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' 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.

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 their self interest. 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. 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.


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