Black History Month always reminds me of, perhaps, the most important of guiding principles of human development: that the overarching basis of our interactions with one another must be upon mutual recognition and respect as fellow human beings, not based on things like the colour of our skin. Lest we forget, all human beings are a single species, homo sapiens, sharing a common genome and living in units of families, tribes, communities, and societies, to individually and collectively experience this thing we call “life.”
Much like this ethnobiological notion, in the Islamic paradigm, we’re varyingly referred by God as “children of Adam” (banu Adam) and “humankind” (nass). Every one of us was given the same soul substance (ruh), an unbeknown form of energy if you like, intractably linked to our time on earth and journey back to God. From this basic point of our origin and life story as a single people, God reminds us that we have been identified into different races and ethnicities by virtue of where our ancestors have lived, our skin colour and perhaps culture that has been passed down to us.
Fast forward to today, and the world is the way it is because it reflects, partly, our own human history of the social and biological development of racial markers (skin, hair, eye colour, complexion etc.) and structures that encapsulate them (race, power, class etc.). Partly also, in the painful development of the modern world with its fair share of wars, malicious ideas, slavery, racial apartheids, hegemony, looting of indigenous peoples etc., we’ve realised the need to continuously find ways of upholding the most important of guiding principles. That this should be case, according to the Islamic paradigm, is because God has instilled human viceregency (khulafah), turn-taking of leadership and rational order (nizam) in our world, which cultivate the desire to seek greater harmony and hearts that naturally prefer virtue, no matter what conditions persist.
Partly, yet more, God has given us the helping hand of revelatory guidance (wahy) as well as the ability to problem-solve and decipher what is in our best interests (Qur’an, 91.8). And so, in human civilizational development we’ve created institutions and laws that moderate and protect the interactions between people. Faced with a more diverse UK, institutional systems have adjusted over the last one hundred years with the introduction of new legal and regulatory protections to the fundamental rights of people as well as new policies to help drive social cohesion. These have included: The Race Relations Act (1965); Racial and Religious Hatred Act (2006); Equality Act (2010); and a raft of Commissions (Law, Extremism, Charity, Electoral, Digital Democracy etc.) set up to look at wider aspects of social cohesion. What is clear in all of this is that across all sections of society, private and public, there is a commitment to diversity and acceptance of differences.
As a British society we have indeed achieved a tremendous amount in the last one hundred years. But, whilst we reflect with a congratulatory pat on the back, we should recognise that there is still much more to do. Only recently, as we were crowning the first Prime Minster from an ethnic minority background, we also found out that the Afro hairstyle is still banned in many schools, despite Equalities Law. There are still too few black boardroom members and black senior managers in large and small organisations. Pulse oximeters seem to have been designed (and tested) to be more accurate for lighter skin people. AI-based facial recognition software misrecognises darker faces. Black men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched. There is still a tacit expectation for black people to fix their own problems even though these problems are societally resolved as they have structural causes that limit the reach of individual agency. Black people are still disproportionately impacted by poor education, poor healthcare, and mental illnesses. In fact, most black people living in the UK have experienced prejudice from healthcare professionals because of their ethnicity, with younger people feeling especially discriminated against. As a society we are not as aware as we ought to be of the varied and rich history of black peoples. Famous black footballers still receive hate speech more than others. Even in many places where overt racism has diminished, there is no shortage of racist overtones, stereotyping and micro-aggression for black people to deal with. Often these impacts are experienced in a compounded way: consider the challenges faced by someone black, who happens to be a woman, has a non-Anglicised name, and who wears, say, a hijab or an African dress. She might be as British as anyone, yet she faces being excluded and discriminated in her own home, the UK.
There is a balance to be struck between over-racialisation and under-racialisation. Not everything is about race, and we all ought to ensure we don’t fall prey to automatically produce the race card, either due to it being the easy thing to do, out of frustration, or group bias etc. For British South Asian communities, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus alike, there is much work to do to eradicate widespread anti-black racism and colourism. Lest we forget, the Prophet outlawed this over 1400 years ago. There is also a need to keep the focus to the UK and avoid importing or co-opting the race problems of America. The UK is a more post-racial society than the US, and race relations are very different in the UK. This isn’t surprising, among other reasons, attitudes towards race and mixed-race relationships are much more favourable in the UK than in the US, which completely change the race-equality landscape. But equally, where things are about race, we must muster the courage to speak up, to be an ally and join in the causes that champion the most important of guiding principles: to respect one another as human beings.
“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 God is the most God-conscious of you. Surely God is All-Knowing, All-Aware.” (Qur’an, 49:13).