By Khaled Diab
Outside America, Donald Trump has provoked near universal outrage and dismay. However, Europeans and Middle Easterners must not forget the racism closer to home.
5 November 2020
Millions of non-Americans around the world have been following the drama of the US presidential elections with mounting alarm. Even though it looks like Joe Biden will achieve a narrow victory at the polls, it is clear that Donald Trump, who is unlikely to accept loss, enjoys the support of almost half the country, despite his incompetence, corruption, authoritarianism and his administration’s overt racism.
That overt fascism has infected the highest office in the land and the most powerful political position in the world, empowering racists across America to come out into the open, has, for the past four years, triggered fear and concern internationally.
Moreover, the shocking death of George Floyd under the crushing knee of police brutality and racism led the Black Lives Matter movement to spill over outside the United States.
Europe’s race to the bottom
As we Europeans gaze in dismay across the Atlantic at the generations of racism and discrimination that brought the United States to this sorry impasse, we must not, tempting as it seems, believe we are somehow immune.
Racism is a major and growing challenge in Europe, although the scale and nature of the problem varies widely. It is reflected in the rise of far-right parties, including the openly fascistic, burgeoning anti-minority and refugee sentiment, a growing wave of racially-motivated crimes, with widescale under-reporting of racial harassment and violence, and an alarming rise in violent, neo-Nazi and white-supremacist extremism.
This partly explains why the Black Lives Matter movement has resonated so much in Europe. Beyond the natural human urge to express solidarity with the downtrodden and oppressed, events across the Atlantic have thrown into sharp focus the bigotry and discrimination in our own societies.
Although the scale and seriousness differ, barely a country in Europe does not have a problem of racism towards one minority or another: Muslims, Jews, migrants, refugees, immigrants, etc. Perhaps the most marginalised minority in Europe are the Roma, who are sidelined and quite literally pushed to the wastelands wherever they are.
The continent is also riddled with far-right nativist movements of varying sizes and influence. Some even pride themselves, whether rightly or wrongly, as being trailblazers for Donald Trump and America’s Alt-Right, such as the Front National in France.
Gerolf Annemans, one of the leading lights of Vlaams Belang (formerly Vlaams Blok), wa son TV during the US election boasting about how his conviction that his party had delivered a similar shock to the system in Belgium as Trump had in America.
Many came out to protest against racism, police brutality and the legacy of slavery in their own societies. While Europe prides itself on having led the global charge to abolish slavery in the 19th century, European nations profited immensely from the slave trade and from trading in the products created using slave labour, such as sugar, tobacco, cotton and rubber.
This legacy is even glorified in some public spaces, which became targets for protesters, such as the infamous statue of the British slave trader Edward Colston toppled in Bristol. In Belgium, a long-raging debate over what to do with the monuments commemorating King Leopold II, who caused millions of deaths in the deceptively named Congo Free State –which he personally owned and ran as his private, de facto slave colony –reached a climax with the defacement, vandalisation and removal of his statues across the country.
Cops as robbers
In the Middle East, we are all too familiar with the menacing spectre of police violence. In our part of the world, the police are often more violent and crueller than even the most hardened criminal gangs. In fact, our police forces are often indistinguishable from criminal gangs.
We are also familiar with how police brutality can rouse protest, unrest, uprisings and even revolutions. In Egypt, a Facebook group set up to protest the cruel and brutal murder by police outside an internet cafe in Alexandria of Khaled Said, who had the credentials of the quintessential boy next door, played a pivotal role in the 2011 attempted revolution.
The date young activists selected to kick off their revolution was National Police Day, which celebrated a distant day when the police were on the side of the people, against the British occupier of Egypt. Rather than honouring the police, as the state would have preferred, Egyptians flooded out in their millions to protest a brutal regime and its loyal and violent lapdogs, the police and state security.
Police brutality has played a major role in political unrest and upheaval across the region, from the Ba’athist Room 101-style dungeons of Iraq and Syria, to the Gaddafi regime’s unhinged and wanton cruelty.
Unlike in the United States, police brutality in the region is more often connected to class and politics than race, though ethnicity does play a role in places like Israel and Palestine, Iraq or Bahrain.
Victims and perpetrators
That is not to say that racism does not exist in the region. Contrary to what many Arabs and other victims of prejudice believe, being subjected to racism from others does not automatically inoculate you against this form of discrimination.
Like in the West and many other parts of the world, anti-black racism is common in the Middle East, even in Israel, where Ethiopian Jews are the most marginalised and discriminated against Jewish communities in the country.
Although Arab identity is founded on language rather than ethnicity and race, it is not as colour blind as many Arabs would like to believe. This is reflected in superiority towards black Africans but also in the condescending attitudes towards black Arabs and the discrimination many face.
Although black Arabs exist and have always existed, not only in North Africa but also in the Levant and the Gulf, many Arabs do not believe in their existence or are not convinced that they are truly compatriots, which is the cause of endless frustration and pain to black Arabs I know. To add insult to injury, black Arabs are often colloquially referred to as “abid” (“slaves”).
Moreover, black African member states of the Arab League, such as Sudan, Somalia and Mauritania, are widely regarded as not being truly Arab, and this has a lot to do with skin tone.
It may not be formally codified but skin tone carries weighty social significance and is the subject of serious prejudice in the Arab world. People with paler skin are widely considered to be more beautiful, more desirable, more sophisticated and of higher social standing than their darker compatriots. This helps explain the popularity of toxic skin-bleaching products.
By creating a transnational identity to which to aspire, pan-Arabism helped challenge and even end certain forms of traditional tribal and national prejudice and discrimination. However, it also created new forms.
In its bid to create a unifying identity for an incredibly diverse region, pan-Arabism not only ignored or flattened national differences, it also left little room over for non-Arabic-speaking minorities or groups unwilling to identify as Arab. Notable victims of this form of discrimination were the Kurds in Iraq and Syria and the Berber populations of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.
Piety and prejudice
Following George Floyd’s murder, I noticed numerous Muslims claiming that there is no racism in Islam. But does this assertion hold up to the cold light of scrutiny? I do not believe so.
It is true that Islam does not discriminate according to skin colour and there is a theoretical equality between believers. However, those left outside the gates of the Umma are discriminated against.
Even at times and places in Islamic history when minorities have flourished, they were still regarded and treated as being inferior to Muslims. In bad times, religious minorities, including Christians and Jews, were actively persecuted.
Even within the community of believers, equality has more often been aspirational than actual. From the dawn of Islam, Arabians, especially the Querish tribe, were considered superior to other Muslims, which explains why so many Muslims in Asia and Africa claim descent from the Arabs.
Even today, with the Arab world in disarray and dysfunction, there are Arabs, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia, who have the gall to consider themselves superior to non-Arab Muslims.
This is not to downplay or deny the very real racism that Arabs and Muslims must endure. This is very real and very toxic, as I have experienced and witnessed on too many occasions.
However, though we would like to believe that people who suffer a crime do not commit it, it is possible to be both a victim and perpetrator of prejudice. Moreover, if Arabs and Muslims wish Europeans and Americans to take racism seriously, they must also work to tackle and eradicate prejudice in their own societies.