Racism in the Middle East deserves our attention

african kings

“Clean your plate if it is touched by a dog, but break it if it’s touched by a Khadem.” This popular Yemeni idiom – which equates blacks with servants (khadem), and ranks blacks below animals – captures the treatment of blacks in most of the Middle East and North Africa. While criticism has rightfully rained down on Western societies about racism and the historical role of Christianity and the trans-Atlantic slave trade in perpetuating it, many anti-racism activists have been conspicuously silent about human rights violations against blacks in the Middle East and North Africa.

While Western societies have made societal changes and continue to address racism, there is little acknowledgment in most of the Middle East and North Africa that a problem even exists. This even though the trans-Saharan slave trade enslaved 2.5 to 3 times more Africans than the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and negative views of blacks in Islam that influence contemporary attitudes.

Why does this double standard exist? Through what they choose to highlight and overlook, many anti-racism activists apparently believe that discrimination and oppression are more deserving of being challenged when whites are the perpetrators. By sending the message that whites “should know better” but we should set the bar low for non-whites who oppress blacks, it ironically places more value on whiteness and devalues other groups. Anti-black racism being practiced by non-European-groups also challenges the anti-Western view of many anti-racism advocates that racism is a Eurocentric paradigm.

However, blacks in the Middle East and North Africa are increasingly challenging this paradigm. They are increasingly vocalizing that (1) they do indeed exist; and (2) they will fight for equal treatment in their societies. They are increasingly forcing their compatriots – as well as black intellectuals and activists around the world – to recognize that racism is not just “a Western thing” but happening right in their region. Two weeks ago, Lebanese pop singer Haifa Wehbe was in the hot seat for comparing black Egyptians to monkeys in her song Where Is Daddy?. Reminding people that the Nubian people have been in modern-day Egypt since 3,000 B.C, the Committee for Nubian Issues staged protests against the song getting airplay in Egypt. It has also launched a lawsuit against government officials for allowing Wehbe’s album in the Egyptian market.

Black Iraqis, who are an estimated 10 percent of the total Iraqi population and have been based mainly in southern Iraq for more than 1,000 years, hope that President Barack Obama’s success as America’s first black president will be a turning point for racial equality in their own country. Under a “change” mantra, they are fighting against usage of the popular Arabic term for black (abed, which means slave). Movement of Free Iraqis, a political party that advances black interests, fights for anti-discrimination laws, for the Iraqi government of officially recognize blacks as a minority group, and to increase black political power in the hopes that there will one day be an Iraqi Obama. Iranian blacks are using humor as teachable moments to address racism and racial assumptions of what constitutes an “authentic” Iranian.

That this growing anti-racism movement in the Middle East and North Africa isn’t getting more attention in the U.S. is partly due to us not knowing more about what goes on beyond our borders. However, it is also due to black elites’ narrow mindedness in that the faces behind racism and oppression of blacks are of European decent. Black Americans shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that racism comes in various forms, and should challenge oppression of black people wherever it’s found. The time for us to put the Middle East and North Africa on the hook, as we have rightfully done with the West, is long overdue.