It is deeply problematic that the trans-Saharan slave trade–which both pre-dates and post-dates the trans-Atlantic slave trade and destroyed at least twice as many lives as the latter (many scholars estimate that close to 18 million people were enslaved between 800 and 1900)–receives such little attention when we teach history in the 21st century, especially within an Arab-Muslim context. This slave-trade was no less brutal than its trans-Atlantic counterpart, with millions of people being captured, bought, sold, and forcibly dislocated from their homeland to serve the elites throughout the Middle East and North Africa in various domestic, military, and sexual capacities. Unlike other slave trades in Islamic contexts, this was a slave trade accompanied by an entire culture that accepted it and an ideology that condoned it. Perhaps if this horrific historical reality of the trans-Saharan slave trade was more emphasized, the use of terms such as “abd” (“slave”) by many Arabs to refer to people of African origin would be less acceptable. Indeed, in modern Arabic parlance the word for slave and the word for black person have become almost interchangeable with many people not even pausing to consider the derogatory and oppressive connotations of the terminology they are using to designate their fellow human beings. A strong awareness of the history and legacy of the trans-Saharan slave trade would go a long way towards sensitizing people to the problematic use of language. Educating people about this slave trade would also alert people to the fact that it was not just Euro-American civilization that was guilty of the worst abuses of colonialism and genocide in the past several centuries. It is also just as important to be conscious of major differences and nuances of the trans-Saharan slave trade and its legacies from its trans-Atlantic counterpart as we seek to deconstruct the manifestations of racism and its structures in Arab-Islamic societies.
It is largely unacknowledged that the structures of racism, slavery and oppression existed and flourished just as well in the Arab-Islamic world as they did in Europe and the Americas. The culture of Arab supremacy and the legitimacy of enslaving Africans was so entrenched by the fourteenth century that the great North African polymath and sociologist, Abd al-Rahman ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) could assert without fear of controversy that “the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because [Negroes] have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals, as we have stated” (Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah). This level of dehumanization was not uncommon in medieval Arab culture (despite the clearly egalitarian teachings of Islam which explicitly condemns racism). In many ways, the legacy of the trans-Saharan slave trade (which had various economic and political contexts) and the culture of racism has persisted into the modern period with negative stereotypes of dark-skinned people, the stigmatization of “black” features, and the derogatory references to Africans in general throughout the Arab world. This is to say nothing of the vestiges of the institution of slavery, which can still be seen from Mauritania (http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2012/03/world/mauritania.slaverys.last.stronghold/index.html) to Qatar (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/18/qatar-world-cup-india-migrant-worker-deaths), in which thousands, if not millions of people are forced to serve under a system which is unjust and dehumanizing.
As it stands, the vast majority of Arabs (both those who also identify as “black” and those who consider themselves “white”) are ignorant of the reality of the trans-Saharan slave trade, a fact which makes them oblivious to the modern-day consequences of slavery and the structures of racism. This ignorance, which allows many Arabic-speaking youths (from the Middle East to North America) to use with impunity such vile terms as ‘abd to refer to anyone of African descent, underscores the urgency of educating ourselves and others on the topic.
In the case in North America, where the majority of Arabs form part of the middle and upper-class and are detached from the struggles and realities of their fellow Afro-American citizens, the issue is complicated by the existence of an additional layer of legacies of race and slavery. This is not the place to discuss the ways in which a certain privileged position of the Arab community manifests itself, but it is important to remember that discourses of racism are inextricably linked with realities of power. Although many Arabs have often found themselves on the receiving end of racism and marginalization from the dominant community in the US, they have nevertheless played a role in perpetuating a culture of racism and reinforcing the structural inequality that has characterized the country.
It is thus both an ignorance of their community’s historic role in the trans-Saharan slave trade as well as their belonging to a privileged socio-economic class of citizens in the US that allows many Arab-Americans to utilize racist terminology while remaining entirely ignorant of the implications. Worse, in some cases there is an acute awareness of the implications but such bigotry and racism is perpetuated regardless. It is fundamental that an understanding of anti-black racism in the Arab community should not be limited to inter-personal interactions or even communal relations, but should be centered around the discussion of structures of racism, most of which do have their origins in the colonial period. Just as important is understanding the nuanced manner in which these structures and discourses of racism manifest themselves in an Arab-Muslim context. I leave that discussion to individuals who are far more competent to address it than myself. It is simply my contention in this piece that breaking the barrier of ignorance and denial about the issue in the Arab community would be the first step to addressing the broader problem of racism. It is furthermore important to contextualize the discussion of anti-Black racism within the broader category of racism in general in Arab communities, which also targets other groups such as South Asians, Persians, Kurds, East Asians and Jews. Again, here it is essential to be aware of the various social, historical, and cultural contexts rather than essentializing. The Arab-Muslim world consists of over 350 million people. Clearly, therefore, structures of racism and discrimination take different shapes and forms in different Arab-Muslim societies.
Although it is important to be aware that slavery and its legacies has taken a different form in the Arab-Muslim world than in the Atlantic, it is equally important to be aware that in essence it also exhibited many similarities, with mass violence and structural oppression characterizing the phenomenon in both cases. There was a reason that it was banned in the nineteenth-century by the consensus of Muslim jurists, as it was seen as fundamentally incompatible with the egalitarian values of Islam. Unfortunately, however, although the institution of slavery was officially abolished, many of the attitudes and culture which accompanied it were not. It is crucial that we engage seriously with the issues of racism and structural inequality as they manifest in the Arab community today. Beginning with a serious engagement of the trans-Saharan slave trade would perhaps be a prudent place to begin. This piece was not intended to be a grand theoretical exposition of a very complex issue nor a detailed outline of the history. Rather, it was a preliminary attempt to explore some of the ways in which the legacies (and the ignorance of these legacies) of a terrible historical process–the trans-Saharan slave trade–has manifested itself in Arab consciousness. The following article, which does a much better job than I in highlighting the fundamental issues at stake in this discussion, may be a useful starting point: http://www.theatlanticpost.com/culture/dangerous-denial-anti-black-racism-arab-world-4971.html
Some articles on various communities of African descent in the Muslim world:
Afro-Iraqis: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2010/01/201011153951276431.html; http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/06/black-iraqis-face-discrimination-racism.html; http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/03/world/middleeast/03basra.html?_r=0
For those wishing to educate themselves further on the nature and extent of slavery in the medieval and early modern Arab-Islamic world, see the following:
Frederic Cooper. Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa. 1997
Robert C. Davis. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800. 2004.
Chouki El-Hamel. Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race and Islam. 2012. I recommend this book very highly, since the author has done meticulous research and does a great job deconstructing the various categories and concepts that he engages with.
Allan G.B. Fisher. Slavery in the History of Black Muslim Africa. 2001.
Allan G.B. Fisher. Slavery and Muslim Society in Africa. 1970.
William Gervase Clarence-Smith. Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. 2006.
David Goldenberg. The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Princeton, 2005
Murray Gordon. Slavery in the Arab World. 1998.
John Hunwick. The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam. Princeton, 2002.
Paul E. Lovejoy. Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam. 2004.
Behnaz Mirzai. Slavery, Islam and Diaspora. 2009.
Alexandra Popovic. The Revolt of African Slaves in Iraq in the 3rd/9th Century. 1998.
Ehud Toledano. As if Silent and Absent: Bonds of Enslavement in the Islamic Middle East. 2007.
Ehud Toledano. Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East. 1997.
Ronald Segal. Islam’s Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora. 2002.
Terence Walz. Race and Slavery in the Middle East: Histories of Trans-Saharan Africans in Nineteenth-Century Egypt, Sudan and the Ottoman Mediterranean. 2011.
John Wright. The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. 2007.