Arab-African Ties: Severing History
Despite a long history of trade and travel between Africa and the Arab World, post-colonial dialogue on African-Arab relations has often been misrepresentative and misguided.
It is undisputable that forms of discrimination and racism against African nationals exist within the Arab region. From systematic discrimination to the cosmetic infatuation of whitening cream, the examples are shamefully and inexcusably abundant. As The Economist recently noted in an article published on May 26, racial intolerance is “pervasive in Lebanon and in much of the region.”
Much of what is written about the relationship between the Arabs and the African continent arises from the West, and usually describes the relationship along a crude paradigm of “Arabs” versus “black Africans.” Whether in dealing with the civil wars in Sudan, brutal treatment of blacks in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi, or outlining the abuse of African nationals within various Arab countries, the narratives presented by Western, and in some cases African, quarters follow a pattern of solely blaming Arab racism without a deeper examination.
Simply stating that Arab racism is at the heart of all the struggles between Africans and Arabs further ferments conflict within this complicated relationship. It is an intertwined association, going back centuries prior to Islam’s emergence, moving forward through the forgotten horrors of Arab slavery and hopeful periods of African-Arab solidarity against imperialism and colonialism, until finally arriving to its current condition.
Arab Racism: Entrenched in Arab Society?
The high-profile tragic case of Alem Dechassa, an Ethiopian domestic worker in Lebanon who committed suicide last March after her horrifying abuse, sparked massive public outcry and brought the question of domestic labor rights to the forefront.
On the international front, discussions on the tensions besetting Sudan and South Sudan, and other conflict zones in Africa such as Darfur, Somalia, and Libya, have pointed exclusively to Arab racism as a central tenant driving the atrocities.
In particular, South Sudan’s independence and formation was presented by many in the Western press as the liberation of “black Africans” from the shackles of repression and racism by the lighter-skinned “Arabs” residing in Khartoum.
The discourses tends to paint Arab society as intrinsically racist, where an open discussion on racism is consistently restricted and excused by the Arab public at large. They usually conclude with mention of Arab hypocrisy for supporting Palestinians while turning a blind eye to massacres in Darfur.
Going Beyond Arab-African Dichotomy
Gamal Nkrumah, a Ghanaian journalist, editor of the Egyptian Al Ahram Weekly, and son of the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, stressed in his brief account of contemporary African-Arab relations that solidarity between Arab and Africans during the 1950’s and 1970’s was rooted in a common vision and cause of liberation against colonialism and imperialism. This solidarity between Gamal Abdul Nasser and other African leaders at the zenith of the non-aligned movement was a potent political force, which presented the will and sentiments of the often marginalized, larger international community.
But it came to an end, according to Nkrumah, due to the dominance of America’s “political grip” on both African and Arab countries, unsettled by the brewing challenge to the global power system.
“Arab-African relations,” he wrote, “cannot be properly understood without the magnifying glass of US foreign policy and especially the US-led international war on terrorism.”
Additionally, Nkrumah pointed to three other factors that influenced the present state of Arab-African relations: US interest in developing the oil reserves of Africa as a counterbalance to dependence on Middle Eastern oil; Libya’s about face vis-a-vis the US and other Western powers; and finally, the Sudanese political and humanitarian crisis.
For Nkrumah, Sudan was at the geo-political core of determining the Arab-African relation. The conflict, for him, was less about racialist factors, but one derived from the repressive structures of the Sudanese government system.
“If Arabs and Africans cannot live amicably together in Sudan, then neither can they do so on the continent at large…For Arabs and Non-Arabs to live together peacefully in Sudan, the principles of democracy and respect for human rights must be enshrined in the Sudanese constitution,” he contended.
Callie Maidhof, writing for Jadaliyya about “Arabs in Africa,” pointed out, with reference to the work of Professor Mahmood Mumdani, that in the case of Sudan the perceived mainstream dichotomy between Arab and black Africans relies heavily “on colonial-era tropes of settler and native which additionally sought to retribalize and reify Sudanese social (and ethnic) divisions.”
In the same article, Maidhof argues that in the media representation of conflict between Arabs and Africans regarding various conflicts beyond Sudan, “a recurring theme of the antagonism between (black) Africans and Arabs [is found], one that reflects an inability of popular or even scholarly analysis to assimilate Arabs to the African continent.”
“This is the continuation of a Cold War area studies paradigm, as well as a colonial politics of race,” she added.
Challenging Distortions, Reclaiming Voices
Much of the writings regarding African history, particularly its relationship with the Arab world, have been monopolized by non-Africans.
Africans intellectuals have attempted to regain their voice. One non-profit civil society called the African Holocaust Society (Maafa), composed of researchers, scholars, and academics was established to “represent and restore an authentic, honest, plural and balanced study of the African experience, past and present.”
The website is a treasure trove of information regarding African history and culture – ranging from shedding light on ancient African kingdoms to analyzing the progress of African cinema.
Regarding Arab-African relations, the comprehensive section on Maafa’s website complied by Owen ‘Alik Shahadah, a multi-award winning documentarian, tackles it under the context of the Arab slave trade.
“Racism in Arab societies is more complex due to the long history of coexistence, but at the same time the racial ills remain generally untreated,” Shahadah wrote. Shahadah opinions that Arab racism today is “usually more contained in societies which are Arab dominated,” and unlike European racism, “[it] is less pronounced in exerting influence on the people outside of its spheres of influences.”
“There is therefore less of a “post-colonial” racism in the Arab world. But we do see its afterbirth teaming up with the legacy of European colonization, and shaping attitudes in countries such as Sudan, Somalia, Zanzibar (before the revolution), and Mauritania among the elite,” he wrote.
“Arab identity,” Askia, an administrator for Mafaa explained, “does overlap or replace African identity in countries like Sudan and Mauritania.”
“In Ethiopia the term Arab is used for Muslims, and not exclusively towards those who can be considered ethnically Arab. Moreover, in some cases Arab identity is adopted by those who speak Arabic or embrace Arabic culture.”
“Most people who are “Arab” in these places are really Africans who have been Arabized. And [they] behave just like Africans who have been Europeanized,” the administrator added.
In terms of how Africans view Arabs, Askia emphasized that geography and religion influence complex perspectives.
“[African nationals] in the USA, Sudan, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Nigeria North, Nigeria South, all have different relationships and perceptions of Arab people. So there is no easy way to do justice to such a complex subject matter... but outside of traditional Arab-African political zones (Sudan, East Africa) the view today is shaped by the anti-Arab racism found in the West.”
“I would go so far as to say the view is shaped by a lot of Zionist propaganda around reminding or distracting Africans, especially the Diaspora, about the role of Arabs as slavers. Hence why we have the site on Arab slavery to deal with facts,” he added.
Askia also claimed that there was “an agenda by some non-Muslim Nigerians to provoke tensions; some justified [and] some riding on anti-Islamic, anti-Arab racism coming out of the West.”
Despite these factors, he acknowledged that some of the negative opinions towards Arabs have valid causes in places like Mali and Tanzania, where exploitation and abuse by Arab merchants are frequent.
Lebanon, as well, was deemed one of the worst in terms of abusing African nationals. At the other end of the spectrum, Morocco was viewed as “one of the best for almost being race-less.”
Intriguingly, Askia held Gaddafi’s Libya in high regard. In fact, it is common to hear Gaddafi presented in a positive light by a number of Africans due to his role in emphasizing African unity and independence and his prominence within African politics.
Discrimination and racism are major problems in the region. For it to be defeated completely, it first has to be understood in all its elements and contours. That can only occur if Arabs, with Africans, confront their faults, with awareness of the history behind the present. It is our struggle and it has been ignored and allowed to be distorted by others for far too long.