Notions of race: Events in Libya & the Middle East

September 22, 2011 3:03 pm3 commentsViews: 24

Recent events in Libya seem to have triggered off racist backlashes against ‘Arabs’ or the ‘Arabian’ and ‘African’ descendants living in Libya and the wider Middle East.

To specifically target the issue; the lynching of ‘blacks’ or ‘black Libyans’ as some would say, has triggered off the issue of racism in the region as a major recent discovery of some sort.

Unsurprisingly enough it does not come from within the Arabs (black or white) or even Libyans themselves.

I’d like to share my opinion on the matter and essentially break down how the ‘western’ issue of race/racism, as we know it, cannot be applied to the region. I’ll start of with a historical stance, as many people like to use history as the basis of what is happening today.

Firstly I’ll start off with prominently making clear that racism in the Middle East does exist, as it does else where. It has existed since the dawn of civilization in the region and went on for centuries via slavery, something reinforced by particular rulers; various colonizers from the West, such as England, France, and Italy in more recent history then reinforced this. Even Islam had a role to play at one point, due to its political and ideological expansions. Even though this contradicted its fundamental messages and the teachings of the prophet Mohammed.

HOWEVER, these were all points in history, in a region where history has significantly been made over and over again. Slavery in the ancient world didn’t begin on the basis of racial segregation or racist ideologies but mere power and wealth relationships.

Islam for example did not begin this way, nor did it always carry on down the route of sanctifying racism. Neither was the region ever entirely ruled over by an all powerful ruler for too long (apart from maybe Alexandra the Great). The Middle East was, and has always been, a clash of people, tribes and civilizations from the North, East, South and West, creating the first cosmopolitan, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic civilizations in the world. With this came many cultures, traditions and ideologies that passed the lands where modern Arabic is spoken today. The language, which pays tribute and testament to the commonality, history and variety of the region. One of the first ‘melting pots’ of race and culture. This is evident in the many colours, traditions and beliefs of people in the Middle East.

Now I’d like to take you back to a memory. When I first met my grandmother from Iraq I was 21 years old, we had been able to finally meet some family because of the toppling of Saddam and they had travelled into Syria to meet us and our other family there. My grandmother was a woman in her 80s with tribal tattoos, her plaited hair reaching her hips and brown skin the colour of coffee. She made a remark about the people she saw on TV. (Bare in mind satellite TV was still something of a novelty to Iraqi’s, they where all glued to it). She mentioned the ‘N’ word (in reference to what or why I cannot remember). But my attention was diverted at her, I quickly began to explain that she couldn’t use that kind of word and why she shouldn’t use it and so forth. My late Grandmother looked at me very sternly and pointed at her arm and said, “what do you think I am white?”, she almost took offense to the notion that I would assume she didn’t know what the world meant. At that moment I realized that whatever my notions of racism or what race meant didn’t apply to her. I questioned her further and she further explained, growing up this was the word used around the English colonizers so they could differentiate themselves from Africans. “This is why so many woman and men wanted to be ‘white or whiter’ she explained. “Because we knew what they did with blacks and used them as slaves”.

For me this conversation alone changed my perspective of what race meant in the Middle East. The colonization of the region by the Ottomans, then the Europeans for extended periods of time, not only reinforced racism but alienated tribes or regions who were otherwise integral and held in high esteem. Eventually the dictators crept in, further alienating the people of those countries. If there ever were a people so confused about identity it was the Arabs at the beginning of the last century. A brief period of strength and reinforcement of identity was lead by Abd Al Nasser in Egypt during the 1950s. Arab federations and unions between Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan UAE, Sudan, and North Yemen where all short lived during the 1950s due to continuous western influence on the region and interests. The cultural immobilization of the region lasted for so long it also created a creative and artistic black hole, which was revived by music and film mainly. The American and Western import of films, TV shows and publications were really the only thing Arabs had to ‘catch up’ with the rest of the world. The influence was very clear to see in early 1940/50s Egyptian films where the darker actors where always caste as maids or servants. So once again during the 20th century the generation of my grandmother and others in the Middle East where subjected to more racist propaganda before and during the civil rights movements of the west.

This once again created a sense of conflicting contradiction in the ‘Arab’ mentality on notions of identity and race. Many turned to ‘The Quran’ for the answers; a common book in a common language understood by all in the region.

“And among His Signs Is the creation of the heavens And the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colours; verily in that are Signs for those who know.” Holy Quran 30:22.

“Mankind! We created you from a male and female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you might come to know each other” – The Qur’an, 49:13

By the time Malcolm X had reached the region and had visited Mecca, Egypt and elsewhere he came back with a new outlook and perspective he could of never have experienced where he came from.

“ The experience changed Malcolm’s world view. Gone was the belief in whites as exclusively evil. Gone was the call for black separatism. His voyage to Mecca helped him discover the atoning power of Islam as a means to unity as well as self-respect: “In my thirty-nine years on this earth,” he would write in his autobiography, “the Holy City of Mecca had been the first time I had ever stood before the Creator of All and felt like a complete human being.”

However, once again all this still doesn’t explain the question of Arabs today and the notion of race and more specifically the events in Libya. One thing I will mention that during my lifetime as a young ‘Western Arab’ I have never experienced or seen acts or racism from the people I know or the countries I’ve visited and lived in in the Middle East. I did witness prejudices and misunderstandings about ‘western black culture’ or ‘African Americans’. Specifically during the late 90s and early 2000s when hip hop and hip hop culture had evolved into something that had created more of a negative impact on it’s community rather than a positive and inviting connotation which it had begun with. The heightened sexuality of hip hop and black American culture at the time was probably the most alien and condemned, as American culture continued to be exported to the Arab world. Something, which still causes tensions today within the older generations, but we also have seen this with the older African generation and their opinions of hip-hop. The post 90s generation however, was able to experience wider access to the world via the Internet, travel and satellite television. Hip-hop culture was thus understood better and accepted by the post 90s generation. In fact in the last decade it has become as prominent with youth identity in the Middle East as elsewhere. More specifically with it’s role in the ‘Arab Spring.

Leaving socio-politics behind. It’s time to delve into dirty politics and speak of Gadaffi. A unique and disillusioned leader, he was very quickly shunned by the Arab world and Libyans themselves. Apart from his dictatorial ways, his crazy ideology or style of dress. His speeches where hilariously and painfully amusing. Something which held cultural relevance if you spoke Arabic and could hear the ways he spoke. Colloquial wasn’t the word, in the midst of his western threats, and patriotic sentiments, lay words of a man who had evidently lost his mind. Or just wasn’t living on this earth. The ‘brother leader’ or king of kings’ as he fashioned himself was not what he seemed at all. Something picked up by Arabs everywhere, but not something easily transmitted to the rest of world. Especially with his heavy propaganda constantly at work, specifically targeting those who opposed Western powers. In fact until very recently you can find a list of American companies and PR agencies who helped promote and influence the world outlook of Gaddafi. Even down to his philosophical qualities. More can be found on

The Arab world wasn’t fooled. This alienation from them lead Gadaffi in 1988 to turn his attention towards Africa and Pan-Africansim after his plans for Pan-Arabism failed. Gaddafi’s state-run television networks switched from Middle Eastern soap operas to African themes involving slavery. The background of a unified Arab League that had been a staple of Libyan television for over two decades was replaced by a map of Africa. Gaddafi sported a map of Africa on his outfits from then forward. He also stated that, “I would like Libya to become a black country. Hence, I recommend to Libyan men to marry only black women and to Libyan women to marry black men.” Even a fascist statement as this was driven by his glory and power ambitions.

This was after his war in Chad and after nearly wiping out the entire population of the Toubou people and his contempt for the Berber people, both non-Arabs North African people. This is what mainly enrages me when I hear people hailing him as an African savior for blacks in Libya. Very ill informed and ill-judged people who really do not understand the brutality of this man against those very same people. This carried on until the ‘Arab Spring’ reached Libya and the people had enough. Not having enough military force Gaddafi was regularly known for hiring poor people from sub-Saharan Africa to fight for him. In 2011 it was clear and evident that the majority of his people did not want to fight for him and with Libya’s military fractured and more soldiers joining the ‘rebels’ Gaddafi used more foreign fighters than ever before.

This caused the systematic targeting of foreign fighters by rebels, as ever Gaddafi and his supporters took this opportunity to use this as a propaganda tool against ‘Arabs’ lynching ‘Black Libyans’. This was clearly a tactical political and ideological tool which was easily to spread.
Unfortunately many of the Western minds (easily susceptible to this kind of brutal racism) picked up on this quickly. Specifically those anti-imperialists who where ready to condemn any one who stood in the way of their great ‘Kings of Kings’ Gaddafi. Such propaganda techniques and audacity of rumor is not alien to people in the Middle East, especially when it comes to Gaddafi. However, those same messages did spread throughout Libya and struck fear in Libyans of foreign African mercenaries who where coming to kill and torture people against Gaddafi. This in hand also did the same with the rebels, many of whom I spoke with. They told me many times that they’d heard that 10,000s of African mercenaries where headed their way. When I asked if they’d seen them yet, many said no, some said yes, they had seen some. In the climate of war and conflict, fear is by far the most powerful tool to use, and a great decoy in diverting attention from the Libyan forces who where still loyal to Gaddafi. A protection technique used by Gaddafi to minimize his loses.

To make another point clear, Libyans do not consider themselves as ‘Black’ or ‘White’ Libyans and take offense to such statements highly. The soldiers and rebels on the ground were of many colours, they consider themselves Libyans and have a common language, which is Arabic. Language distinguished the Libyans from the non-Libyans during the war no matter what colour you are. So to see a western anti-imperialist girl sit on a stage one time and cry over how great of an African Leader Gaddafi was and how mighty he had made Libya made me feel sick and angry. Not for the poor disillusioned girl but for how deep the corruption and propaganda of a disillusioned murderous leader had gone.
I believe that the Arab world knows it has demons it needs to conquer, prejudices to overcome and dark history it must live with. Something most evidently seen over the hundreds of satellite channels, publications and blogs, that constantly discuss, debate and criticize all these issues and more.

‘A immense sea of variety and chaos’ is the way my father best describes his people. The conglomerates of states and people, which make up the Arab world, have yet to solidify into a unified identity. Something, which may develop past the barriers of language and regional similarities. But one thing is for certain today in this post-modern global village they have come closer to this more than ever before. The new generations are defining this with their own movements & increasingly cosmopolitan all encompassing ideologies. Their stance is more secular now than we’ve seen in recent times. The descendants of the world’s first largest entity of tradesmen and merchants are consciously aware of their history plus the ‘variety’ of it, which runs through their blood. A renewed sense of power and social power has infiltrated a people proud of their history and influence on the world. A western defined notion of racism is and always will be hard to implement on these people. Only a matter of time now stands between the people of this region and their free expressions of identity.

Fadah Jassem

Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East

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  • Mash

    Another typical “issue avoidance” article from an Arab point of view. If you acknowledge racism exists in the Middle East, please elaborate. Every time time I speak to an Arab about this issue, they “acknowledge” its existence but fail to clarify what exactly they mean, or blame another Arab country, or just go quiet in embarrassment – because they know it exists in buckets. They proceed to tell me about their “black neighbours who they grew up with”. The fact of the matter is that the city of Tawargha has been cleansed and black Libyans have, and are being targetted. Stop denying it. I have heard clear cut racism from Libyans myself. I am a Black British person who speaks Arabic, and live in the Middle East.

  • truthspeak

    exactly, I have to agree that the issue avoidance prevails in this article. Arabs just generally love looking good no matter who suffers. we need to remember the racism begins when we fail to remember the indeginous ‘arabs’ are black people and the whitewashed arabs are the post-colonial ones. Sorry but Racism in the Arab world is bad against asians let alone Blacks. getting away from imperialist influences is the best thing any black/asian nation can do!

  • Alghirani

    I agree that racism is ever present everywhere in the middle east, however there is a phenomenon, where it has been politically used to demonise people. With reference to the comment by Mash, the issue of Tawergha, whose people are living in refugee camps around Libya (cleansed could mean killed or massacred and they were not!),is one that a post-revolution Libya is struggling with. Yes, the town boats a lot of black Libyans, but has a large number of non-black libyans, and they too were evicted. What Tawargha is being accused by neighbouring Misrata of attacking its people under Ghaddafis siege of the city and assisting other battalions sent to to attack Misrata. The eviction of the people of Tawergha is wrong as it has not been proved they were all complicit in a court, and it is very unlikely that all of them supported Ghaddafi in anyway. The problem here is the colour of their skin has no issue in this issue, just post-revolution politics.