Reject racism this Ramadan: Islam and anti-racism

Islam is centered on justice and equity. Photo courtesy of TIME


The Muslim community — known in Arabic as the ummah — is composed of Muslims from all across the globe. The ummah is filled with diversity of all forms, one of the most prominent being racial diversity. 

Being Muslim is not a racial identity, and it is thoroughly possible for Muslims to exhibit racist behavior towards other Muslims, and this is unfortunately more prevalent than one would hope. The powers of anti-Blackness and white supremacy are systemic and hence deeply ingrained into all communities globally and almost all social dynamics; the ummah is no exception. 

White supremacy has played a crucial role in establishing racial hierarchies. Whiteness, and proximity to whiteness, have allowed certain groups of people to experience massive levels of privilege that others are not privy to. White supremacy divides communities of color internally and externally. 

Ali Mohamed, a biology and Spanish double major, is Egyptian American and Muslim and has witnessed racism within Arab and North African Muslim communities. 

“In a lot of those … North African, Arab, Middle Eastern Muslim-majority Muslim countries, there’s so much anti-Blackness and racism,” Mohamed said. “And there’s also a sense of Arab supremacy … [which is the idea] that if you’re Arab, you’re somehow more Muslim, or you have an even better connection to Islam than others, which just isn’t true.” 

Arab supremacy, or the idea that Arab Muslims are inherently better Muslims, is a noxious ideology that permeates many Muslim spaces, creating an uncomfortable and unsupportive environment for Muslims who are not from Arab or North African countries. 

Zohal Atmar, a junior biology and Spanish double major, is also Muslim. She emphasized that white supremacy has a big role in how racism plays out in Muslim spaces. 

“People refuse to acknowledge that racism exists in the Muslim community because we’re supposedly all one, big united ummah,” Atmar said. “But I feel like [racism’s] existence is pretty undeniable … It’s white supremacy that’s at play when people of color are divided.” 

Racism within Muslim communities is a deeply upsetting problem because of Islam’s stance on racism. As a religion, Islam is staunchly anti-racist. In an email interview with The Butler Collegian, Muslim life advisor Imam Anisse Adni provided more insight into this. 

“The Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, while he lived in a society with rampant racism, sexism, and other unjust, discriminatory attitudes and policies,” Adni said in his email. 

The Qur’an was sent to challenge prejudiced notions like racism through establishing the concept that an individual’s nobility and righteousness is based on their service and God-consciousness, and certainly not their skin color, race or socioeconomic status. 

Even so, anti-Blackness unfortunately runs rampant in many Muslim communities. This racism can manifest itself in a plethora of ways, from colorism and microaggressions to the use of derogatory language and bullying. 

Islam’s stance against racism is something that needs to be radically embraced, and this Ramadan is the perfect time to begin doing that. As Muslims, it is our duty to do more than just nod our heads when we hear about how Islam rejects racism. What is the purpose of saying we reject a dangerous form of prejudice when we take little to no genuine action to stop racism — the racism that genuinely harms and impacts our Muslim siblings — in its tracks? 

Sophomore political science major Claire Shaffer is Muslim and has also noticed that many Muslims are quick to dismiss claims of racism. 

“Sometimes Muslims, maybe unintentionally, try and just dismiss it [through] being like, ‘Oh, well it’s haram,’ [so it doesn’t need to be addressed],” Shaffer said. “Sometimes Muslims try and be nice about [the prevalence of racism], more passive … But I think there needs to be more done than that ” 

There are various excuses that Muslims will employ to avoid the conversation about how many Muslims harbor racial prejudices. One particular excuse that is unfortunately quite common is tokenizing important Black Muslim historical figures, namely Bilal ibn Rabah

Bilal is a major Islamic figure who was a companion of the Prophet Muhammad. Bilal was Black and the first person in Islam to become a muezzin — the person who makes the call to prayer. Non-Black Muslims will often refer to the existence of Bilal as a means of dismissing and negating any real conversations surrounding racism within the ummah. 

“People will usually try and bring up Bilal as a cop-out,” Atmar said. “They’re just like, ‘Oh, there’s one important Black Muslim figure, and because of that, racism is not a problem’ … [There] is a lack of acknowledgment that [anti-Blackness] exists.” 

Tokenizing Black Muslims is certainly not the way to solve the problem of anti-Blackness and other forms of racism. Opening up this conversation might be uncomfortable for some, but that is also not an excuse; little progress will be made when we are constantly bathing in our privilege and comfort. 

Imam Adni shared that it is the responsibility and duty of a Muslim to be at the forefront of racial justice initiatives, especially considering that during Prophet Muhammad’s last pilgrimage, he spoke about the importance of dismantling racial hierarchies. The Prophet said, “Truly, there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, or of a white person over a Black person, or of a Black person over a red person, except through piety and righteousness.” Muslims need to not only reject racism, but adamantly fight to dismantle the systems of oppression that enable racism. 

Failing to recognize the impacts and harms of racism within Muslim communities can be dangerous. In many Gulf countries, a form of indentured servitude known as kafala is commonplace. Kafala coupled with racism is a deadly combination, especially considering that many of the migrant workers in Gulf countries are recruited from various African and Asian countries

“In a lot of Arab countries, you see the real human consequences [of racism], particularly with how they treat immigrants and migrant workers,” Shaffer said. “They’re really treated as second-class citizens, if not like outright indentured servants or slaves.” 

Prejudices only further add fuel to the fire of an already brutal form of servitude; kafala becomes even more dangerous when racist and elitist notions are thrown into the mix. In Qatar, for instance, it is estimated that over 6,500 migrant workers died in the decade-long span since the country won the right to host the World Cup. 

Though not everyone involved in this form of indentured servitude may be Muslim, it is important to note that kafala is in place in countries with Muslim majorities. It is not far-fetched to say that Muslims are engaging in a form of servitude that is brutal and only worsened by racist prejudices. 

As Muslims, it is our responsibility to protect and stand alongside our siblings who experience racism at the hands of other Muslims. Activism and solidarity are important on the local and personal level just as much as they are on the global level, and failing to reject racism within Muslim communities can have external ramifications. 

“If a non-Muslim thinks of someone who is Muslim, they’re imagining an Arab guy,” Mohamed said. “They’re imagining a Middle Eastern person, but again, it’s important for non-Muslims to also realize that that’s not true. And it’s just a dangerous stereotype. The majority of Muslims in America are not Arab.” 

Arabs are not the global or American Muslim majority, but the impacts of orientalism are deeply embedded in our communities. Rejecting racism and anti-Blackness goes hand in hand with rejecting colonial notions of orientalism as well. 

During this holy month of Ramadan, we need to make a conscious effort to call out any and all forms of racism that we might witness: be an accomplice to the Muslims who are ostracized and marginalized by the non-Muslim world and the Muslim world.


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