December 30, 2022

on the fatuous 'taboo' of 'Arab slavery': addressing anti-black racism without mutual ethnic recrimination

Recently I had the chance to listen to a very interesting podcast in which Bamba Ndiaye interviewed Fallou Ngom about various aspects of his research. At the end of the conversation the two delved into a controversial and wide-ranging conversation that occurred in 2020 on the Research Africa about anti-black racism in the Arab world. It is evident that the conversation stuck with Ngom, and there is no doubting he is very passionate about this issue, and sensitive to attempts to sidetrack it. Since I was one of those responding to his initial foray, and subsequently wrote a whole piece on the topic, I thought I would respond to Ngom’s characterization of the issues and of the conversation and to expand on why I wrote a piece asking people not to use the terminology of “Arab-Islamic slavery”.

First of all, Ngom and I agree that anti-black racism in the Arab world is an undeniable phenomenon. I have observed it during my research, and I know it to exist. Some US Arab immigrants also perpetuate this racism in their interactions with US Blacks. But Ngom still labors under the impression that those seeking to reframe the conversation are the same as those engaging in apologetics for Arab slavery. I reject that conflation as misguided. There are serious objections to Ngom’s framing, that go well beyond a pedantic debate over terminology or ancillary issues of hurt feelings, but rather strike to the core of how to effectively address a complex issue. Though Ngom might disagree with my conclusions, I hope this will contribute to his stated goal of having the issue addressed more openly.

I will argue that Ngom’s framework, as discussed in his conversation with Ndiaye, will be ineffective in accomplishing what he hopes, because his discourse is largely preaching to a choir of Anglophone western academics interested in inciting discourse around Arab racism. It is there he is guaranteed a sympathetic reading of his project, as a result of the peculiar sensitivity of the US to issues of race, and interest in globalizing the issue. The most likely outcome of Ngom’s interventions, given his own positionality, is that more 'white liberals' and Arabs based in the US will become aware of anti-Arab racism towards Africans. Given the already regnant association between Arabs and slavery among many USians, both right and left, this is hardly a salutary development, and will not contribute meaningfully to Arab reckonings with racism.

First, it is vital to note that in Ngom's opinion, attempts to provide nuance and historical context are unwelcome distractions from the main issue of moral complicity in racism which he characterizes as endemic to the Arab world as a whole. Ngom believes that the nuances of motivation serve as a form of apologetics for racism. At one point he even accuses Arabs who reject blanket explanations for Arab racism as themselves racist: "if they are Arabs they are perpetrators because if not they would denounce it." This is a logical fallacy, and antithetical to a prophetic approach. The accusation of collective complicity itself partakes in the logic of racial thinking that Ngom wishes to fight against. The majority of Arabs throughout history have been non-slaveowners. By making the charge about ethnicity instead of slaveowning, Ngom has shifted the terrain of engagement and committed a tactical error with consequences for addressing actually existing slavery.

Ngom constructs Arabs and the Arab world as a monolith in which racism is not specific to one country, but exists among all members of the imagined community due to the legacy of slavery. For Ngom, Libya and its slave markets are archetypes of a racism that can be traced back to this same history of slavery. Few specifics are offered, nor are the issues in Libya fleshed out by Ngom. It is enough, we are told, to break a supposed “taboo” on discussing the issue. There are many people opposed to, and opposing racism in the Arab world, including many Afro-Arabs, who know that world well enough to know that one must be strategic if one is serious about the goals of addressing internalized racism among Arabic speakers. The truth is the vast majority of Arabs are poor and face similar issues to the ‘African’ world related to education, finding a job, and making a living. In fact, many of them have been similarly victimized by human trafficking in places like Libya. If one wants to prevent situations like that which happened in Libya, then one must place one’s focus on strengthening state capacity in Africa. The extremely poor conditions of the average person are what motivate risky and often illegal journeys across state borders, placing them into positions of extreme vulnerability that lead to their immoral trafficking.

Ngom’s perspective will also be ineffective in addressing the issue among any but the true believers because it is low information and engages in conflating issues that ought effectively to be treated as distinct. In the podcast conversation there is a vague mention of fiqh texts, a discussion of a rude Arab who greeted Ngom with his left hand, and a mention of slave markets in Libya, as if these are all symptoms of the same underlying psychic attitudes. But the issues in Libya are separate issues from addressing racism on an interpersonal level among Arabs. This latter project must proceed from a sense of it being in Arab self interest to address racism. What interest has the average poor Arab in an abstract moral conversation by an academic located in a prestigious western institution, that condemns them out of the gate, as an ethno-linguistic group, and assigns to them a collective attitude? Defensiveness is entirely understandable and is not necessarily a symptom of complicity. Any effective anti-racism strategy must take it into account.

Even though the main advocates of ‘Arab slavery’ as a construct are pan-Africanist in orientation, I think the idea of 'Arab slavery' or 'Arab-Islamic slavery' is a very dangerous one for those with pan-Africanist sensibilities to adopt. These rhetorical framings continue to serve as resources for fomenting moralizing rhetoric because they are highly seductive. The attempt to draw a neat line around slavery and ethnic discrimination using the metaphor of an unchanging hostility between two ‘races’ or ‘ethnicities’, African and Arab, will rebound against those using it. It will do so because it relies on metaphors of racecraft that ought to have been left in the dustbin of history. The notion of a free-floating and universal antagonism pitting Arabs against Africans will inevitably be turned against Africans once it is pointed out (and it is and will be pointed out) that for thousands of years “Black” Africans sold other “Black” Africans into slavery. The logic of collective guilt is a double-edged sword. This is also 'taboo' to discuss, depending on who you are talking to. The Wolof rulers were as complicit as any Arab, for perpetuating slave raiding in Senegal. The Asante raided communities now part of the same nation of modern Ghana. Amhara state-builders raided and enslaved Oromos, who also raided and slaved communities in Kenya. Mijikenda engaged in the slave trade even though they were also victimized by coastal traders. Does that mean we need to have a global dialogue about each ethnicity’s racism rooted in a past of some members of them engaging in slaving? Can we really distinguish slaving that proceeds from pragmatic ends from that which proceeds from hatred and racism? Or ought we to junk these projection of ethnic distinctions as an anachronistic exercise in racecraft? Victimhood confers moral privilege in American academic morality but history shows us there are no perfect victims/victors. Ethnicity as shortcut for collective moral complicity is worse than useless for problem solving the issue where it matters, in the realms of law and culture. The point is not that Arabs have a collectively racist mindset, but that anti-black racism is immoral, un-Islamic, and unethical.

None of this ought to be construed to mean the 'Arab world' is perfect, or that there are no issues between North Africa and the rest of the African countries, or that there is some generic third world liberation front that requires silence on these issues. I reject the idea that one should stay quiet for these reasons. But I also reject Ngom’s discourse because it engages in the kind of rhetoric that will have unsalutary reciprocal consequences. The idea that reluctance to engage in discourse about this issue is motivated by a belief that Islam and Muslims are perfect, and that to criticize them is Islamophobia, is fatuous at best, and bad-faith at worst. There are many ways to fight anti-black racism that don’t involve such sweeping generalizations.

I wrote my application for the Ph.D. on Arab racial attitudes in East Africa. I was convinced at the time, that there was a form of racism among Arabs Muslims towards Africans that was unaddressed and indeed taboo. I have had occasion to revise those views upon studying the issue in depth, both for East and West Africa. Inter-state and intra-state relations are more relevant contexts for discussing this issue than racist fiqh texts or the more distant issue of Arabs slave-raiding in Africa. The language of Arab slavery was a seductive pretext for violent retaliation against Arabs in 1964 as an ethnic group in Zanzibar, even those who were not involved in politics. Anti-Arab racism in East Africa partook of the same reciprocal spirals of dehumanization as anti-black racism, as anti-Tutsti racism, and as anti-semitism. These spirals had nasty consequences for ethnic minorities, both Black and Arab, in both Mauritania and Senegal in 1989.

I do not think my objections can be dismissed as mere academic 'liberal' concerns. If anything, I have sought to go beyond contemporary anti-racism frameworks common among white liberals, and to argue they are inappropriate to other contexts. If Ngom and others interested in this issue would like to reach the Arab street, they will have to talk in the language of that street, just as Ahmadu Bamba wrote in local languages when he wanted to reach his audience. Anything other than that isn't about breaking 'taboos'. It practically functions as moral grandstanding before a western audience eager to see their views about Arab perfidy confirmed.


August 21, 2022

Miscellaneous thoughts on history, objectivity, activism, and useable pasts

 I thought I'd offer a few thoughts about history and the historical profession from the vantage point of my own (limited) experience. Maybe it will be beneficial in clarifying what is at stake in the current US debates about "presentism" in history.

Coming from a grassroots activist before I entered a History Ph.D. program, I have been steeped in leftist and activist versions of history as "useable past". The relevant political question was always, "what is to be done?"

Gradually as I went through graduate school, I became interested in holding that question in abeyance, so as to ask another question: "what happened/what is happening?" Doing so meant 'unlearning' or complicating some common activist shibboleths.

I came to appreciate the notion of objectivity as incredibly relevant, urgent and necessary to this work. I came to the gradual conviction that characterizations of objectivity as an outdated idea in service to the status quo, err mightily and consequentially. In fact, I concluded the opposite: that embrace of objectivity's irrelevance leads to the gradual hollowing out of an ability to say much of anything of substance. I came to this conviction through a period of soul-searching and encounter with post-modernism, which at the time I was in graduate school, was being treated by many graduate students in diverse disciplines as a kind of academic activism, the path to liberation from the tyranny of reason.

In short, I have become more and more convinced of the value of objectivity, problematic as it may be, for appreciating the strangeness of the past. We are still in the infancy of a comprehensive understanding the evolution and development of ourselves as a human species and civilization; enormous realms of human activity in the past, stretching over hundreds of thousands of years, continue to remain opaque to us in the present. History's relevance goes well beyond present political concerns.

Now what I've observed of the discipline is that a significant number of my senior colleagues came through opposite routes, privileging methodological mastery and academic professionalism all along. For them, I gather, politicizing history and questioning objectivity can feel like a fresh and necessary break from what may have become a stale 'academic' pursuit. The idea that the study of history can and ought to reflect presentist concerns, is liberating for them. While I respect the efforts of colleagues to combat the hide-bound conservatism of the academy, and remain fully committed to the idea of reading history to inform one's activism, I am starting to embrace the reality that my unique past experiences have led me to very different conclusions about the relationship between the academy and activism.

For one, from what I can see, a good deal of those I've observed pushing this direction, are taking their cues from a professional class of media-anointed activists and personalities, rather than the 'grassroots' as such. In my opinion, well-meaning efforts to push the historical discipline to embrace as axiomatic a form of "usable past" activism, has and will continue to contribute to undermining the broader societal relevance of historical thought, rather than contributing to its revival. There are more than a few people I've met over the years under the impression that by criticizing more conservative interpreters in the discipline they are combatting actual Nazis. This lack of perspective is a direct consequence of the lack of contact they have with the grassroots they claim to be producing a usable past for.

Useable pasts are necessary (and unavoidable in politics), but in my opinion historians ought to beware of making their production central to the discipline. In doing so, they undermine the very thing that makes the discipline unique. For me, at this juncture, a historical study conducted with methodological rigor and a commitment to objectivity, is something thousands of times more valuable, enduring, and interesting to read, than a study written to resonate with contemporary orthodoxies, often by those who fatuously claim to have transcended or outgrown the notion of objectivity.

And this brings me to my last notion. A certain dynamic ideological tension is necessary and good for the discipline and for the academy at large. I prefer to inhabit a university where the ideological landscape actually reflects the full and splendid ideological anarchy of the grassroots, not an ideologically purified sanctum. I have no truck for scholars who are serial abusers and do actual material harm. But the problem with mid-career historians embracing activism to go with the times, is that most of that energy is (naturally) turned inward, on others in the discipline who express IDEAS or OPINIONS deemed problematic or even harmful. These sort of efforts alienate me, as I find them highly myopic and often cloyingly self-righteous. In short, while I remain on the left, I find the push towards liberal ideological conformity within the discipline (reflected in the belief that bad ideas are equivalent to harm) incredibly dull and reflective of the alienation of historians from the grassroots. Some of my most interesting presentations have been to an audience of people who sharpened my thinking through vigorous disagreement. This sort of low-level 'conflict' sharpens faculties, increases acuity, and improves my thinking. In my experience, academic aversion to this sort of conflict is also reflective of kind of an alienation from the necessary life experience of encountering frank unvarnished disagreement. I'm grateful for my time as a grassroots activist because of what it taught me about the importance of this kind of contained conflict for a healthy civic life. It is my conviction that such disagreement is normal and necessary to human flourishing, and that it helps, not hurts, the 'left' and the project of studying the past from a 'left' perspective. Demands that historians apologize for the expression of ideas, and the apology for "offensive" ideas, are both symptoms of a more general malaise of bourgeois alienation from the grassroots.


May 13, 2022

secular forms of Christian perfectionism within academia

I can vividly remember in the cult I was raised in, moments where we were made to listen to Christian apologetics--'proving' the inerrancy of the gospel, 'proving' how evolution wasn't real, or how Christian courtship was the only way to have a happy marriage. The function of these sessions, no matter how much it was asserted that this was so, was not to genuinely explore evidence to arrive at an unbiased conclusion, nor to encourage a genuine diversity of thought, but to find the pathway through to the predetermined 'correct' idea. In this way, otherwise outlandish and illogical ideas were able to appear to well-intentioned and perfectly intelligent rational people as having a strong patina of plausibility. When the factor of subtle communal pressure was added to this, it meant that anyone who wanted to remain in community would not challenge the orthodoxy. This meant that what was really at stake epistemologically and methodologically was obscured by gnosticism, in which God's will on earth was presumed instantiated by the group's leaders. To ask uncomfortable questions about groupthink was the same as questioning God's will.

There are massive differences between a small cult and the secular academy, but some of the more extreme progressive academic discourse resembles nothing so much as the gnostic theology of a cult. Like a cult, the goal is not independent thought but to find the way to the 'correct' idea, stated in the 'correct' language, that broadcasts that you belong to the 'right' people. There is not an independent method to arrive at truth, because truth is (like it was in the cult) purely a function of where you stand in relation to who is in power.

Now there is nothing wrong with forming a group around certain ideas; every group's foundations are to some extent a matter of social conformity rather than independent moral reasoning. But this tendency in academia concerns me because of the gap between what these groups imagine the stakes of their ideas are, and the actual state of the university within US society today. They remind me of warriors who have lost the map of the terrain of battle, and have become deluded that their real and ultimate enemies are within their academic disciplines. As neo-liberalism and austerity carve our vocation as humanities scholars into bits, and as the right ramps up the culture wars against the university, some of them imagine that it would be a good thing for certain departments or disciplines to be destroyed in the name of progress towards a 'revolution' deemed to be held back only by a cabal of 'status quo' scholars who lack sufficient faith in this alleged progress.

The end result of this secular form of Christian perfectionism seems nearly the same on the left as the conservative Christian cult I grew up in: a proportionally tiny group who imagine that the walls of the academy are the world itself, and that they are at the center of the site of a tremendous battle purifying the evils on the way to remaking the world. Like the cult I grew up in, this type of thinking appeals to the alienated and disaffected among the intellectuals because it is full of hubris that is made to appear morally justified. But this tendency is limiting. Such groups are inherently weak, easily divided by ideological infighting over small issues and thus easily picked off and overwhelmed by ideological opponents who really understand power. Not understanding power except in theoretical terms, this academic 'super-left' (to borrow Ali Mazrui's phrase) remain on the margins of it, and this place itself comes to seem like a form of exceptional virtue, as well as a form of evidence that there is a conspiracy against the truth they possess.


April 4, 2022

The cave at Hira and the importance of place to mystical experience

I've long been fascinated by the earliest "revelation" received by Muhammad, which he interpreted as being from the angel Gabriel. I believe Muhammad's experience in the cave with the Angel Gabriel was real. While I accept that Muhammad is the only valid source for what happened to himself, I am also convinced that the orthodox interpretation of the experience is only one of a range of possible interpretations one could have given to it. For instance, if Buddha Gautama was in that cave, I do not think he would have spoken of the Angel Gabriel, for the Angel Gabriel would have been culturally alien to his worldview.

When I step back from Muhammad's interpretation and think about the sacred space of Hira, the impression I'm left with is the fundamental importance of that cave as a 'gate' to another reality, where there is always the potential for humans to have an experience of, an experience that lies beyond the sensory world of common sense experience. All revelation and mystical experience in human history, if it is not the specious invention of a complete charlatan (a possibility!), is made possible by the intersection between these spaces and the personalities of certain sensitive individuals.

In studying the life of Muhammad, I've come to understand that it is only natural for one who has such an experience to interpret it through the lens of their own linguistic and cultural frame of reference. And I also hold out that it is always possible for the one experiencing this to misinterpret its meaning, since even the greatest of humanity are potentially unreliable guides to an experience that by design overwhelms one's senses and sense of normalcy. These interpretations in language are almost always a partial understanding of phenomena that remain fundamentally mysterious. But I am convinced there are other places on this earth very similar to Hira cave. This is actually one reason I can think of why the recovery of indigenous epistemologies is very important work, not only politically, but spiritually.


March 16, 2022

Lamya al-Mugheiry and the global worlds of the Swahili

One of the fascinating minutiae of the global Swahili-speaking Omani diaspora is the late great Lamya al-Mugheiry. Born in Mombasa, Kenya and raised in Oman, Cairo and the UK, according to Wikipedia, she ran away from home at age 16 to pursue a musical career in New York city. A brilliant vocalist with a five octave range able to hit the 'whistle register', she sang vocals on Duran Duran's "Come Undone" during their Unplugged tour, worked with Soul II Soul, and released a highly underrated solo album, "Lamya". She passed away suddenly of a heart attack in Oman in her mid-forties [thanks to Sa'ad for the correction]. Someone ought to write her posthumous musical biography. Because otherwise I'm gonna do it, once this first book is done.


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