Understanding Racism in the Arab World

Safae Daoudi, Staff Reporter

(Photo/ Migrant Community Center)

The racism in Arab countries results from a fundamental misunderstanding of Islam’s ethics, according to a panel discussion titled Slavery, Colonialism, and Race in the Muslim World held on Nov. 17. 

The webinar is the third in the year-long series, Decentering Race: Perspectives from the Global South, organized by the Northwestern University in Qatar’s Faculty Working Group on Race, in partnership with the Middle East Studies Committee at NU-Q, the Program of African Studies, the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa at the Evanston campus, and the Middle East and North African Studies Program at the Evanston campus.  

The event featured speakers Rudolph Bilal, associate professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a renowned scholar of Islamic clerical authority and slavery and abolition in West Africa, and Mafaz Al-Suwaidan,  a Ph.D. student in Harvard’s Committee on the Study of Religion program. It was moderated by Zachary Wright, professor in residence at NU-Q. 

During the panel, speakers discussed the history and contemporary resonance of race in the Arab world and how processes of enslavement, colonialism and contemporary prejudice in Muslim societies have racialized “non-white” Arabs and other Muslims, and perhaps even led to the internalization of Western notions of white supremacy. 

Al-Suwaidan started by giving examples of anti-Blackness and racism in the Muslim world, focusing on the Gulf. “When it comes to the examples of anti-Blackness in the Arab world…it really doesn’t take much searching to see it,” she said. 

She mentioned that racism is embedded in certain words in the language, the interactions with a predominantly migrant class whether that be non-Khaleeji Arabs or non-Arabs, and the way people treat their domestic workers. She referred to the Kafala system that limits workers’ freedom, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and violation of their rights.

Al-Suwaidan also discussed the problem of media representation and how certain shows and TV programs still use black faces and stereotypes to depict Black people. As an example, she 

talked about a Kuwaiti sketch show that aired during Ramadan and explained how “it perpetuated stereotypes of Black Sudanese people” by depicting them as lazy and mocking their accents. 

Bilal gave examples of racism in the Arabic language, too. He pointed out that in Mauritania, there is no other word in Hassaniya Arabic to refer to a Black person other than “abd,” which literally translates to “slave,” and that this word functions in the same way as the n-word in English. He explained that the use of such derisive terms, creating a correlation between Blackness and slavery, demonstrates how deeply entrenched racism is in Arab societies. 

Bilal drew on his personal experience growing up in a poor Black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. and his experiences of some of the “most virulent faces of racism in the U.S.” to measure the scale of racism in Arab society. 

He said that after converting to Islam, he found that the “most open expression of racism and contempt among South Asians and Arab Muslims was worse than anything he had ever experienced in U.S. society growing up.”

“Black American Muslims will tell you that their experiences [of racism] in South Asian and Arab Muslim communities are so intense that they drive people out of Islam entirely. They become convinced that this must be a deficient ethical system if this is how these people behave,” he said. 

Bilal elaborated on the link between racism and the history of enslavement, explaining that it is incorrect to separate the history of enslavement in the Arab world from the history of enslavement in the European world because they are in fact linked. 

“If we were honest historians, we would write about the so-called Islamic trade and so-called Transatlantic trade as a single production of modern racialized slavery, but it hasn’t been approached that way because of imperialist history,” he added. 

Bilal explained that the emergence of this intense form of slavery within the Persian Gulf in Oman, in East Africa, and in the Arabian Peninsula in the second half of the 19th century “was profoundly influential in sparking anti-Blackness sentiment and the association of Blackness with slavery.”

Al-Suwaidan said the so-called Arab slave trade was a response to the market pressure and that it was the “result of the production of racialized slavery in the West.”

“Racialisation of Black people happened within Europe and the U.S. and then got exported as an ideology through colonial and imperial power to the Middle East and other parts of the world,” she added. 

Bilal then discussed that the Quran offers evidence that racism is ethically wrong. “The Quran is color blind and does not make reference to skin color or hair structure for any human protagonist,” he said. 

Building upon this, he explained that the most effective way to get Muslim communities to address the problem of systemic racism is by framing it from an ethical point of view as a “violation of God’s law and a breach of the unity of humanity that the Quran preaches.” 

During the second half of the panel, an audience member asked Al-Suwaidan: “What are some strategies and battlegrounds that are most important in the confrontation of racism in the Muslim world?”

She explained that in order to be part of the solution, one should confront its reality and start “questioning practices such as retaining an employer’s passport, limiting their freedom and mistreating them” before making links with the global phenomenon of racism. 

Another attendee asked the panelists about ways to confront racism in Arab societies through drawing on Islamic traditions. 

Bilal said that “we have misrepresented fundamental things in our history” and that “we have written Black people and especially Black women out of the sacred story as if they never existed.” 

He added that if Muslim Arabs took an anti-racist reading of the history of Islam, they would realize that anti-racism is not something that should be imported from the West but something that is present in the sacred texts.

Al-Suwaidan concluded by highlighting that Islam offers a framework to confront injustices through collective actions. “I think that this is what Islam gives us the moral obligation to respond when we are called upon by the oppressed.” 

Bilal recited a hadith to further reiterate the importance of participating in the discourse around injustices that surround us: “If you see an injustice, stop it with your hand, and if you can’t stop it with your hand, speak against it with your tongue, and if you fear for your life and can’t speak against it with your tongue, then turn your heart against it.” 


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