You will never be like them, no matter how hard you try. So a relative told me soon after I converted to Islam, thinking my conversion was an attempt to become an Arab.
You know you won’t go to heaven. So a heritage Muslim wrote in an email to me, saying that because I am white that Jannah is not open to me.
Go back to your country. So a passerby shouts as I cross a street which generations of my family have crossed before me. Memes splashed across the internet extol the “hilarious differences” between Muslims and white people.
You are a trader [i.e., traitor] to your race – Anonymous. So the Twitter troll tweets at me. (“Anonymous” reads “coward,” by the way.)
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The message is clear. I can’t be Muslim because I am White.
Why Don’t We Know Better?
It’s strange, though, how I have been reading Quran, praying, fasting Ramadan, saving for Hajj, and saying the shahadah daily since 2001. But I am precluded from Muslim-ness because I have French and English ancestors. It’s strange indeed.
But in truth, racializing Islam is a gross forgery. The Prophet said in his final speech, a sermon in which he emphasized something which he knew his nation, a nation based on faith, would lose sight of:
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 white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. (Muslim, Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah)
Islam is a brotherhood based on shared faith. It is a nation and an identity which teaches that we are all from the same source, that we are one race of people, from One God. The first Muslim community —men, women, and children; Roman, African, and Arab; converts from paganism, Christianity, and Judaism— when they fled their homes only for freedom of religion, to have the freedom to say that they believe in One God, then they became brothers and sisters to one another.
One God, one humanity, this is Islam. This is the revolution that Islam brought and continues to insist on. These are beliefs which all who call themselves Muslims should hold.
And yet many in our society, non-Muslims and even Muslims, still hold the false notion that Islam is a faith defined by ethnic, racial, and cultural barriers. This begs the question: Where did we get this kind of thinking, and why can’t we think bigger than borders, dialect, and melanin?
The “Racism” of Islamophobia was the theme of a lecture I attended at an Islamophobia conference in Australia.[i] I sat quietly and took notes hoping the activist speaking at that particular time could give me some clarity on the issue of why Western people tend to think Islam is about race or culture.
The lecture ended and I was still not enlightened as to how hate and fear of Islam —a religion practiced in every country by indigenous peoples— could be considered a form of racism, and by extension how can Muslims be considered a race.
I approached the speaker after she concluded. Why racialize Islam? I asked. As a white, American Muslim who does not intend on disappearing her identity or heritage, how is it that I can experience the Islamophobia that I do and also be white if Islamophobia is just about racism? Obviously, most Islamophobes are white Westerners. So, why would they hate me if it were just about race? I continued to press the issue.
The activist answered, Because those who are Islamophobes see Muslims as a monolith, as dark people, as the “other” from strange and dangerous cultures. It’s because those who do hate Islam and Muslims see Muslims as being from a single race or ethnicity and inherently violent or culturally backward.
I understood: Those who hate always come from a place of ignorance. But Arabs are not inherently violent or backward. People of color are not “other” or inherently dangerous. What constitutes a “normal” culture is subjective. I protested: But we are one humanity from The One source.
Here’s where I really insisted: We do not and cannot let ignorance tell us who we are. Islam is not a race or ethnicity just because those who don’t know any better have defined it as such.
This conversation shed some light for me on the root of the issue. I realized that it is through the Islamophobes’ mistaken definition of Islam that so many hold the false notion that a European/white identity cannot coexist with a Muslim identity. Thus the false notion that Muslim means Arab or African and cannot also mean European, Asian, Hispanic, or American; or the false notion that Islam is about culture and place rather than about a global and diverse religion.
UC Berkley’s Center for Race and Gender [ii] characterizes Islamophobia as:
A contrived fear or prejudice fomented by the existing Eurocentric and Orientalist global power structure. It is directed at a perceived or real Muslim threat through the maintenance and extension of existing disparities in economic, political, social and cultural relations, while rationalizing the necessity to deploy violence as a tool to achieve ‘civilizational rehab’ of the target communities (Muslim or otherwise). Islamophobia reintroduces and reaffirms a global racial structure through which resource distribution disparities are maintained and extended.
Plainly put, Islamophobia is based on an imaginary Islam that Orientalism [iii] invented to rationalize European colonization, oppression, and the theft of resources from the Middle East, Africa, and beyond. Islamophobia is based on a deception that racializes and demonizes Muslims and then is sold to the Western citizen in order to manufacture consent to colonize, oppress, and steal resources from innocent, defenseless peoples.
If you tell a lie long enough, you begin to believe it.
Islamophobes, Orientalists, and colonizers say that Islam and its adherents are always other, foreign, different, violent —in contrast to the white, Western, familiar, normal, benevolent Christianity and its adherents. Islamophobia, Orientalism, and Imperialism limit Islam to a place, a culture, and an ethnicity and then they distort and demonize its adherents and everything related.
Know the Real Score
Now here’s the worst thing: This poison has manifested itself in the form of bigotry on both sides. If you are a targeted community, it is only natural to distance yourself from those who steal from you and tell you that you are inferior. If you are a typical Westerner, the widespread propaganda obscures your view of reality and may appeal to you because it tells you that you are superior.
All the while, those at the top get richer as they distract populations with hate.
As a person of European descent, a human being —and, yes, a Muslim— I am not responsible for the sins of my forefathers, just as humanity is not responsible for the sin of Adam and Eve. I cannot be held responsible for a system that does not hear my voice and is entrenched in corruption. I am utterly disgusted by the poisonous bigotry with which Imperialism has infected the world. I stand with those who reject the notion that any superiority is born into any one group of people. And I resent the notion that oppressors and bigots could be my teachers.
The Bottom Line
And why does it even matter if we —Muslims or non-Muslims— preclude people of European descent from Islam? After all, white people have benefited from the privilege this system has given them, right? It matters, not because it hurts anyone’s feelings, but because it affirms the mendacity of Islamophobia, Imperialism, and Orientalism.
If we, as Muslims, begin to think that certain peoples cannot be Muslim because of whiteness or Western-ness or any other inborn identifier —even if we refuse to say that Islam is different, foreign, violent, or whatever— we have still let the version of Islam imagined by Orientalists, Colonizers, and Oppressors inform the public perception of our actual Islam. We have let the ignorant tell the public —and us— who we are.
Moreover, by continuing to allow this, we perpetuate the lie that has convinced generations of people, — in both the East and West, whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, or other — that the other is dangerous, that we will never do anything but clash.
But, for our part, we know better. God has explained very clearly:
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. Indeed, Allah is all-knowing and all-aware. [Surat Al-Hujarat, 49:13]
When we say Muslims are like this and white people are like that, we affirm a false dichotomy set up only to propagate division and oppression. And when we do this as Muslims, we are guilty of affirming a lie about Islam! We misrepresent Islam itself, leading many to believe that Islam is not for all people and all times, that Islam is what the Islamophobes, Orientalists, and colonizers claim: foreign, hedonistic, unfamiliar. When in fact Islam is open to all, native, a middle path, and so utterly familiar to every soul.