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By Yassir Karooka
Anti-black racism remains prevalent in the world today. Many societies in the West that have a history of racism have managed to make noteworthy progress in combating racism and racial discrimination, at least by legal means if not by being able to sway the hearts and minds of people en masse. The progress these countries have made over the last 50 years would have never been possible if not for the fact that people admitted that racism even existed in their society.
Societies in the Arab world today, however, respond to accusations of anti-black racism with utter denial. Rather than encouraging public and academic debates about the issue or engaging foreigners about the issue of racism worldwide, many Arabs treat the subject as taboo. This denial and unwarranted oversensitivity make the Arab region an imperative battleground in the global struggle against racism.
The denial of anti-black racism and discrimination by the Arab world stems partially from the complex relationship Arab societies have with Islam, a religion they take much pride in, and one that remains firmly anti-racist. Denying that racism exists in the Arab world makes it difficult to see the consequences it has on victims and tackle the problem productively.
There is a popular but problematic tendency to refer to the Arab slave trade and the Darfur crisis in Sudan as conclusive evidence of Arab anti-black racism. Such a viewpoint oversimplifies complex historical dynamics and isn’t necessarily constructive in the fight against racism.
The Arab slave trade is markedly different from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Over the course of the Arab world’s history, Arabs have enslaved Berbers, Moors, Greeks and Sicilians in addition to Africans. The racial hierarchy that perceives black skin as a mark of inferiority is largely a product of 15th century European imperialism, during which time the slave trade disproportionately focused on Africa. In societies prior to the 15th century, black skin was not given such a connotation.
The dominance of the slavery narrative from the 15th century onward continues to shape our present understanding of race and culture, explaining why the racial dimensions of the Darfur conflict have overshadowed some of the other equally important aspects and causes of the conflict.
The binary lens linked to the slavery narrative through which the West often understands race and culture has also made it difficult to think of Africans as being anything besides black and dark-skinned. In the case of Darfur, when light-skinned Africans who spoke Arabic killed Africans with darker skin who also spoke Arabic, Western media tended to see the conflict as being between Arabs and black Africans, not as a conflict between Africans or between Arabs.
Arguably the most dangerous and pressing racial issue in the Arab world today is not the existence of anti-black racism but rather the denial of it existing at all or it being worthy of attention. Racism manifests itself in many different forms; those who deny its existence in society will have a hard time arguing their case as a result. Arabs should accept the fact that racism continues to be a shameful reality of our current world and that their societies are not exempt from it.
Despite this culture of denial, a few courageous Arab voices have spoken out about anti-black racism in the Arab region. Egyptian writer Mona El Tawahy wrote on her blog, “We are a racist people in Egypt and we are in deep denial about it.” El Tawahy’s post was in response to an incident she witnessed on a Cairo rail car, where a Southern Sudanese woman was being taunted and assaulted by an Egyptian woman.
There have been even more dramatic incidents of anti-black racism in Egypt that barely received attention in Arabic media. In December 2005, Egyptian police dismantling a temporary Sudanese refugee camp in central Cairo beat 28 refugees to death, including women and children. El Tawahy wrote that it was undoubtedly racism that motivated such inhumane behavior.
Susan Abulhawa, a prominent Palestinian author and best-selling novelist, has also written about the need to confront anti-black racism in the Arab world. She said that the suicide of Alem Dechasa, a migrant Ethiopian working in Lebanon, was a result of anti-black racism in the region. Dechasa, who came to Lebanon in 2012 to work as a maid, hanged herself after being severely beaten by a Lebanese man linked to her employment agency.
Abulhawa and El Tawahy are certainly unique in calling for Arabs to confront anti-black racism. Both writers grew up in the West and have lived in the United States where, as minorities themselves, they developed a consciousness of race and sympathy towards their fellow minorities. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about many Arabs who move to the West, Abulhawa has said, as many embrace some of the racist attitudes of the power structure even after moving to their new homes.
Arabs’ denial of anti-black racism is especially ironic considering that Islamic doctrine is deeply anti-racist. Arab societies are characteristically religious and Islam is a source of immense pride for the majority of Arabs.
Fearing that Arabs would use the Qu’ran to tout racial superiority, the Prophet Mohammed is said to have remarked that “Arabic was not the father or mother of any of you,” meaning that to be Arab is to fall into a cultural and linguistic category as opposed to an ethnic and racial one.
This understanding of Arab identity is also backed up by the fact that Arabs have historically come from different races and ethnic groups. Between the Arabs of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa there has always existed a colorful racial and ethnic diversity that predates Islamic conquests, expansion and “Arabization” of other cultures.
Many of the most prominent and early figures in Islamic history have come from Africa and outside of the Arabian Peninsula, which is wrongly assumed to be the only ancestral home of Arabs. Al-Bukhari, from Persia, compiled the most authoritative text in Islam after the Qu’ran, and Bilal from Ethiopia was one of the most beloved companions of Prophet Mohammed. The Ethiopian King Ashama protected the first followers of the Prophet Mohammed, which contributed significantly to the preservation and flourishing of Islam at a time when the religion was being heavily persecuted in Mecca.
Many Muslims, who compose the majority of the Arab world’s population, admit to the existence of anti-black racial prejudice. But while many say racism exists, there is also a tendency to downplay its effects on fellow Muslims from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Chad, Eritrea, Mauritania, Nigeria and Mali, saying that these people are all Muslims and are thus treated equally.
The fact that Islamic doctrine is anti-racist does not automatically translate to Muslims being anti-racist as well. Muslim Arabs, like those following any religion, can forget that there is sometimes a great divide between the teachings of a religion and the behavior of its followers.
Political Islam has historically been suspicious of Pan-Arabism and its goal to include all Arab countries’ cultures into a single identity, accusing it of being a racist ideology. Pan-Arabism has often presented Arab identity as an ethnic one to heighten feelings of belonging and create the sense that there is a common destiny between Arabs.
This conception of the Pan-Arab identity is at great odds with the Islamic position that perceives Arab identity as merely a cultural and linguistic identity. Therefore, Pan-Arabism, which was an especially popular idea among Arabs in the 1960s, could be at least partially responsible for the conflation of culture and race in the Arab world today and the resulting negative racial attitudes towards many minorities in the Arab world.
The denial of anti-black racism and prejudice in Arab countries is responsible for the lack of implementation and enforcement of policies that would discourage it. Victims in the Gulf region are typically migrant workers from Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia who have had to endure exploitation as well as difficult and unhealthy working conditions.
In the aftermath of the Libyan revolution, many Sub-Saharan Africans in Libya were slaughtered, accused of being mercenaries for the former Gadhafi regime. While Gadhafi might have hired mercenaries from Sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of Africans in Libya are migrant workers. Arab leaders in numerous countries refused to protest injustices towards Sub-Saharan Africans. African leaders also unwilling to do so, fearing the loss of financial aid and political benefits from Arab countries, are equally guilty for burying their heads in the sand and failing to stand up for their own people.
The existence of racial prejudice in the Arab world alone does not necessarily make Arab societies racist. The theme of racism is very complex and has a much deeper history than that we typically consider. However, the courage to confront racism and realizing the serious consequence of denying it is what truly distinguishes allies from accomplices in the ongoing global struggle against racism.
Yassir Karooka (@YassirKAROOKA) is an Atlantic Post contributor based in Cordoba, Argentina.