Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Arab Racism - Rooted in Islamic Heritage

Arab Racism - Rooted in Islamic Heritage

A paler shade of black

Arabs like to imagine that their countries are comparatively free from racism. But it exists, nonetheless

The word 'abd - Arabic for "slave" - was often used in our household when I was a child. In fact, it was so common that I had no awareness of its negative connotations until well into my teenage years. My father's family, a proud northern Sudanese clan, used it to refer to anyone who had darker skin than themselves - from southern Sudanese house servants to migrants from Darfur- clear intent to demean.. addressing a particularly dark-skinned or thick-lipped child.

was a kind of racism that no one challenged, addressed,..through a child's eyes.. on a scale of colour, lighter was good, darker was bad. The word 'abd, although strictly meaning "slave" or "servant", became synonymous with negritude. my Islamic heritage reinforced this with quotes from Muhammad such as "You should listen to and obey your ruler even if he was an Ethiopian [ie black] slave whose head looks like a raisin" (Sahih Bukhari Volume 9, Book 89, Number 256).

When we moved to E. Africa.. 'abd was seamlessly transferred to the locals whom we interacted only in their capacity as domestic staff , grounds-keepers at international schools. While I myself was "black" of North African descent, my family believed its Arab roots were somehow genetically dominant, giving us smaller features and a marginally lighter skin tone - deeming ourselves to be an entirely a different race from "pure" Africans.

Our next move was to Saudi Arabia, where the Arab ethnicity with which I identified so strongly was suddenly cast into doubt: now it was my turn to be the "slave". My belief that I was an Arab, racially superior to non-Arab Africans, became laughable in the heartland of Arabia - a place where "Arabness" was not only determined by skin colour but by whether you could uninterruptedly trace your lineage back to the founding father of your clan. In fact, ancestry is so important in Saudi Arabia that courts have the power to annul a marriage if gaps are later discovered in a person's lineage oppening up the possiblity.. blood line pollution.

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