The 22nd of September saw the release of the latest report by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in collaboration with Everyday Muslim Archive and Heritage Initiative (an archive which documents and preserves UK Muslim experiences). Titled “Race, Faith and Community in Contemporary Britain”, the report shines a light on the heritage, perspectives, contributions and history of Black, African and African-Caribbean Muslims in the UK1. Lord Simon Woolley (Political and Equalities Activist and Director of Operation Black Vote) acknowledged that not only is the report “a moving tribute to the resilience of communities who too often face discrimination from non-Muslims and from even within the Muslim community” but it has also come at a timely moment2 in the wake of Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Brexit.
Over forty authors contribute to the report and come from a wide range of cultural, professional, and educational backgrounds to challenge perceptions of what a “Muslim visibly looks like as well as what It means to be Black and British”3. Covering key themes such as invisibility and marginality, space and opportunity, history and culture, the essays in the report also cut across of range of spheres in public life, the media, and British Muslim communities.
According to the 2018 Annual Population Survey (by the Office for National Statistics) there are 3.3 million Muslims in Britain with 10% of the Muslim demographic being “Black Caribbean” or “Black African”4, and the biggest number of Black Muslims describe themselves as being Black African (7.7% of the total UK Muslim population). In 2020 a survey published by Muslim Census sought to unmask anti-blackness amongst young Muslims in the UK. 250 non-Black Muslims in the UK were surveyed between 4th and 5th June 2020. Findings from this survey show that 98% of respondents believe racism exists within the Muslim community and 97% believe the UK Muslim community does not do enough to tackle racism5. A further 82% have witnessed anti-Black racism from their own family and friends whilst 31% of respondents admitted holding anti-Black prejudices themselves, either in the past or at present6.
Along the same line, a 2019 study published by the Black Muslim forum (Black rights civic organisation that aims to support Black Muslims globally) found that most respondents have experienced racism (79%) and nearly 50% have experienced racism within Muslim communities. A majority of respondents also reported they felt they did not belong to the mosque7.
Commenting on the launch of the report MCB Secretary General Zara Mohammed said:
“Black Muslim Communities have long played an integral role in British society and yet their contributions have often been undervalued and overlooked […] it is high time we celebrate the contributions of Black Muslims and we must do more to tackle the scourge of prejudice within our own communities as well as wider society”8.
- Arts and Heritage
This first section of the report explores Black Muslim diaspora in the UK, focusing on how they have sought to maintain their African and Caribbean identities through arts and heritage in the face of discrimination7. Within this section, six essays document Black Muslim history in the UK, with a particular focus on Somalian Muslims, and how anti-Blackness in the Muslim community is dealt with through celebrating African Muslim culture. Abdel Karim Ibrahim, organiser of the annual “The Salamat Festival” (a showcase of Afro-Islamic Culture/Folklore/Tradition) writes in one of the essays that he is “fighting a “war” on two fronts” where he has to contend with “anti-Muslim bigotry outside the Muslim community, and anti-Black racism within my community”8. He argues that one way to address anti-Blackness is to train Muslim leaders in anti-racism, multiculturalism and diversity with programmes and workshops during Black History month . The African Salamat Festival in 2019 for example displayed the diversity of Black cultures on stage. The event was well attended and well received by the local communities of Kensington and Chelsea with former MP Emma Dent Coad tweeting “over 1000 visitors from Somalia, Sudan, and Eritrea … Music Singing, Dancing … Just heaven”9.
Another essay by Latifat Obanigba (a London-based freelance visual artist) focuses on the virtual art exhibition she created for Black History Month to raise awareness around invisible and silenced topics affecting Black Muslim women and British upbringing11, such as high mortality rates during pregnancy or childbirth for Black women, compared to other races.
- Black Lives Matter 2020
The essays of section two of the report concern the Black Lives Matter movement. They focus on the period building up to and following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and its ramifications on the British Muslim community. Soukeyna Osei-Bonsu (founder of the Black Muslim Forum), discusses how race informs the Black British Muslim reality. She acknowledges the “compassion fatigue” with Black Lives Matter and argues that “non-Black Muslims are uniquely placed to live the legacy of the Prophetic advice and make it their work to undo the many trajectories of ignorance in the Muslim community and replace it with knowledge12. Similarly Sultana Parvin (activist and founding member of BLM Redbridge) writes that “we fail in our faith and our own resistance if we cannot call out anti-Blackness from amongst our own” which is why, she adds, she continues to “tackle anti-Blackness in South Asian Spaces [and questions] why Black Muslims are ‘othered’ by such communities who claim to share the same God and faith”13.
- Criminal Justice
Within the report, the four essays in this section explore Black Muslim experiences with the police, the judicial system, UK prisons and Immigration policy. Saffie Jallow Aidara (an associate barrister) discusses the role different factors play in shaping Black British Muslims interactions with the criminal justice system, specifically the “Stop and Search” process (the policing practice that enables the detaining of a person who is not under arrest in order to search them or their vehicle for an unlawful item)14. In 2018/2019 22% of all Stop and Searches were carried out on Black people in England and Wales despite them making up only 3% of the population15. Despite significant data on Black Muslims and Muslims discrimination in general, coming to an understanding of the experience of Black Muslims and their engagement with the police is difficult16. Aidara presents the interviews of three young Black Muslim men being stopped and searched. One of the interviewees, a 36-year-old man from London stated that he was only “targeted because you’re Black and they don’t know you’re Muslim. There is a distinctive look of a Muslim in the Asian community everyone is familiar with but the majority of the police are ignorant”17. Another interviewee recounts being stopped at a London tube station. In this incident, the police officers told him they were searching him under the Terrorist Act and the hostility towards him grew because they realised he was Muslim as well as being Black. According to Aidara ,these cases suggest that religion plays a role in the discrimination of Black men and that further research is needed to identify the respective influence of faith and race in cases of discrimination 18.
Coming to a similar conclusion, Bilikisu Savage (Civil service worker, community leader and a Magistrate) analyses the 2014 Immigration Act that has made it more difficult for migrants wanting to come to the UK. Savage notes that further research needs to be carried out on how these policies have impacted diverse communities within the UK, specifically the Black people/ Muslims detained since 2014 and the ones deported due to criminal activities19.
Another contribution “Surviving in British Politics as a Black Muslim Hijabi Woman” by Councillor Rakhia Ismail, shows that the discrimination faced by Black Muslim Women is not discussed within the criminal justice system. On the other hand, Rakhia says that as as Black woman herself who wears the hijab, it has “helped to assert my identity as a Muslim and ease my acceptance by the Muslim community“20.
Soukeyna Osei-Bonsu writes about the importance of Black supplementary schools in British society in general and British Muslim communities in particular, especially with an education system where “empire and whiteness is the norm” and where “nationalism has inevitably seeped into the curriculum, into classrooms, lesson plans and history books”21. She describes how through the UK education system Black and Black Muslim children abilities are systematically undermined through the prominence of the “school to prison pipeline” (exclusionary school policies and procedures that exclude students and push them into the criminal legal system)22. Osei-Bonsu also looks at the similarities between British state schools and Islamic schools, where according to the Black Muslim Forums (2020), “the Islamic madrassah is not exempt from racialised tactics on the part of teachers and racist bullying from other students”23. A way forward for Black Muslim children is the Nana Asma’u community school (a Black Muslim / Black supplementary school founded in 2018, operating at Ghana Muslim Welfare House in North London). The school teaches pupils aged 3-11, covering both African History and Afro-Muslim history and self-esteem in a creative environment to “undo structural miseducation” in state schools and redirect education “to a true reflection of Black history and Black experience”24.
Bashirat Oladele (Law and Sociology student at the University of Warwick) focuses education at British Universities, asking “is there a space for Black Muslims at University?”. Feelings of being an outsider, being overwhelmed, isolated dominate Black Muslim students experiences, that are not properly addressed in societies such as the “African Caribbean Society” and the “Nigerian Society” that focus on culture rather than religion. They can also be dismissive of Black Muslim experiences by assuming all Black people are Christian25. In a similar vein, university Islamic societies (university-based student groups that serve and represent Muslim students on campus) also lack acknowledgement of Black Muslims. According to research conducted by the Black Muslim Forum (BMF) in 2020, 84% of respondents reported they felt they did not belong to their universities Islamic society26, a statistic that was met with shock by the heads of University Islamic Societies , particularly at the University of Birmingham, who went onto conduct research on the systemic problems within their society to spur on change and undo legacies of racism27. Additionally, Oladele writes that organisations such as Black Muslim forum and The Black Muslim Girl are spaces allowing Black Muslims to exist, but similar spaces need to be created within universities to enable Black Muslim students to feel secure in their faith and cultures28. In 2020 African Caribbean Muslims Connect (based at the University of Warwick) was created to reduce the marginalisation of Black Muslims at university, with the goal to create branches at numerous universities to further support Black Muslims on campus29.
Muslima Adelani (a London based teacher) shares her personal experiences in the education sector. She recounts the rigorous interview stages, hostility from parents, and being under constant pressure to prove her capability to school management. Adelani attributes such discrimination to racial profiling and says her experience reflects that of many other Black and minority ethnic educators. A report by the Runnymede Trust in 2016 indicated that BME teachers reported feelings of isolation and lacked management support in incidences of racism30. Adelani notes that for Black Muslim teachers there is an additional dimension of faith in their professional environment, where “some experiences of racism, prejudice, and discrimination come from other BME communities, namely, within the Muslim communities”31.
- Health and Well-Being
Amani Mugasa (a Scotland-based junior doctor) explores Black Muslim women’s antenatal experiences, where current mortality rates related to pregnancy are five times higher than white women’s in the UK. She argues that further research is needed on Black Muslim women experience (“as perfect examples of intersectionality”32) and on policies to improve the safety of Black Muslim women in such vulnerable periods of their life33. Mugasa highlights “discrimination and stereotyping, dismissal of symptoms, cultural and religious insensitivities, with-holding or delaying treatment, lack of support and empathy, lack of autonomy and over-medicalisation of care” in women’s experiences of antenatal care34.
Amina Hersi (General Practitioner), Zainab Garba Sanni (co-chairs for NHS Muslim Network), and Rayna Alakraa (Economic Analyst at NHS England) discuss the impact of covid-19 in Black Muslim communities that with other minority ethnic communities (BAME) were disproportionately impacted. This is due to enduring inequalities that already exist in the UK such as lower socio-economic status and its correlation to poor health, limited access to health services, housing and space (with Black and ethnic minorities more likely to have intergenerational houses, increasing the spread between young household members to older, more at risk individuals), and the over representation of BAME community members as key workers35.
This section of the report consists of three essays on the media practice of African and Black Caribbean British Muslims37. Halimat Shode (writer, speaker and founder of the online publication “The Black Muslim Times”) writes about identity spaces online and the importance of Black Muslims having their own media platforms. In her view, one of the challenges in mainstream media is the lack of representation of Black British Muslims . For example, press coverage of the Eid centers around South Asian and Arab experiences38 and rarely makes reference to African and Caribbean Muslim communities. Shode notes that only one part of her identity, either her ethnicity as a Black women, or religious affiliation as a Muslim is reflected in British media at any given time39, which has led many to turn to online spaces to affirm their identities. For example, Shode has taken part in the 2016 “Black and Muslim in Britain” video project that addressed the lack of religious representation during Black History Month. Whilst Shode commends such initiatives, she notes they require a lot of commitment, time, and money which is one of the major challenges the Black African, and African Caribbean British Muslim communities (BAACBM) ”40.
A further problem for the BAACBM communities is the “lack of established networks” that facilitate growth and expansion of online spaces. Without frameworks of reference, Black British Muslims are often starting projects from scratch. Many do not have the initial start-up capital to fund projects and resort to crowdfunding and donations to supplement the success of the project. This is why, Shode argues, fully funded ongoing initiatives are the most sustainable method for maintaining the important work of BAACMB communities41.
Soraya Adejareackney (Councillor for Hackney and Stoke Newington, London) writes about being “The wrong type of Muslim”42 , where describes that in every stage of her life she has “experienced a society which overlooks the contribution of Black Muslims, or indeed adequately address the concept of inclusion”43. She recounts that when she began to study at the madrassa, she entered a setting of predominantly Muslims of South Asian heritage where the students had to be convinced she was a Muslim, and where her treatment from tutors was vastly different from the other students. This sense of marginality continued throughout university and in her political experience. Adejare discovered that most political appointments at the local levels went to Muslims of South Asian Heritage, and whilst there exists inclusion policies for senior political roles, Black Muslims are “not part of an ongoing discussion”44. Adejare concludes that although some councils and other public institutions now take into account institutional racism, this needs to also takes place withing the organisations that represent the interest of Muslims45.
- Religion and Community Life
In his essay “The Black Muslim Presence in Britain” Sheikh Danjuma Bihari describes the “journey of Islam into the UK from the perspective of the African and Black Caribbean Muslims” which helps to “gain an insight into how Islam evolved within Black communities especially in London”46. In another contribution in this section, Lamine Konate (Deputy Imam of Peckham High Street Mosque) discusses the importance of his mosque in serving a diverse community of congregants, primarily of West African origin who share a linguistic and cultural heritage. Prior to the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, the capacity of the mosque was 150 people47. Like other religious institutions, it was deeply affected by Covid-19, but quickly managed to shift its activities online49. In addition to Zikr (recitation), juma (Friday prayer), zuhr (midday prayer), and khutbah (sermon) being delivered online , the mosque also offered workshops for mental health (ran by nurses) and a WhatsApp group was set up to allow congregation members to circulate advice about health50. According to an internal survey, “covid-19 has minimal impact on the congregants’ wellbeing as they were occupied and engaged”51. The aforementioned activities become even more vital when considering that “Black Muslims feel like they are profiled and excluded from Muslim circles” where “the lack of opportunities has forced most of us to have our own Islamic centres and mosques”52. Mosques, like Peckham High Street, are thus important spaces for Black Muslims which have a “critical and authoritative role in the cultural and political life of Black Muslims, with immediate social implications in the life of Black Muslim communities”53.
The final section of the report concerns the experiences of Black Muslims within the sport sector with essays on the successes but also the limitations Black Muslims face, including Jawahir Roble’s journey to becoming the UK’s first female Muslim football referee. Roble writes of the need for “accessible role models of similar backgrounds” to encourage and increase the engagement of Black Muslims females54 in certain sports. She also argues that main stream sports organisations need to highlight the contribution of the BAME population, which will help to increase representation and inclusion of women55. Similarly, in his essay on “sports performance academy: ambitions and current work” Al-Ameen Amodu (Football Association qualified football coach) discusses the importance of Black Muslim role models for children in sport. Amodu founded the Sports Performance Academy to help teach, coach, and mentor young BAME people “who feel disenfranchised and do not see a place for themselves within the ‘normal path’ to employment”56. At the academy, Amodu is able to offer young people alternative opportunities to further education, such as careers in sports coaching. Amodu acknowledges there is much more for his academy to achieve (particularly in building relationships with institutions such as local colleges and councils), but see’s the successes in the academy of building a community for young Black Muslims57.
The report sought to reflect the lived experiences of British Muslims of African and Black Caribbean heritage. The different essays challenge the perceptions of what it means to be both “Black and British” and what Muslim identity looks like. They also reflect a lot of the initiatives and efforts of individuals who contribute to and transform their communities and societies, as well as the challenges they face. According to the MCB “they (the essays) remind us in powerful ways of our responsibilities to work towards equality of recognition, equality of outcomes, and equality of dignity across Muslim communities in Britain”58.