Commentary  A Solidarity Shackled by History

How Black-Arab Relations Can Be Maintained

Outrage emerged in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, when white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year old Black boy. The grand jury’s later decision not to indict Wilson for his crimes served as a reminder that the American state does not care for and will not protect Black lives. “From Ferguson to Palestine,” shouted protestors carrying the rage and desperation of a failing system, “resistance is not a crime.” In the greater St-Louis area, Palestinians immediately took action and protested alongside their Black siblings. At the international level, Palestinians in Gaza also shared many tips and advice with Black protestors on how to cope with tear gas during protests. Stephen Tamari, a Palestinian residing in St-Louis, writes that on his way to the march against police brutality in Ferguson on August 30, 2014, he saw a Black protestor waving a Palestinian flag stating, “this is our intifada.” The solidarity between Palestinian and Black communities is concrete and powerful. However, even as they chant in unison, there is no way to deny that they are one beat off from one another. The long- standing relationships of solidarity between Palestinians and Black folks cannot and will not ever erase the long history of anti-Blackness in Arab communities.

In order to promote and maintain positive, long-standing, and genuine solidarities with Black people, we must, as Arabs, dedicate ourselves to Black struggles and resistances. It is not enough to show up at the protests with a sign declaring solidarity; Arabs must further commit to each and every campaign by ensuring their actions abide by their politics of solidarity and support.

This piece is dedicated to outlining the ways in which Arabs have contributed, profited from, and promoted anti-Blackness, as well as the ways in which such harm can be repaired. Much too often, the discourse on Black-Arab relations has been saturated with denial, defensiveness, and obfuscation. While Arab racism against Black people is rooted in a violent colonial racial hierarchy within Middle- Eastern, North African, and sub- Saharan African societies, we must not ignore the ways in which current Arab communities perpetuate anti- Blackness. It is also important to note that the broad categorizations of “Black” and ‘“Arab” are extremely reductive to the intersecting identities of both. There are many Black Arabs and dark-skinned Arabs who do not have access to the same privileges that lighter skinned Arabs do. Afro-Arabs are often excluded from conversations on Black-Arab solidarity, which ignores the many Black Arabs residing in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, Iraq, Jordan, Bahrain, Sudan, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and more. This article is mainly focused on the ways in which light-skinned and self-identified Arabs have contributed to an ongoing history of anti-Blackness against both Arab and non-Arab Black folks. Hence, for the sake of this article when invoking the identity of Arabness, it refers to non-Black Arab folk and when invoking the identity of Blackness, it refers to Arab and non- Arab Black folk.

In order to promote and maintain positive, long-standing, and genuine solidarities with Black people, we must, as Arabs, dedicate ourselves to Black struggles and resistances.

Historical Context: Arabian Trade of Slavery

The transatlantic slave trade started in the Mediterranean world, specifically in the Middle East. According to Duncan Clarke, whose book explores the history of slavery, Bosnia was the intersectional point wherein “Slavs [which refers to the inhabitants of the Eastern shores of the Adriatic Sea] were shipped as slaves by Venetian merchants, to supply new markets in the Islamic World.” The conquest of the Islamic World by Ottoman Turks in 1463 halted the exploitation of slaves originating from the European continent and coincided with the Portuguese colonization and exploitation of the West African coast, creating an entirely new channel of slavery.

This piece will take for granted Arab complicity in the slave trade, as it is has been widely researched and well-documented. There are many reasons why most scholarship on slavery has focused on the transatlantic slave trade as opposed to the “Islamic African” slave trade – primarily, the fact that the systems of slavery in Europe and the Americas transformed into an economic superstructure wherein the development of capitalism relied on slavery and plantations. On the other hand, the growth and flourishment of the Islamic World was not contingent on the structures of slavery – their economic development did not rely on the exploitation of slaves and was not practiced in a widespread fashion as it was in the West. In short, in the West, slavery was part of an external trade necessary for the development of the region, whereas in the Islamic World, it was part of a historical exploitation that does not constitute the heart of their economy. These nuances, while important, do not erase the acts of violence perpetrated by Arabs, as well as the way in which they profited off of forced and deadly slave labour. Before going further into this discussion, it is important to make a few side notes: the use of the term “Islamic Africa” refers primarily to North African countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. While Islam is continent, the use of this term is part of a larger discussion of North African countries benefiting from a dual identity (Arab and North African) while also having access to a particular type of privilege that will be discussed later in the article.

Though the Arabian slave trade has its origins within Islamic Africa; more contemporarily, anti-Blackness can be found within most Arab communities.

According to Paul Lovejoy, a scholar of African and African diaspora histories, the Arabian slave trade culminated during the 19th century, and an estimated 9.85 million Africans were shipped out as slaves to the Islamic world between 650 AD and the 19th century. It is important to note that it was primarily women and girls who were abducted into the Arabian slave trade, to then be turned into concubines. The slave trade, while not as central to Arab economies as it was to Western economies, contributed to the long racist history that defines Arab- Black relations today.

Contemporary Anti-Blackness: Politics and Language

The existence and promotion of an Arabian slave trade are more than just historical facts. Its geographical and intergenerational effects cannot be ignored; the slave trade necessitated the forced displacement and dispossession of African peoples in the Arab peninsula and created a structural legacy allowing for anti- Blackness and the remnants of slavery to persist within Arab communities. Though the Arabian slave trade has its origins within Islamic Africa, more contemporarily, anti-Blackness can be found within most Arab communities. In 2017, it was discovered that Libya is profiting from a modern African slave trade. An estimated 400,000 to almost a million people were apprehended by the Libyan Coast Guard while trying to go to Europe and were put in “[overrun detention centres with] mounting reports of robbery, rape, and murder among migrants, according to a September [2017] report by the UN human rights agency.” Most of the detention centres detain refugees from Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and other West African nations. These African refugees are then being illegally sold off as labourers in open markets. The victims of such cruel human trafficking endure brutal physical and mental torture. Moreover, some of these refugees are also forced into prostitution and sexual exploitation, while others are murdered by their smugglers. Though the complicit Libyan government is launching a formal investigation with the aim of repatriating refugees and migrants (mostly Black Africans) who are facing such abuse and exploitation within detention centres this is not an anomalous tragedy – it simply falls in line with much of Arab and North-African anti-Black history.

Today, many Arab nations have a high percentage of migrant workers who are are mostly African or Southeast Asian. The labour laws (or lack thereof ) in Arab nations work against these migrant workers and allow for extended discrimination and exploitation to take place. Mostly, as Al Jazeera reports, “they have little to no protection under the law and are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, including extraordinarily long working hours, withholding of salaries, sexual, mental, and physical abuse, and denial of travel.” The exploitation of Black people by Arab countries cannot be thought of separately from said nation’s profiting off of the historical dispossession of Africans. According to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report, “at least one domestic migrant worker in Lebanon was dying each week as a result of ‘unnatural causes,’ such as alleged suicide or after suspiciously falling from tall buildings.” Moreover, these widespread practices of subjecting African migrant workers to slave-like labour are largely ignored by complicit North African governments.

Anti-Blackness takes on many forms – from the horrendous human trafficking of African migrants and refugees to the expansion of colourism through the promotion of white beauty standards and the practice of skin bleaching.

Anti-Blackness in predominantly Arab communities also manifests itself through perceptions and conceptualizations of beauty. Susan Abulhawa, a Palestinian scholar and activist, argues that much of the Arab conceptions of beauty are rooted in anti-Blackness. She further explains that these beauty standards are essentially “[an aspiration to be what is] powerful and rich, and the images of that power and wealth have light skin, straight hair, small noses, ruddy cheeks, and tall, skinny bodies.” On a more concrete level, these aesthetic standards translate into dangerous skin bleaching and hair straightening practices, which have become widely popular. More importantly, these practices set the foundation for a social structure in Arab countries rooted in colourism and anti-Blackness. Afro- Arabs’ identities are systematically denied in such societies; further, the ways in which the nation’s channels of economy are tied to these colourist privileges further exploit Black Arabs. The toxic standards of beauty are not just racist ideologies – they permeate the very social and economic structures of the nation. In fact, rough estimation states that the value of the global market of skin bleaching is at around $10 billion annually.

The systemic discrimination of Black folks is deeply embedded within Arab countries, as seen through the current slave trade occurring in Libya. Anti-Blackness takes on many forms – from the horrendous human trafficking of African migrants and refugees, to the expansion of colourism through the promotion of white beauty standards and the practice of skin bleaching. In addition, such violence can also be found within the Arabic language itself, as seen through the use of the word ab**d. The root of the word – abd translates to “slave” and is usually accompanied by one of the ninety nine names of God to reference worshipping Allah. The usage of the word is not harmful in common names such as Abdel-Hakim or Abdallah, which literally translate into worshipper of the Sage One (referring to God) or worshipper of God. However, its plural form has been used to refer to Black people in derogatory ways, as denounced online by Black activists, some of whom started the “Drop the A-word” campaign. The slur emerges from the conflation of Black identities with “slaves,” transforming its original meaning into a derogatory one. The usage of this word persists today and is part of a much larger anti-Black racism perpetuated by Arab communities.

How to Move Forward?

Margari Hill, a Black educator based in Southern California, has spoken publicly about racial microaggressions that she has witnessed or experienced within Arab communities. She argues that the main factor prohibiting genuine solidarity between the two communities is “the lack of vision, cultural sensitivity and anti-racist training within our national and local organizations.” Anti-Blackness has been instilled institutionally into Arab culture, first by colonial powers, and later by local Arab leaders who profit off colourism and racism. Much of the harm is also passed down through informal channels of socialization. Once Arab communities commit themselves to unlearning the harmful behaviours that have been maintained and perpetuated by their systems of governance, they can start producing meaningful and genuine bonds of solidarity with Black communities, both locally and worldwide.

Arabs’ commitment to real allyship in Black struggle and resistance is not something that necessitates direct reciprocity. Much of our understanding of solidarity is transactional, and demands an exchange of support; however, if meaningful and long-standing relations of solidarity are to be strengthened, Arab communities must first show genuine support of Black communities that address and unpack the anti-Black histories in their own communities. When Black folks dedicate themselves to Arab struggles such as the Palestinian liberation struggle, they do so at great peril. While both Arab and Black people are marginalized under the same overarching structure of whiteness, Arabs, unlike Black folks, have profited off of such a structure, both historically and contemporarily. The dynamics of Black people supporting Arabs are radically different from Arabs supporting Black folks, as Arabs also have a long history of co-opting Black struggles and history for their own marginalization. While it is always beneficial to put two distinct histories in dialogue with one another or to draw on Black histories in order to develop narratives of solidarity, we must be careful not to reduce Black histories to binaries in order to fit a particular argument. Choosing to focus exclusively on the history of solidarity between Black and Arab communities ignores the decades of past and present anti- Blackness and is not the path through which solidarity is paved. In fact, it actively marginalizes Black folks in Arab communities.

Much of our understanding of solidarity is transactional, and demands an exchange of support; however, if meaningful and long-standing relations of solidarity are to be strengthened, Arab communities must first show genuine support of Black communities that address and unpack the anti-Black histories in their own communities.

This does not mean that Black-Arab solidarity is impossible, but simply that Arabs cannot continue to engage with a discourse on solidarity without unpacking the racial prejudices that they have been socialized to perpetuate. It is equally important not to navigate this topic with what could be considered the Arab version of “white guilt” – while we should feel both guilt and shame about these histories and realities, they should not be at the forefront of solidarity-based discussions, at the risk of engaging in performative and selfish, rather than useful, solidarity. Instead, it is much more useful to dedicate ourselves to campaigns that fight anti-Blackness, to unlearn our own harmful behaviors, and to establish systems of accountability amongst ourselves.

Not only has history proved that such solidarity is possible between the two communities, it has also shown its strength. Black-Palestinian solidarity, for example, has expressed itself through the politics, discourse, and activism of Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Patrice Lumumba Coalition, Muhammad Ali, and the Black Lives Matter movement. The mass incarceration, systematic state violence, military occupation combined with a(n) (inter)national silence on their suffering established a natural solidarity between Black and Palestinian communities throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. To clarify, the use of “natural solidarity,” Palestinian scholar and activist Rabab Abdulhadi argues that commitment to the Palestinian liberation movement is “[a struggle] against racism, Zionism, Orientalism, Islamophobia, and all forms of structural inequalities, based on gender, sexuality, class, age, ability, citizenships, etc.” This commitment naturally entails a solidarity with Black radical politics as it overlaps with Black liberation movements. The history of Black writers, scholars, and activists supporting and dedicating much of their activism to Palestine and vice versa is a historical reminder of where and how Arabs should move forward with their solidarity.

This does not mean that Black-Arab solidarity is impossible, but simply that Arabs cannot continue to engage with a discourse on solidarity without unpacking the racial prejudices that they have been socialized to perpetuate.

Some of the most moving examples of such solidarity could be seen through the life of Angela Davis, who has publicly supported Palestinians and has stated that “Palestine has always occupied a pivotal place [in her own political history].” June Jordan, a Black poet and activist very famously wrote, “I was born a Black woman and now I am become a Palestinian,” in 1989. In doing so, she irreversibly revolutionized the paradigms of Black-Arab solidarity by transcending toward an ontological solidarity. Muhammad Ali, a famous boxer who converted to Islam in 1964, dedicated his entire life to fighting not only in the ring, but also against imperialist interests behind the Vietnam War, for Islam, and for Palestine. Ali became a symbol and inspiration for the Muslim community through, as Al Jazeera reports, “his ongoing struggle, [which] was one of the reasons why many Black Muslims used Ali’s passing as an opportunity to not only celebrate and promote the importance of racial equality, but also to criticize the lack of racial equity in the form of anti-Blackness, colourism, and otherness.” Ali was one of the few and first famous Americans who very vocally opposed the settler-colonial project in Palestine. Though his support for Palestine is often erased, Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians and their allies have not forgotten. As such, he soon became a staple representing that which we all wish to fight for or against. Arab-Black solidarity is quite simply the ink with which Palestinians penned their letter to political prisoner and Black political activist Angela Davis in the 1970s, it is the desperation that plagued June Jordan as she beautifully wrote that she has become a Palestinian, it is the rage behind Muhammad Ali’s punches as he fought for Palestine, and it is the solidarity that Arabs must commit to every day.