by Muhammad Abdul Bari
Footage of a white police officer choking a black man by forcing his head on the
ground under his knee for almost 9 minutes during an arrest once again lays bare the structural racism in the US. The three other officers who watched without any compassion whilst George Floyd’s life was inhumanly taken away were complicit in this heinous act.
This latest brutal act in the litany of racist killings of black men by white police officers has prompted large-scale protests in many US cities and countries worldwide. In the midst of sustained pressure by black and minority communities, especially through the Black Lives Matter campaign with the slogan “We can’t breathe”, the police officers have now been charged. President Donald Trump initially sympathised with the victim, but has since been accused of fuelling the divide with inciteful rhetoric causing some senior figures in the military to criticise his threat to deploy the military to quell demonstrations.
America was founded as a settler colonial state of white Europeans. The immoral ethnic cleansing of indigenous people and slave labour trade of black people forcibly taken from Africa are part of its history and should never be forgotten. Although slavery was abolished long ago, the mind-set of white privilege is alive and evident throughout, whether through hate groups such as the KKK or white supremacist marches or through the inferior treatment of black minorities from white police officers or other people of authority.
On this side of the Atlantic, the situation is not too dissimilar, although perhaps more subtle and ’matured’ in its manifestation. The Macpherson report in 1999 labelled the police response to Stephen Lawrence’s killing in 1993 as “institutionally racist”. The term “captured so well the unwitting prejudice and plain racial stereotyping afflicting parts of British society”.
The lessons from the Macpherson report have seemingly not been learnt. The
Grenfell disaster in 2017 saw the paradox of how Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people were treated within the richest borough of London. The Windrush scandal, exposed in 2018, saw the grotesque treatment of British subjects who were invited to come and rebuild the UK before 1973, particularly from Caribbean countries. Many were detained and denied basic legal rights or threatened with and in many cases actually wrongly deported from the UK. A review in 2020 found there to be a “hostile environment” at the British Home Office and a “profound institutional failure” which turned thousands of people’s lives upside down. The recent Public Health England’s review of the coronavirus outbreak found that people of Bangladeshi and other minority communities faced a disproportionate number of deaths, further exposing broader inequalities, systemic injustice and official denial. It is no wonder that the UK Government had censored the review and removed the section which included expert evidence, submitted by the Muslim Council of Britain and others, highlighting the role of racism and discrimination towards minority communities. It is public knowledge that, for decades, British people
of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin have shared common experiences of systemic racial inequalities that have given rise to impoverishment, low pay and poor housing.
How can Islam address racism?
Islam’s commitment to Tawheed, or the oneness of God the Almighty, is at the heart of sowing the seeds for equality amongst human beings. According to Islam and other transcendental religions, particularly the other two Abrahamic faiths, all human beings originated as children of Adam and, as such, are all morally, legally and spiritually equal. The Qur’an says, “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know or recognise each other. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is the one who is the most righteous of you…” (Al-Qur’an 49:13).
When it comes to the core Islamic rituals and basic practices, all followers,
irrespective of their backgrounds, are seen as a community of equal believers. During the congregations in compulsory prayers, all stand side by side as one. The same is true for other rituals, particularly in the Hajj or pilgrimage season where no racial barriers are present.
The Prophet of Islam, during his last sermon, declared that “All mankind is from
Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a White has no superiority over a Black nor a Black has any superiority over a White except by piety and good action.”
These very words had a great effect on American civil rights leader Malcolm X who, as a former black nationalist, had initially hated white people because of the sufferings he and his community went through. He subsequently realised the true equality of all human beings only when he was performing Hajj in Makkah with Muslims of all colours, from all four corners of the world. He said that, for the first time in his life, he had felt no racial antagonism toward whites nor had he sensed any antagonism on their part against him.
Racism stems from arrogance. None of us have any control around the countries we are born in, or the wealth and historical privilege we will have been given, yet some of us feel like we have played some part in achieving it. The world in recent times has lost its moral anchor, with authoritarian rulers in some powerful developed countries trying to create an ‘us and them’ mentality, based on the nationality or colour of one’s skin. This is often exacerbated by the obscene amounts of wealth in the hands of a few privileged multi-billionaires which is then used to control the society and its politics.
The weakest form of fighting oppression is to disapprove it internally, but when it comes to racism we need more people to be vocally opposed and take actions to confront it. This means joining protest movements or refusing to work with people who demonstrate racist behaviours. Until this is done, especially by the people in privileged positions, we will not be achieving a racism-free world.
Our universal values of human dignity and equality can be the everlasting antidotes against racism and hatred, when understood and applied correctly.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, parenting consultant & author in East London Mosquee.