Amid a global anti-racist movement following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Na’ima B Robert hosted an online conversation about what it means to be Black and Muslim.
“A lot of the people who were at that conversation continued to come back … and as we had these weekly conversations, I woke up one morning and thought, wouldn’t it be awesome to have all of this in one month?” Robert, an author, told Al Jazeera by phone from London.
The first Black Muslim Festival will take place from October, a month-long event featuring prominent Black Muslim voices from across the globe discussing a range of topics.
“There is celebrating us. Our achievements, our history, our sacrifices, our challenges – and having the kind of conversations that we need to have within our community,” said Robert, the festival’s founder.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the event, which Robert said was open to people of all backgrounds, will be held online.
The programme includes subjects such as racism, wealth, family, mental health and community activism.
More than 40 speakers, including academics, authors, creatives and activists, are set to participate.
Abdul Hakeem Quick, a US-Canadian imam and historian based in Toronto; Alhan Islam, a Nigerian performance poet, and UK-based Habeeb Akande an historian of Nigerian descent are among the speakers.
The festival coincides with the United Kingdom’s Black History Month, held in October, which commemorates and celebrates the history of the country’s African and Caribbean communities.
“We thought it made a lot of sense to dovetail the event to it [Black History Month], since it typically does not have anything to do with Muslims,” Robert added.
‘Dismissed and diminished’
Black Muslims, often marginalised within religious communities in the UK and other Western countries, have welcomed the festival.
LaYinka Sanni, from London, said the event was needed for “visibility and acknowledgement”.
“For the longest time, Muslims have held onto the view that they don’t see race, which pushes aside important conversations needed around anti-Blackness that exists in the Muslim community, which dismisses our struggles and also our achievements,” Sanni, who plans to attend the festival, told Al Jazeera.
Sanni said while the perspectives of Black Muslims have not been completely ignored, “they have definitely been dismissed and diminished”.
“It’s visible in the lack of Black speakers at Muslim events, the lack of Black Muslims on masjid [mosque] boards and committees. And, too often, Black-specific events have been labelled divisive, and yet the truth remains Black Muslims face exclusion at events purported to be inclusive,” she added.
Youssef Carter, assistant professor at University of North Carolina, told Al Jazeera: “Programmes like the Black Muslim Festival are deeply meaningful to Muslims throughout the African Diaspora and around the world, as many feel that the contributions and legacy of Black and African Muslims throughout history up to the present remain not widely known.”
He said the sidelining of Africans in Islamic history was not by “coincidence”, but connected to “present-day anti-Black sentiment that remains present in too many Muslim communities from California to Khartoum and beyond”.
“Such programming [Black Muslim Festival] is an opportunity to educate ourselves and others as much as it deepens our realisation that Black Muslims Matter.”
‘Disrupting the narrative’
Robert hopes the festival can become a regular event, and evolve.
“We don’t want to have a conference or festival in a year’s time and still be talking about the same issues. We are better than that,” she said.
With the rise of social media, young Muslims have the ability to “fundamentally shift our communities, if we simply shift how we think”, she said.
“And I believe it’s already happening … whether it’s to do with race, class, social injustice, integration. We are already disrupting the narrative.
“Ten, 20 years ago you could find a Muslim conference of 30 people with no women or Black people. You can’t get away with that now.”