Arab Racism Against Black Africans

Moses Ebe Ochonu

In a response to charges of Arab racist attitudes towards Africans and their causes posted on the Professor Toyin Falola-moderated USA/Africa dialogue list, Professor Iliya Harik, a Lebanese who is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Indiana University, posted the following response, which I have edited for length and relevance without distorting its essence or context:

"I wish I could reassure everyone on the USA/Africa Dialogue forum that there are no racists in Arab countries any more than in any other part of the world. In general, antipathies in the Arab world tend to be cultural more than racial and I can say that racism is less in evidence there than in other countries of the world. I cannot agree….. that Arabs are anti-African on a

racial basis. They are not anti-African on any basis. For one thing, the largest ethnic component of the Arab world is African. Egypt, which is the most populous Arab country, is mixed of different races with a noticeably black African strain. I never noticed any markedly racial awareness or sense of difference associated with color there. The Sudan and Chad are mostly Arabic speaking, yet they are totally black African. Forget about what you hear and read in the media here that Arabs are killing Africans in Darfur. The people in Khartoum are no

less black African than those in Darfur, as many of you well know. It is just that the government in Khartoum is oppressive in a way that affects all the population, but is mostly felt now in an ugly way in Darfur because the Darfurians dared stand up and speak."…. Let me add that the populations of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are predominantly Arabic-speaking Berber, an African race. You will find that there is a mixture of eastern Arabs and black Africans too. Besides, Arabs and sub-Saharan Africans have since independence been together in the Non-Aligned Movement (that was once dominated by Tito, Nkrumah, Sukarno, Toure, Nasser, Keita and others) and its derivations."

Professor Iliya Harik's piece is a commendable and bold attempt by an Arab scholar to openly discuss the sensitive issue of Africa-Arab relations. There is need for an open, unfettered dialogue between Africans and Arabs on the fractured state of relations between the two peoples.

Professor Harik's write-up is however trapped in the language of denial and obfuscation that has become a key defining feature of Arab responses to charges of racism against blacks. His response sounds eerily familiar; I have heard many such feeble defenses of Arab racism against blacks--defenses which merely deracialize the racism and/or emphasize the African roots of North African Arabs. One would normally excuse such defensive posturing were it not for its diversionary implications for understanding the history of Afro-Arab relations--a history which preceded Africa's relations with the West.

Professor Harik's rendering of the crisis in Darfur is offensive to blacks in that it is not only an intolerable simplification and trivialization of a racist genocide being systematically carried out by the Arabized government in Khartoum but also an inexplicable attempt to dilute the fact that race, even if it is mediated by culture, is at the heart of the crisis in Darfur.

Harik claims that Arabs are not "anti-African on any basis." But this is a straw man. You'll be hard pressed to find black Africans who would make such a sweeping characterization. The allegation, which Harik does not directly respond to, is that there is a disturbing pattern of anti-African racism in many Arab countries, and that this attitude translates to a widespread Arab indifference to African struggles and sensibilities at a time when black African leaders like Mbeki and Obasanjo are bending over backwards to accommodate and protect the interests of Arab North African nations. Many people, in the interest of Afro-Arab political alliances and in order not to alienate our North African brothers, do not want this issue discussed publicly. But it should. This is why Harik must be commended for making his post, as disappointing as its contents are.

It is true that the population of most North African countries is mixed, but it is not a secret that in these countries there is a gradation of human valuation that corresponds directly to skin color, with the most privileged status being accorded those perceived rightly or wrongly as being of "pure" Arab stock while those with the darkest skin and curliest hair are located on the lowest rung of the social hierarchy.

In fact, Arab racism is deeply embedded in the history of North Africa itself and in the Arabic language. The Arab conquest of North Africa and the subsequent conversion and marginalization of the original Berbers and Moors of North Africa and parts of the Sahel were undergirded by a racist ethos. Till this day, the descendants of the dark-skinned Moors, the Berbers, and other non-Arab peoples are confined to the fringes of North African and North-west African society--in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, etc. The plight of the descendants of blacks (some of whose inhabitation of the Maghrib predated the Arab conquest of the 9th century and others who came to North Africa as slaves, captives, and free migrants) is worse than that of the Berbers. In Morocco, Tunisia, and throughout much of the Arab world, the only ticket to social visibility for blacks is soccer. Becoming a soccer star gives a black person access to coveted corridors of society and enables them to "marry up", racially speaking. This is a sad commentary on the state of race relations in any society. So, while Harik is right that a uniquely complex racial taxonomy is at work in much of the Arab world, this reality hardly detracts from the presence of an unspoken, normalized, and stealthily institutionalized racism which casts black people as the dregs of society who must prove themselves worthy of social recognition and privileges.

Arab racism is so deep it is inscribed in the fundamental semantic structure of the Arabic language. Till this day, the generic word or for a black person is the preface "abd," which translates as "slave," as in "Abd"-allah (slave or servant of God). This linguistic norm, among many other racially-charged ones, is an expressive constant which holds true for the entire Arab-speaking world regardless of dialect and orthography.

The case of the Sudan is perhaps the most vivid, poignant, and irrefutable example of Arab racism against black Africans. Let it be noted that until the Janjaweed and their racist and murderous Sudanese government backers gave a bad name to the art of hating, marginalizing, and murdering blacks, Arabs never quite saw the raiding of black villages for slaves and cattle, especially in Southern and Western Sudan, as a crime. The racism which propels these practices was increasingly authorized (and rationalized) by the discourse of the distinction, within Islam, between dar-al Islam (the abode of Islam) and dar-al-harb (the abode of war and unbelief). For many Arabs, the historical description of blacks as slaves and servile presences in the Arab world is hard to unlearn. Descriptive categories etched in received grand-narratives and myths can only be dismantled through a self-conscious (and self-critical) denunciation of prejudices constructed in a historical time and place as a function of power.

Arabs still generally regard the Darfur genocide as a public relations disaster rather than as a barbaric racist war against black people. We have yet to hear unequivocal condemnation of the Sudanese government's racist practices from Arab states. To do that would be hypocritical because some of these states themselves condone the racist practices of mavericks or practice anti-black racism in their own official policies. For instance, black African immigrants are routinely killed, maimed, and their houses and properties destroyed in Ghadaffi's Libya--- the same Ghadaffi who wants to be the leader of a politically united African super-state. Africans have become jaded about Ghadaffi's feeble condemnations of anti-black riots in his country and the ad-hoc and sterile apologies he offers after each tragic episode.

Professor Harik is only half right about the Arab-speaking Northern Sudanese. They are a dark-skinned people, although most of them are of mixed Arab and African ancestry. But these folks, by virtue of the aggressive Arab penetration of the Sudan (from the 13th century), a politically-implicated process of strategic intermarriages, and the adoption of the Arabic language and many aspects of Arab and Bedoiun culture, no longer perceive themselves as blacks, or African in any functional way. Indeed, they have long become Arabized. So deep is this new sense of the Northern Sudanese self that the region's meta-narrative of origin and social evolution bears the imprint of an Arab antiquity more than it does that of African origins. This is the construction of racial and social memory par excellence. While Harik and I, as historically conscious people, may recognize them only as cultural and linguistic Arabs, the Northern Sudanese people and their ideologues and rulers have since, for good or ill, racialized their identity and their distinction from the people of Darfur (Western Sudan).

It is not for me to say if it is wrong or right to conflate Arabization with Arab racial consciousness, which is what the Northern Sudanese people seem to have done. What I do know is that in both its practical expression and its tragic consequences, the attitude of the Arabized Northern Sudanese people and their government towards Darfur is racist, and that the racist script unfolding in that part of Africa is sustained by an undying adherence to historical claims of Arab superiority over black Africans.

So, to conclude, I would say that Africa-Arab political solidarity and alliances have survived not because of the absence of Arab racism towards black Africans--as Harik seems to suggest--but in spite of its painful existence. Nkrumah, Toure, Mbeki, Obasanjo, and other black African leaders were/are aware of this racism but are/were motivated by avowedly higher ideals and goals in their interaction with North Africa and the entire Arab world. This pursuit of South-South alliance and solidarity has cost Africa dearly in human and material terms. Sub-Saharan Africa has acquiesced in the lubrication of this relationship with the blood of black Africans, the latest of such sacrifices being Darfur, where Sub-Saharan African leaders have, to the disgust of their countrymen, refrained from outright condemnation of the Darfur debacle as a racist genocide directed at black Africans. The crucial question is: what price has the Arab world paid and what sacrifices and concessions has it made in the service of this alliance? My personal opinion is that we are approaching a tipping point as Arab disrespect for black Africans and their interests heightens. The emotional blackmail of accusing black Africans of racism against Arab North Africa, which is often subtly deployed by our North African AU members to obscure the racist treatment of blacks in the Arab world, is no longer tenable.

Beyond the domain of group relations, there is a preponderance of individual anecdotal evidence to support the notion of a pattern of Arab racist attitudes towards blacks. A Nigerian friend of mine (a Muslim) who now lives in London was appalled at the racist treatment that he and other black Africans received when he traveled to Egypt a few years ago. The irony is that he was in Egypt as part of the Nigerian contingent to an "African" trade fair hosted by Egypt.

So instead of arguing that the populations of the Sudan and North Africans have remote African ancestry, which we all know they do, we should ask why and how people who are, by their own (convenient?) admission, of mixed stock and who themselves are victims of white racism, could become so socialized into an Arab racial consciousness as to begin to perceive blacks as their inferiors.

Moses Ochonu, a US based Academic can be reached at ebe@nigeriavillagesquare.com