Monday, August 24, 2020


19th-century engraving depicting an Arab slave-trading caravan transporting black African slaves across the Sahara. (Wikipedia)

In June, Yasmine El Geressi wrote an article in Majalla that is the best I’ve seen in describing Arab racism against Black people, a topic that Western “anti-racists” studiously ignore.


Anti-blackness is deeply embedded within Arab countries and takes on many forms – from the horrific human trafficking of African migrants in Libya, to the expansion of colourism through the promotion of white beauty standards, to the colloquial use of the Arabic word for "slave", to daily microaggression. All this plays out against a backdrop of misguided and distasteful media messaging echoed within the Arab world where blackface is commonly used to wring cheap laughs from demeaning stereotypes and prejudices. Much too often, the conversation on anti-black racism has been met with denial and defensiveness. This culture of silence is symptomatic of a lack of awareness of the charged and complicated history of slavery, racism and the consequences of racial bigotry.

Arab social media users voiced their support for Black Americans and weighed in on the brutal crackdown on protesters in the US. Among them was Palestinian actress and film director Maryam Abu Khaled with a social media following of more than 200,000 people who slammed racism in the Arab world in a recent video posted on Instagram. In the video which quickly went viral, Abu Khaled, a black woman from Jenin, shared stories of everyday casual racism among Arabs, including hearing parents tell their children not to play in the sun for too long, otherwise they will "get sunburnt and start looking like Maryam”.

While news stories emerge almost daily in the US about police being called over black Americans doing nothing more than being black, Afifa Latifi, a Tunisian doctoral student in Africana Studies at Cornell University and co-founder of the Voices for Tunisian Black Women collective, told Majalla that although black people do not face the same amount of gratuitous violence against them in the Arab world, that does not mean that their experiences are better. “Beyond the microaggressions and virtual hate speech, there are various instances of violence that prove that we're not in a better off position,” she said.

“When you think of the predicament of black refugees, black migrant workers and the Kafala system as an example, the various incidents of police brutality in countries like Morocco, the multiple crimes committed against West African students in Tunisia and slavery in Mauritania which was only criminalized in 2007, it is hard to see a difference in experiences.”

“I find this unchecked verbal and non-verbal violence, impoverishment and marginalization of black people in the region, reminiscent of the social death that black Americans experience,” Ltifi said.

There are strictly enforced beauty standards in Arab countries that still favour fairer skin and straighter hair at the expense of diversity. One quick flick through a few Arabic TV channels can confirm that. These aesthetic standards translate into dangerous practices such as skin bleaching. In 2018, women in Egypt even began pouring chlorine in a bath to try to jumpstart the lightening process in a temporarily popular trend.

Most importantly, these aesthetic practices lay the foundation for an internalised social hierarchy rooted in colourism - the prejudice based on skin tone, usually with a marked preference for lighter-skinned people - and anti-Blackness which accepts dark-skinned people as being held to a lower standard.

The trauma caused by colourism is evident when it comes to marriage. “If one partner wants to bring a dark-skinned partner, there will be questions raised by the family. This is not unusual and it’s not limited to particular religious groups or particular minorities. It seems to be across the board. It’s not unusual in Morocco for an Amazigh to refuse the marriage of a dark-skinned African,” Dr Ali explains.

The irony here is disturbing. In a world where Muslims and Arabs have long been subjected to racism, too many Arabs have failed to consider how they treat minorities. “I see brown-skinned Arabs discriminate against dark-skinned Africans and I’ve actually said to them, if you were in Europe, your brown skin would be discriminated against. The inability to feel empathy has a lot to do with not having to experience what dark-skinned Africans or local Egyptians go through,” Dr Ali said.

This is for two reasons. One is that they don’t want to appear to look anti-Arab. But the main reason is that they want to make the Western world look uniquely racist and use the race issue as a means to gain political power.

They don’t really care about Black people because if they did, they would look at the issue of race worldwide and within their own political circles, not just against their political opponents.

Global anti-racism protests have sparked calls for Arab governments to abolish a system of sponsorship for migrant workers.  About 23 million migrants, mostly from poor African and Asian countries, work in the Arab world under a system known as kafala that generally binds them to one employer, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.

Labour rights campaigners in the region said those expressing support for protesters calling for an end to racism in the United States and elsewhere should look closer to home, where foreign workers faced exploitation and abuse under kafala.  “These issues are very much systemic and ingrained in racist rhetoric and perceptions toward other nationalities in our own countries,” Salma Houerbi, a researcher at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre advocacy group, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The anti-Kafala initiatives are increasingly garnering attention in Lebanon where the suicide last month of a maid from the Philippines highlighted the struggles of migrant women in the country where migrant domestic workers are dying at a rate of two per week.

Joey Ayoub, an independent Lebanese activist campaigning to abolish kafala, told Reuters that the system amounted to legitimised racism. “If we want to speak of black lives matter, we have to talk about the actual black lives that do not matter in Lebanon,” he said, referring to the protests that have roiled the United States for the past two weeks. “Even if the kafala system is abolished tomorrow, racism would still exist, but it at least would allow people who are themselves victims of racism much more say and autonomy in what they can do about it.”

While black slavery can seem like a peculiarly American institution, it is also a painful fact of history in the Middle East where countless East Africans were sold as slaves. It was primarily women and girls who were abducted into the Arabian slave trade, to then be turned into concubines. Historically, the absence of laws enshrining racial segregation (like those that existed in the US until the 20th century) enhances this sense of superiority that propagates the extraordinary wall of silence around this history across the region.

This culture of silence has helped to avoid challenging questions regarding the enduring legacies of slavery and anti-black racism in Arab societies that continue to affect social forms of life, and according to Professor Powell, has led to a popular outright denial that racist attitudes against black people exist within Arab societies.  “My experience in the Arab world is that most people do not know the historical meanings behind the word “abeed” (slave), or they relegate the idea of racism to the United States, without seeing how it can exist amongst themselves, in their own countries,” she said.

There are a few reasons that Western “anti-racists” don’t ant to discuss Arab racism.

One is that they do not want to be accused of being anti-Arab.

They want to childishly divide the world into oppressors and oppressed, and therefore the “oppressed” Arabs get a pass on their own racism but the “oppressor” Jews are considered the worst racists of all.

But the main reason is that they don’t really care about racism at all, but in being able to hurl the epithet “racist” against their political enemies. Too many are addicted to the high of being self-righteous arbiters of morality against those they hate, and the hate that comes with the “woke”  calling their opponents racists is the same as that of racists using racial slurs themselves.  (An extreme example from yesterday had Jemele Hill saying that US racism was comparable to Nazi Germany – a manifestly stupid statement that fits well in the culture where the biggest insults get the most adulation.)

The people who suffer most from this Leftist self-righteousness are the actual victims of racism in the non-Western world, where in some places slavery still exists. Some 100 domestic workers die in Lebanon alone each year, many of them black, from suicide or from attempting to escape their abusive employers.


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