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Why Modern Ideas of Race Can Only Result In Oppression

Clarity Amidst Confusion: an Interview of Tijana Sarac with Abu Bakr Carberry

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Foto: A. Carberry

(iz). Abu Bakr Carberry is a British born author and naturopath. He was raised in Guyana, South America, became Muslim 30 years ago and today runs a clinic in England. He combines Islamic Cosmology with the European philosophical and literary tradition, with a focus upon the physical, social and spiritual health of the human being which he views as a complete whole and in harmony with creation. We talked about the issue of race and its implications for our societal and mental state of health.

Islamische Zeitung: We are living in a time in which we are actively trying to overcome racism, but what we are witnessing is that it seems to become harder to even speak about racism or the matter of race all together. Why do you think that is?

Alexander Carberry: If you wish to talk about something, you need to know what the matter really is. A problem of our age is that we don’t discuss what matters actually are. We have a tendency to jump in before we know what we are talking about. Confucius said it best: ‘A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.’ ( Confucius, Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3)

He said if we don’t correct the names of the things, we will not know what we are dealing with. So the first thing we have to do is name them as what they are in reality.

Racism has always been an amorphic concept. What does the term mean? It is the tendency to categorise people according to their skin colour and to measure their value according to it. There is also the idea that there is a biological foundation to race with regard to skin colour, making certain people more intelligent than the others, or more spontaneous etc.

This concept has a genesis. If we look at the word itself and how it has been used throughout history, it becomes easier to understand it. Until the 17th century race meant “tongue”, the language which was spoken. So there was a German race, a French race, an English race, because there were groups of people who shared a language, an ontology. Because it acknowledges that our language changes the way we look at the world.

But as the European economy and power became dependent upon the slave trade and plantation slavery, new problems had arisen. They had black slaves and white indentured servants. Many European immigrants were indentured for seven to 12 years. What happened was that the indentured servants had to work even harder than the slaves, because the slave was his owner’s property, so if they died during indentureship it wasn’t a problem. It was alot cheaper. So eventually the slaves and the indentured servants formed alliances, as they were all being exploited. This became a political problem. So race as a matter of language – which already carried a bit of colour in it, since the Greeks referred to the Ethiopians as a race and meant dark skinned Africans and Indians by it – became a matter of belonging to a particular skin colour. This secondary feature now became the primary one. They said to the indentured servants: “You are one of us! You are white, just as we are!” A white race was created. By that, the impoverished Whites were given a position superior to the Blacks. They were given the task to rule over the slaves. People with a very similar socio-economic reality were made into opponents and then were played off against each other. Out of this emerged what we now call racism. It was the basis upon which Blacks and Whites were manufactured and then identified themselves.

It did not have a biological foundation. The biological mythology would emerge later using Darwinism. In the 18th century the theory of evolution began to rise to popularity and by it biological racial superiority and inferiority were justified. But it was the political situation that had been created, which gave permission for the biological theory to emerge. Because science is always history. Many intellectuals of that era made their money by investing in the slave trade. The biological explanation created a moral justification for race. They said man was evolving and the least evolved was the Black and hence the most evolved was the White. And all the others were somewhere in between. For Christians the matter of slavery had been an ethical dilemma. But slavery was by now over and the biological explanation dealt with the subordinate role of Blacks. Up until the 1970s encyclopedias were full of racist and quite simply stupid views on the so called “savage races”, as they called them, in contrast to the “civilised races”.

So when we address race what we are trying to do is to change that frame within which we view the world, without looking at the actual foundation of this world. The assumption that one group or race has done wrong to another group or race, or even the terms and elaborations on our equality, become a morass, we simply cannot see clearly. The terms are very unclear. Often what we have to do is analyse which aspect we are actually talking about, but dealing with these things piecemeal is never really sufficient.

Islamische Zeitung: When we take all of this into consideration and look at our situation today – does our problem lie in the fact that we do not understand what the problem really is?

Alexander Carberry: No, we do not understand what the problem really is. In fact we do not know what we are talking about. We react to an array of social realities. It is a dialectical swing-back. We run from one end to the other and take opposing positions. But the definition that emerged in the 17th century made the white person a White and the black person a Black. It has changed the way we see ourselves. We became by this act part of the same caste continuum. This event was as destructive for the Whites as it was for the Blacks in the realm of identity. I mean that with regard to identity, not in regard to one’s position in the world. The position in the world means that more horrendous torture and physical oppression was unleashed upon the Blacks.

But there is a hidden balance in the world, because Allah is Al-‘Adl, The Just, and He says in Surah Rahman: ‘Nothing will break the balance.’ So when we tried to break the just balance, we exposed ourselves to the undelying cosmic balance and are being hit by things we do not understand, ever since. In the centuries to follow, other racial theories were developed, for instance the Aryan or Celtic race, which are entirely fictitious. Those racial theories unleashed a wave of violence to which in the Soviet Union alone during the Second World War, 27 millions fell victim. It was a war which in part was fought on the idea of a master race. So we did not escape from this matter, we are all being hurt by it.

Islamische Zeitung: What do you think do we have to understand or put into practice if we want to achieve real change?

Alexander Carberry: We have to let go of the desire to achieve something. We have to look at what is there. Because our hastiness to act in a situation has changed the way we look at the problem. We want to achieve a certain level of equality, but fail to see the real problem. We do not see the existential situation which we are part of. We cannot even look correctly. But this is what we have to do first, if we want to tackle the problem.

Islamische Zeitung: So when we demand that everyone has to be given the same rights, we still do not see the real problem of our society?

Alexander Carberry: No, we do not see it! Our identities are based on a fundamental insanity. Because they are based on a concept of Black and White as if these had a biological justification. The idea of a Caucasian race is utter nonsense. There is no genetic uniformity that would ever allow for us to make such a claim. It is nonsense. We are discussing these matters on a completely fictitious level. It is not even mythic, but simply fictitious. And it guarantees that at the end of it we will come up with yet another fictional story.

Islamische Zeitung: Which role does activism play here? Do we still need anti-racist groups and what are their limits or even their contradictions?

Alexander Carberry: We have socio-political and economic issues so there will be activism. It is inevitable. The problem lies in the way we look at the matter, which does not offer a solution. There cannot be one, because the idea of the white and black race itself is a nonsense. What we have is a caste society, that fact we have to accept. And in this caste society your skin colour decides which caste you belong to.

Islamische Zeitung: What was before this term? Was there another way to look at different people?

Alexander Carberry: Yes, there were other ways in which people understood themselves and others. The dilemma we are in, is, that a construct has been built which claims that there is such a thing as a fair skinned European and a dark skinned African as the two extreme human opposites, and all the others find themselves somewhere in between those two. The only way out of that situation is that we check our identities. Because the path we have taken has harmed all of us, Blacks and Whites and inbetweens.

Islamische Zeitung: What would be a healthy way to define identity?

Alexander Carberry: Identity is never something that you define. Identity is what you do. How you live is what you do, and this biological process transforms the way a body of people see themselves.

Islamische Zeitung: How has our concept of identity harmed Whites?

Alexander Carberry: I have already mentioned the consequences of World War II. If we look at the USA, we can see that there is a big black underclass and an even bigger white underclass. In the bourgeois society race offers another means of differentiation. Thus the Blacks are the lowest in that society, so the White has to be at least a little better than the Black. Even if he himself is utterly poor, he still has to be able to feel that he is better than the Black. So the White has to stand with the Whites, even if it is with the famous one-percent of the super rich act to his absolute detriment.

Poor Whites will almost always stand with them, even if it is against their own interest. Whites and Blacks used to have their own separate unions, up until the 60s they never merged. Industrialists made it possible that both of them did the same jobs, with the same economic and social issues, and still manipulate them be against each other. Instead of coming together and acting in their own common interest against the industrialists, they allowed themselves to be separated and manipulated. Because the construct of race made them understand each other as so fundamentally different that it was impossible to band together. This changed due to the civil rights movement of the 60s, but the power of unions was over, divide and conquer. Today we witness a racially motivated dialectic backlash due to the conditions, that this cockeyed way of looking at things, allowed to emerge.

We have regions of the white underclass in the US in which people are worse off than in the black ghettos. But it is hardly spoken about. Sometimes you see films or music videos depicting this, about the trailer parks or the phenomenon that is Eminem. Someone like him shows that the people are facing the same socio-economic and political challenges. But they are divided by race. That is the situation of the US, and it is very specific. But there are other regions in which the slave trade took place, like Guyana in South America where I come from, where the societal development has been a different one. The social context plays an important role in this.

Islamische Zeitung: In the past there have been attempts to unite the poor – Blacks and Whites – under the same goals…

Alexander Carberry: Exactly. In the United States this lasted for about 30 years after the 1860s. It changed because the prior division of people due to race had been so successful and ensured continued success for those whom it benefited. They revived racial division as a strategy for the industrial development of the American South. They created economic laws which were to uphold this construct. Whites could draw more benefit out of those laws than Blacks. A very simple political strategy, but it worked. It guaranteed the political support of the white underclass for the white upper class. In the early 20th century they were given the opportunity to become homeowners more easily through access to mortgages, which was largely denied to the Blacks, by a process called redlining. That is how white suburbs and black ghettos were created. Then the Blacks were blamed for their poverty, their poverty was their own fault. They claimed that the Whites were richer because they were more intelligent. These convictions ensured a continuation of the concept of race as a justification of superiority and inferiority.

Martin Luther King lamented that the US-government granted loans and offered education for Scandinavian immigrants while withholding the same from the American Blacks. In that discourse the white underclass remains widely unspoken of and these people feel isolated and will want to show solidarity with other Whites when it comes to political issues, even if that has nothing to do with their reality. All of these are socio-economic and political control mechanisms.

Then we have all the intellectual movements that arose from this, which only reinforce the existing parameters. In the 19th century we had Pan-Europeanism. So as a reaction we had Pan-Africanism, Pan-Asianism or Pan-Indianism. These movements did not emerge out of a genuine, distinctive intellectual reflection of one’s own situation, but as a reaction. So they only confirmed the continued existence of this particular way to look at the world.

Islamische Zeitung: So if we have a European thought or construct and groups of people react to it, even if it is in opposition to it – would you say that these groups are doing the same thing and are merely giving it another name?

Alexander Carberry: Yes. For the European civilisation has been extremely successful. All over the world, from Beijing to Los Angeles, we have the Kindergarten, the primary school, the high school, the university, etc. It is the same everywhere we look. All of us are being educated within the same model. Confucianism is dead, the Islamic civilisation is dead. Even the universities of the Muslim societies are based on the European model.

Islamische Zeitung: So are those who are opposing the Eurocentric worldview but are fundamentally following the same ideology fooling themselves?

Alexander Carberry: Yes! They are themselves Eurocentric. Let us take Pan-Africanism. The name of the continent stems from a Tunisian Roman province. The whole continent was named after a small Roman province. Because the Europeans called it Africa. But the Africans never needed a name for themselves, because at that time there was no such things as “the African”. There were peoples and tribes and languages. During the era of the Greeks Europe did not exist either. The Greeks did not view themselves as “Europeans”, Alexander the Great was too far westwards in Macedonia to be considered civilised by the Greeks, muchless the poor Romans.

European identity is found by a contra distinction to something else. The idea of being European only emerged out of the conflict with Islam. It is a reaction. So we have created a tradition in which we always identify ourselves in reaction to something instead of looking deep inside of ourselves and seeing what is actually there, what emerges out of ourselves. And this goes on and on and we lose the ground under our feet. European intellectuals such as Jünger, Nietzsche and Heidegger have realised this. They saw that our order is collapsing. We are captured within a pattern which does not allow us to get to the ground of our identity and to explore who we actually are and where we are going.

Islamische Zeitung: What do we need, regardless of skin colour or origin, to create the possibility for our identities to arise out of ourselves?

Alexander Carberry: We already have identity. People who speak English have a common belonging. People who speak German have a common belonging. But we have built a pattern in which we do not see what we already have anymore. My skin is dark, I live in Europe and I have a centuries long European lineage. And it is a mixed lineage at the same time and we behave as if racial mixing began yesterday. So we have to talk about Europe on this basis, that we are similar by common experience, by having grown together and we are responsible for the wellbeing of our neighbours. Race really stops us from seeing people as people and having compassion for them as we have for ourselves.

Islamische Zeitung: So is someone who lives in Germany and speaks German, a German?

Alexander Carberry: People who speak German have a common ontological worldview. Because the language forms their understanding of existence. Often we do not have the vocabulary to discuss these matters. The problem is the enframing of our worldview, and to get out of it we have to have a language that allows us to speak about it. We have to understand which semantics have formed us and whether they fit our experiences. If our semantics do not fit our experiences, we have to find new terms – that do fit. We are trapped in a world that has been created upon a fundamental injustice. It has consumed our perception like a cancer. We have created insanity, our identities are insane. Out of this mental disease an ill body is formed, because Europe is unable to digest others into itself. Naturally, when a people comes to a new region, it is absorbed into that region. Europe has a sickness, because it does not want to absorb the other, it cannot digest them, it cannot accept them as part of itself. If Europe has to be white, the Black can never be a European and many Europeans will never be white enough. The Nazi Lebensborn breeding program was a perverse answer to such a conundrum, the problem is embedded in the thinking. That is the mental illness we suffer from.

Islamische Zeitung: We like to say that in Islam there is no racism. What does Islam give us that can heal us from this illness?

Alexander Carberry: We have to recognise our kufr – obfuscating reality – first. The way in which we understand the world is kufr. Iman – trust and acceptance of reality – and kufr are always present in the same person. We are Muslim, because our iman should be stronger than our kufr. But still it is there. We have lost this understanding of the creation, because we have lost the Islamic Cosmology. Our worldview is based on insanity, on illness. Islam gives us a way, to step out of the illness, to journey towards health. From kufr to iman. We have to create the capacity to see who is in front of us and have adab – wisdom manners – with them. In the manner that Allah has commanded us to, and within the implications of His command. Allah says that He has made us into peoples and tribes, so that we may recognise each other. And the prophet, may Allah bless him and give him peace, taught us that no Arab is superior to a Non-Arab and that no White has superiority over a Black, and vice versa. We accept it as a basis of our Deen, but we do not want to see our own kufr when we still act upon other principles.

Tasawwuf allows us to tackle our kufr and to journey towards an identity that was given to us by Allah and His messenger, Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him. This will not erase racism for it has become fundamental to our identities, but it gives us the opportunity deal with it in a real manner, towards the emergence of a new way of being, which enables the old to fall away. That journey is in no way easy or esoteric. It is a real, tiring and often enormously hard battle with ourselves.

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