Racism: Arab-Black African Relations in North Africa

Dear Readers,

By now I am sure you are aware of my position on racism. In previous posts I have rallied against the Israeli state and certain segments of Israeli civil society for institutionalizing racism as a form of power over Palestinians and as a political mechanism to control national political discourse. I also have written and spoken about the scourge and legacy of colonial racism. My last post highlighted the twin forms of discrimination faced by Australian man Hussein Mumin who was both homeless and Black. I remember only too vividly how Andrew Fraser was able to gain momentary notoriety and fame (amongst a small but vocal segment of the population) for his obscene references to Black Africans- especially the Sudanese- as inferior humans, an argument he based on long discredited scientific evidence popular with Hitler and a central part of Nazi and Neo-Nazi propaganda. Before the Nazi’s, Fraser’s “science” was used by pro-slavery groups in the United States in the nineteenth century. Government silence on the issue was disquieting but even more troubling was the defence of Fraser’s right to free speech, by none other than the Minister for Education at the time, Dr Brendan Nelson. His colleague, former Federal Minister for Immigration in the last Howard government, Kevin Andrews, did not go quite as far as Fraser in his demonization of the Sudanese communities in Australia in 2007,  but skirted the edge of overt racism with his comments. The 2005 Cronulla riots, the recent bombings of Asian properties in WA and this weeks news on the anti-Semitic facebook scandal demonstrate the existence of racist attitudes in contemporary Australia. Racism remains a major issue for contemporary societies and the election of Barak Obama, while promising , should not deflect us from the reality of the continuing problems associated with racism throughout the world.

But in this post I want to focus not on Australia but on the recent racist trends in the North African context. Recently I have become more aware of the increasing amount of racism in Egypt (racism in Sudan and Libya has been so well documented that it is not so new to me ). So when I came across an article titled “The Arab World’s Dirty Little Secret”  by Mona Eltahawy (http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/12/10/opinion/edeltahawy.php) in the International Herald Tribune on exactly this topic early this week I wasn’t all that surprised, even if I have always seen Egypt to be a society better equipped to deal with difference. Mona Eltahawy has written angrily about the problem of racism in her beloved Egypt and as the title of the article suggests she also comments on the culture of denial of racism that has pervaded the Arab world.  The sad truth is that the tolerance that had characterized the Middle East and North Africa during the Ottoman era is making way for more openly racist rhetoric and racism against Black Africans creeping into the political discourse and into day-to-day social relations across the region. Egypt’s increasing levels of intolerance towards immigrants from the south is evidence to me that the traditions of the past have changed, and not for the better.

In Egypt’s North African neighbours, at least since the 1970s the levels of antagonism and state legitimated racism has been on the increase. Libya’s Qaddafi made some spectacular statements in the 1970s and 1980s about the superiority of Arabs over Blacks reminiscent of some of the worst racism directed against Africans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His government was responsible for creating the Arab Legions in the 1970s with the aim of extending Libyan-Arab dominance into central Africa. In more recent times, Qaddafi seems to have shifted his optic from race to religion which means that more Black African Muslims fall within his conceptualisation of what is an acceptable identity. But I would not go as far as to say that Gaddafi is now colour-blind as this is more a shift in political strategy than it is of ideology. The Sudanese case of racism continues to be a very disturbing one and there is little doubt that the colonial state in Sudan institutionalised racism against Africans a a central tenet of Sudanese politics so deeply that it continued to resonate after independence and even after the signing of the north-south peace agreement in 2005. The tragedy of Darfur is not only about race but cannot be said to be above racism either. The power struggle within the ruling part in the late 1990s was definitely about who would take power in Sudan. But the way the different factions identified their interests during the struggle for power in the late 1990s was deeply rooted in the politics of who decides Arab and non -Arab identities and the rights each racial group could expect from the state . Omar al-Bashir’s Arab power base proved stronger than his non-Arab opponents which is now apparent from the evidence of the destruction of non-Arab communities in Darfur.

Egyptian racism towards Africans is harder for me to explain than the racism in Sudan and Libya because the colonial legacy of racism is not as evident in the Egyptian case and there is no apparent political struggle in Egypt over definitions of who is a legitimate Egyptian and who is not, at least not in the same Arab-African framework that dominates Sudanese politics.  While the situation in Egypt is different from those in the Sudan and both are different again from Libya, the answer to the increasing levels of racism in all North African contexts are  located in the formation of the modern nation-state, the discourse of Egyptian-ness (or Libyan-ness and Sudan-ness), and the social relations engendered by the particular forms of capitalism that have arisen in each of those states.Unlike some critics of the Arabs, namely the ideologically driven Bernard Lewis, I do not view racism as historically stable and continuous, but contemporary racism in the Middle East and elsewhere as being of recent origins, partly imported during the colonial period and partly a result of the imposition of an alien form of politics into the region with the construction of modern nation-states in Africa and the Middle East.

The article by Mona Eltahawy clearly shows there is a degree of racism in Egypt that needs to be explained, but I assume, as with Sudan and Libya, the racism in Egypt is symbolic of the crisis of Egyptian nationalism and the dysfunctional nature of a largely self-serving Egyptian state. The one redeeming feature that comes out from the article is that while there are racists in Egypt, and elsewhere in North Africa, there are also many people like Mona Eltahawy who detest racism and are brave enough to take a public stand on the issue. Racism is a form of politics and the danger in any society is that racism can become embedded in the practices and of the state and society if left unchallenged. This has already happened in Sudan which now can only overcome racism by reinventing the Sudanese nation and reconfiguring the contours of the Sudanese state. The danger for Egypt is that without the crucial intervention in the politics of racism by state and civil leaders, which is what Mona Eltahawy calls for in her article, Egypt will also become a racialized society and a more violent one as well. Hopefully, the racism in Egypt can be overcome because people like Mona Eltahawy will speak out and through their actions and words reverse the troubling racist trend infiltrating Arab society. Let’s hope.

Noah Bassil

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