Muslim, Islam and Black Lives Matter

@Interested_in_Islam,

This briefing is provided by a friend of RZIM.

Key Facts (Statistics mainly from Pew Research)

  • The footage of the death of George Floyd, which came soon after revelations about the apparent lack of investigation concerning the shooting of Armaud Arbery by former police officers, became the trigger for protests which began in the US, but which spread across Europe.
  • 2% of Black Americans are Muslims (79% Christian)
    • Of that 2%, 49% are converts to Islam
    • 6% of Black Christians are converts to Christianity
    • 15% non-Black Muslims are converts to Islam
  • Amongst US Muslims, Black Muslims are more likely to perform the 5 daily prayers than non-Black US Muslims.
  • 52% Black US Muslims identify with Sunni Muslims and 27% say they have no particular affiliation.
  • US Black Muslims believe that there is more discrimination in America than Black US Christians (92% vs 78%)
  • 6.5% of British Muslims are Black
  • Nigeria is projected to become a Muslim majority country by 2030 with a Muslim population increase from 75million (2010) to 116million (2030 projection), 51% of the total population.
    • Muslims are projected to make up 55.6% of the total population of West Africa by 2030.
    • Total population of Sub-Saharan Africa that is Muslim was 29.6%. By 2030 it is expected to be 31%.
  • Many of the African slaves transported to America from West Africa were Christians and Muslims who either refused to Islam (in the case of the Christians) or the denomination of Islam being imposed by the Jihadi fighters and were sold into slavery by the Muslims campaigning to set up the Sokoto Caliphate late 18th and Early 19th Centuries. (Curtis, 2008; GhaneaBissiri, 2010)
  • The Nation of Islam (NoI) was an early vehicle for spreading Islam amongst Black Americans, but that has since declined in importance as many converts, including Muhammad Ali moved into more orthodox expressions of Islam.
    • From the 1950s the NoI was closely associated with the Civil Rights movement in America, although it was denounced by Martin Luther King Jr as a “vehicle for hate”. (Lincoln, 1994)
  • It is estimated that 12.5 million Africans were sold and shipped in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
  • Between the foundation of Islam and the 19th Century, 12.85 million Africans were sold to Arab, Persian, Mughal and North African slave markets, mainly through the port of Zanzibar.
    • Slavery was only criminalised in Mauritania in 2007. (Pavlu, 2018)

Analysis
As was suggested in the data given above, there are a number of reasons why Muslim support for initiatives around the Black Lives Matter (BLM) agenda could be ambiguous.

On the one hand, the narratives around slavery and racism chime with the activism and accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ which have been a consistent element of Muslim public activism since 9/11. It is therefore not surprising that there has been some public expression of support for the outpouring of anger from Muslim groups such as the Islamic Foundation of St. Louis who took out a full-page ad in the St. Louis Post Dispatch newspaper with the headline “Standing for Racial Justice Black Lives Matter”. (Henderson, 2020) The Foundation spokesperson Ghazala Hayat drew connections between the George Floyd killing and discrimination faced by Muslims following the 9/11 attacks. Hayat added that fighting injustice is a core principle of Islam.

The St. Louis Islamic Foundation was one amongst approximately ninety Muslim organisations who added their public support to the BLM protests. Al Jazeera, the Gulf-based media outlet covered a public letter which was jointly signed by ninety Muslim organisations. Farhana Khera, Executive Director of Muslim Advocates, one of the signatory organisations, was quoted as saying that "These demands [on the public letter] are a floor for us and not a ceiling. Some would call for much more.” (Anon, 2020)

As the statistics of conversion to Islam from Christianity amongst Black Americans have shown, Islam continues to play a role as an identity of protest, even though the popularity of the seminal organisational vehicle for Black Muslim activism in the US, the Nation of Islam has waned from its zenith in the 1960s and ‘70s.(Lincoln, 1994) Yet, the long history of Arab – African slavery is largely absent in these discussions, either in acknowledgement of the historical fact of its existence or prevalence. It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that the issue has been more cautiously reported within the Muslim majority world. What is more, this lack of discussion has been noticed by Arabs themselves and there is a growing movement on social media seeking redress for discrimination against ‘Afro-Arabs’. (Nusairat, 2020)

It seems that Arab Americans were prominent in raising the issue amongst Arab diaspora and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) located Arab-Muslim communities. Such has been the social media response that fears have been growing amongst the ruling elites across the Arab world that the BLM movement might inadvertently trigger another ‘Arab Spring’. (Nusairat, 2020)

Whether this will come to fruition or not, the BLM movement is a two-edged sword for the Gulf, Levant and North African regimes. From their perspective, on the positive side, it takes international attention away from the bad human rights record that exists in the region generally and also undermines any international pressure the US might want to exert on these regimes to improve their human rights record. In this, they are very much in the same situation as China, where the killing of Floyd and the protests which followed have been a propaganda win for Beijing, taking the focus away from their crackdown in Hong Kong as well as their ongoing oppression of Uighur Muslims in the west of China.

On the other hand, the MENA states will be unwilling to speak out too strongly about the BLM movement for three interconnected reasons: firstly, America is an important financial ally, even though it has been gradually withdrawing its influence from the region for more than a decade. Secondly, the elites do not want to give oxygen to the principle that public protest for change is good for fear of opening the door to the kinds of protests which triggered the Arab Spring. They have already seen what social media mobilisation can do, so they do not want to encourage any further such actions.

Thirdly and finally, both the Arab rulers and diaspora peoples are aware that the record of Islam in relation to African slavery (as well as European and American slavery) is also very bad. Calling attention to the issue in general might have strong repercussions in terms of bringing to wider public attention the growing body of scholarship which shows the extent of, cruelty of and recentness of, slavery in Islam. This includes the fact that Muhammad himself had slaves. Indeed, movements to abolish slavery have been recent and often fuelled by international pressure rather than internal movement. (Pavlu, 2018)

It is therefore unsurprising that, Muslim advocacy organisations in the US as well as other Muslim diaspora communities and Muslim majority states, whilst expressing support for racial injustice, have been careful about expressing that support.

References
Anon, (2011) ‘The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Sub-Saharan Africa’ Demographic Study Washington DC: Pew Research.
Anon, (2020) ‘US Muslims join in calls for police reforms in wake of Floyd killing’ www.aljazeera.com 15th June
Curtis IV, Edward ed. (2008) The Columbia Sourcebook of Muslims in the United States New York: Columbia University Press.
GhaneaBassiri, Kambiz (2010) A History of Islam in America Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Henderson, Andrea (2020) ‘Islamic Foundation Expresses Solidarity with African Americans against Injustice’ St. Louis Public Radio 15th June
Lincoln, Eric (1994) Black Muslims in America Grand Rapids (MI): Eerdmans.
Mohamed, Basheer and Jeff Daimant (2017) ‘Black Muslims account for a fifth of all US Muslims and about half are Converts’ Factsheet Washington DC: Pew Research
Nusairat, Tuqa (2020) ‘Black lives also matter in the Arab world’ www.atlanticcouncil.org 12th June
Pavlu, George (2018) ‘Recalling Africa’s harrowing tale of its first slavers-The Arabs-as UK Slave Trade Abolition is commemorated’ www.newafricanmagazine.com 27th March.

3 Likes

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for the information about Islam, Black Lives Matter, and the tension of slavery as it relates to Islam. In my first overseas trip to Egypt in 1999, I was able to meet refugees from a Muslim majority nation living in Cairo. A young man I met there told me about being enslaved as a boy during a war in his home country. In that brief meeting, he told me about being forced to memorize the Qur’an through beatings, and being chained in the home of his slave master, a Muslim he tried to escape from more than once. After failing, he said he built trust by his master and then escaped.

The man told me this information in a very matter-of-fact, casual conversation, and it was my first encounter with a former slave. There is no way to know if God will ordain our paths to cross again, but I still remember him and have him in my heart and mind.

Thank you for allowing me to share this!

2 Likes