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Why It Is Important to Have Black Muslim Only Spaces: An Interview With Neimo Askar & Ayo Olatunji

by in Identity on 27th September, 2018

Source: Instagram @Neimoaskar

“When it comes to black people we ourselves don’t know our worth, but everyone else does and they are threatened by it and try to diminish us, and try to put us down, but once we realise our worth the possibilities are really endless…”

On Saturday 23rd June, an event took place in Brixton Pound Cafe, a ‘Blackout’ Eid party was held by Neimo Askar, Fahima Hersi, Ajan Abdullahi, Idil Abdullahi and Najib Ahmed. The night saw performances by @yxngjamz, @bluesforthehornmusic, and a panel discussion by Ayo Olatunji and Sarayia Bah. We asked these two activists about the need for all black spaces. Ayo Olatunji a student at UCL who works on issues surrounding racism and Islamophobiabia through talks, workshops and blogs. Neimo Askar, founder of Blackout Eid, a London based poet, who has blessed numerous stages with her visceral writing in a short space of time. Neimo is also a percipient photographer, industrious events promoter and student of Bioscience.

Amaliah: What would you say to people who feel black only events and spaces can be exclusionary to a wider community that is interested in discussing issues minorities face?

Neimo: I think it’s important that people understand that they don’t need access to every space and that sometimes certain spaces are not theirs – that is okay. Letting people have space where they feel safe should be our primary goal, and we should aim to keep creating spaces for people that are excluded in one way or another. It is also important to understand that anti-Blackness in the Muslim community is a huge problem that affects a lot of people and that it can only be solved by listening to Black Muslims and challenging those mindsets that perpetuate anti-Blackness in mosques, households, and even within family and friendship circles.

02.01.2018❤

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Ayo: I understand their reservations around these things, I think people in the Muslim community are particularly anxious around us embodying some tactics or methods used by western secular society. I understand, but I would tell them to trust in their fellow Muslims, trust their brothers and sisters that we are doing this for the best of intentions, and also think about it this way, they would have events for brothers and sisters who are South Asian in the community or who are Libyan or North African, Egyptian or Saudi, East Asian, Malaysian, they have community events where they come together, and there is nothing wrong with that. There is never ever fuss made with their communities doing it.

The black community, specifically to any other minority has a completely different intersection of oppression, which no other set of people has faced, like the black community have. Even if their community has faced trials and genocides, but no other community has been traded by every other race in terms of mass produced slavery like this.

It adds an important intersection of oppression. I will never say it is worse because I don’t think I can aptly measure human suffering, as an individual, as a person I can’t measure that. People must be understanding and patient, and know there is a lot of intergenerational trauma within our communities, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. Sometimes we need time to be able to talk amongst ourselves about these issues and not always have to be on the defence and explain ourselves. Sometimes we need to have an inter-community dialogue, and every other community would agree with that.

There is always this disproportionate focus and criticism on the black community.

When they say you're too controversial ☺️

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Amaliah: What spurred you on to want to start/attend this event?

Neimo: There were multiple factors that motivated us to make this space; one being that most of the team is made up of Black Muslims. Hearing other Black Muslim experiences in Islamic spaces, as well as my time being on the Black British Muslim series that was by done by Mohammed, Saraiya Bah and Sakinah, helped me realise that other Black Muslims also needed space to talk about their experiences and also how common anti-Blackness was in the Muslim community.

It was important for us that we created a space where Black Muslims didn’t need to deal with everyday micro-aggressions or have to explain their existence to people. It gave us, and others, the chance to express both these parts of our identities (being Black and Muslim) in peace.

Ayo: I wanted to be with my community or the people who share the intersections I do, as black Muslims. When I see my community, depends on the context, it means black Muslims, those who share this and understand the complexities of being both. I wanted to share that space with them, it’s that sort of comfort being around people, offload around people who won’t have all these problematic opinions you have to sort of fight off. It’s like having family or friends you can be comfortable around.

Amaliah: Why was it important for you to speak in/create this space?

Neimo: It was important for us that we created a space where Black Muslims didn’t need to deal with everyday micro-aggressions or have to explain their existence to people. It gave us, and others, the chance to express both these parts of our identities (being Black and Muslim) in peace.

Ayo: Some of the things I discussed, was in a very candid way, something I am trying to reinforce, is how we have Imams and Sheikhs, or people in our community who have subtle or outward racist behaviours. Arabs, South Asians can act and behave as proponents of Islam, they tend to claim it, people become disillusioned with the faith, even more so when these individuals start to manipulate and shape Islamic teachings of the Sunnah and Hadith around their own bigotry and prejudice, this conveys a confusing sphere of understanding for black Muslims, with Muslim women as well. Black Muslims drift from the faith because it loses its beauty, its compassion and empathy, it loses all of that because it has been claimed and twisted by another to shape their own agendas of prejudice and bigotry.

They tend to look for alternative western liberal secular movements, they tend to gravitate more to those, and the aspects of the values of those movements are often incompatible with Islam. But some people embrace these alternative movements wholly because they can’t seem to reconcile with parts of Islam because it feels like it is owned by another. So I really wanted to go into this space and show them that Islam is still the primary way, it is still the thing we should base our lives upon, it still makes more sense than anything else.

I would say, take ownership of your Deen, don’t let anyone else take it away, don’t let somebody else own it for you regardless of what they’re saying, you know yourself. You know your Deen, you know Islam and you keep it for yourself. That is the most important thing. I felt a lot of the backlash that the organisers received, all of this has connotations and effects, and it pushes people away from the faith. These sort of reactions are un-Islamic behaviours but are shrouded in Islamic teachings. I wanted to go there and reassure people that as black Muslims there is still ownership we can take of our own Deen, this is still the path, this is still the way.

I didn’t want to get caught up in a cycle of venting and venting turning to resentment between our brothers and sisters in our community. Those feelings are justified, but it is not good for ones spirit to harbour those feelings. I wanted to bring it back to the reward that we will get for trying to do better by having Sabr.

Amaliah: What was one of the defining moments where you became aware of your identity?

Neimo: There were a lot of moments where I became aware of being Black – from certain comments from teachers to being followed around in stores by security guards. I think the most identifying moment where I became aware of being Black and Muslim would probably be when I asked the ISOC at my university to do a film/poetry night on Black History Month and was asked: “if it would be halal”. Mind you, I did not make any mentions of food or music or anything like that.

I remember attending Muslim art spaces that were predominantly run by South Asians and they would only refer non-Muslim Black people as Black which often erased Black Muslims from the conversation and created a space where Black Muslims would often feel unwelcome. It created the notion that Black people couldn’t be Muslim.

It was also really frustrating that when I tried to start a discussion on anti-Blackness, Bilal R.A was used as the token Black guy to shut down the conversation! They didn’t even ever use any other Black Sahabas or prophets.

Ayo: In terms of noticing I was black, was when I was about 7/8 years old, around then, in primary school. When I did something wrong I would get harsher treatment to the other white kids disproportionately. I would ask myself what the difference between me and them was. That is when I started to notice the colour of my skin, my background and culture, has influenced me and makes me different, I am different because I am black.

My Muslim identity emerged as I reverted a year ago, I was aware of it when I drifted apart from some friends and family members, who were predominantly Christian, some of them became more hostile, many around me, turned their backs on me, or became afraid of what was happening, they thought I was becoming radicalised, thinking I was an extremist.

When I realised I was a black Muslim was 5 months into reverting, I experienced some anti-blackness in the Muslim community. There were certain comments and treatment, which meant I had to hold on to my Islam and remind myself, this is not what our religion teaches it does not teach racism. I have had people from the black community, who were trying to discourage me from sticking to Islam.

Because I’m black and I’m Muslim, ] I was receiving Islamophobia from the black community, and anti-blackness from the Muslim community, it was such a tight spot of I’m black but I’m Muslim. Such a tightrope to tread.

Amaliah: Do you feel there are not enough black only spaces facilitated for in the UK?

Neimo: Recently there has been more spaces and projects facilitated by Black Muslims and catered towards Black Muslims such as Black British Muslims times, Black and Muslim in Britain and also the African and Afro-Carribean Eid Festival that we were privileged to be a part of. I’m sure there are others that I’m forgetting to mention but the need for these kinds of spaces is definitely there.

Ayo: There are more black only spaces like that coming about through start-ups, different initiatives, charities, organisations, university societies. It depends on the area, in London, we see a lot of black only spaces, but in the countryside, there’s less of a black population especially in certain cities or towns. There are around 5 black people who don’t have that feeling or sense of community. There are literally very few black only Muslim spaces, as there is a lot of backlash, which isn’t very Islamic, but there are many different South Asian only spaces, Arab only spaces, north African only spaces, but when it comes to black spaces there is this negative perception of blackness is as if blackness and Islam and blackness is not compatible. I think many in the Muslim community feel the whole entirety of blackness being incompatible with Islam, which I really heavily disagree with. It depends on location, but in terms of black Muslim spaces, there are very few, very negligible amount.

Amaliah: What do you wish to achieve in the long run through your work?

Neimo: We hope to keep growing and keep learning and keep creating more opportunities and projects. We want to create safe spaces for people, but also to start a conversation because at the end of the day that’s the only way to achieve change in the long run.

Ayo: I really, more than anything, want unity for our Ummah in all its forms, I spent a lot of time studying what unity looks like in the western secular political sphere, and the examples I have seen is almost unattainable. Those sorts of political spheres, nurture the ego, they boost it, make it flourish, make it go to unimaginable heights, it is very hard to humble one’s self in those spheres. So you can’t reach a solution of seeing another eye to eye when they have different views from you, you can’t do that in those spheres. Islam to me is what bridges that gap.

Amaliah: What message do you want to relay to the black Muslim youth in the UK & globally?

Neimo: Keeping doing what you’re doing, even if it is something small because you’re inspiring people like yourselves. Even if you only touch one person with what you’re doing then that’s amazing and you’re part of the change that we’re seeing.

Ayo: With our black youth, my answer would be that you are good enough, you are intelligent enough, worth it enough, you are valued, you should never let anyone dictate your worth in that respect, you can really achieve anything you put your mind to. You will always have a lot of individuals who aren’t black who will try to put you down and diminish your worth. When it comes to black people, we ourselves don’t know our worth, but everyone else does and they are threatened by it and try to diminish us and try to put us down, but once we realise our worth the possibilities are really endless. We have seen that with so many leaders in our community, and even the people around us, our mothers our fathers, our relatives who are so resourceful and so resilient in the face of adversity they show us that anything is possible with the mount that comes down on them, to keep standing up and pushing forward.

For black Muslim youth, I would say the UK and globally take ownership of your Deen, don’t let anybody with bigoted views inside or outside of our community take you away from your Islam, take you away from the truth. You know your truth, you know what the Deen is, make it personal to you, don’t let anybody take ownership of it, don’t let anybody become the gatekeeper or the proponents or the people who dictate how close you are with it.

The Prophet Mohammed (saw) hadith narrating that no Arab is superior to a non-Arab, is particularly significant since the only way someone has superiority over another is through piety. The message I took, is that somebody who is pious, humble, and modest does not recognise superiority as a sort of paradox. The more sabr we have, the more we try to educate and better our community- whilst preserving your energy. Everything we are doing is being written down, as long as we have good intentions, we are all doing our best.

What makes us different to non Muslims is, we believe in pure and true justice systems outside of this world in the hereafter, the afterlife. If we continue to try and chase justice fully and wholeheartedly here without that knowledge that there is divine justice waiting for us, without that knowledge we get lost and try to search for justice here which can take us away from Islam. There is more reward in trying to better the Ummah and we will get those rewards in the hereafter.

Amaliah Writes

Amaliah Writes

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