Race Relations: A Long-Standing Failed Experiment
With the federal elections in Canada approaching on October 21st, a series of damning images emerged of the Prime Minister of Canada – Justin Trudeau – wearing “blackface” and “brownface” make-up, damaging his and the Liberal Party’s credibility as the champions of minority rights and multiculturalism, in contrast to the more blatantly divisive Conservative Party.
“Blackface” refers to artificially darkening one’s skin to impersonate black people – a practice that dates back to the days of the blackface minstrel show – a form of 19th and early 20th century entertainment in places such as North America and Europe that used racist stereotypes and representations of people of African origin.
However, Justin Trudeau’s blackface incident is a part and parcel of a long history of racism in Canada against minorities, including the Chinese, black, and indigenous populations, and reflects the inability of the nation state to harmonize their citizens and bind them in a harmonious way, despite what the politicians say.
History of Racism & the Failure of the Nation State
While the blackface and brownface incidents of the current Prime Minister are being portrayed by some as isolated incidents, Canada has a long history of discriminating against its citizens.
For example, even the writer of the Canadian national anthem, Calixa Lavallée, often performed as a blackface throughout Canada and the United States.
Moreover, it is on public record that the first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. McDonald, instated “cultural genocide” through the use of residential schools and a starvation policy against the indigenous people of Canada due to racial superiority.
He also publicly stated in the House of Commons in 1885: “The Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics. The cross of those races, like the cross of the dog and the fox, is not successful; it cannot be, and never will be.”
So, should it come as a surprise that, despite centuries of effort – sometimes coercive, such as in France, and at other times using softer integration approach, such as in the United States or Canada under multiculturalism – the nation state idea has failed to become the “melting pot” it was hoped to be?
Secular liberal states, for all their claims of pluralism, seem unable to harmonize societies consisting of diverse races and religions.
Building Harmony Between the Citizens
By contrast, Western states that often vilify Islam recognize that the one period of European history when diverse peoples lived in harmony was that of Islamic Spain.
They recognize that the Ottoman Islamic State managed to successfully sustain minorities. They recognize that Palestine and Syria under Islam once managed to melt people, Muslims and Christians, into one, such that they fought off European Crusaders together.
Since the Prophet (saw) arrived as head of state in Madina, he (saw) set about building a harmonious society. He paired immigrants from Makkah with the Ansar – the Helpers, who were the locals in Yathrib – to share wealth and build bonds of brotherhood. He set about drafting a constitutional agreement, declaring the Believers as one distinct and united community in the society, but widening respectful and just relations between them and the other communities – including the settled Jewish tribes in the area.
Thus, minorities were protected. The Messenger of Allah (saw) said:
“He who harms a person under covenant of protection, or charged him more than he can bear, I will argue against him on the Day of Judgment.” [Narrated by Yahya b. Adam in the book of Al-Kharaaj]
The Messenger of Allah (saw) also said:
“He who hurts a Dhimmi (non-Muslim citizen of the State) has hurt me, and he who hurts me angers Allah.” [Al-Tabarani]
In the context of that diverse harmonious society nurtured by Islam, Sir Thomas Arnold once wrote:
“We have never heard about any attempt to compel Non-Muslim parties to adopt Islam or about any organized persecution aiming at exterminating Christianity. If the Caliphs had chosen one of these plans, they would have wiped out Christianity as easily as what happened to Islam during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain; by the same method which Louis XIV followed to make Protestantism a creed whose followers were to be sentenced to death; or with the same ease of keeping the Jews away from Britain for a period of three hundred fifty years. The Eastern Churches in Asia were entirely cut off from communion with the rest of Christendom, throughout which no one would have been found to lift a finger on their behalf, as heretical communions. So that the very survival of these Churches to the present day is a strong proof of the generally tolerant attitude of Mohammedan governments towards them.”
There are two essential points to consider based upon the model that Arnold described:
First, the level of commitment to the state that any citizen needed to show was obedience to the law. That was all. There was no concept of “identity politics” as there is today. Citizens were not forced to believe that the source of that law was the divine truth.
Had non-Muslims been asked to proclaim that the source of law was divine it would have violated the Islamic command: “There is no compulsion in the Deen (religion).” People who did not share the fundamental beliefs and values of Islam were not expected to change their religion to Islam, nor to omit verses from the Torah and Bible to conform to Islam.
The second point is that people in the society that Arnold described trusted
the system, felt secure within it, and as a consequence felt like stakeholders. People feel secure and consequently feel “at home” when they have equal access to justice, have opportunities for redress, and are able to hold on to their beliefs. Regardless of a person’s race, the Caliphate gave citizens of different faiths the space to practice their beliefs and even exempted them from the obligations of citizenship that were specifically linked to the Islamic belief.
Islam: Unparalleled in Breaking Boundaries of Race
After the death of RasoolAllah (saw), the Khulafaa (those who ruled after him) carried on the work to expand the Islamic State, which brought even more nations under the banner of Islam.
The nationality of the Persians differed from that of the Romans in Al-Shaam, which differed from that of the Copts of Egypt, and from the Berbers of North Africa. Once they lived under the shade of Islam, the majority of them embraced Islam and they all became an integral part of the Ummah.
This ability of the Islamic State to unite people is not something that has gone unnoticed.
Arnold Toynbee, an English historian, noted: “The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding achievements of Islam, and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue.”
This view that the predominant expectation of any citizen should be no more than to abide by the law and display civility in interaction with others is unique to the Caliphate, where an atmosphere of racial tension was non-existent.
The Need for Islamic Political Unity to Eradicate Racism
The reality of the Muslims today is that they are divided, ruled by systems that are not from Islam, and identify themselves according to the nationalities of the so-called Muslim countries or as targeted minorities in the West.
Many call Muslims to revive, embrace, and practice the bond of brotherhood and stand against racism. Yet, the call to unite the Muslim Ummah is largely ignored.
In today’s context, it is inconceivable to fully practice the bond of brotherhood within the political reality of the Muslim Ummah today and confront the evil of racism within a secular Liberal framework that is unable to unify people from all ethnic backgrounds and races.
The existing regimes in the Muslim world as well as the Western countries continue to instigate hatred and nationalistic sentiments among the people in an attempt to keep the society divided.
Muslims are commanded to establish brotherhood in Islam; believers are reminded that one’s following of Islam is not complete until he or she establishes the bond of brotherhood with other Muslims.
On the other hand, the political regimes in the Muslim world – under the direction of the colonial powers – work hard to entrench the division in the Ummah by preserving the Sykes-Picot borders or by creating new entities to further “divide and conquer” the Muslim Ummah.
The way Islam accommodated the citizens under its rule made people generally – and minorities specifically – feel as if they had a stake in society where they felt welcome, were given space to find their footing, and practice their own faith in a protected sphere without vilification or pressure to reform their religion from its basis. They felt they had a stake when they felt that justice and opportunities were truly for all.
In this way there is a natural process of appreciation of the environment in which one lives, and even an adoption of those material aspects of culture that do not contradict one’s principles and beliefs.
This is the natural process that existed for centuries in the Muslim world that allowed religious minorities to feel attached to their state, preserving many rich cultural variations in a way that did not cause division and resentment.