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When President Joe Biden nominated the first ever Muslim for the position of U.S. Federal Judge on March 30, 2021, many hailed it as a “significant” move, claiming that it shows how “Muslims are becoming integrated within systems of change in the United States.” This kind of identity politics assumes that someone who shares a part of your identity would automatically organize in your interests. Not necessarily.
Looking at the statistics of diversity in top workplace roles, it is understandable why the appointment of members from the Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) community is often labelled as “significant.” In 2018, for example, Black professionals in the U.S. held just 3.3 percent of all executive or senior leadership roles, even though they make 13.4 percent of the entire population. Such statistics point to the systemic racism within the Western society, with its roots tied to the psychological structure of colonialism that is based on white supremacy.
This ideology still dominates the psyche and ethics of governments and trickles down into institutions such as the police. To give an example, young Black men are 19 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people in London, U.K., and are over-represented in the criminal justice system at every level.
The inconsistency between Western laws that criminalize racism and their lack of enforcement on an institutional level demonstrates that these laws do not hold any primary value within the Western system of governance. Rather, these laws came about with the development of society, the changing demographics and the outlook that gradually developed amongst the Western public against racism. This is why those in civil and law enforcement positions often get away with acts of racism, without being held accountable to any substantial degree.
Negative reactions resulting from systemic discrimination
1) Creation of apologetic minorities
The systemic discrimination of Muslims, specifically from BAME backgrounds, have yielded two notable negative reactions. The first is the establishment of a sense of inferiority from the minorities who develop an apologetic spirit towards the system that’s oppressing them, causing them to gradually lose and compromise on their own values. Such individuals may go even further to become supporters of this unjust system, and if they ascend to positions of power, will likely simply play by the establishment’s rule book.
For example, the recently nominated Muslim judge left his law firm to join the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, attaining the rank of captain. He was then deployed twice to Iraq in support of the Iraq War in 2004 and 2006, and went on to receive an “Iraq Campaign Medal” and a “Global War on Terrorism Service” reward for his efforts in the war — a war that led to the deaths of over a million Iraqis. Such individuals, who are hailed as “significant” are not capable of providing real solutions. It would be naïve to expect their appointment to lead to major positive change, simply because they come from a minority background.
2) Isolation of minorities from society
The second negative reaction to this systemic discrimination is minorities isolating themselves from involvement in political activities within the wider society, both grassroots activism and within positions of power. The oppressed minority may ask, should I restrain from entering a system that is overpowered with falsehood and oppression? At the same time, those who are being selected for certain positions seem to be chosen based on how well they would serve the system’s agenda, instead of their own terms. Should we accept the appointment of someone like Sajid Javid as Home Secretary of the U.K., or Barack Obama as President of the U.S.?
Taking the U.S. as an example, there was once a time when the laws themselves were built on racism— known as the Jim Crow Laws—that gave minorities second class citizenship and denied them the right to acquire positions of power. The American constitution makes it clear that citizenship should not be denied on the basis of colour or religion, and it is not a favour from the state towards minorities if they make it to top positions. Therefore, when minorities enter into a system dominated by white people, this is something we should consider as their absolute right.
Challenging the unjust application of established laws
On a primary level, the law granting positions of power to citizens from any background is a good sign. However, a distinction needs to be made between the law itself and its application. Any law that seeks to get rid of discrimination is good, and a law that grants people from any race or religion the right to occupy positions of power is a minimum right. Just as white Biden is given the opportunity to run for presidency, so should Black Obama, or a person from any race or religion for that matter, and this is something we should support. What needs to be fought is the application of such a law, since minorities are not being promoted to represent the interests of their own community, but for the best interest of the establishment’s general policies that are unjust.
Guidelines for Muslim involvement within the system
When it comes to the involvement of Muslims within the system, we ought to define the guidelines and terms for this, rather than to discourage it and remain reactionary as those in power further injustices.
We are living in non-divine societies with man-made laws. No matter how close they seem to align with the truth, they are inevitably plagued with injustice since they are not based on any objective morality. The only real just society is the one based upon Tawhid, since it is distinguished with Taqwa, the fear of God and that is the society we are striving to lay the grounds for our awaited Imam Mahdi (ajtf) to rule in.
Every human being is born with the fitra, which means we all have the potential to be guided. The role of Islam is to change people into what is better, therefore the mission of a Muslim in any corner of the world should be to move people and the current state closer to Islam. The Quran mentions that the Prophets were the brothers of the tribes they were sent to guide (Quran – 11:50,61,84) —they were working within the unjust circumstances and sought to change them, initially through challenging their injustice.
Muslims penetrating the executive, legislative or judicial systems should do so on the basis that it is unjust and manoeuvre within the lines of justice and awareness, improving any aspect of the system and the development of its laws. These laws within Western countries, constitutionally built upon the foundations of “equality” and that forbid forms of outright oppression, should be the base through which the unjust actions of the government and institutions are targeted, exposed, and prosecuted.
For example, it is illegal to sell weapons to any entity that uses it to commit violations against humanitarian law, yet for the past several years the British government has been selling arms to Saudi Arabia, which in turn has used them to target civilians in Yemen. These sales have been ruled as unlawful by the court of appeal, in a critical judgment that accused ministers Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt of illegally signing off arms exports without properly assessing the risk to civilians.
When the existing laws that criminalize injustice are the yardstick through which bad practice on the ground is fought, improvements will come about gradually. In the same way the U.S. government got rid of their discriminatory laws due to the mounting public pressure, the spectrum of those refusing systemic oppression in Western society is only widening. Gradual progressive change does not occur on merit of the system doing what is moral, but their need to absorb the reactions of the masses against the unjust laws and their application.
With tomorrow’s change in the system, which naturally results from the demographic and perceptional changes within the population, discrimination will not only be rejected in law but in spirit of application. That is because the system will have no choice but to allow principled individuals who represent the views of the people to attain positions in power.
The limit of involvement within the system
Having said that, everything has a limitation, and this should be defined by the interests and priorities of any given situation. What are the limits when occupying judicial or legislative positions? The limit to involvement is when there is a clear deviation from core issues of universal justice. Any legislation or verdict that deviates from the core principle of justice, for example, discriminating against religious clothing in employment and this required approval, then that calls for resigning from such positions. Here, the core principle of religious liberty has been attacked and thus becomes a critical point where one needs to demonstrate a stance against it.
Grassroot involvement in sociopolitical activism
Overall, I believe that Muslims need to be encouraged to engage in political and public activities. Not just through seeking involvement in certain high positions, but through the creation of and engagement with grassroot platforms that challenge issues through Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which carry strength and opposition to the unjust system. This includes practising effective ways of objection such as through: demonstrations, seminars and forums, flooding local authorities and people’s representatives with objections and demands, opening links and communications with international organizations highlighting cases of oppression, opening hotlines for complaints, infiltrating media publications with cases and the widespread use of social media. Uniting on common values and linking up with other NGOs on the ground will help spread awareness to all communities that become involved in the struggle for justice.