A white convert, who has done no real work in deconstructing the years and years of white supremacy, even if that white supremacy is based in liberalism, can also be a white supremacist. When these white converts then say ‘our history as Muslims’, I have to pause.
White Supremacy in Islam and how do we fix it?
Speaking about race and ethnicity is probably one of the more difficult conversations that the Muslim community deals with. Speaking about racial hierarchies, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and other ways that race impacts us as Muslims and how we as Muslims view Islam can be difficult. Different cultures have different views of what “whiteness” is and how their “whiteness” works for them or against them, and some do not see their “whiteness” as anything more than a secondary identity and white supremacy as no urgent matter, or no matter at all.
Recently, there has been a lot of chatter on social media about white Muslims, white converts, and the issues of white supremacy in Islam. Before I attempt to dive into the issue of white supremacy within Islam and within Muslims, I think it is imperative to define “white.” Usually when someone says “white”, they are speaking in a broad term of someone of European descent, someone who is Caucasian. When Muslims are speaking of white supremacy, the term that should be used, or at least should be understood is, the term WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). The term WASP is controversial, but I would really like to focus on is the White and Protestant part of the term WASP, mainly because it truly encompasses the background of both white English and white American converts to Islam.
When we are speaking of converts who bring their white supremacy with them into Islam, we are usually speaking of those who come from a white protestant background. Muslims like Suhaib Webb and Hamza Yusuf, who have time and time again been called out for their racist, even if well-meaning comments. To be clear, the kind of white supremacy that many of us speak against is a form of white supremacy that is accidental and often times well meaning, which at times can make it just as, or even more dangerous as any overt forms of racism and white supremacy.
When we speak on European Muslims such as the Bosnians and other European Muslims, the conversation is different because the history of whiteness is different. Whiteness did not save the Bosnians from a genocide, but it was not the reason for the genocide either, that would be Islamophobia. When we are speaking on the atrocities committed against Muslims in places such as Chechnya and Bosnia, their whiteness did not work for them, but it was their Muslim faith that worked against them. The question is, how would the situations play out if Bosnia or Chechnya was occupied by Black Muslims, and what would these situations be with the presence of Islamophobia and racism?
I want to take two examples of race from Bernard Lewis which he details in Race and Slavery in the Middle East. Lewis goes into detail how the enslavement of Blacks throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean was looked upon as jihad, especially if they were non-Muslims. In some schools of law, it is only permissible to capture slaves through warfare, thus, it was not uncommon for Caliphs to hold raids specifically to capture Black people and enslave them. Enslaved Black people would toil as laborers, eunuchs, and many times be forced to fight in the military. There was a certain social ceiling that Black people, especially Black slaves, could reach in society.
During this time, there were also white slaves in the Mediterranean, but their social trajectory was very different. White eunuchs were rare and costly, a palace of white eunuchs would have been a sign of true power and status, but there is not historical record of such. White slaves could rise to the ranks of generals, governors, and even founders of dynasties. Whiteness was coveted and would allow for the free movement throughout society, and it could even move a person out of slavery.
For all of the racism that was hurled at Blacks during the mid-eleventh century, they played an important role in the Middle East and Mediterranean, especially in the military of the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt. Black soldiers were called abid al-Shira, or slaves by purchase – these men were not slaves in the sense of being the property of someone, or belonging to someone, in fact they were very much free, but the idea of their labor being purchased evoked the idea of enslavement.
Although historical examples of how whiteness has presented itself and worked in Muslim communities are many, there is also the much-overlooked aspect of how we as Muslims use history as an academic field. One tool that colonialism thrived on was the idea that colonized people were history-less, meaning that they lacked history and thus colonization was not impacted by any progress; in fact colonialism was progress. We do not have to list every colonized county, but these lands were largely Black and Brown, and in some instances, these colonized people were Muslim. Muslim history itself is rich with stories of Black and Brown people, stories that give Muslims hope, pride, and most importantly, a sense of history. When we see converts from a white Protestant background embrace Islam, that is one thing. The microaggression, of infusing one’s Muslim identity into Islamic/Muslim history, is different.
Sylviane Diouf in her book Servants of Allah, speaks on an interesting aspect of the lives of enslaved Black Muslims in America. It was not uncommon for Black Muslims who were enslaved to be literate, a skill that was well coveted in a society where literacy was rare. This literacy that Black Muslims held was also an issue for the fact that Blacks were supposed to be “history-less”, or without history. The presence of literacy is the presence of culture, which would mean the European view of Blacks was not only wrong, it was very wrong. The way to work around giving Blacks the credit for having history and culture was to claim these Black Muslims were not Black, but Arab. In this case, the presence of Islam seemed to wash away the Blackness, but did not change the ideas of Blackness, it simply moved (or could move) Black Muslims to the status of Arab, but still not worthy of freedom. This is another form of white supremacy that can go unchecked, instead of changing an opinion, you simply move your opinion in order to keep the same ideals in place to allow you to look down on others.
Allow me to explain. A white convert, who has done no real work in deconstructing the years and years of white supremacy, even if that white supremacy is based in liberalism, can also be a white supremacist. White supremacy does not present itself in the vitriol speech we see from Donald Trump, but something that comes in the form of a Pete Buttigieg. When these white converts then say ‘our history as Muslims’, I have to pause. Yes, as Muslims we do have a shared history, and also, we should be willing to share that history.
White converts embrace the history of Islam with all the love and excitement they can muster. The stories of how Muslims created algebra, the work Muslims did in astronomy, and a list of other cultural and academic achievements suddenly become their achievements as well. While these achievements are well known, they do not stop the outside world from looking at Muslims as backwards and anti-progress. The issue is, white converts do not have to deal with those stereotypes, they can accept the good in Islamic history without having to take on the constant burden of defending it, that is how white supremacy also works within Islam. There is an appreciation for the history of the Middle East and North African Muslim communities, but it must also be said that there is a certain aversion and apprehension to Black Muslim history, especially Black African Muslim history. There is a huge gap in historical understanding between white converts and the history they are embracing. Understanding Islam without understanding whiteness can be dangerous.
Why does all this matter? After all, we are all one race, are we not? We can solve all of this by simply doing away with race and following Islam the way Islam is supposed to be followed. If you believe that then you should also believe that unicorns ride on rainbows to and from the Land of Oz. Religion does not live in a vacuum, and it should be our job to solve the racism problem not ignore it writing race off as some form of haram. Muslims have had the Qur’an for a long time and we still have not solved our racism issue, the question is do we want to? Is the work too uncomfortable? Too hard? We have the tools, but do we have the will?