By Dr. Abdul Wahid
Racism has featured heavily in the UK over the past few weeks.
The conviction of two men for the cold-blooded racist murder of Stephen Lawrence 18 years ago has been the most emotive issue, but by no means the only one.
Those who live outside the UK may not understand why the tragic death of Stephen Lawrence has resonated for so long. There are many black and Asian people who have been killed in controversial circumstances, in racist attacks or by the police. Cynthia Jarrett, Zahid Mubarak and Mark Duggan are just three people whose deaths had a huge impact on Britain, but Stephen Lawrence’s murder had a greater impact – partly due to it being racist, but also because of ‘institutionally racist’ [the term used by retired High Court judge Sir William Macpherson who lead the inquiry into Stephen’s death] attitude of police that coloured the original investigation and society’s initial indifference to the death of ‘another black man’.
A debate emerged after the convictions about the extent to which attitudes have changed in Britain. In the midst of that debate, the MP Dianne Abbott made a statement on a social media site about 19th century imperialists who tried to ‘divide and rule’ people they colonised. She clumsily referred to them as ‘white people’ — a generalisation no doubt, but one that some might defend when one considers that more than a few of those colonisers were reinforced in their actions by beliefs of their innate racial superiority.
Abbott’s comments were met with a vicious response in the media accusing her of racism with far greater vehemence than they use for politicians who make comments about black people – proof, if any were needed, of the inherent double standards that still exist amongst the political commentariat.
Aside from this, the past few weeks have captured racist abuse towards Oldham football player Tom Adeyemi amongst other racism concerns in the sport; and a poll taken by a thousand people in the newspaper showed 83% felt racism was worse in the UK since the Macpherson report.
All of this has occurred against the backdrop of rising racist attitudes within Britain – whether the softer aspects that surround negative attitudes towards immigrants or the harsher voices of the English Defence League in their xenophobia focused against Muslims.
These are not unique to Britain. There is a lot of serious concern that the worsening economic situation in Europe will heighten nationalist feelings within the continent; and negative attitudes towards Muslims are already growing, fueled by ‘war on terror’ propaganda from politicians – Breivik and Wilders are two now infamous examples.
Yet, the war on terror and the economic disaster in Europe are not the only causes of racism in Europe and Britain. These things fuel attitudes that already exist, and one must ask why such attitudes exist.
Racism emerges from a tribal mentality where people feel bound together by their bonds of tribe or race. Implicit within the tribal mentality is the idea that we are best protected as a group and that we need to stick together. Amongst people who hold this idea, there will always be some who believe the best form of defence is offence, leading them to dominate others lest they be dominated by others. It isn’t long before a culture of superiority over others develops as part of the ‘defensive-offensive’.
This is the history of tribalism down the ages, and it hasn’t fundamentally altered.
Europe’s history of tribalism has been exacerbated by several factors.
Firstly, the idea of the nation-state has institutionalised differences in a continent with a history of warfare. The nation-state concept promotes a national identity – which all too easily fosters a sense of national ‘superiority’ and consequently nationalism. National identity is nothing more than a modern version of tribalism.
Secondly, many colonial powers in Europe set out to far away lands to reap rewards, thus encountering different cultures. Conflicts followed and a racial aspect to the tribal mentality developed – which is why it is not hard to see how the slave trade grew. All of this was reinforced by some of the teachings of the Church.
Thirdly, in the maelstrom of ideas that emerged post enlightenment, the ideas of social darwinism seeped into the attitudes of some people engaged in the mission to colonise far off lands.
Fourthly, the ideas that underpinned capitalist states wholly failed to build a bond that connected people to each other in a powerful way that supercedes tribal connections. Western states have wrestled endlessly trying to create a mentality that binds people together as human beings, but find it fraught with contradictions.
In the end, people have fallen back on patriotism and nationalism to bind them together, rallying around national institutions that can be as divisive as they are unifying: national sporting teams and the Olympics, independence days, jubilees and royal weddings, flag waving and patriot songs, as well as the shared history of wars and the perception of a common threat.
The fact that western societies have to spend so much effort in dealing with racism through legal enforcement is because they have failed to instill the right values amongst the people.
Sadly, Muslims today are wholly not immune from racism.
They too have adopted the nation-state as their modern day equivalent of tribe and try to encourage feelings of a national identity in the Muslim world, thus institutionalising division.
If you are in any doubt, travel to the Arabian peninsula and see how racist some of the Arabs are to the Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi workers. Or have a discussion with someone from the Indian subcontinent about marriage prospects for their children, and see how many are willing they are to go outside their own cultural and racial boundaries.
Yet, Islam did manage to overcome barriers of race and skin colour for centuries. Indeed, it still does better than most. A trip to Makkah or Medina shows how comfortable Muslims are praying and worshipping side by side.
The region that is today called Saudi Arabia – where the Al-Saud family sits at the top of a hierachy that puts other Arabs from Hijaz and Najd second, followed by other gulf Arabs, and then the rest – was not once a melting pot as pilgrims visited there and then settled. An average ‘Saudi’ living in the Hijaz region can look ‘white’ or ‘black’ or could pass for an Indian or may have slightly oriental features descending from the Mongols. Even some of their surnames betray their geographic diversity.
How did Islam manage to achieve this?
It stems back to the core Islamic beliefs laid down in the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet [sallAllaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam].
Allah SWT says in the Quran: O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Surah al-Hujurat (49:13)
Allah [subhaane wa ta’ala] has addressed all humanity in this verse of Quran, not one section alone such as male or female, black or white, young or old. He reminds humanity that it shares a common Creator, a common ancestry despite the diversity of gender, race and geographical location. He makes it clear that none of those things convey any inherent superiority of one person over another. Rather, it is righteousness in terms of what one believes and does that makes one person better or worse than another. Beliefs and actions are the products of thoughts, so they are something any thinking person capable of undertaking actions is able to achieve. It is the value of individuals based on merit and nothing else.
This view of the belief in diversity of humanity is not confined to one verse. There are others, some which even describe the diversity as a ‘sign for people of knowledge’.
And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colours. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge. Surah Rum 30:22
The Prophet [sallAllaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam] reinforced this view of humanity, race, belief and action in his teachings. In his final sermon at the Hajj he said, “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 black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”
And when he saw evidence of a resurgence of tribalism, he spoke out against it in no uncertain terms.
Abu-Dawud reported that the Prophet [sallAllaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam] said “He is not of us if he calls to asabiyyah, and he is not one of us if he fights for the sake ofasabiyyah, and not one of us if he dies on asabiyyah.”
In another situation, Imam Muslim narrates that when two men of different tribes disagreed, each one called to his group for help, so each group got ready to support their man. Then the Prophet [sallAllaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam] said said, “What is this? Are you calling the call of the people of Jahiliyyah? Leave it, for surely it is filthy.”
In another authentic narration from Abu-Dawud, the Prophet [sallAllaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam] said, “Allah [subhaane wa ta’ala] took away the asabiyyah of jahiliyyah from you, and your boasting about your fathers. So, man is either a righteous believer or a corrupted non-believer. You are the children of Adam, and Adam is from dirt; let men quit their boasting of their own people, they are nothing but coal from the coal of Hell or they will be more humiliated in the sight of Allah more than the dung beetle that pushes dung with its nose.”
All of these and more – even harsher examples – were clear rebukes to people who showed any signs of an identity or bond that superceded the Islamic identity and bond – whether based on family, tribe or interest. Moreover, he encouraged a real melting of the community into one Islamic identity through actions. He elevated an Abyssinian former slave, Bilal ibn Rabah al-Habashi, to be the first caller to prayer. He freed Umm Ayman, also known as Barakah, who had been a slave against from Abyssinia. He encouraged the marriage between her and Zayd ibn Harritha who was no less beloved to the Prophet than any son would have been.
This melting came through ideas – the idea that all humanity is equal in its worth regardless of race or colour, and the idea that belief in Allah and His Messenger is a higher bond to unite people and regulate society.
Amongst his companions and the Muslims of the time, the Prophet managed to create a real bond of brotherhood by encouraging acts of charity, kindness and sacrifice for each other. The manifestation of this in today’s day and age is that if a Muslim put their tribal or national loyalty and bond above that which Islam ordained, they would be doing something that both wronged themselves and was a divisive action. This is clarified in the Qur’an when Allah commands Muslims to “hold fast, all of you together, to the Rope of Allah, (Islam) and do not be divided among yourselves” [Surah al Imran:103] . This alludes to a time before Islam came to Medina, when the main tribes of Banu Aws and Banu Khazraj were at war with each other – with the various Jewish tribes holding the balance of power in terms of alliances they kept with either Arab tribe.
The society that Islam wants is the kind of society where people gather on the ideas and beliefs alone, such that the believers will have one united Ummah despite their differing colours, languages, ethnic backgrounds, tribes, so that it becomes one Ummah like one body.
Islam doesn’t cancel races, languages, and regions, but makes them members and parts within this one body; they move with the body towards a common goal in a way that none of the roles of any parts of the body is canceled or conflicts with other parts.
Even beyond this, in his Islamic state that originated in Medina, he managed to take the strength of this brotherhood of the Ummah as the basis of creating a sense of citizenship, by giving worth and value to non-Muslim citizens who signed up to his constitution – the Sahifah al Medina – and paid the jizyah tax.
A few years ago, I saw a powerful example about how these Islamic ideas cancelled racially motivated anger and hostility in a dramatic and rapid way. There was conflict between the black and Asian community in one UK city. The Asian community was made up of largely Muslims and Sikhs and tensions had heightened to the point that sectarian conflict seemed inevitable. Amongst the Asian community, there was a lot of generalisation about black people which was heightening the chance of sectarian conflict. A group of Muslims circulated a leaflet entitled “Bilal was a black man” targeting the Muslim audience of the Asian community, addressing the racial aspect of the conflict. The effect – from the title above all else – had an immediate effect to diminish the racial aspect of the conflict for the Muslim community, and so put the other issues of disagreement in perspective. It was a powerful example of how a reference to Islamic beliefs and history had an effect – even amongst non-observant Muslim youth.
Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht or emailed at [email protected]