On African-Arab Relations


I am reading about Arab-African relations for one of my classes and (although loving it!) am a bit perturbed by a recurring theme that I think is sort of the elephant in the room:  Race-(ism).

No, this is not a treatise against Racism in the Arab world (been there, done that) but as someone genuinely interested in strengthening relations  between the two regions and peoples (even though they really aren’t two distinct entities) I am wondering all the more how lack of frankness on this issue will effect things in the long run.

Case in point: Check out this article on the historical roots of Arab-African Relations (if you can read Arabic that is ;-/)

While I found it useful, interesting and a good summary article, I have big issues with the way in which the author framed the issue—- It’s almost as if he is saying that Africa would have become pretty much Arabized or at least Islamicized if not for outside influences and manipulation and that is what is at the root of any Arab-African tensions.

In Sudan, he says that the South would have become Muslim if not for the British.  While I agree that British colonial policy was ridiculous and its strict separation between the two regions and their peoples is a large part of contemporary Sudan’s problems, (as well as them just going on an annexing DarFur) the North-South issue is far more complicated than that.  I don’t need to and don’t have enough space/time to get into it, but I was really surprised that the article totally glossed over the Fact that the south had been a rebellious region from the jump and never acquiesced to it’s annexation into the Ottoman empire, or that the Ottoman empire is where slavery really begins to flourish.

Which brings me to my next point/peeve, Slavery.  I think discussions of the Arab slave trade (or any other slave trade for that matter) get watered down, because people IMO hide behind the tired refrain “It was not as bad as the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” (which is basically what the author of this article and the other things I am reading make point to explicitly state as they gloss over the ramifications of slavery on the sending and receiving societies)  As if that means that the slaves in these networks lived these super fantastic lives  and it was no biggie.

I’m sorry, but to me at least it is a biggie, especially since you can see the vestiges of this system on social and economic organization of the countries that the slaves were sent to.  In the Gulf, while there was some race mixing (as there was in the European system as well) I was really surprised at the extent to which people “stuck to their own kind”  in fact, when I was there I wrote this entry about it.  Racism is rampant in Morocco, (I should know, I lived it)partially because of the influx of illegal immigrants, but also because of the slavery legacy there too.  And don’t even get me started in the Egypt-Sudan vortex where it is indeed very hard to be of African descent —- and that is not surprising considering slavery’s legacy in Sudan.

In fact there is a Hadith that goes:

The Prophet said, “Listen and obey (your chief) even if an Ethiopian whose head is like a raisin were made your chief.”

Which to me would suggest, that the idea of the lowly status of  Africans/people of African descent in Arab society.  And I wonder how if these ideas were so deeply rooted in the society before the advent of Islam, then isn’t it quite possible that despite fact that Islam stresses the equality of all before God regardless of race, individuals and societies did not get that email or at least did not internalize it as they should have… practices are easy to change, but mindsets are not.

But like I said, it’s not about casting blame, I just wonder if there are any frank conversations on slavery and racism in Arabic, i.e. that Arabs are engaging in.  I have yet to come across any and as I wrote above, I think that without frank discussion on this issue African-Arab relations will falter or at least, they won’t be as strong as they should be.  I think about the “African position” (which doesn’t really exist and will change from context to context) and if the slavery/racism matrix is actually something that is important to African leadership.

I will admit that in my stints in Morocco and Qatar as well as in private circles here in the states I have heard “black” Africans say some pretty bitter  or mean things about Arabs… mainly in reference to “perceived” racism from Arabs.  While this kid of resentment is certainly not helpful, do  individual, anecdotal experiences, however sad, horrifying or unfortunate they may be, actually affect the bigger picture?

Part of me says yes.  You may be friendly but you can’t be friends with someone you know/believe deep down thinks of you as less than they are.  Then again, part of me says no because when it come to the macro level you do what you have to… developing countries do it all the time with the Western world.

Then I go back to yes.  When I think of strengthening Arab-African relations, I might get a bit carried away here, but the pinnacles of which would be an EU style federation.  The strong sense of nationalism in certain European countries aside, the EU has made it work by letting bygones, be bygones and there being certain amount of mutual respect.  It is taking some time, but even racist attitudes towards Eastern Europeans is changing… then again maybe not as much as I think.

At any rate, this is what I am thinking about now.  It’s the one thing that irks be about this lesson, and each video and each subsequent article just confirms much of the same.  To be quite honest, the discrimination/racism factor isn’t just an issue in Arab-African relations, it is something that has affected Arab-Iranian relations and to a lesser extent Arab-Turkish relations.

“Can’t we all just get along?”  That has yet to be seen.  But some official spaces to just come out and say I resent you for this or I have problems with you because of that could be helpful… Right?  If only as a gesture. .. the future will tell.


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