An Open Letter To The Arab World: Please Stop the Racial Animosity Toward Blacks.
by Ahmed Sule, CFA
As salaam alaikum,
I don’t believe that all Arabs are racists, neither do I believe that most Arabs hate Black, however, prevailing evidence suggests that in its interaction with the Black world, the Arab world has a race problem.
On 6th December 2017, President Donald Trump announced that the US would officially recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Opposition to Trump’s announcement within the global community in general and in the Arab world, in particular, was immediate. Within 24 hours of the speech, effigies of Donald Trump and the American flag were burnt in a number of Arab cities, Hamas called for a new uprising, the Saudi monarchy said the decision was “unjustified and irresponsible”, and the Arab League said it was a dangerous measure that would have repercussions across the region. From Jordan to Turkey to Gaza, protesters went to the street to express their anger at Trump’s decision.
Three weeks before Trump’s speech, a CNN investigation revealed that 400,000 African immigrants were held captive in Libya and a sizeable number of them were auctioned as slaves for $400. These black migrants were detained in cages and subjected to the most harrowing physical and mental abuse. The investigation sparked outrage around the world, however, in contrast to the response to Trumps earlier announcement about Jerusalem, the Arab world took the path of least resistance by ignoring these crimes against humanity meted on the immigrants.
The Black and Arab world have a shared history. We have been allies in the struggle against Western imperialism joining ranks when we were oppressed by our common colonial overlords. Our Kwame Nkrumah along with your Gamal Nasser were founding fathers of the Non-Aligned Movement, which was set up to oppose Western racism, imperialism and colonialism. During our liberation struggle for independence, you supported us both militarily and financially. We counted on your support during our agitation against the Apartheid regime in South Africa and many African countries have been a pillar of support for your causes. When Malcolm X, the African American civil rights activist faced persecution from White America (and from some of his Black brothers), he was welcomed with open arms in Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Algeria. During Algeria’s war of independence against France, Frantz Fanon, the Martiniquais psychiatrist supported Algeria and joined the Algerian National Liberation Front. You practice the same religion as hundreds of millions of people in the Black world.
There has also been a long association of bilateral trade between Black countries and Arab countries which is valued at billions of dollars. At the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) summits, countries like Nigeria, Gabon and Angola align with countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE to stabilise the oil market.
But this shared history shouldn’t be used as an excuse to gloss over the continuous dehumanisation of Blacks residing in your land. The prevailing narrative has been that the Black and Arab world are victims of racism, but the reality is more nuanced. Our interaction with you has been a bittersweet experience which contains a mixture of the good, the bad, the ugly and the shameful. For too long we have focused on the good and refrained from discussing the bad and the shameful.
In recent years, the relationship between the Black and Arab world has morphed from a symbiotic relationship to a parasitic relationship where we bend backwards to support your causes only to get eaten in the process. When you are discriminated against because of your religion, our activists and intellectuals rally to your side. On the Palestine question, Blacks have pitched their tents by your corner. When the United Nation proposed a resolution condemning US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the African Union supported the resolution. In May 2017, dozens of South African anti-apartheid figures including newly elected ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa went on hunger strike to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians in Israel prisons.
At best, we are treated as second-class citizens and at worst, we are treated as animals. You regard the whites that come into your space as human beings, but you stripe us of our humanity, except when we are wearing shorts and scoring goals for your football teams. Even though it’s been a couple of centuries since your fore-bearers kidnapped our ancestors and took them as slaves, you still view us as slaves.
When we find ourselves in your landscape, the hair on the back of our necks stands as we feel the hostility coming from the intense gaze of our Arab brethren’s. Our women are disrespected and never given the recognition accorded other women including the white blond blue eyed woman living within your midst. Why can’t our women be part of the respected members of the community rather than looked upon as dogs and prostitutes? Why can’t they have the freedom to walk along your streets without having their hands touched, their hair pulled and called “samara”? Or is this ill-treatment of our sisters, a legacy of the Arab Slave Trade era when Black women were taken from the interior parts of Africa to work as sex slaves in the Middle East?
Instead of calling us the respectful name of Sayyid or Sayyida, you use derogatory names to get our attention. When we find ourselves in Algeria you call us “kahlusha”; when we find ourselves in Sudan, you call us “haiwanin” , when we find ourselves in Egypt you call us “chocolata”; when we find ourselves in Yemen, you call us “al-akhdam.” From Algeria through to Yemen, you have turned the word “abeed” into a homograph which you have used to make the word “Black" and "slave" indistinguishable.
Name calling is only the tip of the iceberg. Even though we live in the 21 century, you still use 7th-century methods to dehumanise us. You enslave some of us, you maim some of us and you kill some of us. When you come to our land to work, we allow you to live normal lives, but when we along with our Asian brethren’s come to work in your land, you use the repressive Kafala system to seize our passports, pay us peanuts and physically abuse us. Sudan has become the Ground Zero of Arab hostility towards Blacks. Since the turn of the century, hundreds of thousands of our Black Sudanese brothers and sisters have been either killed or abducted by the Janjaweed’s. Millions of us have been rendered homeless. A number of us have fled from the repression in Sudan only to find ourselves tortured and sold as slaves in Libya. During the 2011 Libyan civil war, many of us were burnt or lynched. As at the time of writing this letter, a sizeable amount of the Black population living in Mauritania remain enslaved.
A wise man by the name of Haile Selassie once said, "Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most that has made it possible for evil to triumph." The racial hatred toward Blacks has continued unabated partly because Arab intellectuals, activists and politicians have looked the other way. When clamouring against Western hegemony, racism and Islamophobia we hear your voices, but when we are brutalised and killed by your kinsmen all we hear is your deafening silence.
Where do we go from here? All hope is not lost and I believe that Blacks will one day be recognised as human beings in your region. The first step in making this a reality is to acknowledge that there is a race problem in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Arab kings, intellectuals, celebrities, activists and politicians should come out to acknowledge and condemn Arab hostility towards Blacks.
Apart from acknowledging Arab racism, MENA nations should consider implementing a public service announcement (PSA) drive with the objective of raising awareness about racism and changing attitudes. To make it effective, both the print and broadcast media should be used to channel the message. The PSA message should be clear: Racism is immoral, racism must stop and there would be consequences for racial violence. The PSA should include a call to action for a change in thinking, a change in the relationship and a change in attitude towards Blacks. If feasible, Arab countries could consider implementing the PSA on a Pan Arab basis (i.e. using the same PSA throughout the region). For our North African brethren, instead of seeing your Black continental brothers and sisters as Sub-human sub-Africans, you should view them as your human Pan-African brethren.
To signal its intention to expunge the scar of racism, regional bodies such as the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council should issue a joint communique strongly condemning racially motivated violence against blacks and reassuring those living in the Middle East that they can live in the region without fear or intimidation. Furthermore, Arab governments should stop paying lip service to racism. Racially motivated acts against Blacks should not only be condemned, it should be criminalised and perpetrators punished.
The objective of this letter is not to shame you, but to appeal to your conscience. I trust that you will read what I have written with an open mind, reflect on the contents and make the necessary changes so that we can live in harmony. Finally, let’s heed the words of Martin Luther King, "We must all learn to live together as brothers - or we will all perish together as fools. This is the great issue facing us today. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone. We are tied together.”