Unconscious bias, a subject in psychological studies where people associate negative things with blackness and positive things with whiteness, is a concept that has been well documented. The nature of this perception is demonstrated by a controversial advertisement developed for Benetton. The ad entailed a black man and a white man handcuffed together. The fashion brand faced many complaints about racism, even though the company has had a reputation for promoting racial tolerance. The public widely understood it to be a black man arrested by a white man even though both men were dressed identically. Such a reaction shows quite evidently that even though the public meant well in their complaints, the ad exposed a common perceptual prejudice of the public, through the ambiguity of the photo.
Such interpretations stem from an organised collection of beliefs and feelings about black people. Based on the Kenneth and Mamie Clark experiment, this perceptual prejudice has shown to be a global phenomenon, even within Muslim communities.
A few months ago, I was blessed to do ‘Umrah on God’s holiest place on earth. During my visit it was very hard to ignore how this unconscious bias played out in public life. The way people perceive sub-Saharan Africans compared to people with lighter skin was very telling. Suffice to say I did meet a lot of compliments due to my light skin which occurred so often that capturing it on record was all too easy.
There is a difference between personal preferences and making blanket statements about race. If you generally perceive a race of people as less or more attractive, then it is not a matter of personal preferences but societal conditioning especially when there seems to be an overwhelmingly tendency even among those with dark skin to prefer people with fair skin.
Standards of beauty is a simple example, but anti-blackness also plays out regarding which matters become a priority in the Muslim discourse, in the Islamic world and even among some of the most prominent Muslim think tanks here in the West. Throughout long decades the world has witnessed some of history’s most despicable events that have taken place in our scarred motherland Africa, a continent whose black inhabitants have given abode and been loyal servants to all Abrahamic religions ever since their inception. From the early dawn of Islam when Muslims facing persecution had to migrate to Abyssinia all the way into recent history when Sudan opened its doors to Palestinians in the aftermath of Shabra and Shatila and during the days of Black September. Even in most recent times when black Muslim leadership in Africa has openly showed support to their Arab brethren by condemning the attacks in Gaza, not to mention relentlessly lobbying their governments to denounce Trump’s pronouncement of the City of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Unfortunately, these facts are seldom imparted to the rest of the Muslim World, which has been proven, treats black people in the worst possible way.
- The genocide in Darfur
- The Mustapha Mahmoud Park massacre
- The marginalisation of the Haratin in Mauritania
- Algeria’s abandonment of thousands of sub-Saharan migrants in the Sahara
- Emergence of slave-trade in Libya
The above is a modest selection of what this ummah habitually avoids talking about. Even here in the West where anti-black sentiments are an obvious issue in our communities. It’s almost like some sort of unwritten rule that whatever does not conveniently serve the agenda of Arab or Asian supremacy, is automatically dismissed from being championed.
In 2017 the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency issued a report focusing on discrimination of Muslim minorities in 15 member states. Interestingly the report asserted that experienced discrimination is reported more often by Muslims with visible black heritage than Muslims with Middle Eastern features.
With that being the case the question that poses itself is why Muslim discourse in the West hardly ever makes an agenda to raise awareness about the most vulnerable victims of discrimination. This is a crucial point. Had it not been for black civil rights activists, who by the way had many Muslims numbered among them in America as well as Europe and paid with their blood -facing fire-hoses and police dogs that bit the groins and breasts off of men and women in order to claim basic human rights, later Muslims who migrated to the West would not have enjoyed much of their freedoms to practice their religion. In 2018 Imam Ahmed Shehata gave a sermon about how immigrant Muslims are indebted to African American Muslims who fought the long fight in the mid 1960’s which has made it possible for over 2,017 Islamic centres in the US today.
From my personal experience when I first attempted using my platform on social media to raise awareness about anti-black sentiments in the Muslim community, a spokesperson of the political organisation Hizbut Tahrir swiftly attempted at what seems to be a direct downplay of the anti-black reality in the community. Among a lot of other things that were said was:
“Racism is a result of colonialism. There is no proof that racism was a norm in (Muslim) history. Had that been the case, it would’ve been easy to find the evidence unlike the West where there are countless racist laws, poems, films and literature. Despite the post-colonial reality, racism exists today in the Muslim world to a very limited level, and is very easy to eliminate completely.”
In this respect it seems that the spokesperson is unaware of the very fact that several Muslim scholars such as Jahiz, Nasiri and Suyuti, from different societies of the Islamic civilization living centuries apart from each other, felt it necessary to write treatises in defence of blacks, indicating a perennial problem of anti-black antipathy even before colonialism.
I would also suggest that since racism is a matter of oppression, nobody is more qualified to talk about the oppression, than the oppressed themselves. The spokesperson’s attempt at lecturing a black person about how bad anti-blackness is while never having had to walk in the shoes of a black person is supercilious. That is equivalent of a man in a male dominated society sitting from his place of male-privilege, lecturing women on how insignificant the level of sexism and misogyny is in a society where men rarely fall victim to such. As such it should be clear that non-black Muslims who have not lived the black experience may sympathise but never fully empathise with the struggles of being black especially considering the previously mentioned report.
This general dismissal of the black narrative in the Muslim discourse, is indicative of where the whole “one ummah” notion is at. Muslims of black African heritage, despite all our historic contributions are not seen as part of the status quo for Islam and thus black Muslims who voice their opinions about their struggle are often ignored or sometimes ironically labelled “Black Nationalists” even though our history proves our loyalty and the seemingly disloyalty of others.
The solution to this problem takes some introspection.
- On a macro-level there needs to be a re-evaluation of how black Muslims are conveniently tokenised in order to regress from the discussion. Muslims need to realise that so-called black nationalism doesn’t come from black Muslims demanding justice. Black nationalism emerges when the ummah fails to champion the struggles of the marginalised because it is not politically correct in favour of Arab/Asian supremacy.
- On a micro-level, the solution to the treatment of black Africans is also in the hands of black Africans. There needs to be a serious re-education on the black narrative -an alternative to Bilal (RadhiAllahu anhu) being the only black sahabi with a stigma of slavery attached to him. By and large, the common understanding of Islamic learning has been whitewashed because of an inherent and systematic bias. This conversation needs to happen around the dinner tables and should be demanded in curriculums when we send our children to Islamic schools. This will in turn improve the quality of our conversations in public forums and Muslim media. Once we start taking ourselves seriously, the rest of the ummah will.
 The Kenneth and Mamie Clarke “doll test” was an experiment conducted to analyse children’s self-perception related to race. The experiment showed a clear preference for the white doll among all children in the study.
 Sabra and Shatila 1982 was a massacre of more than 2000 Palestinians in the Shatila refugee camp in the Sabra neighbourhood.
 Conflict in 1970 that PLO and Jordanian armed forces that lead to Syrian, Jordanian and Palestinian casualties.
 As in EU-MIDIS I, among the Muslim groups surveyed, respondents from North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa report the highest levels of discrimination based on ethnic or immigrant background – both in the five years before the survey (46 % and 45 %, respectively) and in the 12 months before the survey (30 % and 28 %, respectively)’. FRA: EU-MIDI II. Second European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey (EUMIDIS II): Muslims – selected findings. September 2017. http://fra.europa.eu/ en/publication/2017/eumidis-ii-muslimsselected-findings