Can Religion, Islam Specifically, Be Anti-Racist?

Apologetics is the “reasoned arguments or writings in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine.” As Muslims engage in public outreach efforts to reduce the impact of Islamophobia, one topic might be “racism” or “race-relations.” My fear is that such efforts might take the form of apologetics rather than a serious discussion to address the real impacts of racism among Muslims and non-Muslims, both in the United States and elsewhere.

What would inadequate apologetics look like? The speaker might start off with Malcolm X’s famous quote that America should “study Islam”:

Then the speaker might read God’s saying in the Quran:

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ

Human beings, We created you all from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another. Verily the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the most God-fearing of you. (Quran 49:13)

Then the speaker might mention a few reported sayings of the Messenger of God, for example:

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ أَلَا إِنَّ رَبَّكُمْ وَاحِدٌ وَإِنَّ أَبَاكُمْ وَاحِدٌ أَلَا لَا فَضْلَ لِعَرَبِيٍّ عَلَى أَعْجَمِيٍّ وَلَا لِعَجَمِيٍّ عَلَى عَرَبِيٍّ وَلَا لِأَحْمَرَ عَلَى أَسْوَدَ وَلَا أَسْوَدَ عَلَى أَحْمَرَ إِلَّا بِالتَّقْوَى أَبَلَّغْتُ

O people, your Lord is one and your father Adam is one. There is no virtue of an Arab over a foreigner nor a foreigner over an Arab, and neither white skin over black skin nor black skin over white skin, except by righteousness. Have I not delivered the message? (Farewell sermon, Musnad Ahmad 22978)

Then the speaker might talk about Bilal, one of the companions of God’s Messenger, and his prominent place in the early history of Islam.

Now, none of this is wrong, but it doesn’t inform a contemporary audience about extremely unjust racial and ethnic tensions in Muslim-majority societies around the world or racist behaviors among non-black Muslims in the USA towards black Americans, both Muslim and non-Muslim.

Should not we talk about Muslim participation in the enslavement of large numbers of black Africans and attitudes which formed thereby and persist past the end of formal slavery? Should we avoid talking about the Sudanese government’s atrocities in Dar Fur? Should we ignore the discrimination ethnic Chinese face in Indonesia? Is the treatment of foreign workers in oil-exporting states of the Arabian Peninsula a reflection of the impact of Islam on Muslims’ character? Why do some Arabs, even in the United States, use the word `abd (slave) to refer to black people?

An excellent resource for these questions is the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative.

If I were to introduce a topic like this, I think I’d start off trying to answer a few questions.

How do various worldviews reduce or sharpen racism and/or ethnic conflict? I would then try to go through the major worldviews of recent centuries and see if they have features which would lend themselves to anti-racism and resolution of ethnic conflicts:

  • Scientific, materialistic “technocratic”
  • Philosophical, Enlightenment “human rights”
  • Non-theistic, non-materialistic belief systems (Buddhism, ancestor worship)
  • Polytheism (Hinduism)
  • Monotheism (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Bahaism)

I would not try to make “straw men,” and I might conclude that each has features which lessen or exacerbate racism and ethnic conflict.

For monotheism, I might talk about how the idea of one God doesn’t led itself too easily to the idea that one group of humans is more special than others. I’m not enough of a theologian/philosopher to know if justice and wisdom and knowledge are traits which must follow from a monotheistic conception of God, but the major monotheistic scriptures all attribute these traits to God.

Regarding Islam specifically, its frowning upon images and icons discourages Muslims from anthropomorphizing God, which inevitably leads people to imagine God as being like “us” racially and ethnically. Avoiding pictoral images of the Messenger Muhammad likewise reduces the impact of supremacist claims by groups of Muslims who might share some accidental, superficial (supposed, because it might not be proven true) trait with the Messenger.

Group ritual worship manifests equality by making access to physical location during the ritual independent of social status, race, ethnicity and other markers of privilege. The rite of pilgrimage is performed with severe clothing restrictions for men, making it impossible to differentiate among the male pilgrims the wealthy from the poor and the “elite” from the “masses.”

Another important teaching of Islam (and perhaps the other monotheistic religions of which I know little) is individual reward for good deeds and individual responsibility for bad deeds. Meaning, my ancestors’ good deeds benefit them, not me, and my ancestors are accountable for their bad deeds, not me.

Nevertheless, monotheism and Islam have not eliminated racism and ethnic supremacy from Muslim-majority nations. Muslims should learn the conclusions of the scientific method, philosophy and even other religions which may reduce the impacts of racism and other supremacist claims. For example, genetics has now demonstrated that humans within racial groups have more diversity than the racial groups themselves. Sociology has demonstrated the impact of environment on people’s behavior. History has shown the consequences of supremacist beliefs. Liberalism and socialism, philosophically, have shown the weaknesses inherent in assumptions of Divine Kingship and class-based power systems. If Native American beliefs and rituals can teach us about relationship to the Creation in a way which keeps us humble, let us learn from them.

A lot more to say, and I haven’t done this topic justice, but maybe this is another way to approach the topic …



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