Shahin Ashraf

Written by

July 16, 2020


Almost two months after the tragic killing of George Floyd, people and nations are still grieving.

With the death of our brother George in the USA, we’ve once again been reminded of the struggles that BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) communities are facing. We are all mourning the tragedies that have engulfed us.

Sadly, we have witnessed that racist attitudes and incidents are prevalent across the world, not only among individuals but also throughout society and institutions.

The Muslim community here in the UK is comprised of a wide range of ethnic minority groups. As Muslims, we experience various manifestations of such discrimination on a daily basis.

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Breakdown of the ethnic fabric of the British Muslim community.

Some people call this particular form of discrimination ‘Islamophobia’; others question whether the term is accurate; as Muslims, we know the discrimination we face is all too real. As we all take a moment to ponder and reflect, we should take stock of the parallel injustices that exist.

Structural inequalities continue to place barriers onto the lives of BAME individuals and this must form the basis of renewed dialogue on racism.

Over the last few months, the Covid-19 pandemic has once again highlighted to the BAME community here in the UK the structural inequalities embedded in institutional racism. With the pandemic affecting more BAME families and individuals who are on lower incomes and in lower-paid public sector jobs, we are once again reminded of the link between poverty and racism.

Structural inequalities, implicit bias and racism exist all around us. The death of our brother George has therefore not only revealed a tragic incident, but also publically highlighted ongoing challenges facing the BAME community.

Racism in the UK: Barriers abound

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Racism in the UK is an ongoing challenge.

In our society, wealth is often seen as a measure of one’s worth. Indeed wealth provides a range of opportunities: to be able to live in a better neighbourhood, to have better access to education, to have better housing, better food, and better opportunities for employment.

However, as we know wealth is often unequally distributed, leaving many economically insecure.

Quite simply: less wealth translates into fewer opportunities. It’s for this reason that many who know the challenge of the structural inequalities that exist also know that whilst many prejudices are clearly visible, others are seemingly invisible.

In the UK, you’re twice as likely to be living in poverty if you’re BAME. BAME communities display higher rates of unemployment and economic inactivity. Add to that the issue of migration status and poor educational attainment for refugee and asylum-seeking communities, it is clear that entering the labour market is difficult for many BAME individuals.

In London alone, 70% of people living in poverty are from minority ethnic groups. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, an independent charity working to solve poverty in the UK, states:

For all ages, family types and family work statuses, people from minority ethnic groups are, on average, much more likely to be in income poverty than white British people.

If we want to ensure a fairer, more just society both here in the UK and around the world, our work therefore must start with tackling racial inequality.

Covid-19 in the UK: Amplifying deep inequalities

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Give a Gift distributing essential food to vulnerable asylum-seeking families in northern England, with funding from Islamic Relief.

Here at Islamic Relief, we strive to alleviate poverty both in the UK and in some of the poorest countries around the world.

We know that our work is most effective when we listen to those who are directly affected – communities on the ground. It is only by listening that we are able to gauge the deep-rootedness of structural inequalities that affect our world.

However, are we listening enough? Are we instead merely putting a sticking plaster over an open gaping wound?

Our values guide us in every aspect of our work here at Islamic Relief: sincerity, custodianship, excellence, compassion and social justice. And it’s these values that will anchor our next steps as we stand in solidarity with BAME communities.

We cannot build justice in an unjust space. We’ve seen how Covid-19 has exposed the current systemic inequalities in our societies.

As the Covid-19 pandemic hit, financial insecurity became an increasing concern for many people in BAME communities. Already, nearly half of both BAME  and Muslim households were living in poverty, compared to 18% of the general UK population.

With the onset of the pandemic and lockdown, a staggering 58% of Muslims revealed that they were already worrying about paying bills – compared to 33% of the general UK population.

That’s why we provided £150,000 to the National Zakat Foundation to support communities in need. Our work with Give a Gift has also ensured that vulnerable asylum-seeking families could receive essential food aid during this ongoing crisis.

Islamic Relief: Breaking down structural inequalities

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The University Muslim Medical Association (UMMA) Community Clinic, supported by Islamic Relief, providing free hygiene kits to people in need in LA (USA).

We must not become desensitised to these inequalities in a world full of injustices. It’s only by recognising and understanding the barriers in place that we can work to build positive sustainable solutions.

When I lived in LA in 1994, we noticed a high level of concentrated poverty in particular parts of the city.

I’d moved to the USA a year before in 1993 as one of the founders launching our sister organisation Islamic Relief USA. As a team, we soon realised that we needed to help BAME communities if we were to help the most vulnerable people in the country. Not because we were from BAME communities ourselves, but because they were the most impoverished and marginalised people in the country.

We noticed for ourselves the disparity amongst racial and ethnic lines. In LA, residents of neighbourhoods with high levels of poverty in them, such as South LA, were and are disproportionately Latino and Black.

Today, almost 40 million people living in the USA are struggling with poverty. And research shows that if you’re female, Black, Hispanic, disabled or under the age of 18, you’re more likely to be living in poverty.

Not long after we established Islamic Relief USA, there was a ray of hope thanks to the University Muslim Medical Association (UMMA) Community Clinic. Supported by Islamic Relief, UMMA Clinic believed that one’s life expectancy and quality of living should not be pre-determined by ethnicity.

The ethos of the organisation was that all people deserve dignity, respect and the best healthcare services regardless of their ability to pay. This also led to Islamic Relief USA initiating its Eid Toy drive to ensure that we could give out toys to some of the most impoverished children.

These values and need continue to drive our work both in the UK, USA and in fact, all over the globe.

Moving forward: The need for renewed and continuous dialogue

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Racial inequalities affect all aspects of life – including the ability to work – and must be tackled once and for all.

So, given the issues at hand – how do we create sustainable, impactful change? How do we tackle this – often subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle – unintentional bias that can have such pernicious effects?

Well, it starts with us – each and every one of us. The Prophet (SAW) said:

None of you will believe until you love for your brother what you love for yourself.” (Bukhari, Muslim)

We need to recognise these inequalities and speak out. We need to acknowledge that social justice may be the end goal but we’re starting on uneven playing fields.

When we recognise the barriers and the challenges faced by BAME groups, we can then work towards building and pushing for more equitable solutions. Solutions that look to break down barriers to education, financial prosperity and long-term security.

This also involves acknowledging the pain that our brothers and sisters – in faith and/or humanity – are feeling.

There’s hurt, grief and sorrow. And there’s a long way to go – but we must keep on fighting until we have equality for all.

As a society, we need to work together based on universal values of respect and humanity. We must recognise and honour the dignity and human rights of every single human being.

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