Rebecca Tinsley: The Great Taboo: Arab Racism

With the liberation of Libya come less happy reports from Amnesty and Physicians for Human Rights of rebels slaughtering scores of black Africans, believing they were all pro-Gaddafi mercenaries. While the dictator did hire some fighters from sub-Saharan Africa, the vast majority of black Africans in Libya are entirely innocent immigrants, one million of whom are guest workers.
According to a Cairo-based think tank, many of the Sudanese being targeted by Libyans are refugees escaping the ethnic cleansing of black Africans in Darfur and the South Kordofan region of Sudan. They have escaped one form of Arab racism, only to find another.
None of this has happened in a vacuum: in 2000 there were deadly anti-immigrant riots in Libya. Nor is there anything unusual about Libyan attitudes: Arab racism toward black Africans is commonplace, even if it remains a taboo subject. For the Nobel Prize winning novelist Wole Soyinka, the unwillingness to confront Arab racism is rooted in the role of Arabs in the slave trade. “Arabs and Islam are guilty of the cultural and spiritual savaging of the Continent,” he writes.
The Ethiopian academic Mekuria Bulcha estimates that Arab traders sold 17 million Africans to the Middle East and Asia between the sixth and twentieth centuries. Yet, there is an almost total reluctance on the part of Arab intellectuals to examine their central role in slavery, past or present.
According to Naiwu Osahon, of the Pan Africa Movement, “Africans are treated like the scum of the earth” throughout the Arab world. He claims that the Arab policy has been “elimination, displacement, separation, marginalization and suppression” of black Africans since the 7th century.
Arguably it continues to this day. Black African guest workers in Egypt, Algeria and Libya tell of being publicly ridiculed and physically assaulted by Arabs. Egyptian writer Mona Eltahawy tells of watching a Sudanese girl being assaulted and tormented on the Cairo Metro, concluding, “We are racist people in Egypt and we are in deep denial.” She makes a wider point, that the Arab world has ignored the suffering of Darfur because the victims are black. “We only pay attention when America and Israel behave badly.”
The Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference have repeatedly refused to censure totalitarian regimes like Sudan for killing their own black African citizens, even when the victims are Muslims. Their conferences are on safer ground offering routine condemnation of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians.
The argument goes that Arab and Muslim leaders refuse to criticize their own while they perceive a U.S.-orchestrated crusade (to use George Bush’s ill-advised word) against them. Less acknowledged is the syndrome whereby they embrace their own victimhood and persisting grievance, ignoring atrocities and human rights abuses toward minorities in their own lands.
But there is another reason for Arab indifference to the suffering in Darfur and Somalia. The victims are “the wrong kind of Muslim”; black African, rather than Arab.

via Rebecca Tinsley: The Great Taboo: Arab Racism.


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