In 1996 when I went to study at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) – a college of the University of London – I watched as a fellow student when through what he thought was a radical transition in his views. Given the nature of the college, many white students came in with quite similar views: they were generally anti-racist, empathetic for the under-dog, left-wing/liberal and greatly interested in the affairs of particular African or Asian nations. Although this kind of leaning does exist to quite a degree within wider British society, including sections of the media, I would say that a Eurocentric and white ethno-centric viewpoint still predominates ‘on the street’. Thus the views found amongst white students at SOAS could have been considered quite radical.
Young people, however, often have a tendency to rebel against the dominant environment in which they find themselves, as I witnessed in the case of this particular student. He was studying Geography and Development Studies like myself and had spent the previous year doing field research in Zimbabwe. When I first me him, he had hugely Afro-centric views and was very keen on deliberately making friends with ‘ethnic’ students. As time went by, I noticed that these views were starting to shift quite significantly. It started with him playing devils-advocate with his ‘ethnic’ friends, moved on to a passionate defence British colonial engagement in Africa and later derision of the alleged anti-white ethos in the college. He had become a true radical – except that these views were not radical at all. They were just radical within his context.
I often recall this fellow when I am in gatherings made up mainly of white converts to Islam. Many of us were able to make a reasonably easy journey towards Islam precisely because we had a more internationalist perspective on life. Like those students at SOAS, we too had a generally anti-racist mindset, empathy for the under-dog and left-wing/liberal views. But like that radical student at SOAS, there seems to be an increasing trend for gatherings of white Muslims to descend to the level of racist exchanges, particularly about Pakistani Muslims. There is contempt for their culture, derision of their ways and a level of general stereotyping about this group of people.
There is probably a good reason why I have experienced more of this since moving out of London a year ago. London is a hugely diverse city and the character of its mosques reflects this. In every part of the city we find mosques that are not the preserve of one particular ethnic group, but are cosmopolitan instead. They also tend to have good or decent provision for women. In many places outside the capital, however, this is not the case. Mosques are often split along community lines and Islamic identity is conflated with ethnic identity. In my own town, although there exists a fairly large number of European, Arab and African Muslim families, the Pakistani community clearly dominates. The result is a sense of exclusion at the mosque for anyone who does not speak Urdu, although change is slowly underway. No doubt it is this sense of exclusion which fuels the somewhat racist talk of some white Muslims – and particularly women who have been refused entry to the mosque – in these areas.
I have another theory about this attitude though. A prominent characteristic of dawah over the past decade has been the separation of Islam from ‘culture’. This has led to a sense of superiority developing amongst converts (not just white converts) and amongst young people born into Muslim families: that we follow true Islam, not the cultural interpretations of those before us. This sense of superiority is a real disease, which has seen old Bengali men who have prayed in the mosque five times a day without fail for fifty years castigated by young men as foolish ignorant folk. Given that many of these unsettling convert discussions revolve around the question of their (Pakistani) culture – as if we don’t come to Islam with our own – I would say that this Islam versus culture argument has a lot to do with it.
It is fair to acknowledge that the experience of many converts, particularly those residing outside cosmopolitan settings, has been the racism of existing Muslim communities. I once felt that this was more likely to affect black converts, but more and more I see that white converts perceive discrimination. I think it is more likely that white Muslims will be positively received in mosques with larger Arab attendance, but this cannot be said of Pakistani community mosques. The children of some English Muslim friends of ours have been put off Islam because when they were at school their Pakistani schoolmates told them that they could not be proper Muslims because they were white. My general response to this kind of racism – be it the refusal to return the salams of the convert or simply the reluctance to make friends – is to hypothesise that this community probably experienced white racism in its early years and has therefore become quite insular in its outlook. The views of an English Muslim in my town suggests that there may be something in this: he became Muslim back in the 1960s and reports that race relations were extremely poor at that time. Meanwhile, a Pakistani friend of ours suggests that some Pakistani racism is linked to Mirpuri self-image. Whatever the cause, the result is the same: the sense of exclusion felt by those outside that group.
This is all very unfortunate. Our community is at risk of splitting down quite rigid lines, whether that is ethnicity or ‘convert’ versus ‘immigrant’. When people talk about radicalisation in relation to the Muslim community, they are usually talking about a polarisation towards militancy. The radicalisation that I am witnessing more and more is the acceptance of racism, and it is a disease which needs tackling with equal urgency. If we are now all resigned to the fact that we will experience racism at some point from within the Muslim community, we need to act as individuals to counteract this. For my part that means continuing to attend the mosque and not giving in to prejudice. It means saying that the experience of my convert friends is far from the totality of my experience.
Beyond this though, it is recognising why we are Muslims. We need to get away from our obsession about ourselves and recall where our focus should lie. We should be God-centred, not self-centred. When I talk of the obsession with the self, I am not talking about that very real need of ours to correct ourselves: rather I am talking about the debates about identity, about who and what we are.
We are Muslims and our aim is to achieve the pleasure of Allah. Allah has made us into nations and tribes that we may get to know one another: enough said. After this we remember that this brotherhood of ours is one brotherhood. Yes, I know that the atmosphere in my local mosque is not what I was used to in the cosmopolitan big city. I know that I am not easily accepted as I was in the mosques of the capital. But I recall that, revolving around Tawhid, my prayer, worship, life and death are for God, Lord of the Worlds, who has no partner. In this we find our resting place, our home. When we recognise this, it becomes less important whether we are accepted by others: what matters is whether Allah accepts us and whether He accepts our deeds.