The Question of Religious Identity

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A recent article by The Independent’s Robert Fisk about racism in Arab countries has given fresh impetus to debates regarding racism within not just in Arab countries, but the Muslim world as a whole. While you don’t have to agree with everything Fisk puts down in his article, one cannot deny the racial divides and tensions that continue to plague to Muslim Ummah today. Any healthy debate on the matter must be welcomed and used constructively. The matter hand does come as a bitter pill to swallow perhaps, as it forces us to look inwards and search for answers, something not many of us are used to.

There is no arguing that Islam, being a religion of justice and equality, has zero tolerance for racism. The religion seeks to root out every form of racial prejudice and discrimination through various means, congregational prayers being a stark reminder where Muslims stand in rows, shoulder to shoulder as brothers in faith, where no distinction is made by race, ethnicity, or social standing. As it is stated quite clearly in the Qur’an, “Verily, the most honorable among you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous, the most God-conscious among you.” (49:13) But the matter at hand here is not racism as Islam sees it, but racism as it manifests itself among Muslims and our communities.

Before we sit and ponder over where Muslim governments have gone wrong in terms of their policies and politic to stray so far away from the teachings of Islam and the words of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him and his progeny), what we need to do is look at the matter at a more grass roots level: racial divide and the Muslim. And to understand that we need not go too far. Our own communities today are a prime example of where we have gone wrong and what needs to be done. One doesn’t have to live in an Arab or Muslim country to fathom the racial divides and discrimination which has somewhat become a part of the day to day dealings of what we proudly refer to as the Muslim Ummah today. We represent Islam in our own little communities, mosques, and Islamic centers. It is here where the criticism must begin, and the solutions must come from to challenge the phenomenon on a larger scale.

Hence, we are forced to look inside: how racially prejudiced are we? Undoubtedly, throughout the Western world, our mosques and Islamic centers have been propped up to serve the needs of certain cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds. The Iraqis have their own mosque, the Iranians prefer their own center, the Indo-Pak community has an Islamic center allocated to itself, but the Khojas go elsewhere, while reverts are usually forced to band together and figure things out on their own. Within our own domains, everyone else becomes the other, the outsider. The mistakes and issues of one Islamic center prompt a further distancing from the others. I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of even further branch-offs within these communities due to diverging views on certain matters, as that is a whole other debate that we may reserve for a later date.

As much as we love sharing stories about a friend of a friend who reverted to Islam, as much as we praise the process of gaining one more brother or sister, the reverts are largely left to fend for themselves. Their backgrounds aren’t worthy for us to give our daughter or sons to them in marriage. They aren’t culturally in sync with us to attend our celebrations and commemorations. Their problems are eons away from ours, so we stop trying to understand.

Of course, this raises the age old question of how to bring about social cohesion while preserving national identities, culture, and even language. Intricate questions surrounding national and religious identity continue to shape modern Islamic political thought, and concrete, practical solutions are still debated upon to this day. How does one strike the right balance between national pride and loyalty to the Ummah? There is no one size fits all answer to the issue and is one that many Muslims communities, specifically in the West, continue to grapple with. But there is no reason why we can’t work together to overcome such barriers without losing our culture and language.

It’s a no brainer that our work begins by building bridges with the different mosques and centers within our area. Muslim communities around the world are actively participating in interfaith dialogue with other non-Muslim communities: the Jews, Christians, Hindus, etc. Yet, we are still losing out at the home-front. We continue to estrange vital parts of what should be considered our own community. The Muslim youth can take this to a level higher: being more comfortable in identifying themselves as Western as well as Muslims, there is more of a common base to connect and understand. The cultural barriers for them are not as high and indestructible as those for the generation before. This move by itself is one that can play a pivotal role in bringing about more unity and reducing racial prejudices among Muslims from different ethnic and national identities. The more we understand each other, the less there will be that divides us.

Continued measures must be taken by community leaders to create an atmosphere that is more welcoming for any outsider – Arab, Pakistani or otherwise. Joint ventures must be undertaken by Islamic centers to stand united, specifically on days that hold religious reverence. It is our religion that sees us as one, and so it is on the basis of this religion and under its banner that we can unite.

We distance ourselves from Islamic centers and communities that are different from our own, and perhaps especially when they are the subject of a debate. Our answer to it is usually, “Oh, it’s the Iraqis – we are different,” or, “Well, what do the Indians know about Islam?” or better, “The converts do things differently – they weren’t born into it, you see.” Such phrases are commonplace within our own little Islamic centers and mosques and have become an accepted narrative for the divide we face today. Why is it tolerated? Why do our brothers feel the need to employ labels like ‘desi’, ‘gora’, ‘bengali’, etc? Why is it that racial discrimination coming from a non-Muslim is met with an uproar, but within our community it is not only tolerated but even expected? This has nothing to do with preserving one’s culture and national identity. It’s wrong, it’s un-Islamic, and it’s unacceptable. And that’s how our attitude should be toward such racial divide. The Iranians may differ from the way things are done within your Islamic center, but should that be the cause for not welcoming them when they do extend a hand of friendship? Does the color of one’s skin make one less of a Muslim? And does not being born into a Muslim family make one less faithful than anyone else?

In the end, the most righteous and most God-conscious are the best in the sight of Allah, so why do we continue to judge? Why do reverts continue to feel alienated and let down by the Muslim community to which they rightly belong? How important is faith for you when you are choosing a life partner as opposed to proficiency in a particular language? It all comes down to the prejudices we have erected within our minds, within our cultures, within our communities. Generation after generation we continue to internalize them unknowingly, yet believing that we are taking some moral high ground.

There is much to be done. The Muslim Ummah lies in tatters, but one of our most pressing issues lies in racial prejudice and divide. The issue of national identity never really figured until the nineteenth century, in a post colonial world. Yet here we are. It is high time we dealt with the issue head on. It is our duty to strive and build society based on the equality of all human beings as Allah has willed, one that accepts, welcomes, and even relishes in its cultural diversity. One that prides itself on its Islamic identity in the truest sense. But the work must begin, and it must begin now.

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