caribbean origins, who were 54% less likely to find employment than their white counterparts. Moreover, there was no distinctive target class of Black Muslims. No statistics were given to illuminate on the social implications of being Black and Muslim. Nuance was clearly on its day off at the barber’s when all this was being composed.

In this regard, this study unintentionally highlighted Black Muslim erasure. It points towards a general attitude within British society generally and within Muslim communities of predominantly South Asian heritage; one is either Black, or Muslim. Never the twain shall meet. There is little to no representation, despite our numbers. Growing up, I have found myself often looking to America to see myself in its mosaic. Which would be paradoxically hilarious, if it wasn’t so sad. From Ibtihaj Muhammed to Malcolm X, Amir Suleiman to Ice Cube, Black American Muslim figures have provided me, and so many others, with the image nourishment we all need to love and value ourselves wholly. I found symbols of Black American racial pride; the dashiki worn with a kufi bearing a crescent. Mos Def becoming Yasiin Bey, Malika Bilal’s astuteness, even Kareem Abdul Jabbar by way of my Canadian, basketball-obsessed cousins. I marvelled at this grounded community. Yet here, Black British Muslim communities are still seen as strange newcomers, shuffling our feet at the welcome rugs of British Islam. This brand of anti-black ‘guerrilla decontextulisation’, as coined by Aberjhani, the African-American historian and poet, is as lazy as it is worrying in its exclusion of Black African and Caribbean Muslims.  His collected essays, ‘Illuminated Corners‘, speak of the individual and collective disempowerment caused by legacies of erasure.

I often wonder who exactly benefits from the society’s homogenisation of the British Muslim experience to one which is centred on the man of South Asian heritage. The deeply cynical, Agent Scully side of me attributes this to a general unwillingness to depict Muslims in their varied, cultural richness. By robbing them of the fullness of their heritage, it is easier to enforce that stereotype of segregated Pakistani communities gazing unintelligibly behind walls. Black Muslims complicate matters in a Europe which prides itself on treating black people like human beings now, thank you very much. The Islamophobic circus loves its bearded, brown, insular, South Asian trope. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We live in a world where binaries are instrumental in global brutalisation, and this is just one of many.

Predictably, that kick-start rush to dismiss limits debate on this issue. Lecturer and blogger Jamillah Karim aptly describes how confronting anti-blackness within Muslim communities is seen as ‘violating the ummah ideal’. The Ummah is the talisman of Muslim solidarity, the global Muslim community which we must not dare to disrupt with our vocalisation of black concerns. Slurs are hurled, jobs are denied, cultures are denigrated, but we must remain silent. Even within families, those who marry or associate with Black Muslims can be ostracised or even disowned. My first experiences with anti-blackness within non-Black Muslim communities sadly began at home.

We are told to look towards Jerusalem, never to the Congo, to constantly share every ounce of our sympathies and energies amongst other Muslims. To prioritise oneself even momentarily as a Black Muslim is still seen to be self-segregating, race-obsessed or even worse, a bad Muslim. The twisted irony lies in how, as we stay silent, black struggles are used as codifying signifiers for discrimination, racial profiling, Islamophobia, Palestine. Certain regressive elements within our communities want to have their halal, alcohol-free cake and eat it. Propagating exclusion and repression whilst simultaneously being at the receiving end of it is not a good look. As Audre Lorde told us so succinctly, dismantling the master’s house cannot be achieved using the masters tools, especially not when your own body has felt the blunted weight of those very tools.

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Bay Ridge memorial to 3 people shot in N.C

Nowhere was this more highlighted than in the public mourning that followed the tragic Chapel Hill killings. Many noted how the Chapel Hill victims possessed cultural capital as Arabs which mobilised wider Muslim communities in a way that glaringly excludes lost Black Muslim lives from Mustafa Mattan to Amadou Diallo. Yes, Muslims too can award empathy, representation and affirmation on a scale which remains, much like wider society, largely anti-black.

#MuslimLivesMatter soon emerged in the age-old tradition of tradition of employing Black struggles as decontextualized cultural props. I am all for solidarity, but it’s interesting how often this is interlinked with erasure of the very Black symbols so freely borrowed. In this case, Black and Muslim were presented as separate identities. #BlackLivesMatter is not a cultural marker, an Experimental Jetset T-shirt ready to be tailored with a slogan of your choice. It is an assertion of a fact that, time and time again, needs to be repeated, across all communities.

There is a gnawing need for Muslim communities to confront anti-blackness head on. Diet Coke acceptance of Bilal, the Ethiopian companion of the Prophet Muhammed (saw) or even Muhammed Ali’s left hook does not cut it anymore. It barely constitutes a dedicated push towards tolerance, let alone celebration, of difference. In many ways, we face the same challenges as the wider multi-ethnic dominant society; we too must combat homogenisation that stifles expression and vibrancy. British Black Muslims are not madmen confined to the attics of Muslim narratives. For too long, we have been relegated to the hard, unthanked work of activism, acknowledged only for our labour. A new kind of openness must be ushered in by the wider Muslim community, more so now, in these difficult times, than ever. Until then, Black British Muslims will continue to be that proverbial white noise, that static disrupting all your paradigms.

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Momtaza Mehri is a Medical Science student and passive aggressive writer who is interested in decontextualizing knowledge production and exploring how it informs race, gender and nation theory. Her writings inhabit a world where the big C also denotes capitalism and colonialism. She currently works in the community sector, running mentoring schemes and educational support involving BAME youth. Her thick-rimmed glasses disguise a love for intersectional hip-hop analysis, bubble tea, and long, hot summers abroad teaching English. Her work will be featured in an upcoming poetry anthology showcasing new London talent. Laugh with her @RuffneckRefugee

This piece was edited by Henna Butt

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8 replies

  1. This is beautifully written, sister Momtaza.

    I can reinforce your observation on anti-blackness amongst Muslims and our south Asian flat Coke platitudes on Ummah. I was recently banned from a (south Asian) Muslim women-led so-called ‘decolonial’ reading group when during a discussion on Fanon I bought up slavery of Africans by Muslims as the other side of the coin for European slavery (in the same way as Cesaire as a colonial subject equates the Allies and Axis powers in Word War II).

    I was shut down as making an irrelevant point but other south Asian males in the audience were allowed to pontificate that the ontology of blackness in the Islamicate is not like that of the European blah blah blah plus they got a library in Timbuktu.

    It was really a fresh perspective to hear a black voice say that talk of restoring the caliphate and the like filled him with fear remembering what was done to his ancestors in Lagos where slaving ports with Arabic names still exist. It is a point of view that has to be heard and respected by those who advocate Shariah-political rule. Perhaps there is a wise response to the fear but it makes you wonder why someone would be shut down in such a bullying manner for simply raising it.

    Non-black Muslims with insincere commitment to decoloniality and combating anti-blackness will continue to shut down this discussion in the ugliest way possible always with weaponised pious sentiments of avoiding fitna and considering the maslaha and mafsada.

    The answers to my questions by the black speaker were deleted from the subsequent posting of the video, and even more upsetting, Momtaza apa, – to add to your point how women who are black and Muslim are further oppressed by their supposed Ummah allies – a black convert sister’s criticism of the patronising Timbuktu point was also deleted. (Is the south Asian Muslim sorority to their black sisters what White feminists have been at times to their black counterparts?)

    I also made the point – not appearing on the video too – that there appears to be a certain political trend amongst the ranks of Muslims that is conducting an entryist project in decolonial spaces using dog whistle terms like ‘justice’ and ‘morality’ to then use as a staircase to power the skulls of intersectional feminists, critical queer theorists and, of course, black activists like the mullahs did with the Left in 1979 Iran. Come on, Salafis citing Fanon?! They truly may be God’s Elect but stick to the Quran and Sunnah, it will be far less messy for you in the end.

    I could be wrong in my ideas and I am happy to be educated but if you want to test the commitment of Muslims you find in decolonial spaces on genuinely wanting to combat anti-blackness try raising the points I did above and see their response. Make sure you’re the one recording this time.

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  2. jazakumAllahu khairan.. many reflections that have long been felt…. so much more to be considered… thoughts, plan and actions… inshaAllah

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  3. What an amazing piece. Well said sister Momtaz…May allah reward you for this beautiful written article.

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  4. I’m a writer who over the years has written and researched and spoken up for black people’s need for representation in Western media. Hello! We do exist, we’re right here! Whilst I completelty understand the climate in which you have written this article I have shyed away from fragmenting the black population for want of seeming united. Having said that I have recently become very aware of different populations in feminism where feminists from different parts of the world by fault of social, cultural and political context have varying priorities. Thus have embarked on different journeys and they will need to embark on different journeys situationally. These feminists all gather under the same umbrella, and that umbrella, feminism, finds strength in diversity. The black british population is extremely diverse, with our different stories of migration and ancestery. Islamaphobia is shaped in ways very similar to previous forms of racism against blacks and against jews. Unfortunately for you, this is the 1st time when there is any real form of justfication. I’m saying this is as a Southern Nigerian.

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  5. This is SO necessary ! We are truly the minority within a minority that no-one wants to acknowledge. The Black British Muslim experience needs to be more visible and documented. Thank you for writing this ! I look forward to more articles from you.

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