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“They had the audacity to ask me if I was Muslim, when they saw me – a black woman in niqab” – Report on the experiences of Black British Muslims

This report has been conducted for the sole purpose of improving the condition of Black people to further unite the British Muslim Ummah.

Black Muslim Forum Report 2020

Executive Summary

  • 100 self-identified Black Muslims were surveyed between June and December 2019
  • Participants were asked 7 questions: 4 multiple choice, 3 long answer
  • Data was analysed and divided into two sections with 4 main themes, some key ideas and suggestions:
    • Lived experiences themes: Anti-blackness, Mosque / Madrassah, Culture and Marriage
    • Lived experiences key ideas: Expression of frustration and a desire for a safe space
    • Suggestions: Education and Awareness raising
  • 53.95% of participants felt that overall they generally did not belong to their local mosque
  • 84% of participants felt that overall they did not belong to their university’s Islamic society
  • 63.41% of participants felt that overall they did not belong to the UK Muslim community
  • 48.98% of participants faced anti-black discrimination or colourism within a UK mosque or religious setting
  • 36.36% of participants faced anti-black discrimination or colourism within a family setting in the UK
  • 79% of participants faced anti-black discrimination or colourism within a secular setting in the UK
  • 46 of the 100 participants could give a rough estimate of discrimination they had faced over the year 2018 alone

Proposed Actions

  • Use Black Muslim Forum’s presentation summarising this report to educate your ummah about anti-blackness in the Muslim community
  • Share our short infographic, which can be found on social media (@blackmuslimforum [Instagram]) within your networks and on social media
  • Challenge anti-black racism in a personal capacity and at every instance that it crops up
  • Consider facilitating anti-racism workshops and classes rooted in Islamic teachings within your faith body and mosque

Background

“Verily, there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab or of a non-Arab over an Arab, or of a red man over a black man, or of a black man over a red man, except in term of taqwa”. (Narrated from Abu Nadrah from the khutbah of Prophet Muhammad SAW. Classed as saheeh by al-Albaani in as-Saheehah, 6/199).

Racism is not a new phenomenon and has been documented through history. However, for many reasons, such as the advantages that are sustained by contesting the idea that white privilege and racial superiority exists, many still deny its existence, especially in the Muslim community. From physicians such as Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century outlining the genetic inferiority of the Black race, to the systematic killings of unarmed Black civilians in the United States, anti-black racism has remained a rampant disease that has plagued our society including the Muslim community.

Much of Black history taught in British schools tends to be associated with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the role of the United States in this, therefore making it easy for one to forget that Britain also profited greatly. Many of our current institutions were built off the backs of Black people and a large proportion of our corporations and individuals up until the year 2015 were also repaid by the UK government for the loss of their assets (slaves) following the abolition of the slave trade.

Looking within Islamic history, there has been a growing body of work outlining the problem of anti-black racism which was rife during the medieval period and has permeated to the present day.

For many contemporary Black Muslims, the problem of being at the intersection of blackness and Islam brings to the forefront many challenges. While the general Muslim ummah is efficient in identifying the islamophobia inflicted upon the community by foreign international forces, the same is not true for the racism that lies within. The issue when brought up is often ignored, belittled and in many cases arouses anger blaming the expression of such issues as divisive and hostile.

Islam, in the way the Prophet (pbuh) preached it, has historically been inseparable from social justice and this is a practice that has died out in specific relation to the plight of Black Muslims.

Justification of the study

“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against-Malcolm X

Black Muslim Forum (BMF), founded in 2018, was set up for one reason: to improve the conditions and circumstances for Black Muslims globally, addressing unmet social needs that are little tackled at societal or structural level. Over the past year, BMF received many comments from Black Muslims, detailing their lived experiences. It was noted that many of these Muslims felt silenced by the ummah, sharing feelings of disconnect and a lack of acknowledgement of the issues of discrimination and racism. This survey was conducted to provide concrete evidence and data on the issue of anti-blackness in the British Muslim community. Further to this, the study hopes to provide attainable and pragmatic recommendations and actions that can be implemented in the ummah by mosque leaders, education providers and parents alike.

Information on data collection

The survey used to collect the data for this study was an online survey created on Survey Monkey. The survey opened on 1st June 2019 and closed on 31st December 2019. The survey was shared privately to members of the UK Black Muslim community as well as on Black Muslim Forum website, Twitter, Instagram, the Somali Society of Brunel University, King’s College Somali society, Sheffield Somali Society and Amaliah.com.

Once the survey closed, the data was analysed by BMF. Question 1 – “Do you identify as a Black Muslim living in Britain” – was used as a filter question. Participants who responded no to question 1 had their data removed from the study as they did not meet the study requirements.

Limitations of the study and further research

The main limitation to the study was the small number of participants. 100 participants experiences are not enough to make generalisations about the Black Muslim ummah.

Avenues for data collection could have excluded groups in so much as, due to the platforms used, many of the participants may have been younger or students, which may impact on their experiences. In the future, the study would be shared further, with special consideration placed upon collecting data from participants who may not have access to online studies.

Demographic information was not collected for this study as BMF was interested in qualitative experiences. Further research, with larger participants, would aim to collect the age, ethnicity, gender and location to allow for comparison to be made between these characteristics.

To ensure a greater collection of additional comments from participants, further research would mandatorily require all questions to be answered and commented on.

Results and analysis of data

As the data was analysed, lived experiences was an obvious theme throughout the data. Due to the questions asked by the survey, participants gave anecdotal stories about their lives as Black Muslims. The main issues experienced/discussed by participants within this theme were: Madrassah/Mosque, Anti-blackness, Culture and Marriage. The second theme the survey aimed to collect data on was action. Within the theme action, participants discussed awareness (of racism in the ummah) and education (for the ummah about the issues of race and racism).

Lived Experiences:
Mosque/Madrassah
Culture
Anti-Blackness
Marriage
Table 1
Action:
Awareness
Education
Table 2

Key theme: Lived experiences

“Islam is not a religion of empty laws and structures but one which points towards a higher ethical order.” (Zaid Shakir).

The following questions asked participants to give details about their lived experiences:

  1. According to the different headings, to what extent do you feel belong to the following communities: Local UK Mosque, UK ISOC/MSA, UK Muslim community?
  2. Have you ever faced anti-black discrimination or colourism within a UK mosque or a religious setting?
  3. Have you ever faced anti-black discrimination or colourism within a family setting?
  4. Have you ever experienced anti-black discrimination or colourism in a secular setting in the UK?
  5. Over the last year (2018), were you faced with an anti-black or colourist incident in the UK? If yes please enter the date with a rough estimate of the date and month if you do not remember.

Madrassah / Mosque

Participants mentioned several recurrent experiences. Being stared at in the mosque and made to feel self conscious was an experience that cropped up several times. Participants also experienced derogatory comments within religious settings stereotyping Black people as well as insinuations that they were not Muslim. Many participants were assumed to be reverts because of their skin colour and received patronising praise over basic actions such as making wudhu. Some participants altogether avoided the mosque as they felt as though they were not welcome. Many others outlined their experiences of attending madrassah’s in the UK such as being called racist names, being told their skin is too dark and being made fun of as well as an instance where physical violence ensued (a Black Muslim madrassah student having a rock thrown at her eye by a racist bully at a predominantly Bangladeshi school). A participant also mentioned being told that her name – the Africanised version of the name Fatima is not from the Qur’an and should be changed. Others reported feeling invisible and being publicly humiliated in a religious setting such as a participant being neighed at in a Kurdish Mosque. One of the most striking comments was from a participant who reported racial segregation at a mosque whereby Black worshippers were commanded to pray at the back of the mosque.

It can be said in light of these comments that in many regards, the anti-black racism experienced in Muslim settings in the UK is on par with or even greater than what is experienced in a secular setting. Segregation and physical violence were amongst the most extreme manifestations of anti-black racism reported by participants that would not typically be reported in secular institutions such as state schools in the UK in 2020.

Anti-Blackness

Many respondents felt that the ummah is not aware of the problem of anti-blackness in the community: a problem area that needs to be tackled. Participants reported experiencing anti-black racism within religious, family and secular settings. One participant reported

“ My first experience of overt anti black discrimination was when I was 4 years old in school in Exeter. Myself and my brother were the only two black kids at the school (possibly the only non-white) I spent break times being chased around the playground by a group of white boys telling me I wasn’t allowed to play in “this part” of the playground. They were a few years older than me and would call me names like “poo” etc. This was back in 2002.”

Similar reports of overt racism include being called a “nigger”, being called “blick” and a “monkey”.

Others reported more subtle forms of anti-black racism:

“Where I live (Stoke on Trent) this is inevitable. I experience this pretty often. Anti-black discrimination is one that I deal with at work (with other students) and it is done in a very passive aggressive way. Also when I express strong opinions on issues, I quickly get labelled as aggressive even though I’m not expressing them any differently than anyone else. I’ve been told my facial expressions “need working on”. Because apparently when I don’t smile, I just look angry.”

Other subtle forms included being disregarded when speaking, being excluded and being stopped and searched by police.

The impact of anti-black racism in light of this evidence is manyfold. Not only does it manifest through overt forms but also in subtle but destructive patterns.

Culture

The main cultural issue that arose from the data was the importing of the colourist model from some South Asian and Arab countries to the UK where it has been superimposed onto the Muslim community here- the Black Muslim community bearing the brunt of it.

Secondly some participants spoke about the dominance of some South Asian and Arab cultures whereby those ethnic groups are interchangeably associated with being Muslim to the exclusion of Afro-Caribbean cultures where the latter cultures are viewed as inherently haram (impermissible).

Other issues that were prevalent among participant experiences was anti-blackness from Black Muslims themselves manifesting through colourist, texturist and featurist ideology. For example, one participant spoke of:

“Someone suggesting I should bleach my skin/perm my hair”

A central issue that arose was the issue of colourism and darker skinned Black Muslims being encouraged to bleach and lighten their skin. The upholding of lighter skin within the family structure was prevalent:

“My family and community consider calling someone “lighty” a term of endearment and a symbol of beauty. They add it to names like Sarah Lighty etc and use it in place of darling or sweetheart etc.”

And,

“My mum’s side of the family is lighter in complexion naturally. I take my rich dark skin tone from my Dads side. I am constantly reminded that I “could have” been beautiful, had I been a bit lighter. My younger sister is a bit lighter and I always get compared to her looks wise. It’s always, “if you were light like your sister you would be beautiful because you’ll look like our side.”

Marriage

Several respondents mentioned difficulty in marriage because of the colour of their skin rooted in a family culture or from the culture of the wider Muslim community. This participant mentioned:

“Comments on my skin tone and hair texture growing up. Told not to marry someone darker than me and with tougher hair so I don’t have children like that etc.”

This demonstrates how unfortunately entrenched colourism and texturism is to the institution of marriage in the Muslim community. Other participants mentioned similar ideas about:

‘Fairer brides being more acceptable and beautiful’.

Finally, a participant mentioned the overt racism within the rubric of marriage that she experienced first hand:

“Husband’s aunt offered to find a wife for him when I was in the room (they are light skinned so are not interested in darker tones from their own country let alone anyone else). He pointed to me and said he has a wife and that she should concentrate on finding a husband for herself instead of being a racist.”

These comments are striking but not at all surprising. Of all themes mentioned, it is common knowledge in the Muslim community that marriage is where the issue of anti-black racism is most prevalent.

Key theme: Actions

“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” -Malcolm X

Question 7 specifically asked participants about their solution to the issue of racism and anti-blackness in the Muslim ummah:

“What changes do you think need to be made in both secular and religious settings to combat the problem of anti-black racism and colourism in UK society?”

Awareness

Many felt more representation was needed. One participant cited the need for more Black leadership and role models in general, particularly in government. A large percentage of participants simply stated ‘awareness’ as a means to eliminate ignorance as well as honest and open dialogue for better mutual cultural understanding. Many cited the need for religious leaders and organisations to specifically outline how sinful it is to be racist or colourist and to raise awareness on the depth and prevalence of the issue across the Muslim community.

Education

Respondents felt the need for more education within faith institutions reflecting the diversity of the British Muslim community. Respondents felt the need for wider education on the evil of anti-black racism especially colourism. One participant mentioned including the,   

“Depiction of Muslims as more than one race. Racial education and the achievement of Black Muslims in Islamic centres, mosques and university societies”

Similarly many participants mentioned the need for the eradication of cultural hegemony in Islam:    

“People need educating that not only Asian and Arabs are Muslim and that Black Muslims can also keep their cultures where it does not affect and impact on the deen.”

Likewise another participant mentioned the need for:

“More diversity in masjids. More education so that people are not ignorant and become aware of this issue. Colouris[m] isn’t the only issue as well. Texturism and featurism is also a form of anti-blackness so we need to consider those of all the spectrum and not exclude or ignore their experiences”

Participants mentioned this education could be delivered through workshops, lectures, media and sermons.

Conclusion

Black Muslim Forum was not surprised by the data as these are realities that have been experienced by Black Muslims across society frequently expressed in colloquial settings. Many respondents highlighted four key areas in their experiences of anti-blackness in British society: Mosque/Madrassah, Anti-Blackness, Culture and Marriage. According to the survey, 46 participants reported racist incidents over year 2018 alone. 

What is most important to take away is that respondents also had suggestions for what should be done to improve those lived experiences. What came out most strongly was the need for further awareness raising and education for Black / non-Black Muslims and non-Muslims.

Despite the limitations to the scope of the study, BMF believes that the study has revealed deep rooted issues concerning anti-black racism within the Muslim community. Multiple participants spoke of the subtle, and overt racism they had been subjected to in the ummah and the vast majority of commentators spoke of the need for awareness raising and education. Black Muslim Forum plans to address this with, not only this report, but a series of resources that can be used by faith leaders, educators and families.

Appendix 1 – Survey Questions

  • Do you identify as Black and Muslim living in Britain?
  • According to the different headings, to what extent do you feel belong to the following communities: Local UK Mosque, UK ISOC/MSA, UK Muslim community?
  • Have you ever faced anti-black discrimination or colourism within a UK mosque or a religious setting?
  • Have you ever faced anti-black discrimination or colourism within a family setting?
  • Have you ever experienced anti-black discrimination or colourism in a secular setting in the UK?
  • Over the last year (2018), were you faced with an anti-black or colourist incident in the UK? If yes please enter the date with a rough estimate of the date and month if you do not remember.
  • What changes do you think need to be made in both secular and religious settings to combat the problem of anti-black racism and colourism in UK society?

“They had the audacity to ask me if I was Muslim, when they saw me – a black woman in niqab” – Experiences of Black British Muslims

11 replies »

  1. Thank you for this! Currently finishing off my dissertation on the impacts of intersectionality and coloniality on Black Muslim Women in Western Universities! This is going to be super helpful with my work

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    • Thanks for your comment Hafsah and I’m glad the data can be of help. Your dissertation sounds interesting… if you ever want to publish your dissertation I would be happy to platform it on BMF!

      Like

  2. Wow. I did not know about this survey being carried out. If I did I definitely would have participated. Hopefully Insha’Allah a larger survey will be conducted, this needs to go mainstream. Plus, I have a plethora of colourist experiences amongst Muslims to share during my 19 years on this earth. Especially living up North where it is less diverse. My experiences have affected me to the point I am studying a sociology degree, Lol. Perhaps the survey could be also shared on platforms other than predominantly somali sites. As a West African woman (Gambian/Senegalese) I feel like those of us that come from West African countries also experience a different plight to those of Somali origin. I live in a somali/Asian community and have noticed the differences.

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  3. As a white Muslim in Britain I can certainly identify with the alienation found in the wider Muslim community. However I also see how opposite an experience it is for our black brothers and sisters. Where whiteness is seen as beauty and idealised, almost at the expense of recognising values and personality, our black brothers and sisters suffer worse in that those values and personality is being presumed by their appearance.

    I’ve always struggled with the lack of black representation in the UK Muslim community, and how even whites are better represented at mosque, scholarly and organisational structures. The UK black Muslim community has so much talent and energy that could be better utilised, and in doing so make it better for all of us as a community and recognise non-Asians and English speaking (whether first or second language) Muslims that don’t fit the South Asian model.

    The timing of this report is also valuable, as so many British people stand in solidarity with protesters in the US, while also recognising we aren’t perfect here and the need for better recognition and change is still relevant.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Salaams, I’m shocked by this, the Muslim community needs to step up and make sure ALL brothers and sisters become one strong fist of the Ummah. I am a British Asian Muslim and I have Black Muslim & non-muslim friends who I adore and don’t treat any differently to my other friends so I’m struggling to understand why other Muslims would not think like me. I will certainly raise awareness within my community Insha’Allah.

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  5. Wow! MashAllah! What are great and sad survey. There is no doubt that there are major issues within our Muslim communities within the U.K.

    I’m South African, mixed race, a true person of “rainbow origins”, I look crossed between mixed race and Asian, could pass for both. When I got married to my wife, I had a hard time, with her family being Bangladeshi, ” the convert line did its rounds for a while”, even though I was born Muslim and will die Muslim (Ameen). I’m sorry to say it, but there is so much ignorance and racism, from Arab and South Asian Muslim communities.

    One of the major problems are the older generations, set firmly in there ways. Trust me I know what I’m talking, between me and my wife we broke rules, but sadly, in my opinion, many mosques practice the same values that alienate Muslims of other origins, for example the Pakistani, Arab or Bangladeshi mosques giving Friday sermons in there native languages when 95% of the audience speak English, further reinforced by having only people from one type of ethnic origin on the Mosque Committee. ( Yes I know part of the sermon must be in Arabic). How are we suppose to feel included, it does the opposite, and spoils one’s spiritual experiences. The younger generations are a bit more open and receiving to accepting Muslims of “other origins”, but its not perfect. This issue must be addressed and challenged at every possible level, NO ONE GROUP OF PEOPLE HAVE A MONOPOLY ON ISLAM, we are all equal and should be made to feel this way, especially within the realm of British Islam. Taking into account the current climate with regards to Islamophobia, we don’t need this rejection from those who are suppose to welcome us.

    People having to change there God given skin colour and hair to fit into a society and its superficial social constraints is just nuts, don’t measure your worth against a society that is clearly not healthy. Be so proud of who you are, children of Adam A.S, all equal, with all its glory and beautiful differences. ” In the dark of the night we see the jewels of the sky and in the bright of the day we the jewels of the earth, and when they meet at dusk and dawn is when they value each other the most and each is equal on his appointed course.”

    On a positive note the most “inclusive” mosque I attended is the Greenwich Islamic Center in Woolwich, a true light in the way of how thing safe suppose to be, mixed, no matter where your from you feel welcomed and not judged. I do look forward raising more awareness and to seeing change in the future.

    This Deen is firmly rooted in equality, infact racism was the first sin (Iblis’s reaction to the body of Adam A.S) Keep on raising awareness, articles like this inspire people like me to make a difference. May Allah SWT reward you. Thank you.

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