‘I never considered a non-Arab equal to me,' a sister once remarked. ‘I know it's wrong, but in the place I grew up in, that was how we grew up thinking.' She had grown up in a country considered "Islamic".
Islam is the most anti-racist and anti-prejudicial way of life. Islamic history testifies to the openness Muslims have shown towards people of different cultures and religions. Within their own ranks, sincere and practicing Muslims have always kept their hearts and minds open to their brethren, no matter what their background.
Yet, there is a problem in the Ummah today. Prejudices are not the problems of others. They have become the very sad reality amongst a number of Muslims as well.
This is not just on the level of small minority Muslim communities in non-Muslim lands. It is also a problem in "Islamic" countries as well. Years of nationalism in theory and practice have diminished the powerful universality Muslims cherished in their societies.
First the bad news
Laws and customs
There are a number of countries in the Muslim world, in which racism and prejudice are in full swing and justified by laws or social customs. These seek to exclude and shun on the basis of ethnicity and in some cases, race.
For instance, in certain countries, it is not permissible for children to study at a post-secondary level, even if their parents have been living or working in the country for a number of years. This is usually because of their national origin.
In other countries, discrimination is used to exclude those who are not the original inhabitants of the land from citizenship.
Discrimination extends to the field of employment as well. In some "Islamic" countries, workers of one national origin are paid less than others although they may excel in their skills, education, and experience. It has been noted that a white or black person carrying an American passport gets better pay than a person of Asian origin carrying the same passport.
Written and unwritten laws in some Arab countries prohibit Arab women from marrying a non-Arab.
Attitudes and words
The discrimination is not reserved to laws though. It's not difficult to hear an uncommon racial epithet used among some Muslims, ignorant or negligent of the Quran and Sunnah's condemnation of backbiting, slander and mockery.
We know the Prophet married women across ethnic lines, and therefore, in Islam, there is no ethnic bar to marriage. He also made it very clear, in his last Khutba, that superiority in Islam is not based on blackness, whiteness, Arabness or the lack of it.
Contrast this with, for instance, the Hindu caste system, under which inter-caste marriage is prohibited.
Sadly, such Hindu notions still influence a number of ignorant Muslims in South Asia who will not, for instance, marry outside if they are Syed (claim lineage to the Prophet), Shaikh (a business community) or across tribal lines if they come from the "Khans," "Moghuls" or "Jats".
While some Muslims may justify this as simply a measure to ensure compatibility between husband and wife, it is Islamically incorrect to discriminate upright Muslims on this basis.
The Masjid or Islamic center
There have been some isolated cases in which Muslims who have felt so excluded at specific mosques called anti-discrimination hotlines to complain.
Alhamdu lillah, all Masjids are open to all people and no Masjid has racial policies. However, racially divided neighborhoods result in an ethnically dominant Masjid type. Usually, negative attitudes of some and language specific Masjid programs cause miscommunication. This is because some people want to make sure their mother tongue survives in America.
...and the good news
The prayer: a lesson in Muslim unity
Five times a day, every day, Muslims of every cultural and ethnic background stand shoulder to shoulder. There is no issue of who stands where based on their color or ethnicity.
On a larger level, to remember that millions of Muslims, everywhere of all shapes, colors, sizes, countries, etc. all face the same place to pray, five times a day, is incredible. Yet this lesson not just in Muslim unity, but in ethno-national harmony, is usually overlooked.
The mosque: open to all despite problems
Alhamdu lillah, one problem Muslims do not have is membership-exclusive mosques. Any Muslim can pray in any mosque. While those individual Muslims with racism and prejudice in their hearts and minds may not treat them well, they will not exclude them physically from attending or praying in any mosque, anywhere.
A brother from the United Kingdom who converted to Islam once mentioned how on a trip to apartheid-era South Africa, while he found black and white churches, he did not encounter black and non-black mosques. That made him start thinking about this curious phenomenon, and he eventually accepted Islam.
Muslims united in pain
With the latest headlines focused on Chechnya, Muslims in America and abroad have generously donated to help their oppressed brothers and sisters there.
There is a keen understanding amongst many Muslims that when it comes to oppression, it doesn't matter if you're a black Muslim, a white Muslim, a Kosovar Muslim, a Chechen Muslim, a Kashmiri Muslim or a Somali Muslim, you are suffering.
Imams often make Dua for oppressed Muslims they have never met, no matter what their skin color. Muslims pray along in sympathy and support.
Here is another clear example of Muslim unity. All we need to do is now pray and help all human beings who are suffering whether Muslim or not.
Muslim American leaders are diverse
Can you name the top four speakers and leaders amongst Muslims in America today?
If you can, you'll realize that all four are of different racial and linguistic backgrounds. They are invited to Muslim gatherings regularly, no matter what the ethnic background of the audience.
These four leaders are: Imam Siraj Wahhaj, an African American Muslim; Dr. Jamal Badawi, an Egyptian Muslim; Dr. Abdalla Idris Ali, a Sudanese Muslim, and Imam Hamza Yusuf, a Caucasian American Muslim.
This shows that a Muslim leader is respected for his knowledge and commitment to the Deen by most Muslims, not his background.
Marriage: the litmus test
All that said though, the real test of openness to other cultures is marriage. Islam and a growing number of Muslims pass there with flying colors.
As mentioned above, we know the Prophet married women across ethnic lines. Muslims, whether in the Muslim world or in North America, are following his example more often today.
So you'll find an African or Caucasian-American convert married to an Arab, Indo-Pakistani or Malaysian; you'll find an Indian married to a Palestinian; you'll find a Kashmiri married to an Arab-American, and on and on.
There is a keen and growing understanding amongst a number of Muslims, in line with Islam, that what unites hearts and people is Islam, not skin color, ethnicity or territory.
Sincerity, knowledge, forgiveness are the cure
Curing the disease of racism takes time. It also takes humility, sincerity and requires seeking out the right guidance. It means admitting we were or are wrong, sincerely repenting and making a concrete effort to change.
While the planet's approximately 1.2 billion Muslims do have their share of problems with each other, Alhamdu lillah, we still have the tools to eradicate the cancer of racism and prejudice in our midst. Let's begin the process with ourselves, and then help them Ummah do the same.
Photo Attribution: "Arab market-1" by Peter Hagyo-Kovacs - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arab_market-1.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Arab_market-1.JPG